By Carole Reedy
Listening to music is merely one way to enjoy it. We also derive satisfaction from reading about it. Here’s a small list of books whose subjects are the giants of music. Choosing any of the books below should enhance your understanding and enjoyment of the composers, musicians, and the environments of their eras. The prestigious authors grant us additional pleasure via exhaustive research and their insightful understanding of musicians, music, and unique styles.
BEING WAGNER: THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL
By Simon Callow
Even if you aren’t British, you know the name Simon Callow, not only as an actor but of a director of theater, film, and television. In addition, he’s written biographies of Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.
In 2013 Callow performed his one-man show Inside Wagner’s Head, essentially a 100-minute lecture about one of the world’s most controversial opera composers that asks the question “How is it that Wagner has become the most influential and most discussed European artist of the past 200 years?” The evening received rave reviews. Now, for those of us who missed the theater event, Callow gives us a biography that further investigates what it was like to be Wagner. What precisely does he possess that places his music on a level with the gods? Most agree he was a horrible man, but that is said of many artists. Callow writes about the world Wagner created for himself.
Thomas Laqueur of The Guardian ends his review of Callow’s book by saying: “Few of us are comfortable travelling so near the gravitational field of a man ‘who had access to parts of his psyche that most nice people hide from themselves’ and who created from such a murky source dramas and music of horrible beauty.”
It can take some time for the ear to acclimate itself to the complex combinations of notes and the spiritual and historical implications of Wagner’s operas. Best to sit back, relax, and just listen to the sublime music. (I encountered the complexity of Wagner’s music myself when I played some supposedly simple selections from his operas on the piano.)
TOSCANINI, MUSCIAN OF CONSCIENCE
By Harvey Sachs
The 939 pages of this tome are justified by the grand subject of the biography. This is Sachs’ second biography of Toscanini, and it’s twice as long as the first. The inspiration for the second book was new material in the form of documents and letters that Sachs edited in 2002. The letters concern not only music and politics; included also are passionate love letters.
It is agreed by all that Toscanini was a genius, a child prodigy, and the man who brought classical music to the masses when NBC and RCA convinced him to lead the new NBC Symphony Orchestra. He appeared three times on the cover of Time Magazine as well as numerous mentions in Life Magazine articles.
He was a kind man and one of principle. Even though he was the first non-German conductor to perform at the Bayreuth Wagner festival, in 1933 he discontinued his performances there, despite letters from Hitler requesting his presence. He also fled Italy for America during the reign of Mussolini. Sachs’ complete study of the great Toscanini is at the top of music lovers’ lists this year.
THE NOISE OF TIME
By Julian Barnes
This is the only novel to appear on this list. Julian Barnes is a unique writer whose success is well known for those who appreciate his creative approach to storytelling and the style appropriate to each subject. He’s also famous for his nonfiction works, such as Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, a compilation of articles he’s written that have appeared in different venues over the years. Recently, he published The Noise of Time, which is a story of Dmitri Shostakovich during the reign of Joseph Stalin. In this novel, Barnes succeeds in relating the daily, constant fear that Russia’s most famous composer of the 20th century experiences while writing and producing his controversial atonal music.
Shostakovich fell in and out of favor with Stalin over the years, and with each new artistic attempt the reader feels Shostakovich’s trembling and apprehension for his family. The book opens with Shostakovich waiting with a suitcase at the top of the staircase in the apartment building where he lives with his wife and young child, who are sleeping inside. We come to realize that every night he performs this ritual of protecting his family while he awaits the arrival of the police to arrest him for whatever infraction of Russian law he may have violated with his music.
Pravda, the official government newspaper, sometimes viewed his work as “bourgeois and neurotic and nonpolitical.” Other composers, such as Stravinsky, left Russia at this time. Despite the oppression of Stalin and his cronies, Shostakovich was and remains remembered as an innovative, important composer. This novel also is reassurance to Barnes’ loyalists that his active mind continues to write fresh, innovative, pertinent literature.
WHEN THE WORLD STOPPED TO LISTEN: VAN CLIBURN’S COLD WAR TRIUMPH AND ITS AFTERMATH
By Stuart Isacoff
MOSCOW NIGHTS: THE VAN CLIBURN STORY—HOW ONE MAN AND HIS PIANO TRANSFORMED THE COLD WAR
By Nigel Cliff
These two new books tell the fairy-tale story of the young Adonis who captured the hearts of the Russian people during the Cold War of 1958. In April of that year, the 23-year-old pianist Van Cliburn participated in the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. It was a time of tension between the US and Russia (sound familiar?) with the arms race in full tilt.
Cliburn’s playing won over the Russian audience, receiving an eight-minute standing ovation, and he won the coveted first-place prize among a field of highly accomplished Russian pianists. On the streets of Moscow the crowds shouted “Vanya!” In the US he became a hero, even gaining a spot on the prestigious cover of Time Magazine. To this day, the videos of Cliburn’s emotional performance 60 years ago are viewed on YouTube and the Classical Arts cable television station here in Mexico.
Both books give us an insight into Cliburn the man and the politics of the time, as well as his struggles with his career and his sensitive aura. Maybe today we need another Van Cliburn?
MARIA CALLAS: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE LEGEND
By Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington
I couldn’t complete this article without mentioning the most famous woman in the field of music, Maria Callas, who graced this world for a short, but powerful, time, using her voice to dramatize the music of the greatest opera composers of the past few centuries.
Fortunately, there are recordings of her prime years, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I chose this biography to recommend because it received rave reviews, and also because of a strange notion I carry that that Huffington’s Greek origins give her a cosmic connection to Callas, who, according to many, is the priestess of the opera.
Many Americans remember Maria Callas only for her passionate love for Aristotle Onassis and the devastation of that loss of love when he married Jackie Kennedy. Callas died at 53 of a heart attack. For Callas fans, I highly recommend an article by Michael Shae that appeared in the New York Review of Books (January 24, 2015) entitled “A Definitive New Callas,” in which he describes the talent that makes her one of the greatest sopranos of all time.