Friday, 19 December 2008

Our books of the year

2008 has been an unforgettable year for new music books from the Boydell Press and the University of Rochester Press. To close this year’s posts on From Beyond the Stave we’d like to remind you of some of them and also some of the authors’ posts. You can win a free copy of one of these magnificent titles by answering a blog-related question (see below).

As the champagne corks pop around the world for his 100th birthday, we are pleased to publish Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C Shreffler, in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation. "Lavishly illustrated, handsomely documented and superbly annotated," as the Financial Times pointed out, it is "for committed Carterites, the only acceptable Christmas present." The composer's own Collected Essays are also available again in paperback. One of the great interpreters of Carter's works for piano is Charles Rosen, whose work as a pianist and man of letters is the focus of a new collection of essays, Variations on the Canon, edited by Robert Curry, David Gable and Robert L Marshall.

Anyone with a serious interest in British music will want the fourth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten covering the years 1952-7, now published by the Boydell Press in association with the Britten-Pears Foundation. The three editors, led this time by Philip Reed, have produced another highly acclaimed volume: "Magnificent," said the Spectator, "the annotation continues to be quite superb - meticulous, imaginative, and illuminating". Similarly praised was Christopher Grogan's Imogen Holst: A Life in Music ("Magnificent" the Gramophone, "Excellent" TLS), published in 2007 but an excellent companion volume to the Britten Letters.

"I think Stravinsky was right to point to Berners as being one of the best English composers of the century. He didn't produce a lot of work but what he did produce was remarkable," is composer Gavin Bryars' view of the eccentric earl. Peter Dickinson's entertaining and illuminating collection of interviews with people who knew Lord Berners sheds new light on his life as a composer, painter and writer. Just published is Adrian Wright's biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, the first full biography of a composer best known for his film music. Another neglected British composer is the subject of an acclaimed study by Leo Black, Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist. "Stylishly written and invitingly presented," said the Musical Times. Equally stylish is Pamela Blevins' double life of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty. With the publication of this compelling book these two important figures in twentieth century British cultural life are finally receiving the attention they deserve.

Opera lovers will want to read Wagner and Venice, an engagingly written study by John W Barker, which looks at what Venice meant to the composer and how it, in turn, viewed him. Wagnerian travellers will also be interested in Richard Wagner's Zurich by Chris Walton which was published to great acclaim in 2007. However if Mozart is more to your taste, Ian Woodfield's study of Mozart's Così fan tutte will offer unique insights into the compositional history of this great work. Opera in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century owes a great deal to Thomas Beecham, who is the subject of a recent and highly-praised biography by John Lucas. "Brilliant," said the Gramophone; "engaging and erudite," offered Opera magazine; "thorough, exhaustive and often highly amusing," added Classical Music.

Early music enthusiasts and scholars will want to read Lorenzo Candelaria's Rosary Cantoral, a study of the rare and beautifully decorated Latin plainchant manuscript produced in Spain around 1500. It is strange to think that in the 1800s "Spem in alium" was not greatly admired, a fact we learn in Suzanne Cole's Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England which comes highly recommended by Peter Phillips in the latest issue of the Musical Times. Susan Boynton and Eric Rice are the editors of a fascinating collection on Young Choristers 650-1700, the first full-length consideration of the role played by young singers over this extended period.

If the music of the 19th and 20th centuries is more to your taste, you'll enjoy Hugh Macdonald's collection of essays, Beethoven's Century, which range widely, mirroring the author's breadth and depth of interests. One area covered is French music, which is also the subject of a book edited by Barbara Kelly, French Music, Culture, and National Identity 1870-1939 which received four stars in a recent issue of BBC Music magazine. Hugh Macdonald is also one of the contributors to Peter Bloom's Berlioz : Scenes from the Life and Work. "Readers," Philip Borg-Wheeler wrote in Classical Music, "will derive great pleasure from this admirably produced collection." Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity is the title of David Gramit's collection of essays on the multi-faceted Carl Czerny, which was praised by the Musical Times for its "usefulness, originality, [and] interest" as well as being "a good read."

These last titles were published in the Eastman Studies in Music series from the University of Rochester Press, who this year also published books on analyzing atonal music, music and mathematics (the Eastman Series' 50th title), musical phrasing in the eighteenth century and music of the Moravian church. Perhaps our most unusual book was a much-needed translation of Japanese composer Minoru Miki's classic Composing for Japanese Instruments which included two CDs.

To win one of the above simply consider the following question, the answer to which may be found in a previous posting on this blog: which Wagner “treasure” did Chris Walton discover after lunch with the daughter of a Swiss composer? If you know the answer, send it by e-mail to Michael Richards on mrichards[at]boydell[dot]co[dot]uk before January 15th 2009. I’ll contact the winner about which book you’d like and where to send it.

From Beyond the Stave will be back in early January. Until then may we wish you a very happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year from all at Boydell & Brewer and the University of Rochester Press.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

To celebrate Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, we have published – in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation - Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler. Here Professor Shreffler relates how the book took shape:

No one who has ever visited the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel will ever forget the stunning view of the Rhine from the reading room windows. Nestled away in a corner of one of Basel's most picturesque town squares, across from the 900-year old cathedral, the building houses not medieval manuscripts, as the surroundings suggest, but rather the largest private collection of documents relating to 20th and 21st-century music in the world: Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, and Boulez are only a few of the more than 100 collections.

I remember very well how one day in 1988, my attention was diverted from that seriously distracting view of the river and the Webern manuscripts I was studying by the sight of the enormous table in the adjoining room covered with boxes. "That's Elliott Carter," Felix Meyer, then a curator and now Director of the Paul Sacher Foundation, explained. Since then material has continued to flow from New York City to Basel, as works are completed and closets cleaned out. While there is still Carter material in the Library of Congress and other libraries, the bulk of his music manuscripts and correspondence is in the Paul Sacher Foundation, where in the twenty years since the collection arrived it has been carefully catalogued and preserved in the Foundation's vast, climate controlled, three-story deep underground safe.

The decision to publish some of this material with extensive commentary in honor of the composer's centennial was an easy one. We both love Carter's music and relished the chance to steep ourselves in it. The hard part was choosing from roughly 10,000 letters, thousands of pages of sketches, and dozens of lecture texts, articles and photographs in the archives, almost all of it previously unpublished. It was also difficult to select which works we wanted to include, especially since Carter has become quite prolific in his later years (his works list is at 128 and counting…). The logistics of a transatlantic collaboration between Boston and Basel were easily overcome with the help of email, phone calls, and a few international flights. We ultimately decided to present a portrait of the composer within the musical life of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, and hope in particular to have chosen texts that illuminate his situation as an American composer in the world.

To accompany Carter throughout his almost century-long existence is to experience vicariously the ups and downs of American music in the twentieth century. We trace his tentative beginnings in the 1920s and '30s, his steady rise to fame, his efforts to establish institutions of new music in the US, and his artistic friendships with some of the leading musicians of the last hundred years. Carter generously shared his memories and his time during our visits to his Greenwich Village apartment; the weeklong Carter festival at Tanglewood this past summer brought us all together again.

Carter, hale, hearty, and as productive as ever, will turn 100 on December 11. When Felix and I started working on this book, our ages taken together added up to that number exactly. Now, about a year and a half later – relieved that we will in fact meet this very hard deadline! – we have surpassed him with a collective age of 102, and look forward to celebrating his 101st, 102nd and many subsequent birthdays after that - but with glasses of champagne, not new books.

Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents is available now from all good booksellers. In the Financial Times, Andrew Clark, has already called it “lavishly illustrated, handsomely documented and superbly annotated” and “for committed Carterites, the only acceptable Christmas present”. Congratulations, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler, and congratulations too, Elliott Carter.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Lion roars for Wagner

In a week when the flood waters threatened Venice more dramatically than at any time during the past two decades, here is John W Barker, author of Wagner and Venice, on the composer's relationship to that great city:

The Lion of St. Mark, eternal symbol of Venice, has witnessed a lot over the centuries, good and bad, and even since the fall of the Serene Republic in 1797. All the tourists might not think so, but the Lion has had some fun even since then. He has actually taken a shine to some of the many foreigners who visit. One in particular, a funny chap named Richard Wagner.

Short and stubby, with an ego at least double-sized. And opinionated! But, you know, a genius, too. A great composer, and lots more. The Lion first got to know some of Wagner's music when the Municipal Band played a few arrangements. Then the Lion heard some of Wagner's full operas. The Lion loves opera -
after all, his city of Venice almost invented it as a form of public entertainment in the sixteenth century, and built the first permanent theaters for it.

Sure, the Lion didn't like Wagner himself too much at first. The guy came to Venice the first time in 1858 and spent some months there. Gloomy fellow, keeping to himself, not caring that the Lion had an Austrian muzzle at the time. But during that stay, Wagner composed the middle act of what the Lion was informed was one of the greatest of all operas. Though German, of course. Wagner came back for five more visits, eventually bringing with him his new wife, Cosima - now there was one tough lady! - and their children. At first they were just passing through, but the Lion was pleased to see that Wagner quickly came to love the Lagoon City. Cosima dragged her husband to art galleries, and they walked and gondola-ed about, while Wagner spouted his endless pontifications. Venice really got to Wagner, the Lion noticed. And Wagner even rented the facilities of the glorious Fenice Theater and Music Conservatory to conduct his major student work, one of those Germanic symphonies.

But then, on that last visit, Wagner suddenly died, in that grand old Palazzo Vendramin where he and his family were lodging. The Lion by then had recognized what a truly famous and important chap this Wagner was, and wanted to keep his body in Venice, or at least make a big splashy send-off to his remains. Well, the composer's corpse was quietly taken back to Germany for burial, but soon the Lion realized that Wagner had nevertheless left something of himself and his art to Venice. Just two months after the composer died, a visiting German company gave a fully staged production of that cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Niebelungen, at the Lion's beloved Fenice - honoring the theater and the city with the first such show of it anywhere in Italy. OK, in German, but what a blast! The Lion was now a true Wagnerian convert. And what fun to watch the circus as all the critics decided what Wagner's music meant for Italian music and how it affected Italian opera-lovers!

It didn’t stop there. That Municipal Band really took up the composer's cause in the city. Its leader, that brave little Sicilian with the Neapolitan name, Calascione, who had conducted for Wagner and had won his respect, became a real booster - giving concerts right under the Lion's twitching nose in the Piazza San Marco. Pretty soon, there was an annual commemoration on the day of Wagner's death. Those went on for decades, and that famous American lady in Paris, the Princesse de Polignac, even chipped in some cash to support those events. But the Lion wanted still more. Under his inspiration, some of the foreign residents in the city arranged to have a fine bust of Wagner set up in the Public Gardens. The Lion had to allow good Italians to set up an adjacent bust of Verdi, the following year, to satisfy national honor. So the Lion found in that daring egotist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and some of his foreign friends, just the ones to create and set up a memorial plaque on the Canal wall of the Palazzo Vendramin, as a final riposte. Other markers, too. A plaque at the Lavena Café where Wagner liked to take his kids for sweets. And a marker outside the street entrance to the Vendramin. No other foreigner has acquired as many monuments and markers in Venice as has Wagner.

Of course, there were slights along the way. That silly strutter, Mussolini, and that evil dictator, Hitler, first met in Venice, and they never bothered to pay the slightest attention to the Wagner associations of Venice and the Vendramin. By now, however, the Lion has won over Venetians and Italians to appreciate Wagner's music. There is even a Wagner Association in the city, and although the Vendramin is now a part-year gambling casino, that Association has turned the room were Wagner died into a museum.

Yes, the Lion honors many other composers, like Gabrieli and Monteverdi and Vivaldi. But Wagner is special. Venice has stolen some of him from the Germans and made him a naturalized Venetian.

The Lion is still there, proud and undaunted, an unashamed Wagnerite. And Wagner himself is still there, too, a permanent part of Venice's mystique.

John W Barker's superbly evocative Wagner and Venice is available now from all good booksellers.