Books for Christmas: Music: classics - Out of House and Dome

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The Independent Culture
TASTE IS negative, and genius ever affirms," wrote Liszt to one of his correspondents. A philosophy in a phrase: Liszt's letters were as fecund as his music, and no less prolific. Adrian Williams's monumental Franz Liszt: Selected Letters (Oxford, pounds 70) includes a mere 946 of the 35,000 in existence, but despatches those stock images of the womanising, brandy-swilling, gypsy-priest for good. Liszt was altogether more interesting: in youth as clever a self-publicist as Tracy Emin, in old age as saintly as Mother Teresa. This brightly-coloured epistolary journey would make an ideal antidote to the frozen Millennial silence ahead.

So would David Cairns's Berlioz; Volume Two: Servitude and Greatness (Allen Lane, pounds 25), which completes his 30-year travail to establish this uncategorisable genius among the all-time greats. Does any composer apart from Beethoven deserve a biography as long as War and Peace? Well, Paganini was only the first of many to claim Berlioz as Beethoven's true successor, and Cairns's graceful scholarship provides the necessary underpinning for missionary work done by Colin Davis in the concert hall. Cairns offers rich insights into his pathologically angry hero, who was forced by penury to spend more time reviewing other men's works than writing his own.

Berlioz was cold-shouldered by the establishment. John Tavener risks being loved to death by it: his music will inaugurate the Dome. In The Music of Silence (Faber, pounds 12.95) he holds forth to his obedient scribe Brian Keeble about his journey - "I had a vision in the bath one day" - towards music as metaphysical expression. He's pathetically easy to mock, but his diatribes against post-Schoenberg modernism are deeply thought through, as is his commitment to a passionate simplicity.

But next week's excitement will be the all-singing-all-dancing return to Covent Garden: cue Jeremy Isaacs's Never Mind the Moon (Bantam, pounds 20) and his predecessor John Tooley's In House (Faber, pounds 25). Both books will be required reading for opera and ballet buffs, and both are blatantly self-serving. If Isaacs is a racier read, he also constructs a cleverer facade. Tooley's suggestion that his successor cared more about buildings than people has the sour ring of truth.

Until its panicky cancellation this week, one of the first operas to be performed in the revamped House was to be Gyorgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, the most opaque work in the modern canon. From Richard Toop's Gyorgy Ligeti (Phaidon, pounds 14.95) we learn that this opera's provisional title was "Kylwiria", the name of the composer's invented childhood world. This deft musical biography goes a long way towards explaining Ligety's fascination with music as a complex machine. As the years go by, the life recedes and we are left to surmise what scars this reclusive composer bears from Nazi persecution in his youth.

Short books aiming to encapsulate life and works are now all the rage, but it's a hard trick to bring off. Peter Gay's Mozart (Weidenfeld, pounds 12.99) is a brilliant essay, and in Richard Strauss (Phaidon, pounds 14.95) Tim Ashley shows that even the most complicated life-and-works can be synthesised in 200 pages. Those whose appetite is whetted should consult Michael Kennedy's superb Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (Cambridge, pounds 25). Readers will have to make up their own minds on the question of Strauss's Nazi complicity, since his biographers can't agree.

Based on Radio 3 interviews, Michael Oliver's Settling the Score (Faber, pounds 16.99) presents itself as an oral history of 20th-century music, and much of it is talk-shop stuff. But we get some lovely nuggets. "I could play it more accurately, but not better," says pianist Artur Schnabel, a propos a recording. "We're completely on the margins, but isn't that wonderful?" says the young composer Julian Anderson.

Oliver's book is English through and through. Thank heaven for the music beyond our borders, and for the intelligent interest publishers are taking in it. From Nimbus comes the Raga Guide (pounds 32.99 with four CDs) which offers an extraordinarily detailed analysis of 74 different Hindustani ragas. Stephen Jones's Folk Music of China (Oxford, pounds 19.99) is the first comprehensive analysis of that country's instrumental traditions, and the rituals they serve.

World Music: The Rough Guide is re-emerging in expanded, two-part form. Volume One (Penguin, pounds 17.99) deals with Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and opens with a fuller Albanian section than heretofore. This corporate endeavour is one of the most-thumbed books in our house, and I can't wait for the rest.