Books: Music - Myths, monsters, memories

Taking the myth out of musicology is an uphill task, because myths are by definition seductive. People love imagining the angelic young Brahms playing in brothels: Jan Swafford's Johannes Brahms (Macmillan, pounds 30) dwells with gusto on the virginal youth's defilement by whores. But this is one of the myths which Styra Avins's magnificent Johannes Brahms: life and letters (Oxford, pounds 35) lays to rest. While Swafford offers romantic fiction, Avins offers a richly documented portrait of this lovably irascible outsider.

A plethora of myths are despatched in Ruth Halliwell's The Mozart Family (Oxford, pounds 30), most notably that of Leopold's beastliness to his son. What other biographers persist in seeing as vindictive possessiveness, she shows to be proper parental care: young Wolfgang, falling for a succession of nubile girls, needed saving from himself. This magisterial book reflects everything known about how the Mozarts lived. Alan Walker has now completed his definitive three-volume biography of Liszt (Franz Liszt: the final years; Faber, pounds 45). Here we follow the triangular relationship between Liszt's daughter Cosima, her husband Hans von Bulow, and her lover Richard Wagner. Walker deploys formidable scholarship against the backdrop of history, but musically he gets right up close.

Among modern composer-biographies, Daniel Jaffe's Prokofiev (Phaidon, pounds 14.95) stands out as exemplary. No one could have been more resourceful than this prolific pianist-composer, but Stalin's system first broke his family, and finally his spirit. "My soul hurts," said Prokofiev when he realised the game was up, dying 50 minutes before his tormentor, and from the same type of cerebral haemorrhage.

One of the year's most eagerly awaited biographies - Elizabeth Wilson's Jacqueline du Pre (Weidenfeld, pounds 20) - was a thundering disappointment, being essentially Daniel Barenboim's ghost-written account, but Richard Osborne's Herbert von Karajan (Chatto, pounds 30) has been well worth the wait. After patiently stalking his prey for two decades, Osborne has produced an even-handed portrait of this charismatic egomaniac.

Kevin Bazzana's Glenn Gould: the performer in the work (Oxford, pounds 25) brings philosophical rigour to this cult pianist's oeuvre. And what about Bill Evans, admired by Gould and in effect the jazz world's answer to him? Read all about his slow suicide by drugs - and his musical achievement - in Peter Pettinger's Bill Evans: how my heart sings (Yale, pounds 19.95).

This year has brought two remarkable memoirs by composers' wives. My Life With Janacek (Faber, pounds 25) paints a highly unflattering portrait of this much-loved composer, who specialised in the sensitive depiction of oppressed women. Zdenka Janackova dictated her autobiography as therapy for the pain inflicted by her adulterous husband. She was a pure spirit: the contrast with Alma Mahler-Werfel - pursued by Klimt and Kokoschka, married to Mahler and Franz Werfel - could not be more stark. As her Diaries 1898-1902 (Faber, pounds 25) show, this fame-obsessed female would have felt entirely at home in the Groucho Club.

"Wept for a long time on the bedroom floor..." I can't see why anyone - apart from its ghastly dramatis personae - should want to buy Mary Allen's lachrymose Covent Garden saga A House Divided (Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.99). But Michael Raeburn's The Chronicle of Opera (Thames & Hudson, pounds 24.95) is an intelligent (and gloriously illustrated) account of opera's rise and rise, while Stephen Pettitt's Opera: a crash course (Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99) wears its learning with wacky conviviality.