Books Of The Year: Classical Music: A gentleman professional versus the TV bounder

Supremos of the Royal Opera House don't die (in 50 years only Sir David Webster's managed that), nor do they fade away. They just go into print - and sometimes with indecent haste, if you remember Mary Allen's diaries which came out before the ink was dry on the page or the blood dry on the floor.

Neither Sir John Tooley (in charge 1970-88) nor Sir Jeremy Isaacs (1988- 96) have moved so fast as their ill-fated successor. But they weren't going to let the reopening of Covent Garden pass without some kind of comment; and their respective books of memoirs - Tooley's In House (Faber pounds 25) and Isaacs' Never Mind the Moon (Bantam pounds 20) - bear witness to their two conspicuously dissimilar regimes: that of a gentleman professional followed by that of a bounder from television.

Tooley's book is all discretion and sobriety. It reads like a company report, in measured tones that threaten to announce "another year of challenge" or relate how "your Board was most fortunate to obtain the services of..." In other words, it's dull. But it's also authoritative and bristling with integrity - much like the author, whose presence barely registers in the narrative and whose achievements in 18 years of governance are hardly advertised.

You get the modern history of the ROH in largely neutral terms. And of course, the history of the ROH is solely modern. The building dates from 1858, but it was put to various uses - not least, a wartime dance hall - until the lease was reclaimed from Mecca Cafes in 1944. The institution we know and maybe love as the Royal Opera has therefore only been around for half a century. And Tooley is uniquely placed to be its chronicler because he joined the staff in 1955.

Most of what he writes about was seen (and often suffered) first-hand: from the early and unpopular appearances of Solti, who was booed (especially in Mozart), to the compromise appointment of Bernard Haitink in 1987 after everyone else (Muti, Mehta, Abbado...) turned it down. Conductors come and go. Singers emerge from obscurity to stardom. Peter Hall resigns before he actually begins the job. It's all such meaty fare that you can only weep when Tooley serves it up so decorously. Thinly-sliced. No juice. No crackling.

Nothing gives until the appointment of Jeremy Isaacs, when a grandly understated note of disapproval creeps into the account of how Isaacs puts the ROH on hold while he waits to see if he's offered something better by the BBC. "Frankly," says Tooley, "it was not a good omen". As the affairs of the House stagger from bad to worse, the gloves come partly off. From then, Tooley laments, the affairs of the House are in the hands of amateurs.

But at this point it becomes more entertaining to switch to Jeremy Isaacs, whose take on events is signalled by the title of his book: a flippant and not wildly relevant reference to a racy song. What follows is in fact well-written, punchy - and partisan. But after 300-odd pages of self- justification, you at least know what you're dealing with. This is a reply to his critics and, not least, to the critics, with whom Isaacs had a swashbuckling relationship. That he happened to be married to one was a peculiarly charming irony.

Two Strauss biographies that were issued recently have similarly partisan approaches to their subject, although one is fairer than the other. Matthew Boyden's Richard Strauss (Weidenfield pounds 25) spares no effort to nail the composer as a Nazi, and has a photo of Strauss shaking hands with Goebbels on the dust jacket, in case you miss the point.

By contrast, Michael Kennedy's Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (Cambridge pounds 25) is the work of an apologist. It pleads a cause, and with good reason. Strauss was not a hero of the 1940s. Like so many citizens of the Third Reich, he said and did nothing against it. What's more, he carried on writing and allowed himself to be used for propaganda purposes. But he was old, politically naive, and trapped in a situation that was not of his making.

By temperament he was no Nazi. And to accuse him of antisemitism,as Boyden does, is to downplay crucial facts that only Michael Kennedy takes properly on board - not the least of them being that Strauss had a Jewish daughter- in-law and, accordingly, Jewish grandchildren. It was his preparedness to cause no trouble and claim the odd favour from Nazi admirers that kept his own family out of the camps. In the circumstances, who dare point a finger?

The composer John Tavener has a long, thin finger which, for some years , he has pointed at the history of Western music. For Tavener, it all went wrong in the Renaissance, when music ceased to be the opus dei - work for God. This is the reason why his music sounds like something written centuries ago, stark with the ancient grandeur of Byzantium. And it's the argument of his new book The Music of Silence (Faber pounds 12.99), which is a collection of interviews, reminiscences and position statements that build - as the subtitle tells you - into "A Composer's Testament".

Like everything about John Tavener, it's both impressive and absurd. The very idea that music on the threshold of the 21st century should be endlessly recycling Byzantine chant is downright unhealthy. But the fact remains that Tavener has touched a nerve in modern audiences, and for all the rambling, vague theology-cum-musicology in this book, it reads with the serene wisdom of someone who has struggled for his glimpse of truth, and very possibly been granted it.

Jonathan Harvey's Music and Inspiration (Faber pounds 12.99) is a compendium of quotations about the glimpses of truth which have sent composers about their business. Their words are grouped into four main sources of inspiration: experience, the unconscious, audience expectation, idealism. And although you won't find many entries from the pre-Romantic composers - who tend to regard themselves as craftsmen and waste little time on self-analysis - the pickings get rich from then on.

It's surprising to discover just how eloquent the systematic modernists have been about their muses - including Schoenberg, who turns up not only in the "unconscious" section but in the "audience" one, pining for "people to know my tunes and whistle them". Yes, that was Schoenberg. And Rameau defines the fear of the ageing artist when he writes: "Every day I acquire taste, but I have no more genius."

For a developed understanding of how Mahler found his muse, you might try The Mahler Companion (Oxford pounds 50), which is the best single-volume work of reference on the composer to have emerged in years, with erudite but approachable essays by the leading Mahler scholars of our time, from Donald Mitchell to Henry-Louis de la Grange. The J S Bach Companion (Oxford pounds 40), alphabetically organised, is an impressive piece of work as well. You'll find an answer here to almost every question, and it makes the perfect vade-mecum for next year's Bach anniversary, when the music of Johann Sebastian will come pouring through every public orifice.There will be no escape. So you might as well know what you're listening to.

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