Classical music: Therapy for people who love classical music too much

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Never is the saying that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover more true than in dealing with books on classical music. 2003 brought a host of them: some academic, some popular, the worst neither academic nor popular, the very best both. Some I'm glad I read. Some I could happily have thrown across the room, preferably with their authors as targets. You see there is no reliable formula for predicting what lies behind (a) the stylish cover that resembles literary fiction from an A-list novelist or (b) the desiccated manual that looks like something from your university reading list. Take Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History (Chicago £19.50), for instance. Estenban Buch's "seven year labour" is, like John Butt's superb Playing with History of last year, the kind of volume that appears to be aimed at the specialist but is written with such energy and wit that one paragraph is all it takes to seduce the casual reader. Like Butt, Buch considers music in the wider cultural and historical context: a c

Never is the saying that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover more true than in dealing with books on classical music. 2003 brought a host of them: some academic, some popular, the worst neither academic nor popular, the very best both. Some I'm glad I read. Some I could happily have thrown across the room, preferably with their authors as targets. You see there is no reliable formula for predicting what lies behind (a) the stylish cover that resembles literary fiction from an A-list novelist or (b) the desiccated manual that looks like something from your university reading list. Take Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History (Chicago £19.50), for instance. Estenban Buch's "seven year labour" is, like John Butt's superb Playing with History of last year, the kind of volume that appears to be aimed at the specialist but is written with such energy and wit that one paragraph is all it takes to seduce the casual reader. Like Butt, Buch considers music in the wider cultural and historical context: a cold flannel to the brows of those who believe that art is a thing above real life, an extraordinarily focused portrait of Beethoven's psyche, a fascinating history of the successive political appropriations of his symphony, and a perceptive examination of how ideologues maintain the illusion of ownership of an abstract art form.

Would that there had been more such background in Richard Steinitz's György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination (Faber £25) but this stylish writer underplays Ligeti's extraordinary life-story in favour of a concentrated appraisal of his work. As with many biographies, the most evocative passages are those in the subject's own words and I found myself skipping Steinitz's elegant observations for another fix of brilliance from the horse's mouth. No such problem with Boulez on Conducting (Faber £14.99): a Q&A book that is utterly compelling on the business of being a musician and a concise alternative to Charles Rosen's after-dinnery Piano Notes: The Hidden World of the Pianist (Allen Lane £12.99), which reads like the work of one unaccustomed to being interrupted.

I might easily have overlooked the glamorously packaged Lives and Times of the Great Composers (Icon £30). But Michael Steen's beautifully illustrated book packs an astonishing amount of biographical and cultural detail into nearly 40 subjects, starting with Handel and running through to Britten, with a cautionary word on history's assessment of greatness. The chapter on Schumann is heartbreaking; I couldn't bear even to start the one on Brahms. Heartbreaking in a different way is Susie Gilbert and Jay Sher's account of the contrasting fortunes of the Royal Opera House, La Scala, the Met and the Vienna Staatsoper: A Tale of Four Houses (HarperCollins £35). Exhaustively researched and cleverly written, A Tale... is also well-structured and pleasingly gossipy, with quotes from eminent directors and (anonymous) belligerent chorus members.

Among this year's reference books, the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (Flame Tree £25) and the Classical Music Encyclopedia (Flame Tree £20) are the most attractive and absorbing. The former, which covers everyone from Dussek to Ms Dynamite and everything from Western Swing to Krautrock, slipped a few points when I noticed the omission of John Adams from a list of leading contemporary composers. (He is, curiously, included in their list of conductors.) Is their list of leading Trance exponents similarly unreliable? The latter of these two, tested by looking for obscure-ish areas of personal interest, seems more secure. Beautifully laid out, it affords composers such as Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Barbara Strozzi proper space and devotes a mini-chapter to Italian convent music together with more predictable subjects such as airs de cour. The lives, influences and musical developments of the major composers of each era are clearly explained, the cross-references are extensive, John Adams heads the list of living composers, and the recommended recordings are extremely well-chosen.

This cannot be said of Fred Plotkin's Classical Music Unbuttoned (Aurum £12.99) which, contrary to the suggestiveness of its title, recommends a musical life of extreme sensory abstinence. Here the worlds of self-help and self-improvement collide as Plotkin attempts to draw a parallel between learning to love music and falling in love. The former, he insists, is more likely to result in lasting happiness. No kidding. Setting aside the point that there are many pieces of music with which one can have a one-night stand and never want to hear again and few that one wants to wake up to for the rest of one's life, Plotkin is essentially correct. Indeed, give or take a few dollops of cod-philosophy, much of his book is as straightforwardly educational as any Reader's Digest guide; taking us smoothly through the major symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler with odd diversions to Hildegard, Handel and Nicholas Maw. He is, however, as pernickety as a hiphop diva on her first headline tour when it comes to creating the right environment for musical appreciation.

Though Plotkin's own apartment, he tells us, is prey to a predictable urban soundtrack of sirens and squealing brakes, he abjures the use of headphones. Instead, all ticking, ringing or bleeping devices should be switched off or removed from the room, the lights dimmed and placed "to one side of your chair or behind it", and the curtains closed. Having rid your room of aural and visual distractions, it's time to clear the air, for "if there is a vase full of flowers near where you will be sitting, move them." Phew. After all this housework, the novice listener may well be weary but he or she is forbidden to "stretch out on a bed".

Classical Music Unbuttoned follows the no pain, no gain model in almost every respect except that of musical repertoire. One might quibble at his "essential discography" (the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of Handel's Water Music being the strangest of several strange choices), or the way in which he discourages "analytical thinking", but Plotkin's canon is as good a grounding as any. The contact details and descriptions of international arts venues and organisations for the travelling music-lover are invaluable. And when I complete my sample chapters for "Women Who Love Classical Music Too Much", I'll know where to send them.

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