A Singer's Notebook, By Ian Bostridge

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The Independent Culture

Before he emerged as one of the greatest Lieder singers in the business, Ian Bostridge was an academic historian specialising in the study of witchcraft. It's therefore appropriate that the first chapter of his book should suggest a deep connection between the two activities. After rationalist materialism drove witchcraft off the map, music remained the magic realm where people could still encounter the ineffable.

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The magic of musical creation is what threads its way throughout the remainder of his book, consisting of reviews and articles, CD liner notes, and pensees for his Standpoint magazine blog. These are the thoughts of a profoundly engaged artist, dealing with everything from the personal stresses of staying vocally fit to the politics of the profession, from niceties of interpretation to the cut-and-thrust of musicological debate. And when gown and mortar-board are thrown away he's an engaging writer - provocative, astringent, capable of arresting insights.

Some of these insights come in sudden flashes – melody as a metaphor for time, Monteverdi's Orfeo as Renaissance Lieder – but most pertain to the composers with whom Bostridge is associated: Britten, Wolf, Schumann, Janacek, Henze, and above all Schubert. His essays on the latter deal illuminatingly with the usual controversies – notably the composer's sexuality – and gain amplitude through reference to the piano works and the poets with whom Schubert consorted.

Bostridge explains why the simple-seeming Die Schone Müllerin has such mythic power, and asks whether it was a coincidence that the three greatest composers of Lieder – Schubert, Schumann and Wolf – should all have lived in fear of clinical insanity. In Bostridge's view, the Lied lost its pre-eminence thanks to the dissolution of tonality, and to the consequent "disappearance of the Romantic language of irrationality". Nicely put.

Those wanting this singer's inside story won't get much satisfaction here – no revelations of secret traumas beyond the recurring fear, common to all singers, that a temporary vocal disability may become terminal. But he does self-laceratingly quote a vicious ad hominem attack (re his ability to sing Mozart's tenor roles) by the director David McVicar. At one time Bostridge became addicted to The Sopranos while out on the road, and he draws parallels between this TV soap and Mozart's Idomeneo, arguing that both turn on the same kind of family dysfunction. He offers fascinating sidelights on how he builds a role, and thinks about the voice, approaching it less as a physiological phenomenon than through veils of metaphor: "balls floating on jets of water; domes on the sound; spaces made in... places that exist only in the imagination".

His singing hero is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with whom he has studied, but he has a surprisingly wide appreciation of other styles. He may contemptuously write off rock music as "the denim of musical fashion" (principal target, Tony Blair), but this doesn't prevent him praising Bob Dylan's "rough-edged non-voice" and his "ability to bend and stretch the melody... while not seeming to pay overmuch attention to it".

One of Bostridge's leitmotifs is his passionate denial of Stravinsky's claim that music "can express nothing", and he quotes Tolstoy's famous description of peasant singing in War and Peace: "with full and naive conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words, and that the tune comes of itself". This suggests why Bostridge's own singing – whether of Schubert or Noel Coward – has such power.

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