Music: The year's best books reviewed

Symphony for the devil
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The Independent Culture

Most music lovers feel instinctively music's unique capacity to synchronise emotional, communicative and motor skills, not only within our own brains but in the minds and bodies of others. It just depends on what you mean by music, and where you stand in its increasingly broad church. Several of the year's music titles grapple with that problem, starting with an old-fashioned defence of Western art music. In Who Needs Classical Music? (Oxford, £14.99), Julian Johnson would like us to re-erect a few of the old fences. For Johnson, the greatest music retains its vitality and special role precisely because it works differently from ephemeral sounds; it makes its own humanising time and space. This makes for a provocative read when even Classic FM's bite-sized classics, such as Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending", emerge as part of the problem.

Lionel Pike's Vaughan Williams and the Symphony (Toccata Press, £45) makes a determined bid for the high ground, with its non-inclusive language and obsessive references to chord type and tonal structure. The overriding aim is to have VW accepted into a corpus of the great. No matter that his symphonies are securely established as it is. Pike must know that he is preaching to a mainly professional audience of devotees, but some will cheer him for that.

The composer David Matthews has just celebrated his 60th birthday with a slim-line tribute to another icon, Benjamin Britten (Haus Publishing, £8.99). Once Britten's assistant, he writes with elegant economy, and the layout, common to these Life & Times titles, is arresting, with well-reproduced photographs and useful historical gobbets. Also mixing life and works accessibly, David Nice's Prokofiev - a biography: from Russia to the West, 1891-1935 (Yale, £25) operates on a Wagnerian scale. Published on the 50th anniversary of its subject's death, this is only the first half of a scrupulous biography drawing on the archive at Goldsmiths College, London.

If you're musically untrained, you might not manage every word of Richard Steinitz's György Ligeti: music of the imagination (Faber & Faber, £25), but this is a five-star attempt to elucidate the fascinating oeuvre of the one unashamedly modernist postwar composer whose music seems certain to last. It has already reached a wide audience, if only through its use on several Stanley Kubrick soundtracks. As Ligeti has just turned 80, this is another anniversary tome, although, as Christopher Ricks might have said, he remains forever young.

In Dylan's Vision of Sin (Viking, £25) Ricks is dealing with a commercial music-maker rather than a literary classic, but you'd never know it. He simply ignores the problems of writing about music in general and pop in particular. You have to admire his audacity in staying with the words, but lecture notes fresh to Cambridge undergraduates in the 1970s don't make a book. The attempt to force the material into the arbitrary straitjacket of "Sins, Virtues [and] Heavenly Graces" is half-baked and the heroic efforts of an experienced editorial team have been unable to contribute much coherent thrust.

James Henke's Lennon Legend: an illustrated life of John Lennon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) is a more conventional piece of pop iconography, the by-product of an American exhibition. Here, Yoko Ono's influence is writ large. She makes sure that her part in the legend is as well-preserved and as touchy-feely as The Beatles' own by authorising pull-out facsimiles of lyrics, artwork and rare memorabilia. An opulent production including a bonus CD, this book is amazing value for diehard fans, even if the text always takes second place to the concept.

Clearly modelled on The Beatles Anthology coffee-table book, According to the Rolling Stones (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30) is another authorised project that largely glosses over the dark side. It has some great pics, but the focus is on current band members at the expense of former colleagues, notably Bill Wyman, who compiled his own memoir on the basis of aspersonal records. This one feels more opportunistic - yes, the Stones have been touring again.

Books by classical practitioners tend to be more modest in size, but Charles Rosen's Piano Notes: the hidden world of the pianist (Allen Lane, £12.99) ought to be on everyone's wish list. Finally, the year would not be complete without the latest Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs (Penguin, £24.99). The explosion of material has wrought some changes to editorial policy, though the beloved rosettes survive. Ivan March, Edward Greenfield and Robert Layton continue to award three stars to some unworthy discs and bestow their imprimatur on items deleted by insensitive accountants. And yet the reliability and flair of their criticism makes this the must-have it has always been, even with Gramophone magazine's Classical Good CD Guide 2004 (£21.99) snapping at its heels.

David Gutman and Elizabeth Thomson's 'The Dylan Companion' is published by Da Capo Press