The best of 2004: music books reviewed

Flesh and blood on the tracks
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The Independent Culture

Music history is fickle in its judgments. Undaunted, Richard Taruskin, the most authoritative controversialist in modern musicology, has written an Oxford History of Western Music to rival Gibbon's Decline and Fall in ambition, literary distinction and sheer bulk. The six volumes are due in January (OUP, £280). Meanwhile we have the 896 pages of the Penguin Companion to Classical Music (Penguin, £30). Author Paul Griffiths comes fresh from a study of modernist paragon Jean Barraqué, and you'll notice that Penguin's testimonials come from musicians sympathetic to an aesthetic paradigm arguably past its sell-by date.

Music history is fickle in its judgments. Undaunted, Richard Taruskin, the most authoritative controversialist in modern musicology, has written an Oxford History of Western Music to rival Gibbon's Decline and Fall in ambition, literary distinction and sheer bulk. The six volumes are due in January (OUP, £280). Meanwhile we have the 896 pages of the Penguin Companion to Classical Music (Penguin, £30). Author Paul Griffiths comes fresh from a study of modernist paragon Jean Barraqué, and you'll notice that Penguin's testimonials come from musicians sympathetic to an aesthetic paradigm arguably past its sell-by date.

Nevertheless, Griffiths does cover the waterfront, providing succinct definitions of musical terms and trends plus sympathetic potted biographies of key figures. It's easiest to cavil as he nears the present: the Jansons family is here but not the Järvis and I don't myself consider Renée Fleming a more significant soprano than Lucia Popp. With no updated Penguin Guide to Compact Discs this year, avid collectors should get their fix from Gramophone magazine's Classical Good CD & DVD Guide 2005 (£21.99).

Mahler is central to the life of music today, so it is as well to be reminded that a wife for whom creative genius was the ultimate aphrodisiac was hardly an unbiased witness. Now, thanks to Anthony Beaumont and an army of scholars, we can gain a more accurate idea of the Mahlers' ménage. The unexpurgated Gustav Mahler: Letters to His Wife (Faber, £25) lays bare a relationship unexpectedly informal and affectionate, at least on the composer's part. Attacked by the feminist lobby for stifling his wife's creativity, Mahler can at last speak for himself.

Benjamin Britten is a differently inscrutable figure. His operas hold the stage and royalties have no doubt helped fund the massive Letters From a Life: Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume Three (1946-51), edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke (Faber, £25). Alma Mahler is supposed to have tried it on with him too, but, of course, it is the vexed question of the boys that must be faced. As protective of Britten's prodigious gifts as the composer himself, Mitchell's introduction presents this obsession in the context of an unorthodox sense of "family". Britten was no great literary stylist, yet by using the correspondence as a peg for further reflection, the editors aim to seduce less committed readers.

Long denied a place in the establishment pantheon, Malcolm Arnold has been marginalised by mainstream commentators. With the bluff humour of his film scores and "light" classics better remembered than his serious work, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (Thames/Elkin, £29.99) would have us re-evaluate his nine symphonies as neglected masterpieces. Like Tony Palmer's portentous South Bank Show two-parter, the authors turn modernist critical opinion on its head, preferring music in which they see a frank autobiographical resonance to that which sets out boldly to explore new techniques. Everything feels thoroughly researched, notwithstanding some embarrassing passages in which the authors attempt to get inside the mindset of a damaged alcoholic. It makes for a crackingly good if somewhat prurient read.

To straddle the divide between popular and serious music in the 1950s was to invite critical censure. These days there's no moral panic when Elvis Costello succumbs to unbridled eclecticism and releases rock and "classical" albums back to back. Graeme Thomson's Complicated Shadows: the life and music of Elvis Costello (Canongate, £16.99) documents rather than revivifies the screeching sparkiness of the New Wave years. Bruce Thomas, former bass player with The Attractions, makes no bones about his dislike of the man he calls the "barking cabbage". The book is thorough in its parade of tour dates and critical judgements, tactful about personal relationships. Oddly, Thomson neither quotes from song lyrics nor provides a discography.

Perhaps it's a measure of Bob Dylan's iconic status that he can afford to dispense with these, and with linear narrative, yet still wow the critics. His own Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) is an almost random sequence of vignettes, the longest dealing self-deprecatingly with Oh Mercy, a late-Eighties collaboration with U2 producer Daniel Lanois. There is, I'm convinced, a researcher's hand in the unlikely recall of dates and places but the elegiac tone rings true, as does the reluctance to put names to wives and children. While Dylan's rejection of any kind of leadership role as "voice of a generation" is scarcely news, his resentfulness stays fresh.

The same publisher has produced a large-format Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001 (Simon & Schuster, £35). The more recent texts read better than you would expect. Only the glitzy, silver dust-jacket is a relic from a different age.

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

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