Christmas books: Classical - They should let the music speak for them

Michael White on divas, diaries and disasters

Biographies of composers are predisposed to interesting failure because composers tend to live only in their work, and after 407 pages of Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest (Bloomsbury pounds 20), you won't feel appreciably closer to the presiding genius of post-war lyric theatre than you did at page 1. He slips through the text: a veiled intelligence that doesn't open up - not to Ms Secrest (who falls back on sheafs of pre-published quotes and comments, including mine in this newspaper) or to anyone. And just as group photographs with Sondheim often show him on the edge of the shot, ready to up and leave at any moment, so it is with this book.

In fairness, Secrest does sketch a sharp picture of Sondheim's childhood, coloured by a disfunctional mother who dumps her marital frustrations on her son to such a degree that he finds himself another family and another life. That the new family happens to belong to Oscar Hammerstein II is fortuitous and leaves Sondheim well-placed for his first Broadway success (as lyricist of West Side Story) by the age of 27. But at the same time he's developing an effective system of self-protective retreat. As a child he learned to suppress his Jewish origins, in a succession of pristinely WASP-ish schools. As an adult he has something else to hide: his homosexuality, which is so effectively contained that he doesn't manage to make a relationship of real significance until he's in his sixties. Through the intervening years, he plays a game like Britten's, dropping veiled but unavoidable signals of sexual self-declaration into his work which fuel the image he builds of himself as Broadway's voice of disillusion, isolation and defensive irony. None of those themes, of course, are what Broadway was designed to sell. So he settles into a recidivist pattern of stageworks that overestimate the sophistication of their audiences, demand serious critical attention, sweep the awards circuit, but never achieve the box office of Andrew Lloyd Webber - whose pattern is exactly the reverse.

Sondheim is a newcomer to the biographical market in that other studies have been more in the nature of critical appreciations than lives. Herbert von Karajan is anything but a newcomer; and the quantities of print he has inspired tend toward extremes of love or loathing - depending largely on the author's view of Karajan's ambigious war record. That he was a Nazi is beyond dispute. The questions are whether he was a Nazi of ideological conviction or convenience; and whether, either way, it should colour the judgement of history on his indisputable achievements in later years. That Richard Osborne is a Karajan apologist was obvious from his previous book of conversations with the meister. But his new Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music (Chatto, pounds 30) is nonetheless the most balanced, thorough, readable and altogether admirable of any treatment of its subject I've encountered. Osborne knew the man quite well. He also knows the facts, and delivers them unadorned: including the full script of Karajan's evidence at his own de-Nazification trial, which has never appeared in English before. It makes absorbing reading. And with Osborne's expert, if loyal, assessments of Karajan's performing history, in concert and on disc, it's probably the most significant strictly classical music book to have surfaced in this country all year.

Other contenders, though, include Shostakovich Reconsidered (Toccata pounds 45) by Allan B Ho and Dmitri Feofanov: a polemical book that sets out to prove - in self-consciously legalistic terms - the validity of the testimony-line on Shostakovich. In other words it marshals the arguments for Shostakovich not being a Soviet lackey but a secret dissident whose music censures rather than celebrates the regime he was obliged to serve. In doing so it sells a message that most of us have already bought, although the sell is certainly persuasive for any who haven't.

Another contender is Elizabeth Wilson's Jacqueline du Pre (Weidenfield pounds 20), a nicely put-together example of covert polemicism: written with the cooperation of Daniel Barenboim as a "corrective" (to quote the publisher) to the account of life with Jackie published recently by her brother and sister. Well-researched, perceptive, but with the sympathetic viewpoint of someone who knew du Pre as both a friend and pupil (the author studied cello before she took up writing), its line is gently forceful and with the detail weighted toward music rather than gossip. Which is as things should be.

Then there's Hans Werner Henze's autobiography Bohemian Fifths (Faber pounds 30), immaculately translated from the original German by Stewart Spencer with an ear for the endearingly deliberate, over-careful way that Henze has when he speaks English. You really hear his voice in the words - which is important because the level of address in this book is so personal and intimate, it reads like it's been whispered into the word-processor. The wrong tone could have made it as mawkishly embarrassing as Michael Tippett's memoirs (composers aren't good at this sort of thing), but it comes across with touching candour: the record of a conscientious rebel who won his way to the heart of the European musical establishment without losing his integrity. Or his sense of humour.

Voice enthusiasts will want to know that there's another bean-spilling biography out on Kiri te Kanawa, Her Unsung Story (HarperCollins pounds 17.99), and two on Cecilia Bartoli (Women's Press pounds 17.99 and Chatto pounds 17.99) but I wouldn't waste an evening in for any of them. More commendable is Helena Matheopoulos's Diva: The New Generation (Little Brown pounds 18.99) which repeats an exercise the author has done before - collecting interviews with famous singers - but this time, as the title says, with the younger ones. The Gheorghius, Borodinas and - yes - Bartolis of current fame. The snapshot nature of the portraits rules out too much gush, and they build into a state-of-the-art summary of welcome optimism. Last time round it was all dark talk of singing in decline and roles no longer possible to cast at strength. Now things are looking up, with a sudden rush of talent from America and Russia which has set the tone for a new kind of singer: dramatically sophisticated, musically intelligent and (with a few exceptions) too professional to play the Diva as we knew it. So much for Matheopoulos's title.

For the reference shelf there's a novel kind of dictionary, Who's Who in Opera (OUP pounds 20), which is not the catalogue of living worthies you'd expect but a gazeteer of fictional characters, invaluable for Yuletide quiz-games. Name four operas with a leading lady called Marie. With this book, you can. As for stocking-fillers, Hugh Vickers's Bumper Book of Operatic Disasters (Pan pounds 6.99) is an old favourite updated to include the recent history of Covent Garden as an OD in its own right. On that subject, Mary Allen's memoir of misery A House Divided (Simon & Shuster pounds 17.99) makes you wonder whether the Garden's plight would have been so grim had Ms Allen devoted more time to her job and less to writing diaries.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing