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.

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal