Best music books for Christmas

Liz Thomson
Friday 11 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Books on classical music are these days as rare as hens' teeth. Indeed, only Faber, with its links to Benjamin Britten, features at least one title per season. And for the true Britten aficionado (or those whose curiosity was piqued by The Habit of Art), there's John Evans's Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten (£25). Of broader appeal is Susie Gilbert's Opera for Everybody: The Story of English National Opera (Faber, £25). The company, product of late Victorian philanthropy, began life at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells before settling at the Coliseum in the 1960s – a people's opera to rival Covent Garden. Thatcherism inflicted more damage than two world wars, and it has never entirely recovered.

Daniel Snowman casts his net more widely in The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic, £30), which documents "the rise, decline and fall (and possible demise) of an elite form". Wearing his erudition lightly, Snowman takes readers on a grand tour of opera houses, casting an eye over both prima donna and conductor and examining opera under the dictators – Mussolini, like Hitler, was partial to an aria.

Tchaikovsky by Roland John Wiley (Oxford, £25) reminds us what a superstar Pytor Ilyich was in his day – he was invited to open Carnegie Hall. Combining narrative with some musicology, Wiley is authoritative but never unapproachable - and also refreshingly unsensationalist.

Nigel Simeone's Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story (Ashgate, £35) offers a fascinating glimpse into the greatest musical of all, drawing on letters between its creators to put it in context and to show why, half a century on, it endures. The Blue Moment by Richard Williams (Faber, £14.99) examines another singular work from the late 1950s: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, "a rare example of human perfection". It's a rewarding discussion of the music itself, a soundtrack to American existentialism, and its legacy.

The Cambridge Companions series is preoccupied with the classics, which means Dylan and the Beatles now rub shoulders with Mozart and Mahler. The Beatles (CUP, £15.99), a collection of essays edited by Kenneth Womack, is rightly "about the Beatles' musical art... the songwriting and recording processes that brought it to fruition". The essays tackle such subjects as "Any time at all: the Beatles' free phrase rhythms" and "The Beatles as zeitgeist". Bob Dylan (CUP, £14.99) takes the same approach, though dwells less on the music to concentrate on the lyrics and socio-political context.

Two decades after Jon Savage's England's Dreaming comes The 'England's Dreaming' Tapes (Faber, £20), a fat collection of interviews which provided raw material for that punk classic – including Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Rotten and Derek Jarman. They rub shoulders with Gracie Fields and Amy Winehouse, Max Miller and David Bowie, Noel Coward and Pete Doherty in In the City (Virgin, £18.99): Paul DuNoyer's celebration of London's music. Further afield, Garth Cartwright takes a Greyhound ride across "ruin and beauty, openness and intolerance, despair and hope" to uncover the roots of American music in More Miles than Money (Serpent's Tail, £12.99).

Beginning in 1915 with Thomas Edison, Greg Milner's history of recording Perfecting Sound Forever (Granta, £20) shows that "authenticity" has never been a music industry goal, even before the 1940s when magnetic tape made an "alternate universe" possible.

As to memoirs, A Shirt Box Full of Songs (Hachette Scotland, £18.99) is Barbara Dickson's engaging and unpretentious account of a career that began in 1960s Scottish folk clubs. For Michael Jackson fans, the re-issued Moonwalk, originally commissioned and published in 1988 by Jacqueline Onassis (who thought it "a startling glimpse of the artist at work"), is the book to have (Heinemann, £16.99). Finally, old hippies will appreciate Woodstock (Sterling, £25), a day-by-day, hour-by-hour history of the festival that became a counter- cultural milestone. Love and peace at Christmas, dude.

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