Sounds, scores and stories: Does new writing about music match the magic of its themes?

Boyd Tonkin looks at the pitfalls of criticism and recommends books to enjoy when the last chords fade away

Friday 16 July 2010 00:00 BST

Today the BBC Proms begin with the roof-raiser to outblast all rivals: Mahler's Eighth, the "Symphony of a Thousand", performed at the Royal Albert Hall 100 years after its composer's death. Long ago that work, and that venue, lent my childhood a slightly raucous high note when I made up a tiny short-trousered cog in its vast choral machine under Leonard Bernstein at his most gloriously, schmaltzily melodramatic. I still feel a little protective towards the concert and later recording "we" made. A columnist recently praised the performance as a classic: result! Then along comes the fifth edition of the indispensable Rough Guide to Classical Music. And which recordings does it recommend? Tennstedt and Solti. Loosen up, dudes, and go with the flow, as Lenny – regrettably – might well have said.

Ancient vanity aside, could I describe with any precision the unearthly, even terrifying, sound that we all made any better now than I could then? I doubt it. An informed love of music can coincide with bewilderment or indifference in the face of the critical verbiage that surrounds it. To the curious amateur, music writing all too often reads either like software engineering and motor mechanics (technical musicology) or else free-floating impressionism bulked out with anecdote, guesswork and gush (everyday reviewing and popular biography). Exceptions arise, but even the best writers often drown when they try to bridge that verbal gulf between formal analysis and informal appreciation.

Music expresses itself and not another thing, as Stravinsky said. And it can reduce words to stuttering gibberish. No surprise, then, that many satisfying books for the lay enthusiast tend to skirt over the anatomy of organised notes and instead stage the thrilling, colourful grand opera of the personalities, the history, the politics, the lovers and the feuds. Hence when a landmark such as The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, about 20th-century music, manages with such genial eloquence to hold in balance the sounds and their surrounds, texts and contexts, readers pounce on it with glee.

As the Proms unroll, listeners and viewers drawn into its aural whirlwinds will find that a chamber-sized group of new books may help them find their musical bearings. Less of a connoisseur's handbook than the Gramophone or Penguin guides to recordings, the Rough Guide offers secure and friendly entry-level synopses of composers, works and performances from Hildegard of Bingen (born 1098) to Thomas Adès (born 1971). This is, in the best sense, music for the consumer: the whole range of flavours laid out with pithily exact labels in a gleaming superstore of sound.

For music from the opposite side of the hall, or the speaker, listen for once to the producer's voice. In her previous books, Susan Tomes – pianist with the Florestan Trio and founder of the Domus ensemble – proved a worthy, but more accessible, successor to Alfred Brendel and Charles Rosen as a distinguished performer who writes with penetration, fluency and charm. Among instrumentalists, can only pianists write well – just as, in football teams, only goalkeepers ever seem to think? Less gnomic than Brendel, less professorial than Rosen, Tomes has the unique gift of answering questions about the musical life that every other literary register seems to overlook. A supreme chamber performer, she writes with all the qualities of her chosen field: intimate, exact, conversational; a style of mutual respect.

Out of Silence offers "a pianist's yearbook" of brief essays and reflections on music and the private or public world of its makers. She and her colleagues swing or trudge from date to date, session to session: Bilbao to Chicago, Antwerp to Bath, Stockholm to Vienna. Throughout, Tomes never loses sight of the craft and graft that underpins her gift and her routine.

For her, "The physical skill is paramount". From the way that "my hands felt stupid" in a Saint-Saens trio to the "compassionate spatial geometry" of playing Chopin or Ravel; from the strain of preparation to the "slightly deranged" post-concert come-down, these pieces explain pianism as a fully embodied skill with a warmth and shrewdness that shelves of theory will never match. Yet they reveal just as much about the micro-sociology of music: the tendency to wonder "if we have the right" to a career shared by first-generation professionals; the lack of any mystic "frisson of rapport" among chamber players when the music stops, or the confusion of posh patrons over the status of the hired band. Are they "gods or tradesmen"?

Open this insightful and delightful book on any page, and learn with pleasure: about how the hi-tech bricolage of the recording studio edits out human mistakes to deliver "a more Olympian group than ours", or the joys and woes of a calling where your best work, always live, vanishes into thin air, and you enter schools or other "outreach" venues knowing that "the kind of music we play has no instant cachet for today's youngsters". If Tomes can make more of a difference to that plight than almost anyone, that is because she crafts her words with the same exquisite care as her music. She never shows off; she never talks down.

As part of her strategy to entrance the lay reader, she also never directly quotes a score. Notation is to music writing as equations are to science: a fast-track route to exposition that has one huge drawback. You will leave many readers behind in the dust. Charles Rosen, guru and godfather of modern musical analysis, has no such qualms. He speaks, as always, to a public undeterred by a book in which extracts from the scores under discussion may occupy much of a chapter. So a study such as his latest, Music and Sentiment, will after its first two sentences leap straight into a page-long quotation from the finale of Beethoven's Emperor concerto.

This is not gentle "outreach". Yet, paradoxically, Rosen's argument here turns on the broad accessibility of the emotional language of music – especially after the sonic breakthroughs of Haydn and Mozart – to listeners who only need a "reasonable familiarity" with its styles. Feeling in music depends on no "esoteric code" only experts may crack, but a set of conventions any attentive listener can learn to hear. However strong and subtle, the mood-shifts in a Mozart quintet, a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin nocturne stem from a melodic and harmonic language that grew in evolutionary steps. Emotion, Rosen admits, can be summoned up by a sort of crude mimicry, as when we learn from silent-movie accompanists that "a tremelo on a diminished seventh chord will signify approaching villainy".

For the most part, though, music that matters will build its own grammar of feeling. Mozart's G major quartet K.387 from 1782 may run a gamut of emotion, "but trying to put verbal names to the multiplicity of affective changes would be absurd". Although he has a chapter on the "C minor style", Rosen doesn't claim – in the manner of old-style writers on the links between keys and feelings – that C minor creates any special mood. I can't quite imagine the austere Rosen ever watching This is Spinal Tap. If he did, he would surely chuckle at Nigel Tufnel's firm belief that "D minor is the saddest key of all". His book gives us subtler ways to feel the noise.

One popular, one patrician, Tomes and Rosen both stay close to the notes and find a unique narrative – what Tomes calls a "journey" and "catharsis" - at work in the score. Most pop-classic books choose an easier route, opting to tell contextual tales of heroes and villains, adventures and antipathies. Canny writers can do both at once, for instance by placing a single work within a frame of cultural reference wider than in a scholarly monograph on a symphony or an opera.

Because of the pivotal role of the "album" as a unity, several fine examples come from beyond the classical mainstream. Now in paperback, Richard Williams's The Blue Moment - about the conditions that bred the revolutionary sound-world of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue in 1959, and the long shadows it cast – shows how to do this with aplomb. Williams finds Davis and co's eerie modal minimalism – equally close to, and far from, Bartok and bebop – to be "a rare example of human perfection". Not everyone agreed. Kingsley Amis, trad jazz purist incarnate, said of Davis: "I heard the future, and it sounded horrible".

Until the later 19th century, many critics thought just the same about Beethoven's Ninth. Even contemporary admirers of the Choral Symphony quailed at the prospect of pursuing it into the clouds of transcendental glory that opened up before the deaf titan in his final years. In The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, writer-conductor Harvey Sachs registers the huge shock achieved by a composer who by that stage had his "big-calibre artillery aimed at the future".

Times to come would marvel at the fireburst. To Richard Wagner, in some ways a walking footnote to the Ninth, the symphony was no less than "the human gospel of the art of the future". But to much of the Viennese music scene in 1824, a rabble of rivalrous hacks, crooked impresarios, cloth-eared aristos and score-murdering scrapers and warblers, the wild old eccentric had just committed an unholy din. Sachs paints in all the local colour but also broadens the artistic backdrop. So the Ninth takes its European place as "a paradigm of both freedom and joy", framed by the icons of Romantic rebellion in the stifled decade after reactionary Europe saw off Napoleon: Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Heine, Stendhal. All this wide-screen cultural history, though stirring enough, strays far indeed from the music.

Although he insists that "To me, music... resists verbal description", in the end Sachs just has to bite the baton. Thus, on page 133, begins a virtuoso 30-page account of what happens in the Ninth from first bar to last. And very impressive it is too: light on technical terms beyond those strictly necessary, and free of figurative flights of fancy – though he does note that Toscanani inscribed his score, at the end of first movement, with Dante's lines about the gates of hell. Sachs's language enriches a lay listener's grasp without evaporating into fantasy or stumbling into mechanics.

For our age, by common consent, Mahler has supplanted Beethoven as the multi-purpose maestro who writes music that "encompasses everything" (as he said to Sibelius about the ideal symphony). Drawing on a lifetime's love and knowledge, Norman Lebrecht champions his favourite's cause again in the barnstormingly readable – and often howlingly opinionated - Why Mahler? More of a treat for the new fan rather than the deep buff, his book begins with a myth-busting FAQ section, gallops into a breathless but riveting present-tense account of the biography and, prior to a slightly mystical coda, packs in a lively and learned 50-page essay on recorded Mahler.

Multiply voiced, the book's format almost echoes the format of a symphony by the master Lebrecht treats not as a plaster saint but "a practical guide to living a creative life" - that kitchen sink-and-all pluralism where pub polka may crash into marching band as monastery plainchant vies with salon waltz. And as for Bernstein's London Eighth? "Ragged, dim-lit" on disc. Ah, but you should have heard us live.

Words for music

The Rough Guide to Classical Music

edited by Joe Staines (Rough Guides, £18.99, 674pp)

Out of Silence

by Susan Tomes (Boydell Press, £19.99, 276pp)

Music and Sentiment

by Charles Rosen (Yale, £16.99, 146pp)

The Blue Moment

by Richard Williams (Faber, £9.99, 311pp)

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

by Harvey Sachs (Faber, £12.99, 225pp)

Why Mahler?

by Norman Lebrecht (Faber, £16.99, 362pp)

All available at a discount from The Independent Bookshop, 08430 600 030

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