Apublishing equivalent of painting the Forth Road Bridge – except it must, eventually, come to an end – the volume-by-volume issue of Benjamin Britten’s letters began in 1991 and is still going strong, with no shortage of material. In two decades, the project has passed through changing editorial teams and publishers with the latest Letters from a Life: Vol 5 now coming from Boydell, editors Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke. And at £45 it isn’t cheap. But for anyone drawn to Britten and the world of English music he dominated in the mid-20th Century, this brick-like tome of 750 pages and painstaking annotation is not only a monument of scholarship but a page-turner. It covers 1958 to 1965 when Britten was basking in the unanticipated success of the War Requiem (which brought him the kind of stardom no “serious” living composer has managed to achieve since) and moving into new compositional territories with the first of his church parables, Curlew River.
Among other things, the letters document the dramatic about-turn in his approach to Curlew River, informing his librettist William Plomer (who had already written a first draft) that this was no longer to be a Buddhist narrative set in Japan but a Christian one set in East Anglia. But they’re equally fascinating on the background to the premieres of Noye’s Fludde, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the odd variety of projects that Britten considered but turned down at this time – not least, an offer from Robert Graves to collaborate with himself and Jerome Robbins on a musical about the Queen of Sheba (William Walton turned it down as well), and an approach from John Schlesinger to write the music for his film Far rom the Madding Crowd (a job that passed fortuitously to Richard Rodney Bennett).
Packed with insight, revelation, and examples of the less attractive aspects of Britten’s character, it takes you to 1965, with 11 years of Britten’s correspondence still to go – which means at least another volume, maybe two.
By comparison the single-volume edition of Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford, edited by Hugh Cobbe) doesn’t give so much away about the inner life of its subject, still less about his compositional process. But the new, revised paperback edition now out at £30 is still a good read – and welcome proof that although great artists rarely make great human beings, there are exceptions. Irresistibly, these letters glow with warmth, good-humour, selfless modesty and all the better aspects of a man of principle. A benign agnostic, he writes in stalwart defence of the Authorised version of the Bible. A patrician figure, steeped in the English establishment, he nonetheless chastises the BBC for its treatment of the Communist composer Alan Bush and stands up for the conscientious objector Michael Tippett, arguing that, although he disagrees with the views of such people, he respects their right to hold them. And giving the lie to the myths about his unhelpfulness to the young Britten, he writes time and again commending Britten’s music to potential patrons and performers.
Generally the letters here come as they are: footnotes are sparing. But the editor supplies a thoughtful preface to each period of composition. And he had his work cut out not only in deciphering VW’s notoriously illegible hand but in attributing dates to correspondence that generally has none. VW was far too lacking selfimportance to assume that any of it would one day be considered worth collecting and collating.
The post-mortem reputation of American composer Samuel Barber, famous for his ubiquitous Adagio but otherwise dismissed as a conservative clinging to the musical language of the past, hasn’t been conspicuously improved by this, his centenary year. Commemorative events have been too few. But Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute (University of Rochester Press, £25, edited by Peter Dickinson) has been one worthwhile product; and it certainly makes a more approachable introduction to the man and his music than the standard, stodgy biography by academic Barbara B Heyman. Dickinson has indeed been an academic, but he’s also a composer, performer, broadcaster and all-round communicator. He knows how to present material attractively; and the material here is largely based on archive radio interviews with composer-colleagues like Aaron Copland, performers like Leontyne Price and a host of others. There’s an understandably touching reminiscence from Barber’s longterm lover Gian Carlo Menotti. And there’s first-person material from Barber himself.
But no less telling is a preface by the composer John Corigliano who argues that death can be advantageous to composers labelled conservative in their lifetime. Lifetime evaluation, he says, is too often a political statement that values radicalism above quality. It’s only after death that you’re out of that race and freed from the “if new then good” approach to art. This reads like wishful thinking on the part of another non-radical composer, and I’m not sure that Barber’s experience to date entirely bears it out. But we can only hope. And, in any event, it’s a diverting idea that might easily have found its way into Philosophers on Music: Experience, Meaning and Work (editor Kathleen Stock, Oxford, £19.99).
A collection of essays that presup pose some kind of grounding in philosophy but are nonetheless accessible to general readers, this book addresses such practical issues as: how do you decide when a piece of music, open to revision, re-orchestration or adaptation, is “finished”? What does it mean to “do justice” to a score? Is technical achievement necessary to performance or can the same result be reached by easier, perhaps computerised, means? Can music truly represent emotions? Answers on a postcard, please.
Stephen Sondheim would, I’m sure, be interested in the these questions; and, as the greatest living composer for the stage (a statement I dare to advance as axiomatic) who has elevated the demotic art of Broadway musicals to something that can hold its own alongside Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, his response would count for something.
As are his responses to the questions he asks himself in Finishing the Hat (Virgin Books, £30), an illustrated compendium of Sondheim lyrics (which are worth having in their own right) that comes with what the cover calls “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes”. In other words, it’s a sort of vade mecum written by its own subject. And as someone with unsparingly clear-headed self-perception, Sondheim is as good a guide to himself as you’ll find.
The book has coffee-table format but in monochrome, to let you know it’s serious. And apart from its fasci nation as commentary on how the classic numbers of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and his other works either sprang fearlessly or crept agonisingly into existence, it includes essays on the theory behind the practice of writing lyrics – which Sondheim delivers with the clarity of someone who has actually taught this subject to students. Not least, at Oxford.
As he admits upfront, a book about lyrics is a contradiction in terms: they’re not meant to be read but sung; and unlike poetry they are necessarily incomplete without the music they’re attached to. Which is one reason why this isn’t a business for true poets. As Sondheim puts it, when a “poet” condescends to write a musical, it’s like a royal visit: the presence of the writer is announced rather than absorbed. And announcement isn’t the game.
There’s an element of disingenuity in these observations, coming as they do from the most dazzlingly brilliant manipulator of language you could think of.
But for any Sondheim devotee (and I count myself among that number) they make essential reading: strangely thrown together in what isn’t the most satisfactorily organised of books, and only the first of what is intended to be two volumes, but nonetheless 400-odd pages of large-format pleasure.
The Sondheim book would neatly fill a stocking by itself, but if you still have room, consider Beethoven’s Chamber Music in Context (Angus Watson, Boydell Press, £45) which sounds dull but is in fact a commendably readable guide that does exactly what it claims, examining a great body of work – score by score – in terms of what was happening around it, with just the right mix of authority, scholarship and anecdotal colour.
Film Music: a Very Short Introduction (Kathryn Kalinak, Oxford £7.99) packs a lot into a pocket format and favours theory over history, but has interesting things to say about how music works in film, and how it qualifies the narrative much as adjectives qualify nouns.
And Classic Ephemera: A Musical Miscellany (Elliott & Thompson, £9.99) is the ultimate stocking-filler: a Classic FM book of entertaining, sometimes silly but occasionally illuminating trivia clearly destined for the nation’s loo-collections. Its love of lists – 10 greatest symphonies, 10 great concertos – should be taken with a pinch of salt. But if you want to know which composers share the same birthday or said the rudest things about Wagner, this will meet your need.
And though the tone is celebratory, the best quotes tend to be entirely otherwise. “Music helps not the toothache,” said George Herbert, pointing out the limitations of great art. And, no doubt, it was said with feeling.