Classicalite's Five Best: Books on Music

By James Inverne on Oct 22, 2013 06:38 PM EDT

How to pluck just five books from libraries and libraries of writing about music? Just close your eyes, and decide which seem obvious.

These Five Best seem obvious, to me...

Tito Gobbi, My Life

It should be no surprise that this is so well-written as to be unputdownable. Gobbi, the most expressive of Italian baritones--perhaps the finest vocal actor of his age, gender and genre and the only one who could stand toe-to-toe with Maria Callas, matching her scene for scene--would surely deliver no less. And besides, he didn't write it. The ghostwriter was Ida Cook, better known as Mills & Boon favorite Mary Burchell. She was a Gobbi fan and an opera lover (small wonder so many operas found their way into her romance novels), and she spent much of her money rescuing Jews from the Nazis. So, Gobbi's story--combining as it did opera, a sense of romance, a healthy dose of anti-Nazi sentiment and, well, Gobbi--would have appealed. But Gobbi's own voice does come across powerfully. It's a brilliant piece of work and an engrossing read.

Charles Osborne (ed.), Letters of Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was a composer seized by powerful emotions. He felt intensely and with laser-like concentration the matter at hand, whether the politics of Italian unification (or post-unification frustrations), perceived social slights, the theatricality he intended to bring to opera and the strengths (or shortcomings) of his collaborators. And, as always, there's the heavy hand of history and the piercing, expectant gaze of composers of years past--Rossini, Palestrina--which make his letters a tremendously entertaining read. They bring the Verdi years to vibrant life. I especially like Charles Osborne's edition, but the letters themselves are the thing.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-81) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

Leave it to Sondheim not to write an autobiography, but to publish a collection of lyrics from roughly the first half of his career (swiftly followed by its sequel, Look, I Made a Hat), interspersed with notes that are as drenched in anecdotal and observational detail as the greatest autobiographies--as tightly-composed and inspired as the lyrics they accompany. Nobody who has the slightest interest in the development of the musical should leave this off his or her reading list.

Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography

This, when it came along in the 1990s, was the Britten bog we'd all been waiting for. Carpenter takes a painstakingly sophisticated view of one of the more complex characters among the great composers, and one close to our own age in many ways (not least, sadly) with his obsession for young boys--though this appears to have been non-sexual, as much to do with a need for family as anything. Maybe. The detailing of Britten's relationship with Imogen Holst is a treasure, as is so much else in this book, while Carpenter's analysis of the operas will get you thinking and arguing for days.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Among classical music books, this one is our "Hey, Jude"--in that it was suddenly everywhere, and it's everywhere because it's brilliant. Did it make Alex Ross, the perceptive music critic of The New Yorker, the Paul McCartney of reviewers? Kind of. It certainly positioned him as, arguably, the single most influential critic in classical music, with very few (but some) rivals. And it did that because of what Ross achieved in the book--to relate 20th century "classical" music to real life, to human nature (some of his stories about warring composers are hilarious, while the young Pierre Boulez comes across as thoroughly unpleasant) and to other music genres. He makes the reader understand a vital truth: It's only when we realize that music is not only alive--but part of our lives, and why, and how--that it can assume its true power.

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TagsClassicalite's Five Best, Tito Gobbi, Ida Cook, Mary Burchell, Verdi, Charles Osborne, Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, Humphrey Carpenter, Britten, Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, Boulez

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