Published by
Top 5 @ 105

Top 5 Classical Music Summer Reads

Email a Friend

Before heading out to the beach or leaving for summer vacation, here are four new books and one e-book of interest to classical music and opera fans to take along for the trip.

1. Throughout her life, Jessye Norman made sure that she was heard both on the opera stage and off of it, which she describes in her recently published memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing! The book traces her childhood back to Jim Crow-era Augusta, Georgia, follows her decision to pursue a career in music rather than medicine leading to eventual triumphs at the world’s top opera houses. Along the way, Norman describes her ordeals with racism (hint: it’s still endemic in the classical music world), her feelings on singing both Wagner and Strauss, and her recent projects promoting African-American musical heritage.

2. Born three years after Jessye Norman in nearby Arkansas, Barbara Hendricks had an early career that mirrors her contemporary’s: both women developed a love of singing at church and practically stumbled into becoming a musician. Both women also left the U.S. early in their careers for success in Europe, but Hendricks stayed. Her memoir, Lifting My Voice, translated from French, recounts her singing career alongside her human rights work. Kofi Annan wrote the foreword to Barbara Hendricks’ new memoir, giving some scope to the singer’s of influence outside of classical music. She discusses her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. and the Barbara Hendricks Foundation for Peace and Conciliation, which she founded in 1996.

3. An eminent British composer reveals his inner thoughts to a respected classical music writer in Harrison Birtwistle—Wild Tracks: A Conversation Diary with Fiona Maddocks. Now celebrating his 80th birthday with festivities at the Barbican among several venues outside of the U.K., Sir Birtwistle talks candidly to The Guardian critic in wide-ranging interviews spanning his upbringing in Lancashire to his creative process. Maddocks' line of questioning meanders through the composer’s career, teasing out gems such as his affinity for moths, tea of choice, and his state of mind while writing his most famous works.

4. If Carl Van Vechten’s name doesn’t ring a bell among opera lovers, the events he attended and the company he kept will. Van Vechten was in the audience to watch the American premiere of Strauss’s Salome, and he was at the second ever performance of The Rite of Spring with Gertrude Stein (he was too late to purchase tickets to the premiere the previous day). In The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, author Edward White writes about Van Vechten’s rise as one of the most influential cultural arbiters of his age and his subsequent disgrace after publishing an unfortunately titled novel about the Harlem Renaissance that had a racial epithet in its name. He eventually reinvented himself as a photographer and found renewed success for his celebrity portraits.

5. The celebrated author Hari Kunzru chose a digital platform for his latest literary contribution, Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York. The e-book takes readers on a trek through the city streets guided by the influential underground composer Moondog (aka Louis Hardin, a blind street musician whose work was championed by Philip Glass and defended in court by Arturo Toscanini). Kunzru uses Moondog’s musical language, as well as visual cues from the author’s own explorations of New York to enhance his written words.