Top 5 Classical Music Summer Reads

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

beach reading (flickr/aafromaa/)

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.



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Comments [8]

Linda from New York City

Complete agreement with Claire. Gardiner's Bach-Music in the Castle of Heaven, is a fantastic, informative and thought provoking read. Also, I'd like to include Alex Ross-The Rest is Noise. Marvelous book.

Jul. 21 2014 10:36 AM

@Barry, I'll try to find out whether the NYPL has that book. Interestingly, I heard some Rossini recently and said to myself -- "Aha! Sullivan was influenced by Rossini." DD~~

Jul. 18 2014 08:38 PM
Martha Cargo from Brooklyn, NY

Cage's "Silence." forever and always, amen.

Jul. 18 2014 05:05 PM
Wendy Limbertie from Toronto, Canada

You forgot a great Opera Fan Summer read!! ... a new book !

By Vivien Shotwell
Ballantine, $26.

Shotwell, herself both an opera singer and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has based this novel on the libretto-worthy life of the soprano Anna Storace (also known as Nancy), who is widely credited as Mozart’s muse during the composition of “The Marriage of Figaro.” As a child prodigy in London, Anna trains with the famed castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, making her Royal Opera House debut as Cupid at the age of 13. After moving to Italy, she learns opera’s mother tongue perfectly and performs first at La Scala and then in Venice. There she’s recruited by an Italian count to sing at the Burgtheater, the imperial opera house of Emperor Joseph II, who, as Shotwell deliciously describes him, “had to be kept rich in chocolate drops or he lost his optimism.”

The patron of Mozart and his rival, Antonio Salieri, the emperor also provides Anna with munificent support. Yet during her few years in his court, this English rose is nearly trampled by life’s vicissitudes: an out-of-wedlock pregnancy after an affair with a dashing basso, a disastrous marriage, the death of her baby and, temporarily, the loss of her voice. In Shotwell’s telling, Anna inspires Mozart’s passion as well as his creativity. During a private rehearsal for “Figaro,” she sings while the maestro demonstrates his command of the keyboard by simultaneously playing and feeling “her strong, perfect rump,” over which he bends to move in time with the aria while “conducting it upon her body,” never missing a note.

While Shotwell can play fast and loose with historical realities — “The bare facts are true,” she writes in a note at the end, “at least as far as we know” — she breathes life into an era when female vocalists overtook castrati as the soprano voices of opera. In depicting this world, “Vienna Nocturne” occasionally borders on the outrageous, but it’s a lusciously frothy confection served up mit Schlag.

Jul. 18 2014 10:44 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Please consider adding "Making The March King," John Philip Sousa's Washington Years 1854-1893 by Dr. Patrick Warfield and published by University of Illinois Press 2013. Dr. Warfield's scholarly and in-depth approach to Sousa's humble beginnings, playing in Offenbach's Centennial Orchestra, the influence of Gilbert & Sullivan, arranging and conducting theatre orchestras, appointment as leader of the US Marine Band which eventually lead to the formation of "Sousa's Band," makes for a fascinating read. One does not have to be a "band geek" to appreciate this labor of love and important read of a real American phenomenon.

Jul. 18 2014 06:10 AM

*Maybe the WQXR report should change "forward" to "foreword"?*

Thank you, DD~~

Jul. 18 2014 02:23 AM

I'm surprised John Eliot Gardiner's book—Bach - Music in the Castle of Heaven did not make the cut.

Jul. 17 2014 05:42 PM

Re "Lifting My Voice," Chicago Review Press has "Foreword by Kofi A. Annan."
Maybe the WQXR report should change "Forward" to "Foreword"? DD~~
(Yes, we do read what you post!)

Jul. 17 2014 01:43 AM

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