The last 12 months have provided acclaimed debuts, notable anniversaries, tumultuous controversies, and a few goodbyes to both beloved artists and institutions. In between there were a number of wonderful essays and articles that deepened our understanding of these people, organizations and events.
Before the New Year rings in, here are our top 6—there is one tie—plus a few extra honorable mentions of our favorite written features about classical music from 2013.
1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013
Dickey investigates a movement in the late 1980s and early '90s to change standard pitch, lowering A above middle C to 432 Hz. Amongst the movement’s most vocal lobbyists was a group of famous opera singers, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Renata Tebaldi, who were trying to protect the limits of the human voice. However, in his research, DIckey uncovers conspiracy theories, misinformation, political movements, strange numerological beliefs and a virtual arms race among orchestras to have the brightest tone. A complete version of the article is available on Longform.org.
2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.
The author, who claims she was almost related to Van Cliburn, goes beyond the hagiographic details in her eulogy of the pianist who died this year at 78. She visits Kilgore, where Cliburn was born, and relays tales of how the six-year-old prodigy subbed in for his mother to play the organ at church events, his stint as a clarinetist in the high school marching band, and his love of black-eyed peas. Through these modest details, she finds eloquent connections between Cliburn’s upbringing and her own.
3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.
The always articulate Ross sets the standard for classical music criticism in the U.S., if not the world (one can’t think of another living critic whose work has inspired an independent music festival). In this piece, he begins with the discovery of Luranah Aldridge, a woman of mixed-race lineage, who sang at Bayreuth in 1898. He soon discovers her even more intriguing father, Ira, an African-American tragedian who became the toast of Europe. Ross’s exhaustive research reveals support that even Richard Wagner saw one of Ira Aldridge’s performances as Othello.
4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.
Though his byline normally appears in the Washington Post alongside his art and architecture reviews, Kennicott jumped over to the revamped New Republic to pen a piece looking at the decline of the symphony orchestra in the U.S. Among his points is the marginalization of the serious listener in between the aims to please young adventurous listeners and older, more conservative audiences.
5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.
“Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013
Much has been written about Benjamin Britten in his centenary year, including two books. The writers, Carey and Wood, respectively, both considered the new literature on Britten, as well as the composer himself, in this pair of incisive and beautifully written essays.
“Every Good Boy Does Fine” by Jeremy Denk, The New Yorker, April 8.
“The Epic Ups and Downs of Peter Gelb” by Chip Brown, The New York Times Magazine, March 24.
“The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” by Ellen McSweeney, New Music Box, April 21.
“The Frenzied Last-Act Effort to Save City Opera” by Michael Cooper and Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times, October 4.