Books for Christmas


Here's a cosy Christmassy thought. Why not snuggle up with a good book after all the festivities are done for the day and delve into all the medical issues assailing history's greatest composers?
That Jealous Demon, my Wretched Health is the title of Jonathan Noble's exploration of these composers' diseases and deaths, and makes for a fascinating read (Boydell Press). Noble, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, arranges his material in terms of whichever malady, and no bars are held in his diagnoses as he turns to each composer who succumbed. I'm more comfortable with the approach of John O'Shea, who in his Music and Medicine of some years ago discusses each composer in a separate chapter devoted to each one (Dent).
A cosier read might be John Suchet's biography of Tchaikovsky, the latest in his Classic FM "The Man Revealed" series published by Elliott and Thompson. Like the newsreader's and Classica FM's presenter's preceding offerings on Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi, this book is meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated,and indeed comes up with some insights which even those of us who thought we knew all about the subject find illuminating and, let it be said, revealing.
Closer to home are a couple of books about Sir Granville Bantock, the polymath musician who played such an important role in the history of music in Birmingham during the first third of the 20th century. He was Principal of the Birmingham School of Music (now, of course, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), and succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham (conveniently, in those days the establishments were virtually adjacent).
The musical politics of those vibrant years are tellingly detailed in Granville Bantock's Letters to William Wallace and Ernest Newman, 1993 - 1921 -- 'Our New Dawn of Modern Music'". William Wallace was a composer colleague of Bantock's, while Newman was someone with no musical qualifications who achieved the position of music critic to the Birmingham Post and later, famously, to the Sunday Times (we remember how George Bernard Shaw blagged himself to similar eminence with other publications a generation earlier).
Michael Allis is the editor of this fascinating and well-produced Boydell publication, and even just opening the book at random one finds nuggets, such as a letter to Newman in which Bantock, squirmingly affects allusions to his beloved Middle East (Omar Khayyam was one his obsessions, resulting in a huge tripartite cantata).
One letter of March 8 1903, appended as from "The Harem, Strathfield", details the financial offer to Newman for his teaching hours at the Birmingham School of Music -- £300, no less, an eye-watering amount for anyone, never mind someone appointed to teach singing, with no qualifications at all in the handling of the voice, that most delicate of musical instruments. Those were different, unenlightened days. But unfortunately there are still unqualified music critics, even more nowadays, cluttering the internet.
Valuable though that book is, much more attractive is "Musical Wanderer, the later years of Granville Bantock", lovingly compiled by the composer's grandson Cuillin Bantock.
There are many personal reminiscences from family members here, as well as important resources from Bantock's copious diary entries. A cornucopia of chapter-headings make this a delight for dipping-into, and the illustrations -- among them a poster for a Melbourne performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion conducted by Melbourne -- add to the attraction.
Nothing directly musical here, but Edgar Vincent's A.E.Housman, Hero of the Hidden Life, illuminates greatly the troubled background of a poet who was both a brilliant classicist academic and tormented with a forbidden love.
This Boydell publication is an amazingly detailed, diligently researched account of Housman's life, and a quotation from his final weeks is particularly colourful:
"I have been nursing myself on soup, hot milk and brandy, and finally have come here where I receive great attention. I am fed on toast, chicken-broth, orange juice, champagne, breast of turkey, Brand's essence of chicken. I am very weak."
No, Housman was no musician. But the poetic material he gave to Vaughan Williams, George Butterwoth, Arthur Somervell, Colin Ross, Howard Skempton and so many others is invaluable.
Christopher Morley

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