Magazine article The Spectator

All to Play For

Magazine article The Spectator

All to Play For

Article excerpt

Music in 1853:

The Biography of a Year by Hugh Macdonald Boydell Press, £25, pp. 224, ISBN 9781843837183 Impressed by Alethea Hayter's A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965), which describes the close relations between Benjamin Haydon, the Carlyles and the Brownings in the summer of 1846, Hugh Macdonald has written a similarly 'horizontal' and highly readable biography of intersecting musicians in 1853.

His theme is the relations, not always close, between Brahms, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, Wagner and a host of lesser figures in that year. As he says, a number of other years would have qualified for such a microscope, but this particular one saw all these principals meeting at an unusually charged moment: the birth of a major argument between the adherents of the 'new' style of Liszt and Wagner as compared with the more traditional compositions of Brahms. It was one of those crossroads, often repeated in artistic life, when everyone seemed to be spoiling for a fight about points of principle, and were just waiting to be insulted. Wagner obliged them.

Horizontal history-writing like this has the benefit of enabling the outsider to watch quite a number of characters interact without having to tell their stories from beginning to end. A certain amount of knowledge has to be assumed, and Macdonald sketches in some information at the end, but essentially he drops in on these great musicians' lives more or less as they lived them, with time to highlight petty concerns and enjoy passing details.

One of these is that communications were being improved daily at that time, encouraging all these people to rush about Europe almost as much as we do today. By 1853 they had got used to a reliable postal service, but the advent of the railways further transformed their lives; and so we can follow Liszt, the kingpin in all the alliances under discussion, move ever faster around his empire as player, impresario, courtier, teacher, confidant and friend. …

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