Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

A trio of interesting music books, two biographies and an autobiography, has recently appeared.

Henry Chorley, critic of the Athenaeum for 40 years, is best remembered as the author of Thirty Years' Musical Recollections. He loved Gluck, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Gounod and Sullivan, and detested Schumann, Verdi and, of course, Wagner. He was not afraid to express these opinions. However, they are not what make us want to read him today. Almost any work by a 19th-century composer is now beyond criticism, the media's appetite so ravenous, the number of new compositions so diminished. What is still valuable is his knowledgeable and unambiguously expressed assessment of singers.

When he writes of Patti's Valentina in Ugonotti, `Her physical powers were not equal to the calls upon the upper notes which she has to sustain, not merely touch', he confirms what we always felt. He is candid about Jenny Lind's Norma: `It was out of her sphere and beyond her strength.' He could also be enthusiastic. A trio with Grisi, Tamburini and Lablache from Rossini's Gazza Ladra he calls `the most perfect piece of dramatic concerted singing'. He praises young Charles Santley, `the best baritone and bass singer that has been in England since the memory of man'. He knew what he was talking about; 40 years later, records show Santley's tone faded, but his voice still superbly responsive. i

Chorley's private life was depressing. He never married and drank too much. Not content with his vocation, he always wanted to be something else - composer, novelist, dramatist - the grass being always greener on the other side. He is not as great a critic as Shaw, but put Shaw to one side and he need bow to nd one else. We are indebted to Bledsoe for bringing him to our attention.

It is a pity that Bledsoe makes several mistakes, notwithstanding his contributions to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. The role of Don Carlo in Ernani is for baritone not bass. 'Dio possente' and `Avant de quitter' are not 'retranslated' but translated from Chorley's original, `Even bravest heart'. And it was Henry Mapleson's father, the impresario 'Colonel' J. H. Mapleson (1830-1901), who wrote The Mapleson Memoirs.

Amy Biancolli, in Fritz Kreisler, communicates surely how much she loves his playing. She is herself a violinist and this gives her great depth of knowledge. She tells how Kreisler was the first to popularise the vibrato -- today so rare has it become we should appreciate just how much violinists owe him. It came in response to the popular music he wrote and was amused to attribute to then forgotten baroque and classical composers - how he loved telling tall stories! She speculates as to whether he was Jewish, considers his relationship with his horrible wife, devotes a chapter to his street accident, discusses violin technique, includes tributes by Stern, Szigeti, Milstein, Francescatti, Oistrakh, Menuhin, etc. More than a biography, it is an artistic assessment setting Kreisler in his time.

He was born in 1875 in Vienna, then the capital of Austro-Hungary, a polyglot empire that extended from the Alps to Turkey, with the Habsburgs sitting uncomfortably astride its many nationalities and religions. In the course of the 19th century its tentacles extended ever further into the Balkans, which had less to do with military might than the gradual disintegration of the Ottoman empire in Europe, and nature abhorring a vacuum.

Vienna's cultural effulgence helped to divert attention from the reactionary government and political repression. …

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