Category Archives: Books

Mozart PETER GAY

Mozart PETER GAY

Reviewed by Stuart Hille

Weidenfeld & Nicolson ­ ‘Lives’ series

RRP: $29.95

 

For the Mozart dilettante, the seriously curious or even the knowledgeable academic, this book by Peter Gay has a considerable amount to offer. Its approach is one of historical analysis and not of musical resolution. One suspects that the author avoided the latter for several reasons.

Foremost of these, is that the nature of this series of books is one of narrative with well researched detail, in a style that is flowing and enjoyably readable. This particular book is around the length of a small novel and for those who have a reasonable amount of information, be it from study, concerts, discs, programme notes or wherever, it reads as if it was a novel.

Apart from the fact that every detail given in the book is entirely accurate and extrapolations or interpretations well considered and worthy of careful attention, the life of Mozart with all its colour, dramas, intrigues and tragedy could easily be read as an engrossing account of some fictitious eighteenth century genius.

While we can imbibe the details of this musical sorcerer – producing three of the greatest symphonic works within the space of six weeks, writing overtures to operas on the eve of the first performance, committing works to memory upon one hearing and so many other feats, let alone writing some of the finest music of the entire repertoire – we cannot fully rationalise such extraordinary ability. Even given the fact that there are many hyperboles and mild fabrications in the earliest biographies, nearly all the information we have is authentic, even when our cogent minds would deem it to be the stuff of fantasy

Peter Gay’s authoritative account certainly dispels any such whimsy. The careful bioliographical annotations show thorough research and this information is used with skill and clarity in providing a convincing, albeit particular, historical interpretation. But this is not to suggest it does not contain some minor flaws.

These certainly do not apply to the factual information, which is impeccable, but more to the writing style and the lack of accent on Mozart’s mother (her subconscious influence on her astonishing son was quite profound).

Generally, the book flows beautifully, but there are occasional weaknesses – the over-abundance of superlatives in the first chapter, for example, not only leaves one wondering how much more resourcefulness or invention the author can maintain but also creates a diffident feeling from the outset as to the objectivity of the study.

Fortunately, as the book progresses, the colourful acclamations recede as the narrative and analysis become foremost. After all, we all know of the intellectual power, structural finesse and beauty of Mozart’s writing, whereas intelligent and insightful readings of his life are far less common than the Everest of glowing adjectives used to describe his music.

It is the penetrating conclusions, not the eulogising, that one takes from this book.

One of the crysallisations (there are far too many to detail in a short critique) that was especially interesting was an observation of the composer’s growing depression towards the end of his life. His paranoia has been fairly well established: Constanze having an affair with Sussmayer, one of his two surviving children being illegitimate, his general distrust of those around him – but it never occurred to this reviewer that Mozart suffered from bouts of true clinical depression.

Yet, the creativity never left him. Maybe this was a defence or perhaps an integration of opposites but whatever the case, Mozart continued to compose at his normal pace – though perhaps somewhat more frenetically – right up to the last couple of weeks of his life.

Depression can of course exacerbate any disease. However, if the ultimate cause of Mozart’s death was as a result of earlier experiences and recurrent turns of rheumatic fever, as the author states, then the cardiac and renal damage would have been beyond repair. General poor health, a depressive and paranoic state of mind and ritualistic phlebotomies would only have made the descent more rapid.

A useful tip for readers of this study and any other fine Mozart biographies is to read them in conjunction with the letters. These can be obtained through almost any public library.




Eileen Joyce: A Portrait by Richard Davis

Fremantle Arts Centre Press

$29-95 264pp

 

Reviewed by Stuart Hille

 

Eileen Joyce

Eileen Joyce

 

 

One of the difficulties experienced when reading a biography is that we know the general outline of the subject’s life before the first page has been perused. For the biographer, the task is relatively straightforward – data collection and interpretation with a soupcon of anecdotes. The challenge is to combine all this given material in a way and at a pace that maintains the reader’s interest.

To Richard Davis’ credit, his biography ‘Eileen Joyce: A Portrait’ achieves just that. His style is fluid and trim , his analyses elucidate the material and he carefully avoids that uncomfortable sense of turbidity that imbues so many biographies ( generally when the author has a hidden agenda ). This book is indeed well – toned and attentively metered.

However, it can’t avoid what appears to be the inevitable lull experienced in all biographies. This occurs when the subject’s life goes through a period of stability or regularity ( in Joyce’s case : 1937 – 1946 ). It is here that the writer becomes ineluctably caught up in the mundane routine of the referent.

Obviously Davis can’t ignore the fact that Joyce’s artistic life, due to the travel restrictions imposed by WWII, was forced into a time of fixity. Being a compulsive worker, she relished the hectic pace of performing in hospitals, studios and all manner of concert venues throughout the UK and such stalwartness appears to have endeared her to the public and press while simultaneously turning her name into an eminently marketable commodity. But this does not afford a great deal of riveting biographical reading.

One appreciates the author’s impasse but perhaps this could have been alleviated somewhat if he had chosen a less inventorial approach. The reader can all but guess which of the ‘heroic’ concerti would be featured at a specific concert or which of the litany of cloyingly titled (and sounding ) pieces would jostle for face-room in a solo recital. Nowadays, one cringes with embarrassment at the very mention of naming a piece ‘Lotus Land’, ‘Rustle of Spring’, ‘Si Oiseau J’etais’ et al.

While the public life of the pianist had become repetitious, her private existence was anything but monotone. Her marriage to Douglas Barratt, despite the birth of a son (John), quickly deteriorated – assuming that there had been at least a modicum of feeling to begin with.

Douglas died under enemy fire while serving aboard the HMS Gossamer in 1942. On his final shore leave, Joyce made sure that her husband came home to an empty house – depriving him of the chance to see his son for what would have been the last time. It was an Eileen Joyce trait, as we shall later see, to show overt bitterness towards those who most piqued her.

It wasn’t long before she was again ploughing through her established performing schedule with admirable determination. Privately, she had met the entrepreneur Christopher Mann. By accounts, it was more than mutual infatuation for the two, according to Mann , some three years later, were married in 1943. Despite the fact that they lived together as husband and wife for thirty seven years, it has been questioned whether they did so in true conjugality. Davis puts it nicely: ‘The benefits of their union were great to both parties but, if they were not legally married, the ‘illegality’ added another skein to the web of subterfuge and more weight to Eileen’s baggage of lies’.

Her mendacity has become quite legendary in its breadth and confusing in its mission. She must have been gormlessly naive if she didn’t realise that her deceit would be unearthed before her death. Perhaps she neurotically believed that her lies created an artistic mystique. Whatever the case, it would have been difficult, as she grew increasingly senile, to remember why those around her were, let us say, celebrating a milestone birthday or how she came to be born in a tent in remote Western Australia when in fact she as born in a hospital in Tasmania.

One wonders whether Christopher Mann helped to forge and promulgate some of the later falsities and exaggerations. Being a highly successful agent and promoter, he certainly had the right pedigree. Moreover, like his wife – perhaps even more so – he could show rancour and induration. As a case in point, Mann’s treatment of his stepson, applied with the full collusion of his wife, could have been lifted from the darkest of Dickensian novels.

Davis deals with the subject towards the end of his book although, it is to be assumed, he can do little more than to touch upon its issues. Unless John Barrett decides to publish an expose, for cathartic purposes, we will never know the full extent of the psychological abuse. Equally so, we are left with inconclusive justification for Joyce’s persistent lies. There is, however, one incontrovertible reality that threads her attitude towards others although, given her profession, this in itself forms yet another ambiguity.

We need go no further than what is evinced by her playing (the book is accompanied by a disc of selected performances ) because there can be no duplicity or dissemblance here. One becomes somewhat awed by her craftsmanship: dynamics that span degrees from ‘the point of sound’ through to powerful fortissimi, phenomenal dexterity and an excellent adaptation of style – all demonstrated within a carefully measured framework. Yet the more one listens, the more one perceives a low emotional temperature. There are passages of grace and subtlety but not sincere poignancy; nimble but not Delphic; pyrotechnic but not full-blooded or rapturous. Her style forms the most elegant of hedgerows but it doesn’t allow us to see the garden just beyond. Or perhaps we really do not want to see it.

Here is a woman who adored haute couture, relished film roles, gave her audiences everything they asked for (in the true spirit of Edna Everage), practised with incredible sedulity and yet could spurn the love offered by her family, could be condescending in her treatment of the general public, coveted honours and was prone to create an intangible persona through deception. Ironically, she developed an altruistic facet later in life as we know well from her generous donations to the University of Western Australia’s music department. Such apparent philanthropy would not seem to have been motivated by any sense of penitence but rather from a realisation that, with her life drawing to a close, she needed to leave a meaningful legacy. This she achieved.

Richard Davis, with complete objectivity, follows all the convolutions of his subject to create a fascinating biography. He offers the occasional explanation or interpretation to allow the reader to pause and reflect. However, one aspect of the book, evident from the earliest chapters, is its lack of reference to any episodes of levity or humour in Joyce’s life. One conjectures there was very little comedy in the way it was lived.

© Stuart Hille 2004



Beethoven’s Hair by Russell Martin

Bloomsbury Press

 

   Reviewed by Stuart Hille

Unfortunately, any critique of Russell Martin’s book ‘Beethoven’s Hair’ is going to be necessarily landlocked to avoid letting slip too much of the narrative (which, at times, has all the sinuosity of a Shakespearean historical drama) or of the forensic gravity that finally disentwines the secrets of a lock of hair.

This is not to imply that the book does not have some structural handicaps. One of these is a preponderance of condensed historical detail which certainly highlights the author’s thorough research and his enthusiasm to relay his findings but the amount of information – the sort of detail that causes one to skip back pages to revise names and dates etc – works against the book’s premise of offering its story in the form of an engrossing mystery novel ( hence no bibliography or index ).

Nevertheless, it should be said that while, in a sense, a factual story writes itself, this particular material would have been left untold until the investigation of an author of exceptionally adroit research skills, perseverance and detective’s nose for a good tale had buffed away at its secrets. But before we engage in critical analysis, it is important to outline the plot and general development.

Shortly before his death, Beethoven became reacquainted with Johann Hummel, a long -standing friend and rival. Hummel, then living in Weimar, had received reliable word of the composer’s declining health and fast-approaching hour. With him, on the trip to Vienna, Hummel brought a gifted fifteen year old student and Beethoven aficionado: Ferdinand Hiller. The student took down detailed notes of the three meetings with the master, then on March 27th 1827 ( the day after the composer’s death ) he snipped a lock of Beethoven’s hair. Obviously he did so with a tight grip because several strands were still attached to their follicles ( or what would be described, more than one and a half centuries later, as being analysable DNA material ).

While most of us would view such a practice as being acceptable though somewhat maudlin, in Beethoven’s time it was rife to the point of being gruesome. An image of the composer, his face already sunken and distorted by autopsy ( including the removal of various small bones ), and with hair ragged through repeated ‘memento’ taking, is disturbingly grisly. But this is where, for the most part, Martin’s account begins.

The braid, totalling 582 strands, was carefully documented, mounted and sealed. It was passed down through Hiller’s family ( each of whom is painstakingly introduced to the reader ), finds its way, during the horrors of the Nazi persecution, to enemy occupied Denmark where, somehow, it becomes the property of Dr Kay Fremming.

In turn, the lock was passed onto Fremming’s daughter, auctioned at Sotheby’s and bought for the comprehensive cost of $7,300 by two American devotees: Che Guevara (not the real one) and Ira Brilliant. This then, is the barest outline – the full story goes into far more detail and shows far more shadowy intrigue.

The curl was subdivided and a portion consigned for forensic testing. At the time of the book’s publication, two tests had been undertaken: radio-immuno assay in 1996 and dispersion spectrometry in 1998. Since the printing, it has been subjected to non-destructive synchrotron X-ray in September 2000 (which confirmed the findings of the second test) and comparative hair/bone testing (these results, as yet, have not been revealed). The consequence of all of this rigorous scientific fossicking, with each test adding a little more to the puzzle, has been the continual corroboration of the first two tests – particularly the second.

You will need to read the results in Martin’s book and will probably feel quite overawed by the thoroughness of the probing. One conclusion that can be stated in this critique is done so because it might dispel a belief long-held by several readers. Beethoven did not die as a result of tertiary syphilis: a disease was prevalent well before, during and well after his life time. It was treated by compounds of mercury (and this was prescribed even into the 1900s if earlier treatment of salvarsan had failed ). No traces of mercury were found in Beethoven’s hair but what was found could not even be guessed at before testing began.

Medicine, quite rightly, seeks to establish and mark as golden the principle that entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied (Occam’s razor) so one can easily imagine the jubilation – the triumphal throwing of surgical gloves into the air – when one test result yielded a very convincing and simple explanation for not only his death but also for his
on- going rheumatic fevers, diarrhoea, hideous abdominal cramps, kidney stones, oedema, gouts, personality changes, eye pains, abscesses and, incredibly, his deafness.

As initially mentioned, as with the forensic testing, it would be churlish to reveal the full complexities of the owners and whereabouts of the braid from 1827 to 1994. Martin tries to do this but, as we begin to find quite early into the book, it means sacrificing short, clear sentences for those that are long, convoluted and plethoric with information.
To put it differently, there is too much historical data and interpretation to be covered by just one volume. And even then one questions whether a great many people are interesting enough to warrant discussion beyond a footnote or confined to an appendix. Ferdinand Hiller seems to emerge as the most noteworthy because of his famous acquaintances but even here the book’s raison d’être takes on little more than a minor connective role.

Martin creatively palliates the weightiness by interspersing each section (of which there are six) with chapters of interesting details from the composer’s life. This technique generates a type of subplot – obviously related to the main discourse but in a different historical context. It is akin to flashbacks within the ongoing development of a
whodunit so the approach is certainly not new as such but, regrettably, rarely used in the presentation ( for mass circulation ) of archival research.

Overall, ‘Beethoven’s Hair’ is a warmly welcomed addition to the repertoire. It is a superb introduction to the process of investigative diagnosis and is an excellent overview of modern forensic procedure. The size of the website that it has generated is already quite astounding and this would suggest that while new musicological appraisals provide interest and, occasionally, precipitate reconsideration, the information contained in this book, which seems to have come in an unguarded moment, is a true Indian summer for all Beethoven scholars and votaries alike.

© Stuart Hille 2004.


West Australian Symphony Orchestra: Celebrating 75 Years by Marcia Harrison

Australian Symphony Orch- Celebrating 75 Years

Australian Symphony Orch- Celebrating 75 Years

reviewed by Neville Cohn

WASO Holdings Pty Ltd


rrp $49-95 plus $8 postage and packing


telephone (08) 9326 0011 or e-mail waso@waso.com.au

Although, compared to earlier times, Western Australia’s music flagship currently sails in relatively tranquil waters, this was far from the case when what was to become the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was first launched. Over three-quarters of a century, this was a craft that, particularly in early days, almost foundered in turbulent weather, might well have been withdrawn from Service – even scuppered – by those of little faith who held the purse strings. It survived a near-mutiny by crew intensely dissatisfied with its captain/conductor, weathering these and other squalls and sails today with a ship’s company that is as dedicated and skilled as at any time in its eventful three-quarters of a century.

Marcia Harrison’s carefully researched chronicle of the WASO’s 75 years makes absorbing reading for the most part. Brimming with figures and facts about an orchestra at work and play, it abounds in photographs that will take many an older musician or concertgoer on a journey down memory lane. And younger readers will find abundant information about pioneering days when the WASO travelled often terrible roads to far-flung outposts of the state to bring good music to many who would otherwise have gone without the experience of live music.

This is a book that, while fastidiously marshalling the details of what was played by whom and where, focuses no less minutely on the extra-mural activities of those who made up the orchestra. Many a musician in early days had to resort to moonlighting to keep body and soul together. Tony Federici was a case in point. The WASO’s principal trombone, he was also a barber who made a specialty of cutting the hair of the children of his many WASO colleagues. He could, also, double on mandolin. Another versatile figure was violinist Paul Spittel who could, when needed, also turn his hand to clarinet – and play bassoon parts on bass clarinet. And long-time principal clarinet Jack Harrison was no less virtuosic on harmonica.

In the WASO’s earlier days, there were subscription series – sadly no longer ­ that were offered beyond the confines of Perth, such as in Albany. Especially in early days, the significance of the WASO to the state could hardly be exaggerated. It was not until 1962, for instance, that Perth concertgoers had their first chance to listen to an overseas orchestra, in this case the London Philharmonic.

Harrison’s chronicle provides a refreshingly warts-and-all survey of the many who guided the destiny of the WASO, their failings and foibles as carefully and entertainingly described as their more attractive attributes.

But in a book of this nature, it is for the most part impossible to do more than make passing mention of the pageant of characters who crowd its pages. Yet, many of these musicians, past and present, have professional and personal stories that are variously novel, tragic, inspirational and/or sensational. They deserve to be placed on the record – and this could well be fertile fare for a fascinating afterword for future editions of this splendid book.

© October 2003



The Magic Touch by Wallace Tate

The Magic Touch and DVD at AUS$67 – Digital Download

The Piano Magic Touch

reviewed by Neville Cohn

I must declare an interest: I have known the author Wallace Tate for twenty years – and Lionel Bowman has known me since my childhood. As a music critic in Cape Town, I often reviewed associate professor Bowman's recitals and concerto performances. And at the South African Broadcasting Corporation studios in Cape Town, I was music producer for many of Bowman's recitals being recorded for later transmission. This took place a good many years ago. Some time after settling in Perth, Australia in the early 1980s, I learned that Wallace Tate was working on a book about Bowman's idiosyncratic piano-teaching method. My initial reaction was one of scepticism. In many years of listening to, and writing about, music, I had come across many books relating to piano playing, most claiming foolproof solutions to technical problems in prose that ranged from the absurdly superficial to the impenetrable. As well, I had never encountered anyone who claimed a significant improvement in command of the keyboard as a result of resorting to any of these primers. Was Tate's book to be added to this dreary collection? I am happy to report that my reservations were groundless. To my astonishment – and gratification – I discovered as I read slowly and carefully through this remarkable tome, most of it while at the keyboard, that Tate had achieved what I had considered near-impossible: a compendium of useful, practical advice on solving a range of technical problems. Throughout, the language used is straightforward and unambiguous. In fact, the lucidity and cogency of the text puts Tate's work in a special category of excellence. It is the end-product of a years'- long study of Bowman's method. Its clarity and logic are as rare as they are significant. Methods – and books such as this – don't just fall from the sky. For Bowman, the route to keyboard control was no musical equivalent of some instantaneous Pauline conversion, some magical revelation from on high. Hardly. Bowman has been frank about the genesis and development of the teaching method that Tate has so admirably captured in print. Experiencing increasing physical discomfort at the keyboard – and finding nothing in his background that offered meaningful solutions to his dilemma – and needing to externalise his system for the benefit of his many students with their manifold problems, Bowman, through trial and error over years, gradually evolved a way of approaching the piano that resolved many of his own physical difficulties at the keyboard. These solutions brought him acclaim as an artist and gratitude and relief from innumerable students whose playing had been bedevilled by muscle tension and physical and emotional pain. It is Tate's great achievement that he recognised the significance of Bowman's approach to the piano (and that it might disappear with Bowman's retirement from teaching) – and captured its essence in this book. Let it be said clearly, though, that the method is no instant, all-embracing, panacea for success at the piano; such a utopian solution does not exist. Rather, in the most approachable of terms, it enables the serious teacher, student and professional to set about solving a range of otherwise intractable technical problems in a meaningful way. There is, incidentally, a video that comes with the book which provides a handy visual dimension to Tate's text. For copies of The Magic Touch and DVD digital download, head over to The Magic Touch Website.

 

 

© October 2003