by Andrew Barnett
Yale University Press
461 pages, photos & musical examples; $28.00 US (pb)

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS HAS just released some of its most interesting recent titles in low-priced paperbacks – among them The Oboe by Geoffrey Burgess and Canadian musicologist Bruce Haynes; John Worthen’s Robert Schumann; and this biography of Jean Sibelius by Andrew Barnett. After the revelatory performances of Sibelius’s magnificent symphonies by the Toronto Symphony under Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard in April, and their broadcast on CBC, this excellent study of his life and works is especially welcome.

Sibelius was a melodist in an age when composers like Arnold Schoenberg, who was born just nine years later, were seeking out new languages, sounds and techniques. Throughout his long life, Sibelius steadfastly resisted the influence of serialism and the avant-garde, so that by the time he died in 1957 he was decidedly out of fashion. But today composers enthusiastically celebrate his influence.

Barnett, chairman of the UK Sibelius Society, takes a detailed and critical look at the music, showing how Sibelius’s emotional life and personal experiences shaped his rugged lyricism. Barnett points out his “trademark” motifs like the descending fifth (right in the opening of the Violin Concerto), and the ‘S-motif’, like an elongated turn (heard throughout Finlandia). He offers insights into the myths and landscapes of Sibelius’s homeland, Finland, where the composer spent his whole life.

Though Barnett doesn’t offer much psychological insight into Sibelius’s debilitating insecurities, he documents Sibelius’s self-destructiveness. As Sibelius wrote in his diary, he needed to drink “in order to be able to live at all,” adding at a later date that “alcohol is the only friend that never lets one down.” Describing how Sibelius made a bonfire of his late work, including the eagerly-awaited eighth symphony, Barnett writes, “What he had in mind was a scorched earth policy with regard to many of his scores.” Barnett then quotes Sibelius’s long-suffering wife Aino, who commented, “Afterwards, my husband’s manner was calmer and his spirits were brighter. It was a happy time.”

The select bibliography and discography have not been updated since the original publication in 2007, and Winter Fire by William Trotter is still absent from the list of relevant fictional works. But Barnett paints a lively portrait of this complicated man, and provides the historical context for his work, which opened the way for Finland to become the musical powerhouse it is today.

lois_marshall_-_wholenote_resizeLois Marshall: A Biography
by James Neufeld
Dundurn Press
352 pages, photos; $28.99

When Canadian soprano Lois Marshall first showed up at Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera Group to sing Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, Caldwell took one look at her and blurted out, “This is wonderful. I’ve always wanted to have a Mimi who was really sick.” Caldwell was not known for tact. But her comment, as related in James Neufeld’s eloquent and moving biography of Marshall, suggests how much Marshall could have done in opera if more directors had been willing to work with her impairment.

Childhood polio left Marshall with a limp. But it certainly did not stop her from a busy career in recitals and oratorios, as a particular favourite of Ernest MacMillan, Beecham and Toscanini. Nor did it stop her from frequently touring Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union, where she was adored.

But Marshall’s disability did prevent her from having an operatic career. Neufeld presents her as not just a great singer, but a convincing actress as well, who could interpret an operatic role as convincingly as a Strauss lied or a Bach aria. Neufeld makes a convincing case that, with her powerful voice, dramatic temperament, phenomenal memory and lovely stage presence, Marshall would have been a great opera singer, had she been given the opportunities.

Instead, starting from Arnold Walter’s refusal to admit her into the Royal Conservatory’s Opera School, “Canadian opera producers simply missed the boat.” If today Joyce DiDonato can give a convincing performance of Rosina in a wheelchair at Covent Garden, as she did last summer after she broke her leg on stage during the opening night of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then surely opera directors could have accommodated Marshall’s disability.

Using his extensive interviews with Marshall’s family members, friends and fellow musicians, as well as his own experiences hearing Marshall live and on recordings, Neufeld conveys both the communicative power of Marshall’s singing and the “warmth and sunshine” of her personality. But Neufeld’s most revealing source is the unpublished memoir Marshall drafted at the end of her career.

Neufeld, who teaches English at Trent University, writes insightfully about Marshall’s accomplishments. With a novelist’s flair, he delves into Marshall’s complicated relationship with her long-time teacher and accompanist, Weldon Kilburn. Soon after they finally married in 1968 their relationship unravelled. As her musical partner, Kilburn had been supportive and sensitive, but as a lover he proved to be inconstant and heartless. “Though Lois seldom performed opera,” Neufeld comments, “her romantic life seemed to be caught up in one.”

Click Here to Read an Excerpt from this book

herbie_nichols_coverHerbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life
by Mark Miller
The Mercury Press
224 pages, photos; $19.95

For all his brilliance as a pianist, composer and critic, Herbie Nichols spent his life in obscurity. Toronto-based jazz historian Mark Miller has produced an incisive and heartbreaking portrait of a deeply compelling musician. Today, Nichol’s few recordings are unavailable, and his writings remain uncollected and unpublished. But his song Lady Sings the Blues, written with Billie Holiday, has attained iconic status, and many of his other compositions, like House Party Starting, 2300 Skidoo, The Third World, and Love, Gloom, Cash, Love have become standards.

Miller has combed through the available documents on Nichols, which include autobiographical notes Nichols prepared for the day (which never came) when he would need material for publicity purposes. Miller has talked to musicians still alive who knew him, like trombonist Roswell Rudd, who along with pianist Frank Kimbrough has spearheaded a project to track down and record many of Nichols’ previously unknown compositions. By placing Nichols’music in the context of his relationship to what was happening musically around him, Miller shows how imaginative, original and advanced it was.

Miller portrays a gentle, self-effacing, introspective, and – understandably – fatalistic man. But while he constructs a coherent narrative for Nichols’ life, Nichols himself keeps slipping in and out of the story. It’s as though Nichols is as baffled by the events of his own life as everyone else.

Why was Nichols so utterly neglected? He told A.B Spellman, in the first, and up to now only profile of him in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “It seems like you’ve got to be an Uncle Tom or a drug addict to make it in jazz, and I’m not either one.” He was rarely able to get jobs or recordings where he could play his own music in his own style. In 1956 Nichols had told the poet George Moorse, “Sometimes I may seem low...but really, I’m laughing like hell inside.” Yet, as pianist Don Coates told Miller, shortly before Nichols’ early death from leukemia in 1963 he said, “Music is a curse.” Miller has succeeded in rediscovering a visionary musical voice, and convincing us that it demands to be heard.

theloniousThelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D.G Kelley
Free Press

608 pages, photos; $39.00

Herbie Nichols was the first to champion Thelonious Monk in print. Monk was two years older than Nichols, and like him, born in San Juan Hill in Manhattan. Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Nichols, who wrote in 1944, “Thelonious Monk is an oddity among piano players. This particular fellow is the author of the weirdest rhythmical melodies I’ve ever heard. They are very great, too.” Monk, of course, went on to become a giant influence in the history of jazz. His compositions like Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Ruby, My Dear and Straight, No Chaser are classics.

Kelley, who teaches history at the University of Southern California, is faced with a life so rich, a personality so complex, a body of recordings so important, and a character so legendary that his book is bursting at the seams with fascinating details about Monk’s life and music.

Kelley managed to gain unprecedented access to family members and their collections of long-forgotten documents. But even Kelley, for all his meticulous research, is unable to fully unravel Monk’s relationship with the intriguing Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who Kelley calls “the most significant relationship in Monk’s life outside his family.” She took care of Monk – and his wife Nellie – at her home (just as she had provided brief sanctuary for Herbie Nichols in 1961) from 1973, when he had almost given up playing altogether, until his death in 1982.

He portrays an engaging and witty, though moody and difficult, personality. But despite Monk’s success, things were never easy. He had problems with alcohol and drugs. Even more devastating were his episodes of manic depression, which account for some of his bizarre antics both on stage and off. Reading about his stony silences and vacant stares, especially late in his performing career, I now know why the performance I heard in Toronto at the Colonial Tavern in 1972 was so disappointing.

Enhancing our appreciation of the music, Kelley makes a point of underlining the influence of classical music on Monk’s playing and composing. He presents him as both a traditionalist and an innovator. “From the beginning of his musical life,” writes Kelley, “Monk had always epitomized the Janus-faced musician, looking simultaneously at the future and the past.”

1 a MERCURY--TIMEANDANTHONYBRAXTON--COVER for wholenoteTime and Anthony Braxton
by Stuart Broomer
Mercury Press
240 pages, photos; $19.95

The influential American performer, composer and writer Anthony Braxton is best known for his work in experimental jazz. He’s one of the most recorded jazz artists around, and he has received many honours, including a MacArthur genius award, which he used to create his opera Trillium R: Shala Fears For The Poor. “Ultimately, we know more intensely how jazz works as a result of how his music works,” writes Toronto writer Stuart Broomer in this thoughtful study of Braxton’s music.

“There’s far more time inside a Braxton performance,” he suggests, “than might be measured by a clock.” Braxton’s explorations in the many applications of the concept of musical time provide Broomer with a viewpoint on the workings of Braxton’s compositions and performances. But this focus doesn’t stop Broomer from ranging widely. He even manages to work in a discussion of Braxton’s preference for wearing cardigan sweaters.

In his performances on saxophone, clarinet, and piano, Braxton plays the standard jazz repertoire as powerfully as his own compositions. While his mastery of jazz traditions keeps him in the continuum of jazz, his creative imagination takes him way beyond its outer limits.

Broomer reveals Braxton to be both a visionary composer and an imaginative improviser. Braxton is an exciting performer who plays as fast as – often faster than – anyone else around. Broomer describes Braxton’s music as “unusual collocations of floating time and abrasive sounds”. What concerns Broomer is to show just how important a voice in both jazz and classical music he is, and how he transcends the barriers between composed and non-composed music, working to keep both art forms evolving. Broomer goes a step further to make a case for Braxton as a classical composer as well, whose music should be performed in concert halls alongside composers he admires like Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis

There are extensive notes, an index, and photos. I do wish there were samples of Braxton’s innovative scores here, to complement this fascinating perspective on Braxton’s music.

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