Secret Agent: The Selected Journals and Letters of Harry Somers

edited by William Scoular

352 pages, photos; $30.00

available from the Canadian Music Centre

Three weeks before Harry Somers died, he wrote in his journal, "I list my occupation as secret agent. Whenever I've been caught & it's been frequently, I confess to anything & everything. ‘Yes, yes,' I confess, escaping all torture. ‘You are a traditional conservative composer?' ‘YES.' ‘You are an eclectic?' ‘Oh YES.' ‘You have been at times an avant garde composer?' ‘I'll sign the paper!' ‘You're old hat?!' ‘Yes. Yes. A beat up old hat.'"

No-one except Somers himself could have come up with this. That's what makes these journals and letters so remarkable. Somers always stood out for his elegance, wit, charm, forthrightness and passionate dedication. We now have a whole new dimension on him - his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, and even what he read and listened to.

Somers' wife Barbara Chilcott and the editor William Scoular have done a Herculean job of assembling and editing the diaries and letters, written on scraps of paper over a period of 30 years. Their importance makes it all the more desirable that the next step be taken to have them fully annotated and indexed.

Certain situations need explaining, such as what happened in 1965 that would provoke Somers to curse ‘the commonwealth', ‘the Queen', ‘Ozawa', ‘Walter Hamburger' (sic), ‘Bright's champagne', ‘the government' and ‘Irving Glick', all in one breath? Important figures like E. Robert Schmitz need to be identified. Names like ‘gord rainor', ‘Milhoud', and ‘Crumm', misspelled by Somers - whether inadvertently or on purpose - should have their proper spelling noted. What annotations there are, given in square brackets in the text, are not always accurate. The published journal reads, "I remember Krenek [president of the USSR's composers' union] referring to Copland as superficial." But here Somers is surely referring to the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, not the Soviet composer Tikhon Khrennikov, who was Somers' dinner companion when he visited the USSR in 1976.

Somers' speculations about writing an autobiography come up constantly in these pages. "There are many sides of many things I've not spoken of," he wrote in 1995. Fortunately he left this candid, fascinating journal, and along with his letters, it makes an essential contribution to the cultural life of this country. A terrific collection of photos and a DVD containing clips of TV and documentary interviews give readers a sense of his physical presence.


The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years

by Simon Morrison

Oxford University Press

504 pages, photos; $32.95

If the secret agent who figures in Harry Somers' journal was a romanticized fantasy, the secret agents in Prokofiev's life were real, nasty, and dangerous - from the Russian émigré cellist in Hollywood who made sure Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union, to the malicious head of the Union of Soviet Composers, Tikhon Khrennikov, who Somers had found to be "terribly kind" when he met him in Moscow.

This brilliant chronicle of Prokofiev's final years focuses on why he returned to what was now the Soviet Union, and how that irrevocable move affected his life and music. "He thought to influence Soviet cultural policy," writes Morrison, "but instead it influenced him."

Morrison explores how Prokofiev's ambition, vanity, and naiveté led him to his fateful decision. It's clear from his diaries (now being published in English) that he missed his homeland. But he was lured by offers of performances and money. Morrison considers the influence of his fervent Christian Science spiritualism, which likely prevented him from seeing the repression, incarcerations and murders of artists that were occurring regularly in the Soviet Union under Stalin.Yet he shows that Prokofiev in fact had some sense of the personal and artistic freedom he would be sacrificing. In any case, as soon as he had moved his wife Lina and their two sons from Paris to Moscow, he could only travel abroad with Lina if he left his two sons behind. By 1938, neither he nor Lina was allowed to leave at all.

But as difficult as things gradually became for Prokofiev, they were far worse for Lina, who was not even Russian. First, Prokofiev left her for a young admirer, and then, when she tried to leave the USSR, she ended up spending years in Soviet camps on fabricated charges of treason.

Morrison is a Canadian scholar now teaching at Princeton. He has made full use of his unprecedented access to unpublished documents and scores now in the Russian State Archives. Morrison's meticulous endnotes and index makes this detailed biography accessible, and his elegant writing style makes it thoroughly engrossing to read.

 

 

Leonard Bernstein: American Original

edited by Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws

HarperCollins

240 pages, photos; $31.95

For years, Leonard Bernstein's father Sam pressured his musically precocious eldest son to go into the family beauty-supplies business. Later he defended himself by saying, "How could I know he would grow up to be a Leonard Bernstein?" As his father had finally figured out, Leonard Bernstein was an original. But no-one could live up to the title of this book and be a "modern renaissance man" who "transformed music and the world" - not even this charismatic conductor, composer, writer and educator. Fortunately the ten essays in this book are less starry-eyed and more incisive than the title would suggest. Together, they offer a well-balanced portrait of a complex figure.

There's an eloquent memoir by music critic Alan Rich, who admits to often being hard on Bernstein, mostly for ignoring contemporary music. Historian Paul Boyer discusses how Bernstein added a political dimension to his role as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Like Prokofiev, he believed that art not only reflects but influences social reality. His outspoken support for issues such as civil liberties, environmental protection and world peace was considered so audacious at the time that he ended up with an FBI file almost 700 pages long.

Unlike the Soviet composer, he did achieve some influence. But, as his younger brother Burton Bernstein writes in one of his memorable chapter-by-chapter commentaries, he paid a price - in the press at least - for what his brother considers his naiveté. American composer John Adams offers the perspective of a young man first discovering Bernstein. "I thought I'd found the model for what the future of classical music in America would be," he writes.

The splendid photos and documents enrich the texts. My favorite photo, from 1970, shows Bernstein in leisure clothes coaching his baseball team, the Philharmonic Penguins. Beside him, watching intently in his baseball uniform and cap, is his protégé Seiji Ozawa, who would have just finished his stint as conductor of the Toronto Symphony.

The Toronto Symphony performs two works by Bernstein, Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, on May 13 at 8:00 and May 14 at 2:00.

Bernstein's West Side Story is on stage at the Stratford Festival from June 5 until October 31.

52_1_bookshelf

Sonic Mosaics: Conversations

with Composers

by Paul Steenhuisen

University of Alberta Press

344 pages, photos; $34.95

Canadian composer and writer Paul Steenhuisen surveys contemporary Canadian music – and contemporary music in general - by interviewing twenty-six of Canada’s most interesting compos-ers, along with six European and American composers like Pierre Boulez and George Crumb.

Steenhuisen shows an understanding of the work of everyone he interviews, no matter what their musical style. This especially pays off with an experimental composer like John Oswald, whose technique of plunderphonics challenges traditional approaches to composition. Things get lively when he asks Oswald whether his pieces have an expiry date. Steenhuisen’s questions are thought-provoking, and his thorough preparation allows him to follow wherever the subject takes him. A surprising answer can turn things in an entirely different direction.

One of the most engaging aspects of this book is the way Steenhuisen approaches the issues involved in being a Canadian composer, and whether Canadian music has “a certain sound, a unique aesthetic”. John Weinzweig can’t identify what the sound is, but insists that it exists. John Beckwith says, “There is a Canadian repertoire and it goes back further than most people are aware.” But later he says, “Your music doesn’t get played very much if you’re Canadian.” Gary Kulesha goes even further, saying, “At this moment there is no Canadian composer who has a substantial international presence.” Barbara Croall, whose mother is Aboriginal, adds a more positive dimension when she says that her identity as a Canadian lies in the intuitiveness of her creative process.

Almost all the interviews that make up this collection were originally published in WholeNote Magazine. Most of them relate to a particular performance or recording. In some cases, this means that the questions focus so narrowly on a single work that you don’t get a well-rounded picture of the composer’s musical personality, especially with someone as multi-faceted as R. Murray Schafer.

Steenhuisen makes no claims to have interviewed every significant Canadian composer, and, inevitably, a number are absent. But of the thirty-two composers interviewed, just five are women. In a country where women composers have always played a major role, this is a disproportionately small representation. But many things in this important book have been particularly well-considered, from the design, the photos and the cover art, to the discography, annotations, and index (which even has an entry for playfulness).


52_2_bookshelf

Moving to Higher Ground

by Wynton Marsalis

Random House

202 pages, photos; $30.00


Wynton Marsalis covered the same territory in previous books. But now he is not just describing the ways jazz can touch your soul and stir up your sense of beauty. What he’s saying is that jazz can teach concrete life lessons - to listeners and players alike. It teaches you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, develop your own unique sound, and learn to work things out with other people. His explanations of what jazz is are as good an I’ve ever read, and his comments on musicians he has known, ‘Lessons from the Masters’, are fascinating. Mostly he is admiring, but, to illustrate his ‘Be true to your dreams, don’t compromise’ mantra, he comes down hard on Miles Davis for selling out towards the end of his career.

Marsalis, a well-known jazz and classical trumpeter, composer, and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, offers an insider’s perspective, having known and played with almost all the great players of his time. He understands what makes them great. Sometimes he goes too far, writing that “jazz musicians get closer to expressing the actual diversity in the ways of love than any musicians before them.” But we get the idea nonetheless.

Terrific anecdotes illustrate his points. There’s the time, as an overeager kid, he first played for Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Edison said “Man, you just played more notes than I played in my entire career.”

Marsalis is fortunate in his co-author Geoffrey Ward.“One touch of his hand on the piano and the moon entered the room” is a lovely evocation of Ellington’s piano playing. A pithy comment about Dizzy Gillespie, “His playing showcases the importance of intelligence”, says much about this eloquent book as well.

 

52_3_bookshelfThe Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin

House of Anansi Press

328 pages; $29.95


An encounter with Bach’s solo Cello Suites at a concert in Toronto, a chance conversation in a Montreal café with an elderly cellist who turns out to be a “living breathing link with the past”, the opportunity to study the oldest existing score of the Suites in a Brussels library - all this spurs Eric Siblin to uncover the story behind the Suites.

Siblin never found Bach’s original score. But he did find a copy of the same edition of the Suites that Pablo Casals had discovered in 1890, which had lead the young cellist to perform them together for the first time in their history. “I had stumbled into my own prelude,” writes Siblin.

The former Montreal pop music critic is curious, resourceful and passionate. Even though this is a tale of personal discovery, Siblin knows when to get out of the way. So we get biographies of Bach, and Casals, as well as the performance history of the Suites.

Siblin is a skillful writer. His passion for the music and instinctive grasp of the issues comes through. He has done extensive research, although he gets a few minor things wrong. For example, the Berkeley Symphony, which Kent Nagano conducted for almost thirty years, is hardly an “amateur hippied-out” orchestra. The instrument that Dmitry Badiarov promotes for the sixth suite is the violoncello da spalla, which is held on the shoulder, not the violoncello piccolo, which is in fact held like a cello. He offers a reliable bibliography to back up his research. But, frustratingly, his endnotes are hidden at the back, with nothing in the text to indicate what they are annotating.

Siblin is right that the Cello Suites provide a perfect entrée into the sound world of Bach. He provides a delightful and illuminating journey into that world.



50_dresden

Dresden

by Lord Berners

forward by Peter Dickinson

Turtle Point Press & Helen Marx Books

134 pages, paper; $9.95 US

British composer Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson was decidedly eccentric - even among his notoriously odd fellow British aristocrats. He was famous for dyeing the pigeons on his ancestral estate in bright colours (aided by the woman who became Stravinsky’s second wife) and keeping a clavichord in his chauffer-driven Rolls Royce. But in fact he devoted his life to artistic activity, especially after 1918, when he inherited a title, money and estates from his uncle and became the fourteenth Lord Berners.

Berners was a fine and entertaining writer. His paintings sold well. Songs like Come on Algernon were popular. His ballet scores were commissioned by Diaghilev and set by Balanchine and Ashton, and his chamber works are still performed. He even shows up in novels, including his own Far From the Madding War (included in Collected Tales and Fantasies (Turtle Point)), as Lord FitzCricket, and his friend Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love as Lord Merlin.

Dresden is the fourth installment of Berners’ autobiography. Like his songs, this volume is short but eloquent. It covers a period starting in 1901,when he was eighteen, and went to Germany to study for diplomatic service. He was a remarkably cultivated, observant and enthusiastic young man. “When first Richard Strauss swam in to my ken,’ he writes, ‘I could think of little else. The sight of a Richard Strauss score in a shop window was like meeting the beloved one at a street corner.” Although he thinks about writing a play when trying to write music, and, when working on the play, thinks about painting, he was by no means, even then, a mere dilettante. We see the formation of an imaginative and original early 20th century composer with a refreshingly modernist outlook.

What makes his memoir especially delightful is Berners’ highly evolved self-awareness. We get no hint of his flamboyant homosexuality, which is hardly surprising given the repressive laws in Britain when this was written, a few years before his death in 1950. But we do get suggestions of the depression – which he here calls ‘accidie’ – which plagued him in later life and apparently contributed to his creativity.

50_mozartMozart’s Operas: A Companion

By Mary Hunter

Yale University Press

280 pages, photos; $35.00 US

There’s certainly no dearth of books on Mozart’s operas, But Mary Hunter’s companion stands out for its ability to appeal to both aficionados and those just starting to explore the operas. True, her plot summaries can easily be found elsewhere. And while she assumes that readers don’t know the meaning of basic concepts like ‘aria’ and ‘recitative’, a frequently misused term like ‘rococo’ is left unexplained. Indeed, some of her definitions are not very helpful, such as describing ‘castrati’ as ‘castrated men’.

But when it comes to the history and meaning of the operas, Hunter offers informed and thought-provoking insights. Her thorough knowledge of all things Mozartean – not just the operas - illuminates this study. Her emphasis not only on Mozart’s setting of voices but also his use of the orchestra provides fruitful perspectives on Mozart’s ability to bring the librettos to life.

Opera-goers will especially appreciate Hunter’s examination of performance values as documented in historical accounts, recordings, film and video. She looks at the existing theatres where Mozart’s operas were first performed, as well as at audiences of the times, who would bring servants to cook and serve food during the performance. Needless to say, audiences tended towards ‘boisterous inattentiveness.’

Although Hunter has criticisms of director-centered performances, she emphasizes the benefits of modernizing operas. ‘If Mozart and his librettists’ characters are made to live and act in circumstances that the audience deeply recognizes, it makes Mozart an essentially modern man,’ she writes. Further, by updating Mozart’s operas, ‘every age has found its own meaning in them.’

The text is clearly laid out, with each opera discussed in a separate chapter. On each page the chapter heading is placed clearly at the top – an obvious but too-rare conven-ience for readers.

50_berliozBerlioz: Scenes From The Life And Work

edited by Peter Bloom

University of Rochester Press

270 pages, musical examples; $75.00 US

For those of us whose passion for the music of Berlioz is greater than his usual position in music history would warrant, this collection of twelve essays holds special appeal. For one thing, rather than merely offering analyses of individual works, it examines the place of his music in his own time and milieu. The emphasis on his writings about music throws light on both the music and the man.

Editor Peter Bloom has gathered essays from the heavyweights of Berlioz scholarship to pin down what makes Berlioz unique. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun, whose pioneering two volume biography Berlioz and the Romantic Century revolutionized the study of Berlioz’s music when it was published almost sixty years ago, sets the tone for this collection by linking Berlioz’s music with his life and his writings. It’s not, as is often said, his use of descriptive titles, most notably in Symphonie fantastique, that makes his music sound like no-one else’s. “Nobody but the tone-deaf”, writes Barzun, “could believe a piece of music could tell a story.” Instead, for Barzun, it’s his use of melody as a structural element that defines him.

Gérard Condé, like Berlioz both a critic and composer, reveals Berlioz’s “astonishing capacity to find equivalents in speech to the subjective effects produced by the music.” In this way he accentuates why something is done in the music rather than how it’s done.

David Cairns, translator of Berlioz’s Memoirs and author of his own biography of Berlioz, recalls how he first encountered Berlioz through the Memoirs. Cairns quotes Berlioz’s dying words, “They are finally going to play my music,” to show that he never lost his irrepressible playfulness. But Bloom, who has also written a biography of Berlioz, underscores how crotchety and spiteful Berlioz could be as well. In fact, it would seem, Berlioz needed enemies to stimulate his writing. In his Memoirs he says farewell to his friends by writing “I curse you and hope to forget you before I die.”

Through their evident passion for Berlioz, the contributors to this book all communicate their conviction that Berlioz is, as Bloom puts it, “a contender, one of the B’s, one of the best.”


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz on February 26 and 28 at 8.00 in Roy Thomson Hall.

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