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A musical challenge to our view of the past

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

In Musical Exoticism (Cambridge 2011) Ralph P. Locke undertook an extensive appraisal of the portrayal of the ‘Other’ in works dating from 1700 to the present day, an enquiry that embraced a wide range of genres from Baroque opera to Algerian rap, and which was at once musical, cultural, historical, political and ethical.

Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience

Is it okay to tweet during a concert, if it allows those who couldn’t attend to engage with the performance and the music? Or is it really just distracting, on top of all the coughing?

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.

Book Review: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918

Opera in the British Isles might seem a rather sparse subject in the period 1875 to 1918. Notoriously described as the land without music, even the revival of the native tradition of composers did not include a strong vein of opera.

Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger

Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —

Opera from Cambridge University Press

Although part of a series entitled Cambridge Introductions to Music, Robert Cannon’s wide-ranging, imaginative and thought-provoking survey of opera is certainly not a ‘beginners’ guide’.

James Melton: The Tenor of His Times

Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of James Melton, who entertained our parents starting in the 1930s and the rest of us in the 1940s and beyond on recordings, the radio, and films.

Essays on Italo Montemezzi - D'Annunzio: Nave

An important new book on Italo Montemezzi sheds light on his opera Nave. The author/editor is David Chandler whose books on Alfredo Catalani have done so much to restore interest in the genre.

Alfredo Catalani — A new perspective on later Italian opera

Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, born in the same town and almost at the same time, was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.

The Sopranos — Dissecting opera’s fervent fans

I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz.

Opera Remade, 1700-1750

This substantial book is one of the latest in the Ashgate series of collected essays in opera studies and draws together articles from a disparate group of scholarly journals and collected volumes, some recent, some now difficult to locate.

Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

Vincent Giroud’s valuable new French Opera, a Short History, is in hand and very welcome it is.

Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey

The noted operatic impresario and stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, with the professional help of writer Donald Arthur, has issued his memoirs under the title Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey.

Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth

Originally published in German as Herrin des Hügels, das Leben der Cosima Wagner (Siedler, 2007), this new book by Oliver Hilmes is an engaging portrait of one of the most important women in music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Operatic Italian

Robert Stuart Thomson’s Italian language learning text, Operatic Italian, promises to become an invaluable textbook for aspiring operatic singers, voice teachers, coaches and conductors.

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections

Ralph Locke’s recent book on Musical Exoticism is both an historical survey of aspects of the exotic in Western musical culture and a discussion of paradigms of the exotic and their relevance for musicological understanding.

Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater

Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Opera from the Greek

Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.



Daniel Felsenfeld: Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music
09 Jul 2005

FELSENFELD: Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music

The second in a series called Parallel Lives, this book consists of a series of essays by one author. The same Daniel Felsenfeld also authored the first in the series, which set Charles Ives and Aaron Copland side by side. By comparison to that juxtaposition only, Britten and Barber make an intriguing and appropriate pair for analysis. Felsenfeld's book, however, is slim yet repetitive, and far from stylishly written. The inclusion of a CD of selections from Naxos recordings of both composers may, however, make the volume of interest to some readers.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music

Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2005, 220 pp.

ISBN 1-57467-108-1


Felsenfeld in his introduction does offer two reasonable rationales for putting Britten and Barber side-by-side. Both composers stayed with their established styles — to some degree astringent but essentially tonal — as the avant-garde established dominance in the 1950s and '60s. Both were gay men, as well. Beyond that, little connects the two men. They apparently never met, let alone had any type of professional relationship.

The result, as the reader pages through alternating essays on each composer's life and work, is an intellectual case of "tennis match" neck, with any literary momentum achieved with one composer quickly evaporating with the next chapter on the other.

Felsenfeld seems most concerned with setting these two men up against composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen (named by the author in the "How to Listen' opening essay). The latter names represent a whole school for Felsenfeld whose compositions of "surface complexity" are as attractive as physics to the math-challenged. The critics who supported these composers, or who, in Felsenfeld's inelegant phrase, "leapt on their mercurial bandwagons," share equal blame for the current state of classical music, which Felsenfeld sees as alienated from its core audience.

Since neither Barber nor Britten ever became greatly beloved composers, though both have secure reputations, this angle tends to place the men in a no-man's-land, caught between limited popular appeal and modernistic scorn. Surely both composers deserve to more generously analyzed strictly on the basis of what they sought to achieve and how much they accomplished.

Most of the first half of this book is given over to biographical sketches. Sketchy, indeed. Some are no longer than two pages, and this is a book of relatively large print.

The center of the book contains two essays, one for each composer. The titles give a fair idea of the content here: "Dare not Speak Its Name" for Britten and for Barber, "A Truly Perfect Failure: Antony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan." The Britten essay can't offer much more than unelucidating conjecture ("Britten, undoubtedly, knew the consequences of his actions and therefore probably never acted."), and it ends with a pale argument that the questions regarding Britten's sexuality are relevant to an understanding of the music. Since the questions mostly remain unanswerable, perhaps the point is moot.

With Barber, focusing on his last major work and its unfortunate premiere leaves the reader with a sad image of a defeated man and a lost reputation. The story of that final opera has many points of interests; surely it shouldn't have been the only essay provided on Barber's career, however.

The last section of the book ties into the provided CD. Felsenfeld offers his close analysis of such pieces as Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra. Perhaps the strongest part of the book, these essays walk a line between rigorous academic analysis and over-simplified commentary. Combined with the CD of mostly effective performances culled from the Naxos catalogue, this section may be quite useful to some readers. Once again, however, no meaningful topics related to a "parallel" discussion of the two composers appear, calling into question the whole point of the volume.

A stronger recommendation for those with a strong interest in either composer would be for separate volumes, but for a brief overview of the lives and issues of Britten and Barber, Felsenfeld's book makes an adequate, if insubstantial and occasionally clumsy, choice.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College

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