LOOKING back on a year replete with musical birthdays 'and centenaries, the most memorable anniversary tribute thas been Jonathan Keates's Handel, The Man & His Music !(Gollancz, £12.95). Despite repeated, and unconvincing, pleas of amateur status, Mr Keates gives us the bigness of Handel, the "inclusive grandeur" he so rightly ascribes to the oratorio Saul, in a scholarly and entertaining manner.
Giving due prominence to Handel's operatic output, the author assesses each work carefully but without pedantry — and most of his judgements on the more obscure works have been borne out in tercentenary revivals. The storytelling, notably the assessment of the Duke of Chandos's. life at Cannons, frequently put me in mind of Bryan Fothergill's William Beckford. In the world of short, literate and elegant biography I can think of no higher praise.
A more purely factual guide to the achievement that the giants Bach and Handel built on is provided by the New Grove North European Baroque Masters (Papermac, £8.95), with articles on Schutz, Froberger, Buxtehude, Purcell and Handel's near-contemporary Telemann, extracted and revised from the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Sir Jack Westrup's masterly article on Purcell serves not only as a point of comparison for the respective Englishness of Purcell and Handel but also demonstrates the factual frustration that can beset even the most thorough historians of 17th and 18th century England.
Westrup emphasises the punctiliousness and facility with which Purcell fitted his music to English texts. This skill was one of the principal practical inspirations for the renaissance, running from Elgar via Delius, Vaughan Williams, Hoist and Tippett to Britten, that Michael Trend expounds so deftly in his Music Makers (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £15.00).
In a thoroughgoing analysis of nearly 40 composers, Trend digs up and brushes down some serverly forgotten figures like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Ernest John Moeran and Balfour Gardiner.
Of some of his subjects' music he is severely critical — Dame Ethel Smyth's work is thoroughly damned — and yet he would plainly have been happier in the neo-Georgian music world. In Elgar's day few went to serious concerts, while amateur music-making was rampant. But today, according to Trend, the massive interest in concert-going and record-buying is accompanied by the death of amateur music and the flourishing of the idea that "music is some kind of subtle international language only to be understood by the few."
Paul Griffiths's book of
conversations, New Sounds, New Personalities, British composers of the 1980s (Faber, £5.95) provides a test case for Trend's opinion. The fact that Griffiths could find 20 British composers of talent, many of them with worldwide reputations, is surely a tribute to the groundwork of the "renaissance" and the crowning achievement of Tippett and Britten. In the flesh, or rather on the tape, 20 composers produce 20 different approaches to music.
In many cases I sighed in sympathy with Trend at the joyless conceptualism of it all, but there are beacons of creativity like Stephen Oliver and the spiritually sane John Tavener. In all cases, Griffiths is an excellent questioner, with encyclopaedic knowledge.
One of the fondest dreams of this century's renewal of English music has been the creation of a national opera company. Only in recent years has it been achieved. Fortunately, the English National Opera is in no way provincial, and this season plays host to a character, Ferrucio Busoni, and an opera, Doktor Faustus, which look decidedly exotic placed beside, Busoni's contemporaries Elgar and Smyth.
An Italian who adopted Germany and found himself deracine in the First World War at precisely the time he ended his attempts to tear musical tradition from its roots, Busoni approached the Faust legend minus Gretchen/Marguerite and with the visionary life of Leonardo da Vinci at the back of his mind. Antony Beaumont's artlessly vivid accounts in Busoni the Composer (Faber, £35.00) of the man's mind and the synthesis of his chef d'oeuvre made me wildly impatient to see Doktor Faustus in the theatre.
The word "visionary" can be too easily applied, but it seems deserved in the case of something as massive and sincere as Olivier Messiaen's opera Saint Francois d'Assise, a long work first performed in Paris in 1983, scenically derived from Catholic tradition, musically from birdsong and a variety of human cultures. The piece was widely considered a genuinely spiritual experience.
As a true surrealist, Messiaen has always tried to recreate music from within the mind, not from experience. But, as Paul Griffiths explains in his wonderfully learned and interesting Olivier Messiaen and the music of time (Faber, £17.50), Messiaen is also that rare bird, a religious artist.
Indeed, Griffiths tells us, Messiaen's attention to Christianity, "the greatest surrealist conception of them all", has helped make him a greater artist than Breton or Salvador Dali. In a world that we are told is Godless, this is certainly a cheering thought.