Stephen Walsh

Stephen Walsh is the author of biographies of Stravinsky and the Russian Five.

Who​ was the most important 19th-century composer? Naturally, it depends on what’s meant by important: Beethoven overshadows them all, but Wagner generated more discussion, and more distaste. Few people would nominate Franz Liszt, because it’s usual to confuse importance with quality. Liszt was probably not the greatest composer of his time, yet his presence was everywhere in...

Coma-Friendly: Philip Glass

Stephen Walsh, 7 May 2015

Words without Musicis Philip Glass’s second book about himself, and it inevitably includes some of the same information, or the same kind of information, as its predecessor, published in 1987 in New York as Music by Philip Glass and in London as Opera on the Beach. But the differences are significant. By the late 1980s, Glass was well known in America, mainly for his first three...

Let’s to billiards: Constant Lambert

Stephen Walsh, 22 January 2015

Constant Lambert​ is a composer one would like to have met. This has nothing in particular to do with the quality of his music, though he was a much better composer than you might deduce from the scarcity of performances of his work. Nor is it solely because of his reputation – which has long outlived most of the music – as a bon vivant, propping up, or being propped up by, the...

But what did they say? Music in 1853

Stephen Walsh, 25 October 2012

In Judith Weir’s pocket Chinese opera The Consolations of Scholarship, the hero discovers the truth about his father Chao Tun’s unjust disgrace while researching old philosophical texts, and is consequently able to avenge his father and restore the family fortunes. It would be good to feel that one’s own dusty cogitations might have some such tangible, uplifting result. But...

The Cool Machine: Ravel

Stephen Walsh, 25 August 2011

‘Trying to pin Ravel down,’ Roger Nichols writes in his penultimate paragraph, ‘is about as futile as trying to catch Scarbo in a bucket.’ It may seem a disconcerting admission to find at the end of a 350-page biography; but in fact it’s a positive and exact assessment, characteristically honest, and at the same time a high compliment to its subject. Both in...

Music Made Visible: Wagner

Stephen Walsh, 24 April 2008

Among the operatic victims of what its enemies nowadays refer to as ‘directors’ theatre’, Wagner has suffered as much as anyone. Keith Warner has the Wanderer crash-land his fighter plane into Mime’s cave; Phyllida Lloyd has Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber who blows herself up in the immolation scene; Jürgen Flimm turns Nibelheim into a microchip factory. In...

In the introduction to her authoritative biography of Shostakovich, published in 2000, Laurel Fay sounds a sharp warning about the historical value of personal reminiscences:

Fascinating and useful as these can be, memoirs furnish a treacherous resource to the historian. Reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking and...

Sideswipes: Prokofiev

Stephen Walsh, 25 September 2003

On the whole, Soviet writers knew when they were putting their heads on the block. Composers often didn’t, and it’s precisely the innocence and uncertainty of music – that content and meaning tend to reduce to questions of style, and that musical scores are impenetrable and their performance ephemeral – which make the history of the relationship between music and...

Ne me touchez pas: Debussy’s Mission

Nicholas Spice, 24 October 2019

One way to think about Debussy’s music is as an invitation to attention: at its most rapt, his music seems itself to listen, and the act of listening to which it draws us becomes the value of which...

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Happy Man: Stravinsky

Paul Driver, 8 February 2007

At the end of his two-volume biography, Stephen Walsh writes that Igor Stravinsky’s music is ‘the one unquestioned staple of the modern repertoire, the body of work that, more than...

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