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Let’s to billiards

Stephen Walsh: Constant Lambert, 22 January 2015

Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande 
by Stephen Lloyd.
Boydell, 584 pp., £45, March 2014, 978 1 84383 898 2
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... was a lot more to him than one-liners and limericks; and if one thing emerges from the thickets of Stephen Lloyd’s excessively long biography, it is that Lambert had one of the finest musical minds of his generation and a critical faculty second to almost none. During his lifetime, you would have come across him as a conductor, either at the Vic-Wells ...


Stephen Walsh: Prokofiev, 25 September 2003

Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 
by David Nice.
Yale, 390 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09914 2
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... 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 politics so troublesome ...


Stephen Walsh: Philip Glass, 7 May 2015

Words without Music: A Memoir 
by Philip Glass.
Faber, 416 pp., £22.50, April 2015, 978 0 571 32372 2
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... Words without Music​ is 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 operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten ...

The Cool Machine

Stephen Walsh: Ravel, 25 August 2011

by Roger Nichols.
Yale, 430 pp., £25, April 2011, 978 0 300 10882 8
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... 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 ...

But what did they say?

Stephen Walsh: Music in 1853, 25 October 2012

Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year 
by Hugh Macdonald.
Boydell, 208 pp., £25, June 2012, 978 1 84383 718 3
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... 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 ...

Music Made Visible

Stephen Walsh: Wagner, 24 April 2008

Wagner and the Art of the Theatre 
by Patrick Carnegy.
Yale, 461 pp., £35, September 2006, 0 300 10695 5
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... 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 ...

Mikoyan Shuddered

Stephen Walsh: Memories of Shostakovich, 21 June 2007

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered 
by Elizabeth Wilson.
Faber, 631 pp., £20, July 2006, 0 571 22050 9
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... 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 exaggeration ...

All the Necessary Attributes

Stephen Walsh: Franz Liszt, Celebrity, 22 September 2016

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar 
by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Stewart Spencer.
Yale, 353 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 0 300 18293 4
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... 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 musical life from the moment that he arrived in Paris as a 12-year-old prodigy in December 1823 until his death in Bayreuth 63 years later ...

Ne me touchez pas

Nicholas Spice: Debussy’s Mission, 24 October 2019

Debussy: A Painter in Sound 
by Stephen Walsh.
Faber, 368 pp., £15.99, March 2018, 978 0 571 33016 4
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Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography 
by François Lesure, translated by Marie Rolf.
Rochester, 478 pp., £40, June 2019, 978 1 58046 903 6
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... appear more decorative than radical. The shock of the new is hard to feel at a distance, but as Stephen Walsh observes, we expect the music of the modernist generation, of whom Debussy was the first, to be difficult, abstruse, even rebarbative. The works of Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky and Bartók continue to present us with a residue of ...

Happy Man

Paul Driver: Stravinsky, 8 February 2007

Stravinsky: The Second Exile – France and America 1934-71 
by Stephen Walsh.
Cape, 709 pp., £30, July 2006, 0 224 06078 3
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Down a Path of Wonder: Memoirs of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Other Cultural Figures 
by Robert Craft.
Naxos, 560 pp., £19.99, October 2006, 1 84379 217 6
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... 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 any other, stands as an icon of 20th-century musical thought and imagery’. There couldn’t be a richer subject for a musical biographer and Walsh admits to having an obsession with his subject ...

Absolute Modernity

Paul Driver, 26 September 1991

Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life 
by Jean-Michel Nectoux, translated by Roger Nichols.
Cambridge, 646 pp., £45, April 1991, 0 521 23524 3
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Pierre Boulez 
by Dominique Jameux, translated by Susan Bradshaw.
Faber, 422 pp., £25, March 1991, 9780571137442
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Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship 
by Pierre Boulez, translated by Stephen Walsh.
Oxford, 316 pp., £40, August 1991, 0 19 311210 8
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... been deafened by the trumpetings of composer-theorists: a new translation – an impressive job by Stephen Walsh – of Boulez’s first (1966) gathering of manifestos and trenchant analyses, Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship has even now appeared, as if the dry controversies of yesteryear (‘Schoenberg is Dead!’) needed resuming. In the case both of ...

When Labour Was New

Malcolm Petrie: Labour’s First Government, 20 June 2024

The Men of 1924: Britain’s First Labour Government 
by Peter Clark.
Haus, 293 pp., £20, October 2023, 978 1 913368 81 4
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The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government 
by David Torrance.
Bloomsbury, 322 pp., £20, January, 978 1 3994 1143 1
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... strands in the Labour movement. Some, such as William Adamson, Vernon Hartshorn, Thomas Shaw and Stephen Walsh, were trade union moderates; others, like Fred Jowett and John Wheatley, were socialists from the Independent Labour Party (ILP) strongholds of West Yorkshire and Clydeside. In addition, there were the Fabian intellectuals Sydney Olivier and ...

Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding: The Morning After, 14 July 2016

... took a while to turn up details of my Irish (biological) mother’s birth. I knew her surname was Walsh, sometimes spelled with an e on the end, and where she was born, but I’d forgotten the maiden name of her mother, Downey, until it appeared in a record of her brother (she had many siblings). That clinched it. I’ve just received a copy of her birth ...

Mr Lion, Mr Cock and Mr Cat

Roger Lonsdale, 5 April 1990

A Form of Sound Words: The Religious Poetry of Christopher Smart 
by Harriet Guest.
Oxford, 293 pp., £35, October 1989, 0 19 811744 2
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... had what is for Guest a paradigmatic conversation about Young at Court in the 1780s was Col. Stephen Digby, the Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain.) It is a tribute to Guest’s powers of perceptive analysis that some less promising 18th-century writers can just as usefully illustrate differing tones of exemplary reverence or exhortation, postures of explanatory ...


Thomas Keymer: The Girondin Wordsworth, 18 June 2020

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who Changed the World 
by Jonathan Bate.
William Collins, 608 pp., £25, April, 978 0 00 816742 4
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William Wordsworth: A Life 
by Stephen Gill.
Oxford, new edition, 688 pp., £25, April, 978 0 19 881711 6
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... as a proto-environmentalist. He sidesteps recent reassessments of the later verse, including Stephen Gill’s argument in Wordsworth’s Revisitings (2011) that the revised Prelude of 1850 was much more than a damage-limitation job on a heretical original text. Similar arguments animate the richly revised second edition of Gill’s biography (the first ...

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