But what did they say?

Stephen Walsh

  • Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year by Hugh Macdonald
    Boydell, 208 pp, £25.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84383 718 3

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 there isn’t much hope. For the modern scholar, the consolation is a good score in the latest research assessment, some nice trips at someone else’s expense, and a few reassuring footnotes in the publications of other, reciprocally unconsoled rummagers.

This is what’s called disinterested scholarship; but it occasionally breeds internecine quarrels that can seem anything but disinterested. In musicology, the analytical theorist despises the biographer for his apparent preoccupation with non-musical matters; the biographer regards the theorist as not much better than an unconfessed autobiographer. Their stock in trade diverges ever more towards particular details: bar 147 of some symphony or other, as against what happened on 23 June 1750. The hope is that from the one as from the other some critical perception will come that enriches our understanding of the music, or at least of the musician. But there comes a point when the scholar is left with the sole comfort of knowing that, even if his discoveries are of little or no conceivable interest to anyone but himself, they are at least factual. This point is reached by Hugh Macdonald’s Music in 1853.

Macdonald might not need consolation. He is the author of books that palpably enrich and illuminate. His Master Musicians Berlioz is one of the best volumes in that series. He has been a brilliant editor of several of Berlioz’s biggest and most textually challenging works, and his English edition of the Traité d’instrumentation, one of the most instructive of 19th-century composers’ texts (at least as much so as anything by Wagner), is indispensable. He has written widely on 19th-century music in general, and his short monograph on Scriabin, now more than thirty years old, remains the only decent introduction to that underrated composer in English, or perhaps in any language.

In all these writings, Macdonald brings to bear that rarest skill of any serious writer on music: the ability to talk about it not as some arcane technical discipline but as a direct articulation of thought and feeling, and the defining activity of those who practise it. He has never been the kind of biographer who would preface a Life of a composer with the disclaimer offered by a recent biographer of Schumann: ‘This is a book about the lives Schumann led, not about the music he wrote,’ as if it made any sense to separate the two. Or not, at least, until now. Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year is precisely a book about events in the lives of a number of musicians, hardly at all about the music they wrote. ‘Biographers,’ Macdonald reminds us at the start, ‘are rarely able to enter into the minutiae of daily life such as those I present here, whereas my aim has been to recapture the events of the year in as vivid a manner as possible.’

‘Why 1853?’ he at once asks himself. Because, one might expect the answer, it was a year of extraordinary masterpieces or decisive changes in the language of music. One might think of 1859 (Tristan und Isolde, Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, Franz Brendel’s invention of the New German School, not to mention On the Origin of Species), or 1912-13 (Pierrot lunaire, The Rite of Spring, Jeux, the riotous Vienna premiere of Webern’s Op. 6 orchestral pieces and two of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder). But 1853? Wagner at last composes the first notes of Das Rheingold, Schumann writes some interesting but marginal chamber works, Brahms his early F minor Piano Sonata, Berlioz part of his most discreet choral work, L’Enfance du Christ, Liszt one of his least notable symphonic poems, Festklänge. Musically, the great event of 1853 was the Venice premiere of La Traviata; politically, it was the start of the Crimean War. But Macdonald is not very interested in Italian opera, which gets only a walk-on part; and he is definitely uninterested in politics. What interests him are itineraries and concatenations.

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