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Michael Steen, The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, London, Icon Books, 2010. 984pp. £7.78. ISBN 978-184831-135-0.

Experience Classicsonline


This is the revised edition of a book first published in 2003. I have been dipping into it for several weeks now and found it to be interesting and valuable. It’s not a rival or replacement for the Concise Grove or the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Music – unlike them, there is no attempt to analyse the music or to explain its technicalities – but it’s endlessly informative about the biographies of a selection of great musicians. The second part of the title, Lives and Times, means that it’s very useful for those who, like myself, are attracted to the New Historicist approach – setting literature and the arts in the context of their times.
In referring to New Historicism, however, I must make it clear that the book does not attempt to do what, for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-fashioning seeks to do for the 16th-century polemical debate between Thomas More and William Tyndale. Steen makes clear at an early stage on page 7 of the Preface that he will not try to examine historical relationships as complex as those between Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and the Russian Revolution or Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and the Second World War. In the case of Shostakovich in particular, that is a wise decision: several authors and even more sleeve- and programme-note writers have tied themselves into endless knots trying to decide whether it’s a patriotic work, as it was presented at the time, or composed with tongue very firmly in cheek as Shostakovich is alleged to have said later.
You will mostly look in vain for individual musical works in the Index. Under Verdi or Wagner, for example, you won’t find any but the best known operas – ‘Aïda’, ‘Traviata’, and ‘Ring cycle’ but no reference to Simon Boccanegra or Tannhäuser. You will, however, find such entries as ‘[Verdi] and Teresa Stolz’ and ‘[Wagner] and King Ludwig’. Some musical works known by name or by nickname are indexed, but it is a fairly arbitrary list: [Schubert’s] Unfinished Symphony and [Mahler’s] Symphony of a Thousand, but not [Haydn’s] Surprise Symphony; Swan Lake, but not Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty.
What we do have is often trivial but interesting. It can hardly have affected Mendelssohn’s music, for example, to be told on page 350 that his front teeth ached from trying to pronounce the English ‘th’ and that his back teeth ached from chewing English mutton, but it is grist to the mill of snappers up of unconsidered trifles like myself. Perhaps rather more relevant is the information on the same page that Mendelssohn convalesced from an accident for two months with Thomas Attwood, a former pupil of Mozart.
Steen does occasionally seek to make value judgements. He implies, for example, that Hasse, who supplanted Vivaldi in the popular esteem, was a musical nobody: he writes ‘Who was Hasse?’ on page 32, yet he seems to think him important enough to warrant having his portrait displayed on the same page. Elsewhere he disparages Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory – it does have its moments, with its pre-echo of the 1812 Overture, but few are likely to seek to maintain that it is great music – and he is again on solid ground when he mentions those passages where even the likes of Wagner, Elgar or Sibelius seem to be writing on auto-pilot.
Occasionally Steen speculates about some of the ways in which the aspects of a composer’s life may have influenced the music. He notes that Schubert probably contacted syphilis at the end of 1822 or the beginning of 1823 and that “Possibly, this is why the Unfinished Symphony was unfinished”. He even seems to imply that, since b minor is an unusual key for a symphony, one associated in Schubert’s mind with sadness and loneliness, we may read these qualities into the music. (p.228). This is all very well, except that it ignores the possibility that the eighth symphony may not have been unfinished – Brian Newbould has actually constructed a plausible completion, though it rests on much less secure grounds than Mahler’s Tenth – and it fails to develop the idea by bringing into consideration such works as the String Quintet in C (D956) and the final Piano Sonata in B flat (D960), both filled with a sense of melancholy, but offset by ethereal beauty.
Steen is much more informative on one topic than Arthur Hutchings’ book on Schubert in the Dent Master Musicians series, an introduction to the composer and his music which many of us will have consulted. You will seek ‘syphilis’ in vain in the Index to this book, written in 1945 and revised in 1973: he merely writes that “the circumstances [of the illness] ... have led some writers to suspect venereal disease. Schubert worshippers, like Grove, are reticent on the subject.” (p.54) Thereafter Hutchings merely refers throughout to ‘his disease’. Steen has no such reticence: he offers all the gory details on pp.228-9 and 236.
Similarly, there are plenty of details about Chopin’s consumption on pp.382-4. Perhaps more importantly, the details which Steen gives of Mozart’s final illness and, particularly, his short analysis of the conspiracy theories on pp.169-70 provide enough information to refute the ‘facts’ contained in the play and film Amadeus. He cannot, however, resist a little dig at Constanze for burying her second husband in better state than her first (p.168) when it would have been impossible for her to have interred Mozart on her return to Vienna – by imperial order, for reasons of hygiene, only the nobility were exempt at the time from burial in a common grave. (About a hundred years earlier, O du lieber Augustin was composed about a drunkard who had been thrown by mistake into such a common grave and woke up the next morning to find that Alles ist weg.)
At the same time as completing this book review, I have been listening to the Hallé recording of Götterdämmerung, directed by Mark Elder – a wonderful recording which I shall be nominating Bargain of the Month, on five CDs (CDHLD7525) or a single mp3 CD (CDHLM7530). (See the MusicWeb International purchase button). You will search in vain in The Great Musicians for much information about this opera or the rest of the Ring cycle, apart from such snippets as a footnote on p.487 about Alberich and his longing for power, as portrayed in das Rheingold. Of Götterdämmerung you will merely discover on the same page that it and Siegfried received their premieres at Bayreuth in the late summer of 1876 and that ‘Wagner rather luckily caught the Kaiser as he tripped and fell’.
Clearly, limits have to be set to the size of a book like this. Lovers of early music – late medieval, renaissance and baroque – will be disappointed to find 1680 set as the starting point and the coverage ends with composers who were already well established in the first half of the 20th century. On the other hand, 984 pages is already almost unfeasibly large for a paperback if it is not to split its spine with usage. There is a Prelude which sets the 17th century musical scene in Italy and Germany, but you will look in vain for anything on Tallis, Byrd, Dowland or even Purcell. Perhaps a word or two about the English scene would have been more useful than the tables of Bourbon Kings and Habsburg Emperors on pages 969-70.
Steen is a little chary about evaluating even such well-established later 20th century composers as Walton and Tippett, neither of whose names can be found in the Index, though he mentions them on p.382 only to imply that their value has not yet been established. Surely they do now have an established position in the repertoire; to exclude them is as indefensible as the refusal when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s to admit any literature later than Tennyson or, at the very latest, Swinburne, to the English syllabus at Oxford because no-one could properly evaluate poetry as recent as that of T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden or Robert Graves, despite that fact that Auden and Graves were successive holders of the seat of Professor of Poetry in my time.
The system of having asterisked and double-asterisked footnotes on each page and numbered references in an appendix at the back of the book is somewhat cumbersome, especially when the asterisked footnotes sometimes themselves have numbered references embedded in them. It’s surely better either to have all the notes in an appendix, which makes each page look much cleaner, or to have the convenience of all the notes and references at the foot of the page. Some of the asterisked footnotes turn into short essays in themselves, something with post-graduate students are strongly advised to avoid in their dissertations and which you will very rarely, if ever, find in MusicWeb International reviews. There is a very useful and lengthy Bibliography for those who wish to follow up particular topics in greater detail.
The Bibliography is a bit of an omnium gatherum, however, and might more usefully have been organised into groups of books on related topics. As it is, the Penguin Classics translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is placed in close proximity to a biography of Jane Austen and The Cambridge Companion to Handel. The biography of Jane Austen seems somewhat irrelevant when she is mentioned in the book only in a passing reference to consumption; I failed to locate the reference to her on p.222, as promised in the Index and, in any case, music and composers hardly played a large part in her novels, where she restricted herself to what she knew best, her famous bit of ivory.
Books of this kind are less common than they were when Dylan Thomas poked fun at them by making the henpecked Mr Pugh read The Lives of the Great Poisoners as he took up his wife’s breakfast. It’s all too easy to make fun – did we really need to know that Wagner stopped the Kaiser from tripping? – or to point to the deficiencies, but The Lives and Times of the Great Composers carries out its limited brief with distinction. Nevertheless, I would advise serious students of music to save the £12.99 towards part of the cost of the Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music (for around £25) or The Oxford Companion to Music (£40, but on offer from Amazon UK for £25.40 as I write).
Brian Wilson
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