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The best books on Classical Music

recommended by Igor Toronyi-Lalic

'They don’t actually want to know anything, other than that this is a holy great art form beyond any other, that creates these über-geniuses who have no flaws and can do no wrong.'

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What is your first book?

Shaw’s Music. I think all these books are very good for demystifying the whole process of music-making, and George Bernard Shaw was great at that. He represented a school that was aiming at shedding the pomposity and pretentiousness in music criticism. He takes a very witty, very down-to-earth approach.

He’ll spend as much time on the officiousness of provincial stewards and ushers as he will on the music and whoever is singing. He’s got a very good eye for those details that make it more relevant and interesting to the non-musical ear. His reviews are so much fun – almost every week I go back to another, and they’ve got brilliant titles as well: ‘Murder by the Bach Choir’, ‘Stuffing a Sonata’. They’re brilliantly digressive and quite arrogant in some ways, and he’s often talking about his personal inconveniences, but it’s always fun.

Shaw was also a great pioneer: he championed all sorts of composers we now take for granted, like Gluck, and he was particularly keen on the early music revival at that time, which has now become incredibly important, with a whole different audience for that music: Handel, Purcell, and early Baroque music like Scarlatti.

Quite important to the direction of 20th century music?

Yes, definitely, and that’s also why I chose The Bach Choir by Andrew Parrot. It’s detective work in some ways, dealing with the hugely contentious issue of how many people Bach wanted to sing in his great choral works: the Passions and the B Minor Mass. This may seem a very esoteric subject, but manuscripts like this essentially seem to blow away all received wisdom on how we should hear Bach. He goes through various written sources, iconographical sources, scientific analyses of acoustics and various other things to argue that Bach did not want a large choir. He most likely wanted the four soloists to sing throughout the St Matthew Passion, which is a huge task: it’s three hours long.

The book also brings out some brilliant detail, like the fact that boys’ voices used to break much later then ­– on average at around 17 or 18 ­– and this radically changes our idea that you can have these moving arias being sung by eight- or nine-year-olds. It’s always struck me as preposterous to do that – you have to have someone who’s had at least some understanding of what it is to be an adult. It’s a convincing argument that totally transforms how you have to do the Passions, so it’s a very important book in the sense it can radically change our view of some of the greatest musical works. It brings up the age-old argument of whether one follows the composer to the letter, or goes with the maestro – the interpreter of these works – and in the early 20th century the conductor often saw themselves as above the composer and what they wanted.

Tell me about The Maestro Myth.

It’s simply the best book on conductors you have: I don’t know any other that so honestly pricks the pomposity of the whole thing, and contextualises it, and introduces gossip (in the best possible way), as well as anecdotal evidence that sheds a huge amount of light on these characters we think of as mythical beings. The book’s premise, I guess, is that the conductor is a 20th-century invention, partly sustained by commercial necessity and the recording industry. The proliferation of orchestras means that you have to sustain the idea of the orchestral conductor as a full profession. Before, you had composer-conductors, and conductors who did various other things, but they were never exclusively conductors until the very late 19th century. Mainly it’s about how this monster was born, because for many orchestral players conductors are monsters, and to many ordinary punters they’re figures of complete bafflement.

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What Lebrecht does is to show how some conductors did very little and just reaped a huge amount of money, and how some did a lot, but that much of that was down to charisma, psychology, and management – it’s a management role. These conductors were highly-strung individuals who had to navigate this incredibly precarious position. They were paid so much more than the average orchestral member so you have to, as a necessity, build this idea of yourself as some titan in order to sustain the sums and the wages you get. Lebrecht is one of the first to expose Mazel as being the first million-dollar conductor, and he has a table of the biggest-paid conductors of the last century.

There’s a lot of reverence shown to conductors, and this book really goes in between the cracks and uncovers all sorts of brilliant stories you’d never find anywhere else. Lebrecht has spoken to members of the New York Philharmonic, which was famously intemperate and got rid of its conductors every two years, and each one had a nervous breakdown or fled or had massive issues. Rodzinski, when he was there, conducted with a gun in his pocket. These stories are fun, but they have pertinence, because a good performance comes down to these personal relationships: a flautist won’t play well for the maestro if he’s been treated badly, and that often happens.

Has this book helped tame the monsters at all?

I think the reaction has been a lockdown on anyone leaking this sort of information, actually. At the time it was published there were quite a few exposés – classical music was a quite naive art form in many ways, they’d built this myth and hadn’t covered their tracks, and if you spoke to any orchestral members they’d just tell you the truth of it all. But I think now we’re back in this realm of mystification, partly because that’s what people want classical music to be. They don’t actually want to know anything, other than that this is a holy great art form beyond any other, that creates these über-geniuses who have no flaws and can do no wrong. This book I think is a very good antidote to that. On the back the reviews all say ‘masterpiece’ etc, but one says, ‘This may be the most disgusting book I’ve ever read,’ and I think I know what he means.

What is The Rest is Noise about?

It’s an account of 20th century classical music, which can be quite a hard sell, but Alex Ross entwines it with the social history of the century, because that really is how the music makes sense. He does it quite brilliantly: it’s instantly been hailed as a classic. No one else has done a book on the 20th century with such colour and brilliance; this is a total tour de force. It whisks us through the various big events and big figures and also small figures like West Coast radical, mad polytonal composers like Harry Partch, who one would never know about – he weaves it into a really convincing narrative that makes total sense. All my friends who’ve picked it up who don’t know anything about music have suddenly understood 20th century music, and it is an amazing thing to have done something like that.

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At times it reads like a novel almost: it’s got a real narrative thread. And there are lots of brilliant details that you would never otherwise get – personal accounts that Ross has taken from various figures. There’s a great portrait of Messiaen, who wrote this incredibly strange music: always glorifying God, but in the most seamy, slinky way. A very odd combination of sex and God, but Messiaen himself was completely without any dark side, and the description of this is so well drawn. Ross asks Nagano, a conductor who used to work very closely with Messiaen, for some dirt really, trying to find out where all this sex comes from. But the only story Nagano comes up with is an anecdote in which he remembers Messiaen and his wife devouring an entire pear tart at one sitting. That’s the worst he can uncover.

Your last book?

The A-Z of Pianists. It’s quite a humble thing: just a reference book really, but it’s incredible in its scope. If you are into music, then you’re almost certainly fascinated by the piano, and this book gives the pianophile everything he needs. Piano history is made up of these great figures, but there are also a huge number of incredible second-tier figures, who were brilliant at a single composer or did one good recording or were big figures in their country alone and only recently have their recordings come to light, and this book unearths them. I found so many gems just by flicking through. It comes with four CDs, which give a few choice obscurities from the oldest-ever recordings – I think 1912 – by Ferruccio Busoni and Eugen d’Albert. These extraordinary figures really important to the development of piano technique, figures you thought we didn’t even have on record.

Then there’s an A-Z with a simple little biography detailing big events in their lives, prizes they’ve won, appointments they’ve had, a selected recordings bit, and then, depending on who they are, two to three pages on their life and trajectory, and sometimes a cursory attempt to say why they’re considered in high regard, or what’s flawed about them for some people. I think it’s unique: you can’t get this amount of information in Grove or in any other book that I know. There’s nothing this up-to-date.

August 12, 2010

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Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Igor Toronyi-Lalic writes on opera, classical music and the arts for The Times, Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Opera and Opera Now. He is the Classical Music Editor at, Britain’s first professionally produced arts critical website, as well being as one of the site’s founding members.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Igor Toronyi-Lalic writes on opera, classical music and the arts for The Times, Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Opera and Opera Now. He is the Classical Music Editor at, Britain’s first professionally produced arts critical website, as well being as one of the site’s founding members.