Favourite music related reads at the UL

Symphony for the city of the dead /
M.T. Anderson (M674.c.201.29)

A few weeks ago, Kate posted about the perils of classifying music literature at the UL. During my fifteen years here, I’ve had my fair share of music related reads, and thought I would share some of my favourites here.

Very recently M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the city of the dead (M674.c.201.29) arrived on my desk for classification. I was completely gripped by the subject matter, the cover artwork and a quick scan of the first few pages. The siege of Leningrad and the music that came out of it has long been an interest of mine, and I couldn’t resist it; but this was to prove a rather different read to what I was expecting.

What I hadn’t realised was that M.T. Anderson is best known as an author of children’s books. Symphony is an account of the life of Shostakovich, with particular emphasis on the war years and the writing of the 7th “Leningrad” Symphony. Aimed primarily at the Young Adult market, it would be easy to dismiss this book, but please don’t – I found it to be one of the most compelling accounts of Shostakovich’s life and times that I have ever read.

In an odd way the simplicity of Anderson’s language makes the brutality of the events he writes about even more sharply focused. It’s a profoundly moving book, that had me eating, drinking, and talking endlessly about Shostakovich for some weeks. There’s a fuller review of the book here.

Also focusing on the war years is Fania Fenelon’s autobiography The musicians of Auschwitz (539:1.c.810.276) (also published as Playing for time). Fenelon was a cabaret singer, who was interned in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Encouraged to volunteer for the camp orchestra, Fenelon’s musical memory was put to good use, when she arranged music for the band. Some of the musicians were extraordinary – the conductor, Alma Rose, was Mahler’s niece, other musicians included the cellist, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch; while others hung on to the little musical talent they had as a way to survive. Fenelon’s book has not been without controversy, but it remains one of the most powerful memoirs to come out of the camps.

A much happier read, and thoroughly engrossing for anyone who loves a good detective story is Paperchase : Mozart, Beethoven, Bach – the search for their lost music by Nigel Lewis (M472.c.95.11). In 1943 fifty crates of music were evacuated from Berlin. They headed to a secret destination somewhere in Silesia, and then were moved several times spending the end of the war in a monastery. When the war ended however other precious manuscripts returned to Berlin, but the music manuscripts had disappeared. Lewis traces their fate, along with the gossip that surrounded them, and a host of curious characters (including bizarrely an English zoologist) who attempted to track down the manuscripts. It’s a captivating and occasionally surreal tale.

Also rather surreal is Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. I found this both fascinating and frustrating – part biographical, part an exploration into how music has been reinvented through the invention, and technological improvements, of recorded sound. It ranges through the lives of Bach and his interpreters (Stokowski, Casals, Gould etc.), Bach as Muzak, and Bach as consolation; and even the post-Bach life of Bach’s church.

Elie is not a musician, and sometimes this is obvious. The book itself is often unwieldy jumping from Glenn Gould shutting himself away from the concert hall to a nude Stokowski sunbathing, from musings on the life of Bach to a thinly veiled rant about the popularity of period instrument performances. Bach is seen as the catalyst for any changes / advances in music, and although some of this is undoubtedly true, it seemed to be mainly the over-enthusiasm of a loving fan.

However….despite the oddities, and occasionally infuriating moments, I thoroughly enjoyed Reinventing Bach (M520.c.201.56). Whether or not you agree with Elie’s conclusions, it was a thoughtful book, that forced you the reader, and Bach lover, to think about your own relationship with his music, and the changes that advances in recording technology have made to music. It’s not an academic book, but as a fascinating dip into the history of the genius that was Bach, and for the changing face of music and its uses in the modern age, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Much more academic, but also thoroughly enjoyable is the wonderfully named Bach’s Feet (M614.b.201.2) by David Yearsley. One for the organ geeks, this is a history of the evolution of the pedal-board. That might not sound the most exciting of topics, but Yearsley’s sheer joy for the instrument shines through, and makes this a surprisingly riveting read.

My final choice is an oddity. A book about an area of film music history that has largely been forgotten – music for silent films. I love Motion picture moods for pianists and organists by Erno Rapee (M735.b.95.2). First published in 1924, Rapee’s anthology contains everything that the cinematic pianist or organist might need. Does the film you have to accompany involve an orgy? Why not use the fourth movement from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. News from Venezuela or Uruguay? There will be an appropriate national song. While Langey’s Agitato no. 3 is “suitable for gruesome or infernal scenes, witches, etc”. It’s a delightful volume – very dated, but all the more entertaining because of that.

So come along to the UL and have a browse through our shelves. You may be surprised what you find…





About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to Favourite music related reads at the UL

  1. Pingback: Sing, bright Cecilia | MusiCB3 Blog

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