Daniel Felsenfeld's book
'Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten.
Their lives and their music',
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER
This is the second in Amadeus's 'Parallel Lives' series; the first, on Ives and Copland, is also by Daniel Felsenfeld.
The first section, 'Biographical Sketches' gives necessarily brief, but reasonably clear, outlines of each composer's life. Too often, though, brevity lapses into sketchiness. The single paragraph on Britten's studies with Frank Bridge ignores the affection between the two, dismissing Bridge (on what evidence?) as 'authoritarian' and 'stodgy'. Indeed, Felsenfeld's tendency to skate lightly over the facts produces a string of inaccuracies which undermine confidence in him as a historian (all the more worrying in a book intended for readers not in a position to refute him). It was news to me that Shostakovich was ever in Hollywood (page 25); Schoenberg and Stravinsky were there, it is true, but they can hardly be said to have cashed in on the film boom, as Felsenfeld claims. George Crabbe's 'most famous poem' is not about Peter Grimes (page 26); he is simply one of its many characters. The bald statement that Britten was 'asked' to write Gloriana for the 1953 Coronation glosses over the way the commission grew out of preliminary discussions (page 34). Felsenfeld's comment that 'every bar' of The Prince of the Pagodas is 'steeped in the notions of Balinese musical process ...' (page 35) is a wild overstatement. And so on.
The account of Barber's life is similarly bedevilled. The String Quartet was not 'scrapped' (page 49, and again on page 143). Night Flight is not 'also called the Second Symphony' (page 53) -- it is the one movement Barber retained when he withdrew the rest of the work.
Two 'Essays' form the centre of the book. Felsenfeld's discussion of Britten's sexuality and its implications is a useful introduction for first-time readers, rightly drawing their attention to the outsiders who populate his operas. He raises the question of how much a composer's private life can -- should -- affect our response to their work, but makes a point of leaving it in the air for readers to consider for themselves.
In describing the circumstances surrounding the disastrous première of Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra Felsenfeld points the finger mainly at Rudolf Bing and Franco Zeffirelli, but concludes that 'perhaps it was just another unfortunate victim of troubled times' (there are a lot of 'perhaps'es in this book).
In the Introduction Felsenfeld states his aim of writing for 'the willing yet musically uninitiated soul'. Such readers stand to gain most from his third section, 'Listening', in which he guides them through the works on the accompanying CD, with references to specific time-points on the relevant tracks. All the recordings come from the Naxos catalogue -- Britten's Peter Grimes Passacaglia, Serenade and the last scene of The Turn of the Screw (the discussion includes a scene-by scene account of the whole opera); Barber's Adagio, Knoxville and Second Essay. He also discusses two works not on the CD, Britten's Third String Quartet and Barber's Piano Sonata, so giving newcomers a couple of useful leads to follow up.
Copyright © 6 September 2005
Mike Wheeler, Derby UK