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He offers some useful insights, as when he suggests that the compliments on Miles's 'clever' piano-playing in Act 2 Scene 6 of Screw contain 'shades of Britten's childhood'. He has valuable advice for the first-time listener on approaching opera in general: 'Even when you listen only ... do your best to envision the action, because the composer certainly did.' I like his suggestion that the horn solo in Britten's Serenade acts as a 'shadow tenor', and his explanation of the natural tuning in the work's Prologue should answer most newcomers' questions.

He can, though, be oddly inconsistent. He leans over backwards to define (sometimes more than once) technical musical terms for his uninitiated readers (though his explanation of 'agogic accent' is completely off-beam); yet he assumes other areas of knowledge, twice dropping in the word 'agon' without explanation, and overlooking the identification of Ben Johnson's 'Queen and Huntress' with the goddess Diana and the moon. Similarly he offers no explanation of terms like 'Dadaist' (page 144) and 'Proustian' (page 152). He describes Britten's Quartet no 3 as a 'small work' on page 134, but on the next page he refers to its 'epic, sprawling scale'. In his discussion of Britten's Serenade he fails to mention the essential point that the horn-player performs the Epilogue offstage.

He gives us the words of the Serenade but only isolated short phrases from those of Knoxville, at appropriate points in his text (copyright difficulties? lack of space?). 'Suggested Further Reading' offers a useful list of titles.

Felsenfeld's relaxed style occasionally becomes over-casual (Variation 11 in The Turn of the Screw 'ups the spookiness quotient'), though only once does it plummet to cringe-worthy depths of banality: 'Thankfully for Barber (and the entire free world) Hitler managed to lose the war ...' (page 54). Actual typos are few -- 'Gain Carlo [hyphen omitted] Menotti' (page 1), 'Music for a Scene from Shelly' (page 47).

Occasionally the anti-academic, anti-modernist chip on Felsenfeld's shoulder looms large (he airs his clear but, in the present circumstances, irrelevant disdain for Boulez when he can).

Felsenfeld's 'willing but musically uninitiated' souls need books like this. So it is frustrating that this one contains so many inaccuracies, misleading half-truths, sweeping generalisations and passages of inept writing and slip-shod editing.

Copyright © 6 September 2005 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK


Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber.
Their lives and their music

Daniel Felsenfeld

Amadeus Press, 2005
ISBN 1-57467-108-1, paperback, 180 pages
Includes a full-length Naxos CD


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