Serial composition

30th August 1996 at 01:00
20TH CENTURY COMPOSERS SERIES

Phaidon Pounds 14.99 each

Phaidon's new series of short illustrated biographies of 20th-century composers sounds like the answer to a music-librarian's prayer. These are going to emerge, a handful at a time, between now and the millennium; should we buy them like a part-work?

On the evidence of the first six to appear, I would say look before you leap. They make an impressive spread: Webern, Bartok, and American pioneers from Ives to Cage are joined by the Beatles (not quite a first, that, since Wilfrid Melers devoted a serious tome to the Mersy mop-heads 20 years ago). They have all been given the same, very engaging, visual look, but this conceals extraordinary fluctuations in literary quality. I will confine myself to a discussion of the best and worst.

First, the worst. Guy Rickards's Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze is based on the interesting premise that these three composers, despite their disparities in age and the fact that they never met as a trio, throw communal light on German culture, and are reciprocally illuminated by it. A nice idea for a triple biography - but not the way it's done here.

Rickards has tried to present his three narratives in a seamless whole, and from one paragraph to the next you jump from one to another. This could be done successfully - by a really clever writer - though even then the brain would reel. Since Rickards is not a clever writer - trudging textbook prose is his characteristic mode - the result is simply unreadable.

The best of the bunch is Michael Oliver's Igor Stravinsky. Yet another book on the century's greatest composer might seem nugatory, but this one is pure delight. Oliver has an easy, personal style which only occasionally gets technically clogged (as when he tries to pinpoint the essence of Stravinsky's serial mode). His account is fired by enthusiasm, and he wears his learning lightly, but he does full justice both to the life and the scope of the work.

And he offers some penetrating insights: notably, the fear of disorder which the composer was left with as a result of his uprooting and impoverishment by revolution, and his 20-year period of statelessness. Oliver's discussion of Stravinsky's attitude to Russia is a fascinating connecting thread.

He gives due weight to the great man's quirks - his medicine-collecting and his obsession with keeping a body-beautiful - and he doesn't skate over Stravinsky's awkward relations with his children, or his late-blooming relationship with his surrogate musical son, the musicologist Robert Craft. And even as a picture-book, this should win a prize.

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