Commentary Magazine


Topic: Leonard Bernstein

What “Unacceptable” Is

David P. Goldman, who wrote for years under the nom de plume “Spengler,” is a brilliant and cultivated man; I asked him last year to review a book for COMMENTARY about Leonard Bernstein, and he obliged with a fascinating and tough piece. He is now an editor at First Things, the monthly magazine of religion and public life edited by my old friend and colleague Jody Bottum. We have genuine disagreements, notably about the value of American politico-military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan that go by the name “nation-building,” but they stem from the same root — a conviction that the West is under ideological assault and needs defending from its Islamofascist enemies.

But Goldman has now, I think, stepped beyond the pale both intellectually, ideologically, and as a simple matter of taste, expressing a sentiment about President Obama that might be explicable in the midst of a beer-and-scotch-addled late-night bull session in a dorm room but not in the precincts of an important publication. At the end of an item on the Iranian nuclear threat and the disastrous condition of American-Israeli relations, Goldman writes:

Obama is the loyal son of a left-wing anthropologist mother who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men. He is a Third World anthropologist studying us, learning our culture and our customs the better to neutralize what he considers to be a malignant American influence in world affairs.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, disgusting. In the first place, Obama is not responsible for his mother or her political views, any more than Ronald Reagan should have been be held accountable for the fact that his father was a drunk. In the second place, Goldman’s speculation about her sexual history is appalling in about a hundred different ways. I’m sure I’d hold no brief for Stanley Ann Dunham, but the idea that the lower-middle-class daughter of a furniture salesman from Mercer Island, Washington, would be awash in “white guilt” — far more a species of upper-middle-class Northeastern opinion — speaks more of Goldman’s inability to achieve imaginative sympathy with someone from circumstances different from his than it does anything about the president or his family.

Finally, there is Goldman’s description of Obama, who lived for less than a year in Indonesia from age 6 to age 10, as a “Third World anthropologist studying us.” Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years. There is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in college.

Goldman wrote a piece for First Things last year in which he revealed his history as a member of the bizarre and paranoid political cult around the extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Goldman intended the article to be an explanation of and break from his past. But thinking of the sort revealed in this blog item is in the direct line of descent from LaRouche’s vision of the world. It appears you can take the man out of LaRouche, but you can’t take LaRouche out of the man.

The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits. His domestic-policy proposals and foreign-policy ideas constitute a profound challenge to the good working order of the United States and the world. Spewing repellent nonsense about Obama’s mother and spinning bizarre notions about his innate foreignness — when he is in fact the possessor of one of the great and enduring American stories, and is in his own person a demonstration of precisely the kind of American exceptionalism that Obama so pointedly pooh-poohs — can be used to discredit his opposition. That is why I find it necessary to take such public exception to Goldman’s unacceptable musings.

David P. Goldman, who wrote for years under the nom de plume “Spengler,” is a brilliant and cultivated man; I asked him last year to review a book for COMMENTARY about Leonard Bernstein, and he obliged with a fascinating and tough piece. He is now an editor at First Things, the monthly magazine of religion and public life edited by my old friend and colleague Jody Bottum. We have genuine disagreements, notably about the value of American politico-military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan that go by the name “nation-building,” but they stem from the same root — a conviction that the West is under ideological assault and needs defending from its Islamofascist enemies.

But Goldman has now, I think, stepped beyond the pale both intellectually, ideologically, and as a simple matter of taste, expressing a sentiment about President Obama that might be explicable in the midst of a beer-and-scotch-addled late-night bull session in a dorm room but not in the precincts of an important publication. At the end of an item on the Iranian nuclear threat and the disastrous condition of American-Israeli relations, Goldman writes:

Obama is the loyal son of a left-wing anthropologist mother who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men. He is a Third World anthropologist studying us, learning our culture and our customs the better to neutralize what he considers to be a malignant American influence in world affairs.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, disgusting. In the first place, Obama is not responsible for his mother or her political views, any more than Ronald Reagan should have been be held accountable for the fact that his father was a drunk. In the second place, Goldman’s speculation about her sexual history is appalling in about a hundred different ways. I’m sure I’d hold no brief for Stanley Ann Dunham, but the idea that the lower-middle-class daughter of a furniture salesman from Mercer Island, Washington, would be awash in “white guilt” — far more a species of upper-middle-class Northeastern opinion — speaks more of Goldman’s inability to achieve imaginative sympathy with someone from circumstances different from his than it does anything about the president or his family.

Finally, there is Goldman’s description of Obama, who lived for less than a year in Indonesia from age 6 to age 10, as a “Third World anthropologist studying us.” Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years. There is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in college.

Goldman wrote a piece for First Things last year in which he revealed his history as a member of the bizarre and paranoid political cult around the extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Goldman intended the article to be an explanation of and break from his past. But thinking of the sort revealed in this blog item is in the direct line of descent from LaRouche’s vision of the world. It appears you can take the man out of LaRouche, but you can’t take LaRouche out of the man.

The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits. His domestic-policy proposals and foreign-policy ideas constitute a profound challenge to the good working order of the United States and the world. Spewing repellent nonsense about Obama’s mother and spinning bizarre notions about his innate foreignness — when he is in fact the possessor of one of the great and enduring American stories, and is in his own person a demonstration of precisely the kind of American exceptionalism that Obama so pointedly pooh-poohs — can be used to discredit his opposition. That is why I find it necessary to take such public exception to Goldman’s unacceptable musings.

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Bookshelf

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

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Dave Brubeck

On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

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On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

Brubeck has avoided faculty meetings to this day, and his classically-influenced jazz has duly drawn some criticism from academic purists. His 1961 jazz musical The Real Ambassadors is a quintessential anti-purist work, involving collaboration with Louis Armstrong to address subjects from Civil Rights to the Cold War. Textual complexity makes The Real Ambassadors especially intriguing listening.

A more grandiose, four-square example of Brubeck’s mixing of genres is his 1969 cantata The Gates of Justice, which contains musical settings from the Old Testament, Hillel the Elder, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Rerecorded in 2001 for Naxos with a resonant tenor soloist, Alberto Mizrahi, who serves as Hazzan for Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, Brubeck’s Gates of Justice is no less than an attempt to reconcile African-Americans and Jews. Its 1960’s-era social ambitions may belong to a more idealistic age, but Gates of Justice’s kaleidoscopic range puts it in the category of good crossover music, like the best of Leonard Bernstein. When Brubeck performs, he does not tread lightly on the keyboard; yet in life, he always treads the path of righteousness.

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Old Gould

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Read More

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Some readers may be allergic to the Second Vienna School, but Gould was one of the rare pianists (like Italy’s Maurizio Pollini, who played Arnold Schoenberg’s works with genuine love. A 1960’s meeting with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the Schoenberg “Phantasy,” has a feeling of affection (tied to Gould’s admiration for Menuhin) unmatched in the discography. A gentler version of Schoenberg’s modernist investigations came from the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen (1887– 1952). Gould found spooky poetry in Valen’s work, too.

All of these achievements are essential elements of Gould’s artistry, and those who love—or dismiss—Gould based on his Bach recordings alone are missing the forest for the trees. Some who admire Gould’s Bach have missed his obsessively intense recording of Johann Sebastian’s “Art of Fugue” on the organ. Yes, Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” from 1955 and 1981 are both remarkable, but they are not the summa of all things Gouldian. Yes, there are bad recordings by Gould, like his Mozart sonatas (music he despised) or his famously ungainly 1962 Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein. Yet the best of Gould is splendid indeed.

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Endgame for the Jerusalem Symphony?

Last month’s decree by the Jerusalem Regional Court—that the 78 musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) must be paid their salaries until October 14—is a reprieve for the much-beleaguered orchestra. In June, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority cut funding of the JSO from $2.7 to $1.2 million, and the orchestra was expected to disband by July 15. Judge Ezra Kama ruled that the JSO and the Broadcasting Authority must develop a recovery plan for the future. Let’s hope so.

The JSO’s annual budget is about $4.2 million, only one quarter of the annual budget of the Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which is funded in part by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic. The JSO has its own American Friends organization, befitting an ensemble founded 69 years ago.

The IPO (which feted its own 70th anniversary this year) has attracted a series of star conductors from its first concert in 1936 led by Arturo Toscanini, and continuing with William Steinberg, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Paray, and Jean Martinon. Zubin Mehta has been the orchestra’s flamboyant and charismatic Music Director for some 30 years. The IPO has made over 100 recordings with conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Paul Kletzki, Carlo Maria Giulini, and István Kertész.

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Last month’s decree by the Jerusalem Regional Court—that the 78 musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) must be paid their salaries until October 14—is a reprieve for the much-beleaguered orchestra. In June, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority cut funding of the JSO from $2.7 to $1.2 million, and the orchestra was expected to disband by July 15. Judge Ezra Kama ruled that the JSO and the Broadcasting Authority must develop a recovery plan for the future. Let’s hope so.

The JSO’s annual budget is about $4.2 million, only one quarter of the annual budget of the Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which is funded in part by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic. The JSO has its own American Friends organization, befitting an ensemble founded 69 years ago.

The IPO (which feted its own 70th anniversary this year) has attracted a series of star conductors from its first concert in 1936 led by Arturo Toscanini, and continuing with William Steinberg, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Paray, and Jean Martinon. Zubin Mehta has been the orchestra’s flamboyant and charismatic Music Director for some 30 years. The IPO has made over 100 recordings with conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Paul Kletzki, Carlo Maria Giulini, and István Kertész.

The JSO has experienced less glittery (if solid) podium leadership from Americans Lukas Foss and Lawrence Foster, as well as Israeli musicians Mendi Rodan, Gary Bertini, and David Shallon. In 2000, Shallon died unexpectedly of an asthma attack on a musical tour of Japan, dealing a severe blow to the JSO’s future. More recently, the conductor and President of Bard College Leon Botstein has labored for the orchestra’s survival by fundraising and updating the orchestra’s repertoire. The JSO’s U.S. tour last year earned mixed reviews, but its programming of works by Martinů and Prokofiev was refreshing.

The JSO has made few studio recordings of note, yet the doughty small label Doremi has published a series of its live recordings with the pianist Pnina Salzman (1922-2006), who was known as Israel’s First Lady of the Piano, and who had been student of the famed keyboard pedagogues Alfred Cortot and Magda Tagliaferro. Salzman’s lively temperament matches the JSO’s rough and ready enthusiasm in Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” from 1968; d’ Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air for piano & orchestra” from 1973; and Chopin’s “Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante” from 1979.

More than political or financial debates, such concrete examples of performances on CD persuade us of the JSO’s irreplaceability. If the orchestra does fold, Israel will still be left with the IPO, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, and the Rishon LeZion Symphony Orchestra, among others. Yet we cannot help feeling that Jerusalem the Golden would become a trifle tarnished if its orchestra were somehow allowed to fold. Music lovers, wherever they may be, should therefore paraphrase the Psalmist and declare: “If we forget thee, O Jerusalem Symphony, may our CD players lose their cunning…”

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Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Getting to Know Beverly Sills

Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

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Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

A far better way to honor Sills would be to address a problem mentioned in an astute obituary by critic Tim Page: the fact that Sills made most of her studio recordings after her voice had already begun to deteriorate. Exceptions may be heard on VAI, including a 1969 concert DVD of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a 1964 Offenbach Tales of Hoffmann from New Orleans, and a 1968 Handel Julius Caesar from Buenos Aires, conducted by Karl Richter. Deutsche Grammophon alos offers a few choice recordings, including a 1958 Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, a 1969 Donizetti Roberto Devereux led by Charles Mackerras, and a 1970 Donizetti Lucia Di Lammermoor conducted by Thomas Schippers. These and a few other high points are slim pickings for a singer who banked on the sensuous sheen of her voice as a major part of her artistry, in addition to acting smarts and a surprisingly agile stage presence. Sills’s actual performing is probably less known today than her post-retirement persona of jolly, steel-willed fundraiser and promoter of culture.

Getting closer to Beverly Sills—and away from Sylvia Bills—would require transferring to CD a number of surviving performance tapes. They would include a 1967 Handel Semele from Cleveland led by Robert Shaw, and a 1966 production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie co-starring Placido Domingo. Sills’s work in contemporary music, like a Boston performance of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza from 1965 conducted by Bruno Maderna, or a 1959 New York City Opera staging of Hugo Weisgall’s Pirandello-based opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, should be of high interest. Roles that Sills eventually repudiated for extra-musical reasons (like the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, which can be heard in a 1966 Tanglewood version led by Erich Leinsdorf, or Suor Angelica in a 1967 City Opera performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico) would also make essential listening on CD.

Add to these a number of concert works never recorded in the studio, like a 1967 rendition of Poulenc’s Gloria from the Caramoor Festival, and a number of Boston Symphony events conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, like a 1966 Schumann Scenes from Goethe’s Faust; 1967 and 1968 versions of Haydn’s Creation Mass; and a 1969 Beethoven Ninth Symphony from Tanglewood. These and other documents from her vocal prime, if made available on CD, would be revelatory posthumous tributes to Beverly Sills.

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Bookshelf

• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

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• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

It would, I suppose, be all but impossible to write an unreadable book about Da Ponte. He was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and married at 43, having hitherto conducted his private life along lines not unlike those of his old friend Giacomo Casanova, in evidence of which I offer these two deliciously characteristic sentences from his Memoirs:

A beautiful girl of sixteen (I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but . . . ) was living in the house with her mother, who took care of the family, and would come to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth, I rang the bell quite often, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration flagging.

A famously charming fellow far more interested in writing poetry than performing his priestly duties, the Abbé Da Ponte was duly expelled from Venice and made his way to Vienna, where he somehow contrived to become the Emperor Joseph II’s house librettist. There he began his collaboration with Mozart, for whom he wrote what are now generally regarded as the first great opera libretti. He also continued his friendship with Casanova, who was, believe it or not, present at the first performance of Don Giovanni, a coincidence that is almost too good to be true.

Bolt writes very well about the Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration, especially the creation of Così, a worldly, startlingly modern comedy of disillusionment and acceptance whose emotional complexities are no more easily unraveled in 2007 than they were in 1790:

Mozart and Da Ponte created a work that would have critics arguing for centuries, berating it then rescuing it, damning it for its cynicism and triviality, lauding it for its complexity . . . Mozart’s music enriched Da Ponte’s libretto with shades and further ambiguities, softening crueler edges, adding lacquer-layers of meaning and affection, pointing moments of satire. As before, composer and poet delicately stitched the comic and the serious together, and made their mix even more complex by an interplay of real and faked emotions, histrionic bombast and moments of transporting beauty . . . Così fan tutte was Les Liaisons dangereuses with heart.

From Vienna Da Ponte made his way to London, then New York, where he became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian after having run a grocery store and a bookshop whose customers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Presumably he was the only person to have known Longfellow, Mozart, and Casanova.) All these adventures and many others like them are skillfully recounted in The Librettist of Venice, and if Rodney Bolt occasionally fails to make them especially plausible-sounding . . . well, sometimes real life is like that.

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Bookshelf

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

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