Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.
In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:
• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.
• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.
• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.
• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!
• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.
• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”