Today, A Superfluous Man reviews two popular works on the lives and work of Mozart and Puccini.
Title: Mozart: A Life, by Peter Gay
Completed: July 25, 2012 (#55)
Prof. Gay, the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, proves that scholarly eminence need not come at the expense of brevity and style. This is “warts and all” biography, yet Prof. Gay is not stingy about expressing his admiration for Mozart’s genius, “a rank that the most unsentimental biographer cannot deny him.” Most engrossing are Prof. Gay’s musicological passages: few art or music critics avoid the pitfalls of jargon and windiness, but like Jacques Barzun, Prof. Gay wears his scholarship lightly. Popular biography at its very best—there is no good excuse not to read a 192-page book of this caliber on a subject like Mozart. (If you are not reading this, what are you reading?)
Title: Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World’s Most Popular Composer, by William Berger
Completed: July 26, 2012 (#56)
Mr. Berger operates at a somewhat less lofty altitude than Prof. Gay, but this book, a brief biography of Puccini followed by synopses of the major operas and some critical essays, still has its virtues. Mr. Berger is the holotype of an opera partisan, standing athwart “those who believe that opera is a dying art form” yelling “Stop!”
(A parenthesis: I tend to follow Jay Nordlinger on this point. What we call “classical music” is by definition less prevalent in any society and at any time than is popular music. That is, after all, why they call the latter popular. It has ever been thus, even when “classical” music of the Common Performance Period was hot off the presses. Puccini’s operatic compositions are a more demotic and less challenging art form than, say, Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet (K.465), but both likely had their lunch eaten at the time by folk songs.)
For those of a missionary cast, Mr. Berger’s book is a fine one to press fervently into the hands of a proselyte on his way to his first performance of Butterfly or Bohème. Even the grizzled veteran of Puccini performances will find something new here, and Mr. Berger’s enthusiasm is infectious.