Bookworks Presents Shelf Awareness for Readers: Great Music, Great Reads: A Personal Guide

By: May. 27, 2015
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I will never know enough about music, but I'm not inclined to read books devoted exclusively to the subject. Instead, I rely upon personal guides, writers who explore music in context with other aspects of our world like art and literature, philosophy and history.

In April, I heard English tenor Ian Bostridge in concert, singing Schubert's "Winterreise," a stunning 24-song cycle for voice and piano. Then I read his new book, Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, which consists of 24 chapters, each inspired by one of those songs. Bostridge's beautifully-crafted (in every sense of the term) book reflects the diverse interests of a world-class singer and Oxford University-trained historian, who once wrote a book titled Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c. 1650-1750.

He notes that Samuel Beckett "was a great admirer of Schubert, and of 'Winterreise' in particular. And there is something deeply Beckettian about the piece." He observes that it "is incontestably a great work of art which should be as much a part of our common experience as the poetry of Shakespeare and Dante, the paintings of Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, the novels of the Bronte sisters or Marcel Proust."

Winter's Journey joins a long list of books that have served as guides during my reading life. While someare "music books," like composer Philip Glass's insightful memoir Words Without Music (which I'm reading now), most are not. I think of the palpable "sounds" of Mahler in Teju Cole's Open City or the way music weaves through Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels. I can almost hear the musicians in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, Balzac's Gambaraand, more recently, Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic Station Eleven.

In a review of Winter's Journey, composer Glen Roven wrote: "I know these songs very well, but 90% of what Bostridge wrote was completely new to me." What more can you ask from your personal music guide? --Robert Gray, contributing editor