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How to shut up and listen

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

On Music: Essays and Diversions, 1963-2003 Robin Holloway

Claridge Press, pp.438, 30

Stuck for the bumper Christmas gift? Try Robin Holloway’s collected essays of music criticism. It is impressively big and will take about five years to read if you listen to the music discussed at the same time. Since that includes most of Wagner and Strauss and plenty of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, you will have little time left over to indulge in snooker or bridge. No thanks, you smirk. A brick would do better as a door-stop. That was certainly the attitude of at least two major publishing houses, including Faber, when they turned the manuscript down.

Fools. They should have known better. This outstanding book, gathered to mark Holloway’s 60th birthday, is one of the most invigorating, elegantly written and passionate of its kind. Spurned and left homeless by the grandees, it has been taken in by a tiny independent publisher, Claridge Press, and dressed in a dry, sober jacket which gives little hint as to the trenchant and outrageous opinions contained within. Any curious music fan, except those whose taste ends c. 1700, which is about where Holloway’s starts, can expect to have their ears briskly scoured by this caustic volume.

The rewards are immense. The tone is lively and if, as sometimes happens, the level of technical analysis goes over your head, you can fast forward. Each page is a fruit cake of concentrated thought steeped in years of incisive listening, occasionally heavy, always rich, sometimes nutty. I haven’t enjoyed a book on music so much since a pivotal study on Debussy and Wagner — about whom enough, you would think, had been said — two decades ago. (Its author? Robin Holloway.)

Best known as a composer of lyrical orchestral and chamber works, Holloway has been a monthly contributor to this magazine since 1988. His Spectator columns form the backbone of this collection and gain immeasurably by being placed in context with more extended writings, acting both as light relief and contemporary commentary on a rapidly changing music scene. Not that much reprieve is needed. Holloway writes with wit and colour and has a penchant for inventing words. How has any of us managed without ‘musakisation’ or ‘splurgy’? Dazzlingly well-informed, he seems to have heard and understood every note, every chord progression, every whispered harmonic in the music he writes about.

Composers are not always the best advocates of their art, as some of the pretentious psychobabble which passes for programme notes written by living composers confirms. An honourable tradition exists, however: Berlioz and Schumann in the past, Virgil Thompson, Tippett, Henze, Boulez of late. They know how it’s done, and that is the appeal. Nothing for Holloway is a mere tune in major or minor, a blur of chords now loud, now soft, now sad, now joyful — which in truth is how music is heard, quite happily, by most cloggy-eared listeners. He can say precisely which sized brush, which delicate mixture of pigments has been used to create each aural canvas.

Moreover he breaks every rule of musical criticism — rules chiefly laid down by that often priggish vigilante of musical purism, Hans Keller, who once chastised Holloway for calling Stravinksy ‘crisp’ because that word should only be applied to food. Rather than clinging on to theory and caution, Holloway delights in succulent wordplay and bold opinion. So Shostakovich’s music is ‘battleship-grey’, Brahms has a tendency to be ‘dull-brown … oleaginous but beery’, Wagner can be ‘metrically galumphing’, Gershwin is one of ‘nature’s grammarians’, surpassed only by Schubert and Chopin in the purity of his musical materials. We know just what he means. His robust, piercing analysis of Strauss’s Salome, provocatively entitled ‘Art or kitsch?’, lovingly demonstrates how those arch enemies, genius and bad taste, can after all lie down as lion and lamb.

If at times he goes on a bit, his reasons are always sound. Holloway is at his best when exposing humbug. His case for Tchaikovsky should silence those musical Veneerings who opine — oh so misguidedly, oh so tediously — that his sugary balletic confections are simply too vulgar for sophisticates like themselves. Persuading an audience to shut up and listen is the job of any composer. In this exhilarating collection, Robin Holloway strikes us delightedly dumb.

Claridge Press, Sunday Hill Farm, Brinkworth, Wilts SN 15 5 AS, Tel: 01666510327

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