Peter Phillips

All to play for

All to play for
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Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year

Hugh Macdonald

Boydell Press, pp. 224, £

Impressed by Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965), which describes the close relations between Benjamin Haydon, the Carlyles and the Brownings in the summer of 1846, Hugh Macdonald has written a similarly ‘horizontal’ and highly readable biography of intersecting musicians in 1853.

His theme is the relations, not always close, between Brahms, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, Wagner and a host of lesser figures in that year. As he says, a number of other years would have qualified for such a microscope, but this particular one saw all these principals meeting at an unusually charged moment: the birth of a major argument between the adherents of the ‘new’ style of Liszt and Wagner as compared with the more traditional compositions of Brahms. It was one of those crossroads, often repeated in artistic life, when everyone seemed to be spoiling for a fight about points of principle, and were just waiting to be insulted. Wagner obliged them.

Horizontal history-writing like this has the benefit of enabling the outsider to watch quite a number of characters interact without having to tell their stories from beginning to end. A certain amount of knowledge has to be assumed, and Macdonald sketches in some information at the end, but essentially he drops in on these great musicians’ lives more or less as they lived them, with time to highlight petty concerns and enjoy passing details.

One of these is that communications were being improved daily at that time, encouraging all these people to rush about Europe almost as much as we do today. By 1853 they had got used to a reliable postal service, but the advent of the railways further transformed their lives; and so we can follow Liszt, the kingpin in all the alliances under discussion, move ever faster around his empire as player, impresario, courtier, teacher, confidant and friend.

By being everywhere at once Liszt found himself in the middle of the war that was breaking out. One of the high points of the narrative is the moment he met Brahms for the first time in Weimar on 15 June, when Brahms was too shy to play his pieces in front of him. Yet by October Brahms had performed so impressively to the ailing Schumann that the latter wrote an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that catapulted the young man to fame overnight — perhaps not quite the fame he wanted, but fame anyway.

An unmodern feature of this world of musician travellers is that they were just as much feted as performers as composers: Brahms and Liszt as pianists, Berlioz and Wagner as conductors. In fact for most of 1853 Wagner was writing prose and living off conducting (and his friends).

To hold the narrative together Macdonald occasionally resorts to some obvious tricks, like pointing out that ‘at this very moment’ Berlioz was crossing the channel, or Joachim was rehearsing with Schumann in Düsseldorf.  More distracting is his too regular trailing of the future Ring cycle. Every chapter seems to carry a sentence reminding us that the Ring was the biggest opera ever conceived, when in 1853 it consisted only of a very long chord of E-flat major, not yet committed to paper.

Still, Wagner idolatory was already part of the scene Macdonald describes, and so he can be forgiven. The strange thing in retrospect is how neither Wagner nor Brahms nor their supporters could see outside the boxes they were in, and would never have predicted that both composers would be equally rated only a few decades later, and that there would be space for both of them.