Sounds and sweet airs that give delight

Caspar Henderson writes beguiling books about the natural world, full of eyecatching detail and plangent commentary. His Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-century Bestiary came out in 2012. A Book of Noises is a worthy companion – a pursuit of auditory wonders, a paean to the act of listening and a salute to silence. Item: the music of the spheres. (The planets’ orbits, proving unideal and elliptical, suggested to the musically minded astronomer Johannes Kepler an appropriately sad, minor-keyed leitmotif for the Earth, where, he felt, misery and famine held sway’.) Item: the world’s loudest sound. (The asteroid Chicxulub that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago; also an

Travels in Italy with the teenage Mozart

Between the ages of 13 and 17, Mozart made three trips to Italy, spending some two-and- a-half years in ‘the country at the heart of the opera world’. He would never return as an adult. His mature Italian operas – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito – can be traced directly back to these formative teenage encounters and experiences in Bologna, Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples. So argues Jane Glover in Mozart in Italy. A follow-up to 2005’s Mozart’s Women, the book is a lively account of journeys which the composer shared (mostly) with his father Leopold. What dominates initially is the business

Should vintage comedy be judged by today’s standards?

The British sense of humour is a source of power, soft and otherwise. The anthropologist Kate Fox observed that our national motto should be ‘Oh, come off it’, and a patriotic raised eyebrow has been cited as our chief defence against demagogues. We see ourselves through a comic lens, a nation of Delboys and Mainwarings, Brents and Leadbetters, Gavins and Staceys. But despite comedy being as central to British culture as music, books on it have few equivalents to Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (on punk), Rob Young’s Electric Eden (folk rock) or Simon Reynolds’s Energy Flash (rave). A nice fat volume about our national comic self-image by an astute music

I’m a middle-aged male Swiftie (and I don’t care who knows it)

I recently underwent a surgical procedure that according to the surgeon who performed it would cause either no discomfort at all or result in ‘exceptional pain’ for at least two weeks. No way to tell until I was on the operating table, apparently. She said this matter-of-factly, as if discussing bus routes, just as I was about to receive a general anaesthetic. As soon as I came to, I learned it was the latter. In the following days, bedbound and near-delirious with pain and medication, I listened to hour after hour of Taylor Swift. I didn’t want to hear anything else. I found her music, with its vast emotional depth

The changing face of the BBC Proms

There are two faces of the BBC Proms. The faces are somewhat at odds with each other. The one that everyone knows, whether they have an interest in music or not, is the Last Night of the Proms. It’s a concert consisting of a series of small musical items, or ‘lollipops’ as Sir Thomas Beecham used to call them. It culminates in a sequence of sea shanties, ‘Rule, Britannia’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Classical music has gone from being a supreme cultural statement to just another curious musical genre The other face, much more substantial, is the series of concerts that precede that last one, from mid-July

Why Madonna still matters

In my day job, I work with children. Well, OK, they’re in their twenties, but when they ask me who my favourite musician of all time is, and I say Madonna, they usually look blank. That funny-looking woman who had a few hits in the 1980s? Meh, what about Taylor Swift? Madonna may not have topped the charts for a few years, but for me and many other women of my generation, she is the greatest. And she always will be, in a way that the pop stars of today – derivative, airbrushed, on-message and PRed to the max – can only dream of. She changed the world of music,

How to enjoy Glastonbury from your sofa

More than 200,000 people have schlepped down the ley lines for another year of ‘Glasto’. It’s tempting to deride these people: they’ll stink, they’re anchorless hedonists, they’re blue-haired hippies. However, they’ve got tickets to Glastonbury and I haven’t, so they win.  Actually going to the festival, however, is a minority experience. More of us will be watching it on TV. And whether you dig the Glastonbury vibe or not, there’s plenty of good music for all across this weekend.  The most important thing to remember, though, is to watch as little of the coverage as possible. It’s fluff. For three whole days, everything is ‘fantastic’, everyone will ‘bring it’ and

Haunted by Old Russia: Rachmaninoff’s lonely final years

Ask a roomful of concert pianists to pick their graveyard moment in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) and they’ll almost certainly point to five or so pages halfway through the last movement where an ant nest of piano notes infests a sparse orchestral threnody. When an elderly Vladimir Horowitz performed this passage – lank, dyed pageboy hair framing his Bela Lugosi face, hands darting over and under each other like butterflies – he looked more like a weaver at his loom than a virtuoso at his instrument. There are flickers of concentration, but the overall impression is one of extreme insouciance. ‘I am a Russian composer, and the land

My verdict on Eurovision

I had the sudden suspicion, at about ten o’clock on Saturday night, that I was the only straight male in the United Kingdom watching the Eurovision Song Contest. Or perhaps the only one watching it voluntarily. A little later a Dutch presenter, when reporting her country’s scores, said: ‘Hello girls and gays.’ It wasn’t a slip of the tongue but an accurate summation of the audience – the one in Liverpool and the rest of us, sitting in front of our televisions. There was a merciful absence of all faux-seriousness and any song which got political didn’t do well Eurovision, like Crufts, has been a gay domain for the best

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Movies to get you in the Eurovision mood

We might never have taken the Eurovision Song Contest terribly seriously in the UK – but with British Ted Neeley lookalike Sam Ryder winning second place last year and the staging of this year’s event in Liverpool, some are singing to a different tune. This year’s UK entry comes from Mae Muller – ‘I Wrote a Song’ is a serviceable enough generic toe-tapper, but no ‘Puppet on a String’ (Sandie Shaw, 1967 winner) if you ask me. Or even ‘Ooh Aah… Just a Little Bit’, Gina G’s 1996 banger that claimed eighth place in the contest. Ahead of tomorrow night’s final, here are ten movies to get you in the

Tale of the tape: how cassettes made a comeback

Move over vinyl: the cassette tape is back. According to the British Phonographic Industry, sales of this retro piece of technology last year came close to a two-decade peak. Having been the top-selling format for albums in the UK from 1985 to 1992 and then seemingly disappearing (selling only 4,000 units in 2012), last year saw more than 195,000 cassette tapes shifted. HMV, which recently announced that it will reopen its flagship store on Oxford Street after a four-year closure, plans to bring out cassettes for ‘specific new releases’ and has credited its return to profit with a growing interest in ‘collectable’ music from an analogue era. As a child of

Why the coronation matters

At one level, asking why the coronation matters is to slightly miss the point. Living as we do in a constitutional monarchy, the coronation doesn’t need to make a case for itself. It is simply an indispensable part, primarily in symbolic terms, of the installation of our new head of state. But setting aside for a moment its constitutional and religious significance, the coronation is important for another reason. Unlike almost every other nation state, the UK does not have an official national day. The patron saint days of the respective countries of the UK, of course, are celebrated to varying degrees ­– though St George’s Day far less so

Rock’n’romance is dead

The alchemy wrought by a young man’s ability to gyrate and croon at the same time is notorious, turning shy mama’s boys from Presley to Rotten into love/hate machines. Something magical happens when someone – however unsightly – sings a song well, allowing him access to a quantity and quality of women undreamt of when he was just walking and talking like a normie. Two words: ‘Mick’ and ‘Hucknall’. The romantic image of the modern musician as tasty but troubled troubadour roving from town to town on his lonesome (except for his bandmates, backing singers, roadies, drug dealer and manager, of course) and taking sensual solace where he may is

The other side of flamenco

When you hear the word flamenco you probably think of a lady dancing in a polka-dot dress, stomping her feet, accompanied by guitars and singing. And in the fair capital of Andalucía, Seville, you would have no problem finding such a sight. All across the old town, around the cathedral and in the lee of its 12-century minaret turned cathedral bell-tower, glamorous flamenco dancers are busy at it, stirring up passion on the cobbled streets and in the city-centre tourist shows. There’s no denying such flamenco demonstrations will raise your pulse and the tourists, not surprisingly, love them. But if you think that’s good, you need to head south of

Why do conservative men love Lana Del Rey?

The chanteuse is back. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Lana Del Rey’s ninth album, arrived ten days ago. It’s a lush, dreamy voyage through said tunnel, one best listened to on vinyl, but not one that doesn’t pose questions about life, love and how Del Rey found said tunnel. Del Rey herself also causes people, specifically men, to ask questions, and not just about life, love and tunnels. One of those questions, put forth by a young heretic, was not so existential, but instead a plea for understanding, specifically about the 37-year-old’s appeal. It read: ‘It is once again time for me to ask that heterosexual conservative

Burt Bacharach and the end of the age of accomplishment

Hearing about the death of Burt Bacharach at the age of 94, I thought of one word: maestro. The word is variously defined as ‘a master, usually in an art’ (Merriam-Webster) or ‘a man who is very skilled at playing or conducting’ (Cambridge), but my favourite is the beautiful simplicity of the Longman definition: ‘Someone who can do something very well.’ The good (Brian Wilson: ‘He was a hero of mine and very influential on my work… he was a giant’), the bad (Billy Corgan: ‘A titan of beautiful and effortless song’) and the ugly (Mick Hucknall: ‘Farewell, genius’) of the music business spoke as one on this loss, with

Rihanna’s Super Bowl show was a celebration of motherhood

Surprise! Rihanna is pregnant again. This was the big takeaway from the Grammy-winning singer’s Super Bowl half-time show on Sunday – her first solo live performance in seven years. The 34-year-old took a step back from her music career to focus on other projects such as her successful make-up and lingerie line Fenty, before giving birth to her first child in May 2022. Rihanna’s return to the spotlight was not met without criticism in America. Some Republicans condemned the NFL’s choice to have Rihanna perform due to her aggressively left-wing political views. Others took issue with the performance itself, pointing out that some of her lyrics and dance moves were

How narcissism ate itself at the Grammys

A transgender woman and a non-binary person dressed as Satan walk into a bar. That’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but the defining performance of the 65th Grammy awards, held in Los Angeles on Sunday.  You may have seen the clips. The singer Sam Smith wore what appeared to be a terrible Halloween costume: red high heels and a red hat with devil horns. He clomped around the stage performing ‘Unholy’ with Kim Petras, who was in a cage surrounded by flames and whip-wielding dominatrices. CBS’s broadcast of the ceremony on American television was sponsored by Covid vaccine-maker Pfizer – catnip for conspiracy theorists who think that Covid

Madonna and the curious business of biopics

Reading that Madonna has decided to cancel the film about her life that she has been working on for the past two years, I felt a pang of sorrow. The biopic sounded like the biggest vanity project ever attempted – and thus promised to be an excellent ‘mock-watch’, as I’ve named the cinematic equivalent of the ‘hate-read’. In the specific case of biopics (always an easy thing to get wrong when one person imitates another, often with hilarious results), perhaps ‘sham-shaming’ is even better. Madonna was reported to be directing, producing and co-writing the film with the Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, who has since moved on to the live-action Powerpuff