Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen is the chief dance critic of The Spectator

Lives less ordinary

Peter Gay opens his survey of the culture of Modernism with a discussion of Baudelaire’s call to artists to draw their inspiration from contemporary urban realities, and closes it with some sort of ironic ne plus ultra, as Damien Hirst roars with laughter after a ‘pile of organised chaos representing the detritus of a painter’s

What Winnie did with Hitler

Winnie and Wolf: A Novel by A.N. Wilson In her infamous five-hour ‘confession’ filmed by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg in 1975, Wagner’s English-born daughter-in-law Winifred talked openly and unashamedly about her close friendship with Hitler and his support for the Bayreuth Festival, which she personally managed throughout the Third Reich. When Syberberg confronts her with the rumours

Keeping cool over Wagner

Opera has fallen out of fashion as a recreation of our humanist intellectuals. Even when I was an undergraduate in the mid- 1970s, the tide was beginning to turn in favour of the vacuous verbiage of Bob Dylan, whose soi-disant genius was being forcefully sponsored by Christopher Ricks. Nowadays, I imagine high-table chat is more

A good man among ambiguities

The second volume of this superb biography opens in 1939, as William Empson returns to London after two years of high adventure and real privation in a China up against Japanese invasion. Resolved to do his bit against Hitler, he drops poetry and literary criticism to join the BBC’s propaganda operation, where he put his

Problems of production

Shakespeare aside, there isn’t a dramatist whose work has proved more protean than Wagner’s. Patrick Carnegy explores the astonishing variety of interpretation it has provoked, in a book that has been long meditated as well as meticulously researched. It isn’t comprehensive —Wolfgang Wagner, Rennert, Wernicke and Lehnhoff are only a few of the significant directors

Departing wisely from the text

This enthralling and important book offers vital reading for anyone with a serious interest in opera. Its author Philip Gossett describes himself as ‘a fan, a musician and a scholar’; more specifically, he works from a base at the University of Chicago as one of the foremost authorities on the period broadly circumscribed by Rossini’s

Not all Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Born in 1965, Howard Sounes was scarcely out of short trousers by the time that Margaret Thatcher took power and kicked us out of the mire of complacent consensus and began to crush the tyranny of the unions. Perhaps his vivacious and enjoyable new book about the culture of the Seventies does romanticise ‘a low

Firebrand turned diehard

‘Do you pronounce it Sowthy or Suthy?’ asked a friend when I mentioned I was reviewing this book. Today, that small controversy probably marks the limit of public curiosity as to this remarkably prolific but not otherwise exceptional poet, novelist, historian, critic and political commentator, who flourished as a radical alongside his friend Coleridge in

The outsider who felt the cold

The journal ADAM — an acronym for Art, Drama, Architecture and Music — was the life’s work of a Jewish Romanian exile Miron Grindea (1910-95), who was its only editor. Embodying a style of cosmopolitan cultural sophistication, it represents a fascinating episode in the history of the London literary world, its bent being more internationalist

The thinking man’s poet

‘The most intellectual British poet of the 19th century’ is Anthony Kenny’s judgment of Arthur Hugh Clough — a tribute which implies the absence of Tennysonian musi- cality in his verse as well as a prescient understanding of contemporary philosophical and scientific issues that far exceeds Browning’s or Arnold’s. Kenny’s study of this still underrated

Antipodean wit and wisdom

Shocking, I know, but I hadn’t paid much attention to Clive James since my dim distant undergraduate days 30 years ago, when I remember being vastly amused by his verse satire of Grub Street parvenus, Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage. Since then he’s rather passed me by — I never thought his television shows up to much,

Brillo boxes and marble nudes

Professor John Carey is at his most acerbic, combative and impassioned in this brilliant polemic, developed from lectures he gave at University College London last year. Just don’t expect the question proposed by the title to be satisfactorily answered: Carey doesn’t exactly contradict himself — he’s far too fly for that — but halfway through,

A master of ambiguities

School reports can be remarkably prescient. William Empson’s headmaster noted, ‘He has a good deal of originality and enterprise: I hope he is learning also to discipline his vagaries.’ It’s a judgment which could serve as an epigraph for this massive first volume of John Haffenden’s long-awaited, long-meditated biography, in which the great literary critic

Stooping, but not to conquer

Here is yet another attempt to interest a wider public in classical music, in the form of a book ‘as told to’ Tim Lihoreau by Stephen Fry, based on a show the latter hosted on Classic FM. Falling concert attendances and CD sales, as well as the general downward slide of the culture, means that

An enemy of stuff and nonsense

Just how unhappy was Jane Welsh’s 40-year marriage to Thomas Carlyle? For decades after the publication of J. A. Froude’s scandalously revealing biography in 1883, it was widely regarded as one of the dirtier secrets of Victorian literary history. She never wanted him in the first place, he was sexually impotent, she was bitterly jealous

Composing for dear life

Ever since the posthumous publication in 1979 of Testimony, his volume of memoirs, ‘as related to and edited by Solmon Volkov’, Dmitri Shostakovich has ranked not only as a great Russian composer but also as a great figure of Russian literature — sullenly truculent, cynically embittered and permanently disappointed. Some scholars, indeed, have gone so

The best band in the land

Being of the same age and provenance as Richard Morrison, I was intrigued to note that he honours the London Symphony Orchestra of the late 1960s as the band that turned him on to classical music — it even made it seem ‘a bit groovy’, he remarks wryly. My own memory is different. Aged 14,

A sane cuckoo in the nest of art

This is a hugely impressive but somewhat exhausting book, the justification for which — from a brutally commercial viewpoint — I fail to grasp. It is a collection of Sir Frank Kermode’s literary criticism, selected by the author and drawn chronologically from all periods and aspects of his oeuvre. Short prefaces, outlining genesis and context,

Swagger, colour and dash

A. N. Wilson claims that he can imagine nothing more agreeable than the life of a country parson, ‘born in the 1830s with the genetic inheritance of strong teeth’. The Victorians are still vivid to him: from his 1950s childhood, he can recall the last vestiges of their way of life – gas-lit station waiting-rooms,