Books

Is there any post-World War II musical more innovative and influential than “West Side Story”?  Its landmark, classic status in the history of American musical theatre is assured – has been, really, since its out-of-town preview opening in Washington DC in August, 1957.

Leonard Bernstein: WEST SIDE STORY, by Nigel Simeone presents the musical, its backstory, collaborators and critical reception in casebook fashion, through numerous interviews with the show’s creators and participants direct and indirect: commentaries by Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and others in the form of letters and diaries over the years when “West Side Story” was a work-in-progress. Especially invaluable are the notes back and forth from one creator to the next. We are so familiar with “West Side Story” as an iconic, historical artifact; it’s illuminating to see the processes that took the original “Romeo and Juliet” conception to new and, ultimately unexpected directions – something the collaborators could not have foreseen in the beginning.

Bernstein himself kept voluminous notes and memoranda throughout the genesis of the show. In January 1949 he wrote: “Jerry R[obbins] called today with a noble idea: a modern version of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ set in slums… I’m excited. If it can work – it’s a first. Jerry suggests Arthur Laurents for the book… He sounds just right.” Another thrilling Bernstein quote from October, 1955, when the project was finally underway, after many delays: “A young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim came and sang us some of his songs today. What a talent!”

The book traces the history of “West Side Story” in five major sections: “Bernstein on Broadway before ‘West Side Story,’” “Genesis,” “The Musical Manuscripts,” “The Score” and “Reception.”

There are a good number of musical examples of sketches, deleted songs and final versions; all are concise – usually less than half a page. In addition to the many direct quotations and verbal reminiscences from Laurents, Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Bernstein, there are several by key figures such as Irving Kostal and Sid Ramen, the show’s collaborative orchestrators and arrangers.

A marvelous addition is a compact disc of the original cast recording, made within a week of the 1957 Broadway premiere.

This book is a wonderful addition to the growing Bernstein literature, and is particularly useful now that “West Side Story” has come to be seen by many as perhaps the composer’s magnum opus, however much Bernstein wanted his symphonies and operas to fill that role. The author nicely balances his writing style between trade and scholarly, so it will appeal to readers with diverse backgrounds, and certainly to lovers of Bernstein’s music, his multi-faceted career and “West Side Story” aficionados in particular. Highly recommended.

Leonard Bernstein: WEST SIDE STORY, by Nigel Simeone. Published by Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-6484-0 (hardcover)

***

The history of composition since Mozart and Beethoven is closely bound with the development of the piano. Most composers since have been advanced pianists; many were great virtuosi, from Liszt, Alkan, Anton Rubinstein, into the 20th century: Paderewski, Hoffmann (more a transcriber than composer) Prokofiev and, of course, Rachmaninoff. Liszt, who fathered the transcription — itself a spinoff of the concert etude — provided the means to disseminate and popularize favorite operas, Bach’s organ works et al.

The Italo-German Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was perhaps the most brilliant of all the pianist-teacher-composer/transcribers; his genius transcended pianism, veering into aesthetics, music theory and advanced, near-radical ideas relating to the future of music. At the same time, he was a Janus-like figure who was squarely in the tradition of the late 19th century master pianist- composer/transcriber. Of all the giants within this tradition, Busoni, as man and artist, might well be the least familiar to the general music-loving public.

Grigory Kogan’s Busoni as Pianist, translated and annotated by Svetlana Belsky, is an admirable and valuable addition to Busoni scholarship. The scope of the book, as its title suggests, emphasizes Busoni’s achievements as virtuoso, but as well gives much attention to the pianist’s transcriptions and re-workings of Bach’s keyboard works, e.g. the Well-Tempered Klavier.

Kogan (1901-1979,) was a pianist, musicologist and Professor of Piano at the Moscow Conservatory. Svetlana Belsky is pianist and is Coordinator of Piano Studies at the University of Chicago. Her translation of Kogan’s text is excellent, though the type font is small, which I found it difficult to read.

There are a good number of musical examples of Busoni’s compositions, as well examples of exercises Busoni used in his teaching, culled from Bach, et al.

The book is aimed at the serious pianist or piano pedagogue; those wanting detailed information about Busoni’s musical philosophy or his compositions in depth should look to another source. Recommended.

Busoni as Pianist, by Grigory Kogan; translated and annotated by Svetlana Belsky. A title in the Eastman Studies in Music Series; the University of Rochester Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-58046-335-5 (hardcover)

***

Orchestration texts generally fall into three categories: primers for beginners (Piston, Adler, Kennan); historical works by composers (Berlioz-Strauss, Korsakov,) and specialized texts for students of band or film composition.

Textures and Timbres: an Orchestrator’s Handbook, by Henry Brant is altogether different. This is about the most novel and stimulating of all these texts. If you are searching for a comprehensive work in the field, written by a master composer for the advanced orchestrator/composer, you need not look any further.

The book is also practical in usage. Whereas all orchestration texts treat the instruments within families (winds, brass, strings, percussion, et al,) Brant reads more like a composer’s diary of successful experiments in combining timbres across the boundaries of instrumental families, e.g. string harmonics with high winds, and so on.

This book is a masterpiece of original thought in a field where the doctrinaire is too often routinely accepted. Every serious music library that serves composition students, advanced composers and arrangers across the stylistic spectrum should purchase this book. My highest recommendation.

Textures and Timbres: an Orchestrator’s Handbook, by Henry Brant, published by Carl Fischer, 2009 (http://www.presser.com). ISBN 0-8258-6827-6 (paperback)

– Steve Dankner

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers

%d bloggers like this: