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The Life of Music: New adventures in the Western classical tradition, by Nicholas Kenyon

30 July 2021

Ronald Corp enjoys a book on music history which comes with a list

HERE is a history of Western music, from its dawn to the present; and a great read it is. Nicholas Kenyon is a fluent and gifted writer, and this is a personal history with reference to performers and recordings on the way. He tells us of his enthusiasm for the Machaut mass, as performed by the Taverner Consort, and his admiration for the music of Purcell and for Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla; he prefers Bizet’s Carmen to Gounod’s Faust, and points us in the direction of the works by Hindemith which we should explore.

He is brave enough to suggest that Beethoven “wrote more second-rate music than many great composers”, and to tell us that he has never been convinced by Liszt’s piano concertos. But it is his passion for music which comes through most strongly, and a bonus is the list of 100 great works in 100 great performances, which we can listen to on a Spotify playlist.

Kenyon points out various tipping points when music changed direction, and he suggests that composers often looked backwards as well as forward. Monteverdi’s Vespers is a good example; it espouses elements of the Baroque while preserving aspects of the Renaissance.

Kenyon is happiest discussing earlier music, and this history gives it serious attention. The chapters dealing with the later 19th century cover so many composers that, inevitably, some receive only limited coverage. If you want to know about Smetana’s operas, you need to look elsewhere, and Glinka, the “father of Russian music”, gets a name-check only in the chapter on nationalism in music.

But the history is remarkably comprehensive, and great composers receive fulsome coverage. The most important 20th-century composers are included, and Kenyon mentions notable living composers. Quite a few of these are women, and Kenyon cannot be blamed if the history as a whole does not include more (Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, and Judith Weir feature in the Spotify list).

Nicholas KenyonA packed concert hall before the pandemic: the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, in the book

Black composers are here (but not Coleridge-Taylor or Florence Price), as well as jazz and ethnic music (notably the gamelan), film music, musicals, and soundtracks to video games. John Rutter and Karl Jenkins do not feature.

Kenyon notes that the book has taken on a slightly different perspective in view of the pandemic. We have all realised the value of music, and he sums up by saying that music is one of the essential elements that make us what we are.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest of St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.


The Life of Music: New adventures in the Western classical tradition
Nicholas Kenyon
Yale £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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