Saturday, March 23, 2013

Five top books on the musician in society

Stuart Isacoff is a pianist, composer, and critic; he was the founding editor of Piano Today magazine. A winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music, he is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and other publications. His latest book is A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians--from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between.

One of Isacof's five best books on the musician in society, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
Dr. Faustus
by Thomas Mann (1947)

Thomas Mann's account of fictional composer Adrian Leverk├╝hn—a fantastical Faustian spin on the musical mind of Arnold Schoenberg—is not only great literature but also a thought-provoking meditation on the artist as "other" and on the tension between the primitive spark at the heart of art and the need for disciplined control. We see the young genius encounter these matters as a child, when "a stable-girl, with bosoms that shook as she ran and bare feet caked with dung" sings artlessly but lustily for Adrian and his friends, introducing them to the social cohesion that issues from musical harmony. We note young Adrian's isolating migraines and witness his urge to strike out on new musical paths. And we experience foreboding when his teacher evokes Beethoven's plight: his audiences, for his last works, "stood with heavy hearts before a process of dissolution or alienation, of a mounting into an air no longer familiar or safe to meddle with." In the end, master Leverk├╝hn must, like Beethoven, confront the pain of an artist apart.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue