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January 26, 1986|LAURA KUHN

THE BOOK OF MUSICAL ANECDOTES by Norman Lebrecht (The Free Press: $19.95). If the musical anecdote has fallen out of favor in scholarly biographical works, it's alive and well in Norman Lebrecht's "The Book of Musical Anecdotes," a compilation of sometimes-dubious-but-always-delicious historical vignettes from the last 900 years. Some are pithy one-liners from not-so-distant performers and composers, others are more involved evocations of forgotten eras, as in the account of the Chastelain de Coucy, a 12th-Century trouvere who willed his heart to his lover, the Lord of Fayel's wife. As fate would have it, the Lord intercepted the grisly gift and, disgruntled by the intrusion, ordered it dressed and served for supper. After learning of her husband's deception, the lady wiped her lips and retired to her chambers, never to eat again. While such entries are plainly audacious, Lebrecht's impressive appendix of original sources provides a modicum of credibility. But is verisimilitude important? Through inevitable embellishment, anecdotes are often truer than truth, placing inaccessible historical personalities in more memorable light. If Prokofiev really didn't liken Debussy's music to "spineless calf's-foot jelly," or Leonard Bernstein accuse a struggling tenor of abusing his "historical prerogative to stupidity," one likes to think they would have--had they thought of it first.

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