Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year
By Hugh Macdonald
Boydell Press; 224 pp. $45
Works such as Hemingway's memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast, and Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor indelibly capture the essence of their respective eras through revealing glimpses into the daily grind of artists struggling to find their voices and be heard by their contemporaries. In his Music in 1853, Hugh Macdonald has written a new work in this vein, but with a focus on a more remote — yet no less romanticized — epoch. Eschewing the theoretical argument of Morton, or Hemingway's cumulative impact of colorful anecdotes, Macdonald's focus is on details, specifically those details that can be ferreted out of memoirs, datebooks, newspapers or hotel guest ledgers. Fascinating, persuasive and sometimes superfluous, the data underlying his tale is the work of a tireless researcher with a passion for extracting every ounce of meaning from the historical record.
In what he calls a "horizontal biography in music," Macdonald has chosen to examine roughly ten months through the itineraries of six subjects — Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Joseph Joachim, Johannes Brahms and Hector Berlioz — and demonstrate how their activities overlapped in fascinating, often serendipitous ways. With the aid of the rapidly expanding railway system and an efficient postal service, Macdonald tracks his targets and their letters as they crisscross Germany and the Alps and shuttle between Weimar and Paris with regularity and ease. Not surprisingly, Joachim, a traveling virtuoso violinist, racks up the most mileage and figures prominently in the other five story lines.
But why 1853? Macdonald plays his hand early by beginning the chronicle not with the March premiere of La Traviata in Venice (Verdi's middle period unfolds seemingly off the radar of these subjects) but with the shy twenty-year-old Brahms knocking on Liszt's door in Weimar. The great pianist is impressed by the youth's talent, but Joachim, who also happens to be in Weimar, is instantly convinced of Brahms's genius and whisks him off to meet Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf. With the Brahms career at one pole, Macdonald turns his attention to the Liszt–Wagner continuum to reveal the nascent beginnings of a radically different musical direction. How Berlioz's misfortunes in London would figure in is not immediately clear, but Liszt and Joachim prove unifying threads, and we soon find the Frenchman in the same Paris drawing room as Wagner, listening to the master recite the "poem" for Götterdämmerung. By year's end, Brahms is publishing his first works, and Wagner and Berlioz have both rediscovered their compositional inspirations, setting into motion the Ring and Les Troyens.
The danger in a research-focused work such as Macdonald's is that it can easily become an endless procession of factoids. While he occasionally cannot resist including excessive detail — especially in listing entire concert programs — the author knows when to withhold minutiae that might hamper the story's impact. As a result, the narrative is refreshingly efficient, and connections that have eluded single-subject biographers come to light. Music-lovers of all persuasions are likely to gain something from this well-written, thoroughly researched work.
JEFFERY S. McMILLAN
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