The rap on the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak is that he was a kind of junior edition of his friend Johannes Brahms. As David Hurwitz summarizes this position in Dvorak: Romantic Music's Most Versatile Genius (Amadeus, $27.95), Dvorak "was successful to the extent that he followed the advice and example of Brahms, and a failure to the degree that he unwisely attempted to pursue an independent path." Nonsense, says Hurwitz. "If Brahms perhaps helped Dvorak to express himself more cogently without inhibiting his effusive melodic inspiration, then Dvorak similarly encouraged Brahms to color his music more vividly. . . . It was, in short, a wholly productive relationship." Dvorak's "effusive melodic inspiration" is well represented in the two CDs that come with this book, a volume in the publisher's "Unlocking the Masters" series. The selections include rarely heard excerpts from the operas "Dimitrij," "The Jacobin" and "The Spectre's Bride," along with more familiar movements from the symphonies, tone poems and chamber music, all performed by Czech orchestras for the Supraphon label.
The relationship of Richard Wagner to Nazi ideology is one of the most controversial topics in the history of music. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno gave his views on this and other aspects of the composer of the Ring Cycle in In Search of Wagner (Verso, $18; translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone), written in the late 1930s in New York and London. The spectacle of a philosopher homing in on classical music can be fascinating to watch; at one point Adorno goes on at some length about the introduction of the valved horn, which Wagner both wanted to use for the effects it could produce and was reluctant to use because it marked a departure from the natural horn and what the composer saw as its "beauty of tone, and above all its ability to connect the notes smoothly." What Wagner was getting at, Adorno draws upon his Marxist leanings to suggest, is that "the use of the valve mechanism alienates [the horns] from the immediate production of their own sound."
Adorno sees Wagner as a rebel -- or, rather, an "apostate rebel" who in the end surrendered to the forces he railed against in his music. "What he retains from his rebellion," Adorno writes, "is his insight into the evil nature of the world 'as such,' as an extrapolation from an evil present, as well as the further insight into the inexorable reproduction of that evil. He defects from rebellion simply by elevating this process to the status of an all-embracing metaphysical principle. As something immutable to all eternity, it derides all efforts to alter it and acquires the reflected glory of a dignity which it withholds from man."
As far as I know, Adorno had nothing to say about Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the team that wrote "Gigi," "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady," among others. But in telling the story of their collaboration, Gene Lees, author of The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe (Bison, $19.95), does not hesitate to philosophize (lightly) about such larger topics as the state of American music. He notes that the pair's first musical, "Brigadoon," debuted in 1947, when the Broadway musical combined song, dance, wit and spectacle into an apotheosis of pop culture. "It is hard to believe," he goes on, "that within eight years that era of literate popular music would be moribund, doomed by the avarice of the record industry and the dismantling of the radio networks, which for a short time had raised the aesthetic standards of the entire North American continent." Lees also weighs in on the degree-of-difficulty experienced by lyricists such as Lerner (Loewe composed the music): "At a technical level, lyric-writing is the most exacting of all literary crafts. . . . It is far harder to write lyrics than 'poetry'. . . . Poetry was harder to write when it was metric, and rhymed; it is still harder to write when it must be fitted to music, with the speech inflections matching the contours of a melody and the mood reflecting the content of the harmony." Lerner, as Lees hastens to point out, "did it brilliantly."
-- Dennis Drabelle