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A Polymath's Notebook
on 27 March 2012
The modest title of this book gives no indication of the vast learning, wisdom and critical perception of the author, so that at the beginning it's very easy for the reader to believe that Bostridge really does know everything. Later on, however, it becomes clear that he doesn't. The first essay, 'Music and Magic' is an erudite twenty-four page introduction to ...er... music and magic. It is written in simple, straightforward language that anyone with degrees in history and music and a PhD in philosophy can follow with relative ease. I imagine so, anyway.
From these few pages we learn, among other things, that Proust was 'deeply influenced by Schopenhauer' and that Wittgenstein, Ludwig, not his brother, was 'another Schopenhauer aficionado' and 'a key figure in the 'linguistic'revolution in twentieth-century philosophy'. We also learn that Galileo's father, Vicenzo Galilei emphasised the necessary imperfections of contingent sound.' (Lots of people don't know that. I must confess I didn't myself).
He tells us that Newton interpreted Pythagoras' views on musical consonance as containing the essence of the inverse square law of gravitation, his dazzling solution to the unity of celestial and terrestrial mechanics and dynamics, Newton's triumph was to equate mathematical functions and physical reality and thus smuggle magic, and a sort of silent music, into the age of reason.' Clever chap.
Another interesting snippet of information, ideal for use during a lull in conversation at cocktail parties, is that 'The eighteenth century's supposed lack of creative ambition - Haydn's 'Creation' was much mocked by its capitulation to the aesthetic of illustrative imitation - was spurned by a nineteenth century in thrall to a notion of absolute music that could match the ineffability of the Hegelian absolute.' Who could argue with that?
It comes as something of a relief later on in other parts of the book, when the author writes at some length and for the first time in comprehensible English, about his having had the flu. It would appear that his great learning does not include an elementary knowledge of homeopathy, since if it did, he could have taken a mini dose of ARNICA for the flu and ACONITE for a cold and recovered at once.
Bostridge is never found wanting when it comes to acknowledging brilliance, as in the following examples: 'Fintan O'Toole's brilliant dissection of Shakespearean soliloquy; the brilliant choral director and conductor Stephen Layton; the brilliant touch of the horn prologue...; the brilliant recitatives in Idomeneo; John Bridcut has brilliantly reconfigured...; the Lied traditions of the 1840s, which Kravitt brilliantly summarises..; and the best of them all: 'When you have read Charles Rosen's pyrotechnic accounts of the postlude to Schumann's Frauenliebe und leben..., it is difficult to be satisfied with anything less brilliant.'
Occasionally he gives brilliant a rest, as in 'Ross's superbly nuanced historical accounts...; masterly unpicking by Ross; Roger Scruton's marvellous writing on music; and Charles Rosen, the pianist and peerless writer about music'.
One definition of 'a rare book' nowadays is one that makes no mention of Hitler. It would come as no surprise to see a new edition of 'Alice in Wonderland' with an introduction commenting on Hitler's absurd love of animals manifest in his kinky obsession with white rabbits. Bostridge get a chance to include the nazi dictator when reviewing a book by the masterly Ross. He tells us that Hitler was a vegetarian and an animal lover. A few pages later, however, and before we have time to kick the nearest cat and throw the lettuce and tomatoes in the waste bin, he tells us that his friend, composer Hans Werner Henze,is also a vegetarian animal lover. So, what do we do now?
When writing about Noël Coward, whom he doesn't seem to like much, he says 'He (Coward) once conversed with a bemused Sibelius under the impression that he was Delius'. Since this is utterly false, we'd better have the facts. Coward says in his autobiography that when he was in Helsinki someone suggested that he should call on Sibelius. He was then driven out into the country to visit the celebrated composer. When describing the meeting he says 'I remember regretting bitterly my casual approach to classical music and trying frantically in my mind to disintangle the works of Sibelius from those of Delius'.
I think I'd better stop here, otherwise it might be thought that I'm being critical.