Scholarly biographies of composers, once a sure way forward in terms of professional advancement, often the culmination of a distinguished career, are now unfashionable in the academy. For musicologists, virtually all of whom are still preoccupied with formalistic concerns, the genre is redolent of earlier, less severe periods: of fat, comfortable books in which the documents of a musician's life would be lovingly assembled, often with the stated purpose of bringing us closer to 'the music', but rarely offering concrete ways in which such a conjunction might be attempted. Perhaps contemporary neglect of the genre also raises larger issues. We have now become rather wary of narrative histories of music, whether of periods or genres, and so it is probably inevitable that the stories once embedded in these grand designs - among which 'lives of the great composers' have always figured prominently - are also in decline. Whatever the case, the business of musical biography has recently, and with a few notable exceptions, been continued mostly in books intended for the general reader. These are rarely critical, and even more rarely sustain a level comparable with the best of literary biography.
LRB 23 May 1991 | PDF Download