Music Media Review Print

Lebrecht, Norman: The Life and Death of Classical Music

June 7, 2007 - Williamsburg, MA:

Lebrecht, Norman: The Life and Death of Classical Music. New York: Random House Anchor Books, ©2007, xiv+324 pp., ISBN 978-1-400-9658-9, $14.95. ( &

Regrettably, the title of this excellent book is misleading; the word "Recording" is the missing final word; or it could be further expanded to "...of the Classical Music Recording Industry" as in the heading of the summary on the back cover: "At Long Last, The Definitive Story of the Rise and Fall…." Alas, this heading is, in principle at least, also problematic: how can a book whose primary text that covers a century of time but occupies only 138 printed pages be characterized as "definitive"? The most accurate one might well have been: "The Rise and Fall of the Classical Music Recording Industry," but marketing and accuracy do not always coincide, a fact the author invokes in his story on more than one occasion.

The breakdown of the total 330 pages (not including title, ©, and blank ones) is instructive: 144: text, tables (Contents & Illustrations), and Acknowledgements; 11: Endnotes; 125 (incl. 5 of introduction): "Masterpieces: 100 Milestones of the Recorded Century" [= 1.2 pp/recording; 23 (incl. 1 of introduction): "Madness: 20 Recordings That Should Never Have Been Made" [= 1.15 pp/recording]; 6: photos; 2+: bibliography; 17: index.

Equally instructive, consequently worth listing here, are the chapter titles: Past Midnight (Introduction), Matinee, Middlemen, Midpoint, Millionaires, Miracles on Miracles, Madness, Meltdown, and Post Mortem.

The history itself is more "in a nutshell" than "definitive," yet it contains all the essential names and events, presented succinctly and carefully documented. It is adequate to suit the average, even the well-informed reader, even if a doctoral dissertation it does not make; it would easily pass muster as a Master's thesis. Further fleshing out would interest very few and not necessarily improve its flow or its usefulness. While it is concerned primarily with the rise and fall of the "major" labels, significant independent ones, such as Nonesuch, Chandos, Hyperion, and Naxos, are treated as well.

The story is presented in anecdotal fashion. The author draws upon his encyclopedic knowledge of and his long experience with the subject, and his vast personal acquaintance with many of the players, both musical and commercial, in this historical drama, alternatively tragedy and comedy, to present the scandalous scuttlebutt behind the decisive events and capsule characterizations of the makers of the momentous decisions. The text is thus a very meaty nut, always to the point and containing no excess verbiage.

And a sad story, replete with backstabbing and occasional espionage, it all is. Its high points, sublime achievements, and significant contributions to civilization are always undercut by ill-advised, sometimes downright foolish decisions and disastrous adventures. Personalities (musical and commercial) were more important than the music; what got recorded was what they wanted to record, not necessarily what should have been recorded or what the collecting public really wanted to buy. Money rather than the music was what mattered most, and the key to that was the big-name star, for the creation of which the use of any gimmick was fair game. Extravagant headquarters buildings and launch parties, "bloated corporate superstructure" [p. 120], and inflated corporate executive and musical superstar salaries ate up the scarce and slim profits. Industry personnel choices were often based not on professional qualifications but on personal connections or preferences, leading to constant turnover in revolving doors that seemed to be on permanent auto-pilot. Often imaginary, mostly unnecessary rivalries amongst competitors wanting to best each other or be on the top of the heap (when they weren't colluding to keep retail prices inflated!) repeatedly blinded them to the realities of the classical music marketplace and to the very reasons for the industry's existence. Lebrecht is merciless in his criticism, and inevitably pessimistic in his outlook, both of which, from my viewpoint as one who once worked at the bottom of the industry's food chain, are unfortunately all too justified.

The text is always an easy and entertaining read. Lebrecht has a wondrous way with words, invariably finding the perfect pithy, often witty phrase to underscore his always spot-on assessments of the industry's self-created problems that led to its self-destructive behavior and ultimate implosion. A felicitous five to wit:

"Dead, [Glenn] Gould began selling faster than alive. Each memorial release outstripped the last. The same was happening with Maria Callas on EMI, five years after her death. This was an alarming trend, the mark of a doomed civilization that worships its dead." [p. 89];

"The monarch was dead, but the music went on. Karajan left a mountain of 950 recordings and a fortune of half a billion dollars, the estate swelled annually by royalties from such DG gimmicks as 'Karajan Express' and 'Karajan Adagio'. There was no limit to his recyclability." [p. 95];

"A little Welsh girl with a lovely warble was launched as an old-fashioned wunderkind, paraded before popes and presidents with pretty opera arias." [p. 112];

" BMG brought out a double disc, 'The Only Classical Album You'll Ever Need.' The record business was writing its obituary on the covers of its own products." [p. 124]; and

"New media were sapping its strength. A 60Gb iPod, slippable into a shirt pocket, could accommodate the equivalent of 600 symphonic and opera CDs[,] which, redundant, were sold off in thrift and charity shops for three bucks apiece. Classical recording had lost object value." [p. 131].

The reader can readily identify the specific problem referenced by each of these statements, situation that perhaps kept her/him from purchasing the referenced recording, or other similar ones, or even any at all…, thus unwillingly and unwittingly contributing to the collapse of the industry s/he appreciated and wanted to patronize and preserve.

There are almost no errors in the text; I uncovered virtually no typos, a rarity in today's publishing world. I found a SONY film produced by Peter Gelb (now with the Metropolitan Opera) about Peter Warlock, aka Philip Heseltine, that I know as Voices from a Locked Room referred to simply as Voices [p. 110], and I found the right-hand-page running headers in the history section, which are the title of the part rather than of its individual chapters, more confusing than useful when wanting to consult the endnotes.

The balance of the book makes it a fine reference tool. For each recording selected, Lebrecht writes about the music, the musicians, the recording's circumstances, and the world context in which it was made or into which it was released, always in anecdotal fashion and with clear justification for its inclusion in his catalogue. He makes it clear that these are milestones, not his favorites or his personal choices as "best." One should know about them even if one doesn't own, or even necessarily want to own them. About Lotte Lenya's recording of Weill's Theatre Songs, he says: "There is more sex in one of her demisemiquavers than in the collected works of Madonna." [p. 194]. Others might make other choices, or expand the list, but one cannot dispute his evaluations.

Raleigh native Michael Haas, Executive Producer of Decca's superb Entartete Musik series ("the record industry's last great educational venture" [p. 265]), enters onto the stage four times, quoted twice. The index will lead you quickly to his appearances.

This book is, therefore, my quibbles with the "definitive" characterization notwithstanding, an excellent addition to the recorded classical music lover's library. Being reluctant to expand mine at this stage in life, I confess to having borrowed a library copy to read, but decided that it is essential to own it to be able to consult it at will and leisure. Very highly recommended: it's a bargain to have this much knowledge at such a low price and it doesn't take up a huge amount of space on the shelf. It is rare today to see a book with this much content, style, and quality appear on the market.