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. (http://www.anchorbooks.com/ & http://www.normanlebrecht.com/)
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;
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
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
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
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
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.
"New media were sapping its strength. A 60Gb iPod, slippable into
shirt pocket, could accommodate the equivalent of 600 symphonic and opera CDs[,]
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.
Marvin J. Ward