Paul Driver

Paul Driver writes about music for the Sunday Times.

A, E♭, C, B: Robert Schumann

Paul Driver, 21 February 2008

Robert Schumann died in an asylum near Bonn in 1856, having committed himself there two years before, following a suicidal plunge into the Rhine near his home in Düsseldorf. He had had many periods of depression and anxiety before that, and biographers have tended to regard his life as a continuous fight against the congenital mental instability to which the deaths of his sister and...

Happy Man: Stravinsky

Paul Driver, 8 February 2007

At the end of his two-volume biography, Stephen Walsh writes that Igor Stravinsky’s music is ‘the one unquestioned staple of the modern repertoire, the body of work that, more than any other, stands as an icon of 20th-century musical thought and imagery’. There couldn’t be a richer subject for a musical biographer and Walsh admits to having an obsession with his...

Felix Mendelssohn, named for happiness, and privileged from birth, was one of the most musical men who has ever lived. He could paint, draw and write almost as well as he could compose. He read Homer in Greek and spoke half a dozen other languages. He had a curatorial flair, playing a large part in the rescue of Bach’s music from oblivion, as well as Schubert’s ‘Great’...

Grand Old Sod: William Walton

Paul Driver, 12 December 2002

Malcolm Hayes tells us that the letters he has selected are merely a quarter of a fifth of those so far available, but one would not want the volume longer. William Walton is no prose stylist, not much of an anecdotalist, and his letters reveal remarkably little about him. They are nearly always utilitarian – money, advice, favours to be sought, contracts to be finalised, parts to be...

Early in 1914 Jean Sibelius visited Berlin and went to hear Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, in which an added soprano sings of ‘air from other planets’ as the music moves towards atonality. ‘It gave me a lot to think about,’ he wrote in the diary that he kept for much of the second half of his life and on which his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna relies heavily. A few days earlier, a Schoenberg song had made a ‘deep impression’ on him and he had found the Op. 9 Chamber Symphony ‘a legitimate and valid way of looking at things … But it is certainly painful to listen to. A result achieved by excessive cerebration.’ This encounter with Schoenberg occurred just over halfway through Sibelius’s life and in the middle of the original five volume version of this biography.

Haley’s Comet

Paul Driver, 6 February 1997

If a serious radio channel is a success it can define the state of a culture. Looking back over old copies of the Radio Times, one realises with a keen nostalgia the extent to which the national identity has been embodied in daily sequences of radio and television programmes. Those at the more serious end of the broadcasting spectrum, and their manner of presentation, afford an ideal barometer of cultural health – better, for example, than any study of reading habits.

Touching the music

Paul Driver, 4 January 1996

Extracts, or pericopes – to borrow his typically ornate term – from Robert Craft’s diary of his years with Stravinsky first appeared in the famous series of their conversation books issued throughout the Sixties. In 1972, after the composer’s death, a far bigger selection was published as Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948-1971. But this volume left its author dissatisfied from the start. ‘Hastily put together’ to coincide with a Stravinsky ballet festival in New York, it omitted the year 1954, was exiguous with five others, failed to lay proper emphasis on what he now sees as the crucial years of 1951 and 1956 or to supply an adequate context for the Sixties; and Craft did not want it reprinted. Now he has gone to the trouble of remedying the defects with a revised edition that extends the original length by over a third. Each year of the stated period gets a decent amount of coverage; a solid 1994 postscript has been added to each except the last, which is followed by a chapter-length Postlude. Letters to Craft from Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard are newly included. Letters (also to Craft) from Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, Glenn Gould and other musical luminaries are also published for the first time; and most of the illustrations are new. Gone are the itineraries that laboriously prefaced each chapter-year in the original edition and the interpolated 12-page ‘Afterword’ which Craft wrote for a book of Arnold Newman’s Stravinsky photographs. The new edition of the Chronicle is virtually a new book.’

Coming out top

Paul Driver, 8 September 1994

There was something unnerving about Bartók, as Agatha Fassett indicates in The Naked Face of Genius, her 1958 ‘novel’ about his American last years. ‘That’s one bit of information that might have been left unremembered,’ Bartók curtly informed her when, on their first meeting, she had given the wrong answer to the absurd question: ‘Would you call this a coconut?’ The object he was holding reminded her, she confessed, of a ‘weird-looking Indian head’, but he had tender sympathies with the downtrodden, and the dinner party was ruined. Bartók seems to have had a comparably unnerving effect on the critics and historians of 20th-century music. They always manage to leave him out of the reckoning. Summarising Bartók’s position from the vantage-point of the Nineties in the first chapter of The Bartók Companion, Malcolm Gillies notes that since the late Forties and Fifties ‘the authors of books on 20th-century music have generally placed him about fourth in their line-up of leading innovators – if number of pages can be taken as a guide – after Debussy (as father of impressionism in music), Schoenberg (pioneer of atonality and serialism) and Stravinsky (rhythmic innovator and Neoclassicist). Bartók is, almost invariably, given as the chief representative of folk influence in art music.’ One question that a hefty and scholarly Companion such as this might therefore resolve is whether or not that end-of-term grade is accurate, and if not, whether Bartók might climb to number one.’


Paul Driver, 19 August 1993

Although W.H. Auden, who ranks with Hugo von Hofmannsthal among the master librettists of the age, thought that the meaning of libretto’s words were its least important component (at any rate, so far as the audience is concerned), and that a libretto is ‘really a private letter to the composer’, he also found that ‘as an art-form involving words, opera is the last refuge of the High Style.’ The syllables are the main thing, the singability. The poet-librettist’s verses ‘have their moment of glory’, the moment in which they suggest ‘a certain melody’ to the composer; ‘once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general.’ Yet opera is ‘the only art to which a poet with a nostalgia for those times past, when poets could write in the grand manner all by themselves, can still contribute, provided he will take the pains to learn the métier and is lucky enough to find a composer he can believe in’.

Even more immortal

Paul Driver, 8 April 1993

In a well-known anecdote, recounted years after the event by Gottfried Fischer, the boy Beethoven is looking out of his window in Bonn


Paul Driver, 7 January 1993

John Cage, who died immediately after this book intended to honour his 80th birthday was published, was a man marvellously indulged and humoured. Perhaps no one among 20th-century buffoons accumulated so much intellectual capital or secured such wide forbearance, and few have been so famous. He was included in every reckoning of modern music’s development and achievement and granted a potent influence on artists in diverse media and of all ages. He was at once the intellectuals’ composer – the kind of symptomatic figure that cultural analysts with small musical equipment would be sure to refer to – and the archetypal risible modernist, all plonks and tinklings, for the man in the street. Like Andy Warhol, with whom he had much in common, he became a household name yet produced practically nothing of real and permanent value. Cage was America’s best Dadaist, best Surrealist, best self-publicist, self-archivist, and its worst composer.’

Absolute Modernity

Paul Driver, 26 September 1991

The near-simultaneous appearance of these volumes prompts thoughts on the development of French music out of the last century and into the next. One’s first thought, though, is bound to be: do Fauré and Boulez have anything in common at all? Could two composers linked by nationality ever have seemed at first sight so antipodean? Fauré the Proustian saloniste (an important model for Vinteuil) and Boulez the blazing theorist, for whom even the music of Messiaen was little better than salon music (‘brothel music’ was what he called it); Fauré the apogee of civility, refinement and classicism, and Boulez, the apostle of mathematical determinism and absolute modernity, Fauré the diffident man and cautious innovator, Boulez the scathing polemicist and compulsive revolutionary: these standard conceptions of the respective composers would seem to exclude them from any common ground except that of genius. Yet as one looks further, the parallels between them and their respective situations begin to emerge. Both men travelled from the provinces to the stars, or at least to the head of illustrious Paris institutions – in Fauré’s case, the Conservatoire, in Boulez’s the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM). Boulez the endless reviser of his works shares Fauré’s perfectionism; a revulsion from rhetoric characterises both composers, as does a quintessential Frenchness. Boulez has mellowed with the years, even if he has not exactly become diffident, while Fauré was not without a certain avant-garde doggedness. In the end, one even suspects that it is Fauré who will stand in 20th-century musical history as the truly pioneering figure.’

Boulez in progress

Paul Driver, 25 June 1987

Boulez has been the omnipresent conscience of post-war music. He has applied to his own music rigid criteria of method and historical validity, and revised many works again and again, often withdrawing them altogether. He has become a martyr figure somewhat after the fashion of Schoenberg, also self-appointed to a role of revolutionary innovator; the special prize Boulez has paid is not increasing isolation but creative sterility – compositions have flowed ever more slowly from his pen. (Répons, 1980, for ensemble and live electronics, is his only substantial piece in a decade, and it remains unfinished and experimental.) Boulez’s phenomenal scrupulosity has been directed outwards as well – in numerous lectures, articles, interviews, tirades (and part of a treatise) which have exerted wide and possibly dangerous influence over younger composers. These writings, though, have not all been readily accessible in English hitherto. While the scintillating volume of Conversations with Célestin Deliège (Eulenburg, 1976) and the refractory theoretical work Boulez on Music Today (Faber, 1971) are – or were – easily obtainable, the English translation of Boulez’s first book of essays, Notes of an Apprenticeship, published in New York by Knopf in 1968, remains exceptionally hard to find in this country. Now the second collection, Points de Repère, issued in France in 1981 (revised 1985), is available, in a rearranged format with a translation by the late Martin Cooper, under the title Orientations.’

Liza Jarrett’s Hard Life

Paul Driver, 4 December 1986

Of the five new novels grouped here, only one, I think, breathes something of that ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’ which seemed to Henry James ‘the supreme virtue of a novel – the merit on which all its other merits … helplessly and submissively depend’. Unfortunately, that one – Pat Barker’s The Century’s Daughter – is also a consciously ‘working-class’ fiction whose claim to reality-status might be found off-puttingly vehement. Still, her book, risking as it does a limiting categorisation and, inescapably, a caricaturing treatment of its subject, is the only one of the five which, making a serious attempt on reality, takes the reader completely seriously: the latter, in this instance, is never someone who is merely ‘in on something’, and his intelligence is never insulted. I don’t want to call the book a masterpiece: it isn’t that – but at least it is more a work of art than a disappearing act.’


Paul Driver, 9 October 1986

From the general reader’s point of view, this tome – a scrupulous, detailed inventory of Beethoven’s pocket and desk sketchbooks, locating every extant leaf – is about as reviewable as the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue, which it resembles in bulk and necessary emphasis on watermarks, paper-types and other arcana. For the specialist musicologist, and the non-specialist, even the general musician, it must count as a signal achievement of scholarship, to be applauded, reverenced and used. Now, for the first time since the sketchbooks, lovingly protected by Beethoven, passed into the hands of early collectors (Dominic Artaria, Ludwig Landsberg, Friedrich Grasnick, Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Anton Schindler), before being scattered to the European winds, serious students are in possession of the bibliographical information they need. Our authors supply the fullest description of each book, going deep into matters of binding, pagination and structural integrity; itemising contents; carefully attempting datings; and tracing relevant history. The chapters, taking a sketchbook at a time, also include an often beguiling structural chart: thus, in the case of the book known as ‘Artaria 197’, we can learn at a glance about its gatherings, quadrants, paper-types, rastrologies (numbers of staves per page) and stich-holes. From diagrams in the chapters on reconstruction techniques, we can learn how sheets were folded, and even how to make sketchbooks of our own: shades here of Blue Peter. One such chapter introduces pleasant distinctions between ‘sketchbooks with a regular structure and professional stiching’, ‘sketchbooks with a regular structure and non-professional stiching’, and ‘sketchbooks with both irregular structure and non-professional stiching’. It is all a bibliographer’s paradise.’

We were the Lambert boys

Paul Driver, 22 May 1986

Andrew Motion’s book is intended to portray a family’s rich self-destructiveness. He begins with Larkin’s famous quatrain:


Paul Driver, 23 January 1986

Stravinsky was a dull correspondent, but at least he was Stravinsky. His wife’s letters to him, which preponderate over his to her in Robert Craft’s new selection of Stravinskyiana, Dearest Bubushkin, have biographical importance but do not all that frequently rise above the level of any wife to any husband. The book, though physically attractive and lavishly illustrated, is a hard read. What is it that keeps one going through a long sequence of letters with their arbitrary reference to time and place and their detailed personal content? Usually their literary value and/or narrative arrangement. Vera Stravinsky’s letters have more of the former than her husband’s, but that isn’t saying much. Craft’s arrangement of the material is chronological (1921 to 1954) but creates little suspense because, by and large, it is the recipient, not the author of the letters who is doing that, away from home on his adventures. Nor can the moderately enlivening format of the Selected Correspondence (of which the third and final volume is now published) be used to parcel up correspondences and themes: for Vera there is only one correspondent, and only one theme – marital solicitude.’

In my review of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky biography the bald statement that Stravinsky and Schoenberg never met is an unfortunate accident (LRB, 8 February). I was well aware they met at a rehearsal of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in 1912. The intention was to say that they never met during their sojourn in Hollywood.


23 January 1986

Paul Driver writes: In my copy of Paul Horgan’s Encounters with Stravinsky the appendix citing this letter has been omitted as part of an abridgement by the author for the British edition (Bodley Head, 1972). The comments in the letter don’t entirely match Horgan’s evocation of Stravinsky’s speech throughout the book, but I would agree that Stravinsky’s conversational...

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