Roger Parker

Roger Parker teaches music at King’s College London.

Don’t Sing the High C: Unsung Operas

Roger Parker, 13 December 2007

Divas and, recently, divos are all around us. Late last year, the newspapers and opera websites had a feeding frenzy over the antics of the tenor Roberto Alagna, who had been singing Radames in Aida at La Scala. On the second night, booed after his entrance aria by the notoriously partisan loggionisti (an army of singer-obsessives who haunt the upper reaches of the theatre), Alagna simply...

Mozart’s Rascal

Roger Parker, 23 May 1991

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.’

A Single Crash of the Cymbals

Roger Parker, 7 December 1989

The second part of Alan Walker’s projected three-volume life of Liszt opens with events any biographer would relish. At the height of an immensely successful, indeed unprecedented career as an international virtuoso of the piano, Liszt, aged 35 and (as he felt) nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, decided on a complete change. In September 1847 he finished his final grand concert tour. A few months later he settled down as a badly-paid, often-slighted ‘Kapellmeister in Extraordinary’ to the court at Weimar, a small town which – in the twilight of the Goethezeit – was far better known for its literary than its musical activities. And there he stayed for 13 years, conducting a second-rate orchestra and constantly battling with conservative local authorities. The reasons for this dramatic renunciation were clearly complex, but one factor seemed to outweigh all others: more than recognition as a performer, Liszt needed esteem as a composer. His life on the road had been too hectic to allow sustained composition, and he retreated to Weimar in order to write those large orchestral pieces that would enable him ‘to reach that level of superior and solid renown that is my serious aim’.’

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