The Concert Song Companion by Charles Osborne
A Guide to the Classical Repertoire. Gollancz
This book seeks to survey, for the general music-lover, three centuries of European song. Germany, France and England have a chapter each; two more cover the rest of Europe. Some 2000 songs, 200 composers and 800 poets are mentioned, in 250 clearly printed pages; so just giving or repeating the titles and names occupies a fair (occasionally an unfair) proportion of the text. Much of the rest is silence, e.g. about half Schumann's songs or three quarters of Schubert's; so much for the “essential work of reference” calmly commended to singers by the blurb-writer. Even after all the ingenious and unobtrusive jettisoning (“from the remaining five collections of songs, very few individual ones remain to be singled out for attention”, and so on) there is still far too much cargo left over for the chosen vessel. The consequences of developing a massive list soon become all too apparent.
To see how prosperous the voyage is, take Mendelssohn. He wrote comparatively few songs, so there is space for a word about each. This is quite often the same word. “A charming sweetness of melody”, “character as well as charm” (p.54); “quiet charm”, “individuality and charm”, “great melodic charm” (p.55); “gay and charming”, “particularly charming”, “delicacy and charm”, “delicate charm” (p.56); “fresh young charm”, “tender and charming” (p.57). Did it really take four pages to carry that train of thought?
Elsewhere the bouquets are usually more variegated; and it is really quite an impressive achievement to cover so much territory, even in just one field and at no great depth. But some of the flora are rather injudiciously imported - for example that prize bloomer, Schumann's dementia praecox, which though only recently planted and wholly groundless is proving hard to root out. Again, the proportionate allocation of space seems exceptionally well planned, though the omission of Charles Orr from any survey of English song is glaring (and so will his many admirers be, justifiably). There is evidence too of the acknowledged verbal skills and sensitive perception of the literature director of the Arts Council, as for example in his brief but telling defence of Der Wanderer D493, and Frauenliebe und -leben. But he could have written much of this sleeve-note-style commentary standing on his head and with his eyes shut (a posture favoured by the proof-reader, to judge from the many unamended repetitions and the 40 mistakes and misprints in the first chapter alone). The result may perhaps appeal to “all music-lovers and gramophone enthusiasts”; but my own feeling is that the song-title recital with ostinato adjectival accompaniment is a form of entertainment likely to appeal to a more limited (if not more select) audience.
The Musical Times, Nov., 1974 (p. 949) © the estate of eric sams