Outstanding Academic Titles 2021: Music selections

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight music titles.

1. Music by Max Steiner: the epic life of Hollywood’s most influential composer
ḤiSmith, Steven C. Oxford, 2020

Born in Vienna to a prominent family of theatrical producers, Max Steiner (1888–1971) was a pioneering Hollywood composer who built one of the most successful musical careers in US film history. An Emmy-nominated writer, journalist, and producer, Smith traces Steiner’s training in musical theater, his transition to film composing, his successes during the 1930s through the 1960s, and his influence in Hollywood across the 26 chapters of this well-researched and engrossing book. The exceptional chapters on Steiner’s family, childhood, and formative years illuminate the composer’s aesthetics, personal and professional relationships, and financial missteps as an adult. Smith also surveys the many films for which Steiner composed scores. In addition to offering perspective on the artistic, business, and interpersonal contexts from which the films and Steiner’s scores emerged, Smith also considers Steiner’s collaborations with orchestrators, directors, producers, and studio heads. The final three chapters are sensitively written: Steiner’s career ends, his family is torn apart, and his life winds to a close, but his legacy is firmly established.. View on Amazon

2. Poulenc: a biography 
Nichols, Roger. Yale, 2020

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), one of the composers known as Les Six, sought to express the “French temperament” of “charm and delight” (p. 1) through his compositions and piano performances. Nichols (an authority on modern French music) explores the composition, musical characteristics, and reception of Poulenc’s songs, concertos, and operatic masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites, and considers Poulenc’s professional collaborations (particularly with singer and confidant Pierre Bernac) and the poets whom he most admired and whose words he set to music (e.g., Guillaume Apollinaire). Poulenc’s aesthetics and that of the broader community of 20th-century French composers form another principal aspect of the book. Nichols discusses Poulenc’s anxieties regarding his reputation in comparison to those of Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen, his reviews and essays on music, and his professional relationships with Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and fellow members of Les Six. Poulenc’s assessment of his colleagues’ compositions and theirs of his (discussed in chapter 3) are especially insightful. Nichols addresses the impact of the composer’s recurring bouts of depression and intimate relationships with men and women but provides only a relatively brief account of the composer’s childhood and formative years. View on Amazon

3. The meaning of soul: Black music and resilience since the 1960s
Lordi, Emily J. Duke, 2020

The Meaning of Soul is a revisionist analysis of 1960s and 1970s soul and of the present-day post-soul era. Lordi (English, Vanderbilt Univ.) theorizes soul as a “logic” for enacting resilience by displaying “the redemptive possibilities of black suffering” (p. 46). This capacious definition moves well beyond the typically masculinist codification of soul as message-oriented, secularized gospel. Lordi’s theory of soul logic re-places women’s and queer voices in its history and illustrates a way to link the heterogeneous voices of that era. A vital chapter on the historiography of journalistic, literary, and academic writings launches the rationale for her approach, which she validates with extraordinary interpretations of recordings and live performances from a wide range of artists. Core chapters focus on performative techniques typically marginalized in treatments of soul: falsetto, false endings, ad libs, and covers of white songs. The book closes with a consideration of the current soul revival—what Lordi calls “Afropresentist” art—as the “unfulfilled future of a radical past” (p. 154). View on Amazon

4. The sound of hope: music as solace, resistance and salvation during the Holocaust and World War II
Brown, Kellie D. McFarland, 2020

Brown (Milligan Univ.) shares powerful historical accounts of eight musicians whose work during the Holocaust and WW II encouraged hundreds of others as they faced daily brutalities and even death. In chapter 1, Brown provides critical information on the rise of the Third Reich, and in the chapters that follow, she presents the stories of violinist Alma Rosé; conductor Herbert Zipper; pianist Alice Herz-Sommer; composers Władysław Szpilman, Oliver Messiaen, and Dimitri Shostakovich; Margaret Dryburgh and the women POWs in the “vocal orchestra” of Sumatra; and Bronisław Huberman, who founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Remarkably, six of the musicians outlived the oppression of the Holocaust and the war, with Herz-Sommer achieving the age of 110. (Rosé died in 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Dryburgh died in 1945 in a Japanese internment camp in Sumatra.) Each chapter provides rich background—drawn from letters, diaries, memoirs, and other sources—on the musicians and the atrocities they faced.
View on Amazon

5Whose blues?: facing up to race and the future of the music
Gussow, Adam. North Carolina, 2020

With Whose Blues? Gussow (English and southern studies, Univ. of Mississippi), an authority on the blues, adds to his extensive and noteworthy scholarship on the genre, including Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition (CH, Apr’18, 55-2795). Divided into 12 “bars,” or chapters, Whose Blues? addresses longstanding issues surrounding the blues and race. Incorporating some previously published scholarship, Gussow foregrounds canonical works from blues luminaries such as W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. Gussow also does due diligence in dispelling myths long associated with the early days of the blues. His research on the early blues was exhaustive, and he succeeds in revealing several long-accepted baseline “facts” as more myth than history. Above all, Gussow does a yeoman’s job of mixing discussions of decades-long changing race relations with the emergence and development of the blues. View on Amazon.

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