JWR Articles: Book - Classical Destinations (Authors: Matt Wills, Paul Burrows) - May 9, 2008

Classical Destinations

An armchair guide to classical music

No rating No rating
230 pages

ISBN: 0670029831
Never-ending journey into the depths of creativity

“We are the products of our environment”; “You are what you eat.” These two adages would suggest that much of our human existence is largely determined by where we live and what fills our plates, bowls and cups. In the lavishly illustrated Classical Destinations: An armchair guide to classical music” (Wendy McDougall, photographer), Simon Callow (who hosted the same-name public television series) asserts in the thoughtful “Foreword” that “It’s inconceivable that the geniuses who you will read about in this book—turbulent, passionate and avid for experience—would not have responded viscerally to their surroundings.” What follows are seven excursions into the domiciles, studios and performance venues for many of the world’s best-loved composers of classical music.

Like all books that attempt to describe any aspect of our most universal art, without actual sounds to accompany the text, many of the points made remain largely theoretical. Happily, there is also a companion set of DVD/CD-ROM versions, which would contribute enormously to the value and understanding of this full-sized volume (further information).

Unfortunately, the book’s text (adapted from the original scripts by Matt Wills and Paul Burrows)—particularly the “Composer at a Glance” segments contain numerous typos, awkward words (eventuate), misleading construction (seems that Falstaff was “by then nearly 80” years old rather than the composer when Verdi completed his last masterwork), and unsubstantiated statements (e.g., Bach as the “Father of Classical Music”; Schubert’s Elrkönig “his most celebrated work.”; Haydn as the “Father of the Symphony”—try googling “Father of the String Quartet”) and confused references: Beethoven’s “Pathétique piano concerto”). And the astonishing “fact” that Mozart married Constance Weber 38 years before he was born only serves to weaken a reader’s confidence in the premise.

As to the thesis, there is little doubt to those who have wandered the globe in search of visual stimulation and artistic excellence that Dvořák sounds like the Czech Republic looks (yet his “New World” Symphony shows little absorption of America in the score) and the winds of Finland bluster through many pages of Sibelius’ orchestral writing, but if he’d been born in Spain, been influenced by the same teachers and heard the same music would his style be completely different? Perhaps more intriguingly, if J.S. Bach had been an atheist rather than a devout Lutheran would we have the St. Matthew Passion? Back to the travel context, if Mendelssohn had never ventured out of Leipzig would the world have its insight into Fingal’s Cave?

Here’s the stuff of discourse and debate! Nothing for it but—armed with this book and its musical references—embark on a real (participating hotels are listed as an appendix) or virtual trek into the minds and art of the composers whose music we cherish no matter what its postal code. JWR


As a further complement to Classical Destinations, JWR offers some links below, listed in the same geographical order as the book.

Austrian flag Salzburg Marrying Mozart
Here’s a fictional account of Mozart’s domestic life by Stephanie Cowell
Austrian flag Vienna Alfred Brendel with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
2002 NPR broadcast features Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4
Danish flag Norway
Shaw Festival - The Philanderer
Playwright/music critic George Bernard Shaw uses both Ibsen and Grieg to make his points
Finish flag Helsinki  Sibelius:  The Orchestral Works
David Hurwitz’s detailed study of the Finish legend; also includes CDs
Russian flag St. Petersburg  Shaw Festival - A Month in the Country
Features the piano music of John Field, teacher of Mikhail Glinka
Italian flag Tuscany Franco Zeffirelli's La Bohème
Magnificent film version of Puccini’s masterwork
Italian flag Venice Antonio Vivaldi:  A Prince in Venice
Disappointing film biography of “The Red Priest”
German flag Eisenach Till Fellner plays Bach
The Viennese pianist makes a considerable impression with this recording from the Eisenach native;
German flag Weimar Bach's Magnificat - Danced!
An invigorating performance from Pittsburgh
German flag Leipzig

Yehudi Menuhin plays Bach and Brahms in the Gewandhaus
1983 Video production, Kurt Masur conducts
German flag Berlin  Zero Degrees of Separation
Elle Flanders’ probing documentary looks at city walls coming down (Berlin, where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marked the occasion) and going up (West Bank in Israel).  How will composers react?
German flag Bonn Tafelmusik Orchestra:  Beethoven Symphonies 5&6
Bonn’s most famous son in an engaging recording from Canada
Czech Republic flag Prague New World Symphony
Dvořák’s Ninth featured at Lorin Maazel’s 70th birthday bash

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