Arts

Summer reading for the ears

The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive

Given the immense popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music, its ubiquity on orchestral programs, and the fact that he died over 120 years ago, one could be forgiven for assuming that most of the important documents and correspondence about his life had long ago been published and made available in English translation. 

 Such, however, turns out not to be the case. This new collection from Yale University Press offers a wealth of previously untranslated materials — including intimate letters from family members and the composer himself, musical souvenirs, and key documents — that were themselves only published in Russian in 2009. Why so late? In short, as editor Marina Kostalevsky describes, aspects of Tchaikovsky’s life and art were suppressed by censors first in imperial Russia and then once again during the Soviet Union, a time when “the Russian greats had to be purified of their ideological and moral ‘errors’ ” before entering the Soviet canon.  

In Tchaikovsky’s case, those “errors” included his homosexuality, his general taste for monarchism and his specific sympathies for Tsar Alexander III, and his connections to the Russian Orthodox faith. Accordingly, in Soviet Russia, just as passages from the “1812 Overture” were bowdlerized to erase references to the old anthem “God Save the Tsar,” the materials in this volume never saw the light of day. Finally, here they are, clearly presented, and essential in filling out a more humane and complete portrait of the composer and his art.JEREMY EICHLER

Maestros and their Music:
The Art and Alchemy of Conducting

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Leonard Bernstein protege John Mauceri draws on a lifetime of experience conducting across genres and venues to take us backstage in this engaging, funny, and profound book. In clean prose and witty asides, he explains the method behind the ostensible magic of orchestral conducting, and leads a whirlwind tour through the idiosyncrasies of some of the last century’s memorable maestros. Mauceri holds strong opinions about certain things and people, and sometimes it’s unclear whether the book wants to be an autobiography or a survey; with that in mind, read and find out why you probably don’t want to tell a conductor to “have fun” before a concert. ZOë MADONNA

Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa

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The still yet radiant music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt speaks with an outward simplicity that has summoned for countless listeners a sense of timelessness and new beginnings. But even blank slates come from somewhere. 

In this slim but incisive volume, part of the welcome new “Keynotes” series published by Oxford University Press, the musicologist Kevin C. Karnes persuasively situates the international phenomenon of Pärt’s celebrity in the larger post-Cold War narratives of the late 1980s and 1990s. As Karnes writes, the discovery of Pärt’s music — in large part through the vehicle of a now-iconic album titled “Tabula Rasa,” released in 1984 by ECM Records — “took place in a time when a Europe long divided seemed finally on a path toward healing, and to purging its memory of the historical forces that had rent it in the first place.” The so-called “end of history,” he observes, had found a soundtrack all its own.

Through a focused dive into the musical, biographical and cultural-political sources of Pärt’s minimalism, Karnes succeeds in demystifying this most mystical figure of contemporary music. And happily, the appeal of Pärt’s music not only survives the scrutiny, but seems somehow deepened by this journey to its roots.

JEREMY EICHLER

American Harmony 

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Musician, historian, and teacher Nym Cooke compiles and edits a collection of “choral miniatures,” selecting 176 of his favorite tunes from the storied living tradition of American folk hymnody — commonly known as shape-note or “Sacred Harp” singing, the latter being the most widely used tunebook. Published by local boutique house David R. Godine, Inc., this hefty, handsome two-volume set includes expertly typeset scores, many illustrations, and a comprehensive appendix of commentary on the music and composers as well as a companion CD. Cooke writes in the foreword that he hopes his collection will be used by a “wide variety of singing groups;” weighing in at nearly 6 pounds with a $65 price tag from Godine, that seems less than likely, but the beauty of this collection cannot be overstated. 

ZOë MADONNA

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.