Sunday, January 30, 2022

My Book of the Year 2021

I don't often get to read a book. I'm too busy writing them.

It takes an 'event' such us one of Yamba's frequent powercuts to get me off my Mackintosh and into a lounge, on the sun-deck, with a book in my hands. Not to 'refer to' -- that happens all the time -- but to read, for pleasure, from beginning to end.

Today, Mike the spiderman came to beastie-proof my house, inside and out. Thus, I was turfed outdoors at 8.30am, into the piercing sun, for several hours, while the spray settled and dried. I did my morning kilometre of powerless-walk, pulled a desultory weed, and then sat down with the equally evicted kitten and two bottles of once-chilled water, to read.

It is very, very agreeable to read books on Victorian theatre and music written by people who can actually write enjoyable and readable English. Books of the highest degree of properly-researched and accurate scholarship, with no footnotes, no Academic Paraphenalia, no big stilted University words ... and today I had not one, but two of these. The hours zoomed by!

Firstly, I dipped into Helen Batten's biography of Emily Soldene. I must say, that when I published my vast 2-volume book on Emily (Emily Soldene, in Search of a Singer), years ago, I never dreamed that anyone else would thereafter tackle the lady! Mrs Batten and I, perforce, have used much of the same source material, but -- guess what -- she is a distant descendant of 'Madame Soldene', so comes at the story from a refreshingly different angle, in the 300 odd pages (as opposed to my 1,500!) of this book. She also comes up with one or two tales which are new to me. But, then, I was working in the pre-Internet age ... Lord knows what is out there now. So, if we differ on a few things and thoughts (and the copyeditor has missed the odd doozy misspelling), I vote for this as an enjoyable 'short' version of Emily's story.

The other book interested me, naturally, much more. A semi-biography, by Chris West (bass-player) of the great Victorian bass-player, Bottesini. Semi? Yes, The Paganini of the Double Bass is subtitled 'Bottesini in Britain', and it deals only incidentally with the musician's life, professional and private, elsewhere. But Britain is, on its own, enough to fill 280-odd pages, and those 280 pages make up a fascinating overview of the career of a star virtuoso performer in the 19th century. Not all caviar. Up at Buckingham Palace one week, at the great concert of Julius Benedict the next ... and, in between, reduced to supporting Elizabeth Greenfield in her disastrous English concerts or tootling off to Margate. Money had to be earned, star or not. And as we see in this book, Bottesini wasn't very good with money.

Mr West's meticulous listings of Bottesini's engagements are the backbone of this book, making of it a splendid, factual historical work and a valuable reference, but there is much more. The tabular matter is filled out with an immensely readable description of the times and their musical world, including much on such other megastars as Piatti, Ernst, Arditi and a not-quite megastar in 'Claudina Fiorentini', the Anglo-Spanish soprano who was, for some thirty years, the effective 'Mrs Bottesini'. Mme Fiorentini was one of the 100 singers featured (at length) in my Victorian Vocalists, so it was really interesting to me to be able to fill in the details concerning the Bottesini family's life.

Claudina Fiorentini

The spiderman finished his job by midday, and the tree-trimmer arrived. So I had to hurry the last chapters of this book. But, I can tell you, it is going on my 'A' shelf for a re-read as soon as possible. It's an ideal combination of minute scholarship and merrily flowing writing ... oh, that more books these days were like it. 

The current "A" shelf

I think I can safely say that it is my Best Book of 2021 ...  for anyone interested in the Victorian musical scene, it's a must.

An enjoyable 'morning off'. I must try more often ... but are there other new books like these around? Is spring coming again after the long winter of unreadable and useless tomes ... Please!

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