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Four Takes: Music and composers, The Boston Sunday Globe

July 26, 2020

The suspension of live performances at Tanglewood added another dreary loss to this pandemic summer. In the green lap of the Berkshires, casual music lovers could settle for a cursory glance at the program notes before bearing down on their baguettes. Alas, no more. The one solace of listening online (absent the imperatives of bug spray, wine refills and people watching) may be that we have time, now, to digest more about favorite composers.

One sure companion is Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of The New York Times. His “The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide” combines a survey that will charm general readers with the kind of analysis that advanced listeners love to quarrel with.

One hot afternoon, I was pulled into his chapter on Haydn. By his own account, Haydn just missed being turned into a castrato while serving as a choirboy in Vienna. Around 1761, he accepted employment with a Hungarian prince, securing himself several years’ freedom to compose.

Tommasini urges those wondering why Haydn makes the pantheon to pick up a box set of the string-quartet recordings. Haydn’s genius, he argues, lay partly in his use of musical motifs, which can impart a sense of unity to lengthier works.

As Tommasini acknowledges, arguments over musical greatness are ultimately irrelevant. In the moment of immersion, greatness is not the question. Think instead, he writes, about the way a particular piece exerts its hold.

This sent me to an evening in my 20s, and my first trip to England. Tired from a full day, a companion and I stumbled across a free concert. A haunting composition for flute swept me so far from my stumbling young self that by the end, I felt rearranged. I vowed to change my career path when I returned home, and did.

The piece, Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata (Op. 164), was well known, just not by me. Though at his death, in 1963, Poulenc faced the prospect that his music might be forgotten, his reputation has risen. In addition to the playful songs with which he began, he wrote instrumental pieces, choral and orchestral works and operas.

In a new biography, “Poulenc: The Life in the Songs,” Graham Johnson lays out why the French composer’s vocal music, especially, has endured. Organized by decades, the book assumes some prior knowledge. In each chapter, Johnson offers a meticulous timeline. Accompanying sketches of key figures, such as the poet Apollinaire, help situate Poulenc historically. (For a more conventional treatment, readers might try “Poulenc: A Biography,” by Roger Nichols.)

As classical music historians generally concede, cultural forces helped ensure that white males would dominate the Western canon. In “The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price,” Rae Linda Brown makes the case for a rare exception.

Born in Little Rock in 1887, Price was part of a small Black elite dedicated to advancing the race. For many, that meant embracing the cultural output of Europe, and maintaining a certain distance from Black folk arts.

Price would see things differently. At 16, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the few then admitting Black students. Though concentrating in organ, she became interested in composition, and adapting Black folk music into more complex works.

Despite the inevitable barriers, marriage and a move to Chicago brought opportunity. While pursuing composition, Price wrote popular music under a pen name. She also earned money writing pieces for beginning students.

A lucrative competition for black composers helped bring Price to national attention. In 1933, at a concert devoted to black music, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her prize-winning Symphony in E Minor.

Among the special guests that night was George Gershwin.

Well aware that books on Gershwin abound, music historian Richard Crawford has nevertheless added another to the shelf. “Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music” traces the composer’s career, pairing familiar biographical elements with selective analysis of the music.

Like Price, Gershwin was interested in incorporating black musical idioms into his work. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, he had talent to burn, and enjoyed extraordinary success at a young age. Still, as Crawford notes, he had his share of flops. (The 1933 musical “Pardon My English” evidently needed pardoning on multiple fronts.)

Throughout his career, Gershwin insisted on the importance of melody. Crawford’s analysis of “Porgy and Bess” demonstrates how determinedly he carried this principle into serious composition.

Who knows how often “Summertime,” the opera’s seductive opener, has been performed? In the right hands, it continually sounds reinvented. Take pianist Marcus Roberts’s version recorded in 1994, for an album of Gershwin songs. He begins with the proper wistfulness; then, with a single stroke, shifts the tune into a major key. There’s no going back from this joyful transgression. And greatness ain’t necessarily the point.

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