Song and Self: A Singer’s Reflections on Music and Performance
An exceptionally thought-provoking look at music and identity from one of the world’s leading singers.
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Accustomed to being centre stage, international award-winning singer Ian Bostridge, like so many performers, spent much of 2020 and 2021 unable to take part in live music. It led him to question an identity previously defined by communicating directly with audiences.
This enforced silence allowed Bostridge the opportunity to explore the backstories of some of the many works that he has performed – works such as Claudio Monteverdi’s seventeenth-century masterpiece Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Schumann’s ever popular song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. The complex world of a single song by Ravel from the Chansons madécasses has always haunted and unnerved Bostridge, while his immersion in Benjamin Britten’s confrontations with death, in life and art, have given him much food for thought.
Based on his Berlin Family Lectures, delivered at the University of Chicago in the Spring of 2020, Bostridge guides us on a fascinating journey beneath the surface of these iconic works. His underlying questions as a performer drive the narrative: what does it mean for audiences when a singer inhabits these roles? And what does a performer’s own identity subtract from or add to the identities inherent in the works themselves?
Bostridge's new book [Song and Self] shines a light in the corner of often neglected, fragile beauty, and brings that beauty of relevance to current issues of the world we live in - gender, race, and the universality and humanity of death.
Bostridge uniquely combines the gifts of a celebrated tenor with the gifts of a professional historian. The result in these remarkable essays is an exploration of both the emergence of certain powerful musical compositions and the experience of performing them. These ‘hidden histories,’ as Bostridge calls them, at once complicate and intensify our responses to the works of art he so effectively brings to life
Throughout the slim volume, one relishes the special skill-set Bostridge brings to his task: a performer with a background in academic history. His reading is broad, his method as a writer a rewarding mixture of artistic imagination and professorial rigour; his prose is clear, unafraid to clarify and reiterate ... The preface alone, with its beautifully economical and lucid account of the key questions of what performance should be in relation to the score, makes the book worth picking up ...The themes of private and public image are central, too, to the final chapter, a richly rewarding exploration of music Britten wrote in reaction to the horrors of the Second World War...This is a fascinating little book.
[Bostridge's] ability not only to sing this vast repertoire (the book roams from Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten, by way of Schumann and Ravel) but also to stand back from it and unpick the hows and whys of performance – translating his instinctive reactions and resistances into fully fleshed-out arguments, all rooted in a gloriously broad frame of cultural reference – is singular ... There’s a bracing plunge into the conflicts of Britten’s ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’ that mines ‘Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?’ for fragments of concealed meaning, playing text and music off against each other thrillingly, as well as a passing glance at the postlude of Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und Leben that will send you straight back to listen (and think) again...Best of all is the writing on Britten – a composer whose musical language Bostridge has such an affinity for, both on and off stage.
Monteverdi through to Britten via Schumann's problematic Frauenliebe und leben, Bostridge probes works that have exercised a particular resonance on him. The final lecture examining the omnipresence of death across much of Britten's output is particularly illuminating especially in relation to John Donne: and following a lucid potted disquisition on French colonialism Ravel's Chansons madecasses divulge a fascinating backstory.
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