Passing Bull 149 – Books that are too long


More than fifty years ago, I was trying to get to understand what we know as classical music.  I have the clearest recollection of reading that Mendelssohn had referred to something written by Mozart as the most beautiful music he had heard.  That is hardly surprising, but it might be handy to know just what piece he had in mind.  Over the years I have somehow narrowed the field of inquiry to the opera Don Giovanni.  There is a gorgeous trio near the end of the first act.  Could this be it?

I am reading Mendelssohn, A Life in Music, by R Larry Todd (Oxford University Press, 2003).  It runs to 683 pages, which is a lot for one who died so young.  Surely it will have the answer?  We get flirtatiously close.  We get a reference on one page to Mozart’s ‘celebrated minuet’ and on another a reference to Goethe asking the young Felix to play a minuet that was ‘the most beautiful in the world.’  That may be enough for the cognoscenti, but it is not enough for me, a mere amateur.  The author knows what he is referring to, and so will at least some of his readers.  But not I.

The author has devoted his life to the study of Mendelssohn.  The blurb says The New York Times hailed him as ‘the dean of Mendelssohn scholars in the United States.’  The text of the book runs to 569 pages.  The notes, bibliography and index exceed 110 pages.  That ratio will give some idea of the challenge this work poses to the general reader.  It is far, far too long.  It is also far, far too technical for people like me.  You get the impression that if something, however unimportant, has come to the attention of the author over the decades, then it is going in the book.  The result is a shapeless mass that does not leave you with a clear picture of its subject.  You start to skim read, and you miss whatever point the author is trying to make.  Whatever may be the worth of the book as scholarship, as a biography it is a failure – and a long, frustrating and expensive failure.

You get most of the same problems with Harvey Sachs Toscanini, Musician of Conscience (W Norton & Co, 2017).  Again, the author has devoted his life to the subject   One blurb refers to the ‘unbelievable detail in the book.’  What’s good about that?  Who wants to read a train timetable?  There are no notes, but the text runs to 864 pages.  That’s not bad for a conductor.  The result is the same – you skim read and miss what you might have enjoyed.

I looked up what the great critic Neville Cardus had to say about Toscanini.  I’m tempted to say that he said as much in eight pages as Mr Sachs said in 800, but that would be as unfair as it would be unkind.  But the truth is that we – the ordinary readers – would have been better served by a book at most half that length.  Too many books of history and biography look like Wagner’s Ring Cycle – remembering that Gough Whitlam said that Wagner badly needed an editor.

Let me give an example of an anecdote given by Neville Cardus.  When rehearsing in New York in the 1950’s, Toscanini invited a viola player home for dinner.  The man was entranced – he would get to hear the secrets of music from the maestro in the temple.  They were admitted by a butler.  The maestro wolfed down his pasta and red wine and moved to the TV room.  To watch TV wrestling – with fruity and ungrammatical exhortations from the world’s greatest conductor.  The subject of music never arose.  That anecdote is revealing in many ways.  The great man relaxed by hurling abuse at overpaid charlatans and thugs.  But I may have missed it in the snow storm of ‘unbelievable detail.’

May our editors live long lives and be readmitted to gainful employment.  Publishers have fallen into the trap of judges with lawyers.  They let them bang on too long, and they have misplaced the guillotine.


Headlines Monday 14 May 2018

The Australian Financial Review

Labour gains on ‘fair’ budget: poll.

The Age

Coalition on slide despite tax cuts.

The Guardian

Coalition budget fails to turn around Turnbull government’s fortunes.

The Australian

Turnbull rating soars as voters back tax cuts.

Guess who Rupert barracks for.

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