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The great Hungarian film composer Miklós Rózsa once told me that the saddest concert he ever attended was a recital given by the aged Béla Bartók in an almost empty Wilshire Ebell Hall in Los Angeles, sometime in 1941. It was sad because at that time, almost all of the 20th century’s greatest composers and musicians were living there, in exile from the Nazis, yet none attended.

This incident is not mentioned in David Cooper’s new biography, hailed by its publisher as ‘the definitive account of the life and music of Hungary’s greatest 20th-century composer’. It is certainly richly detailed, but I’m not convinced about its being definitive. For one thing, it has a lot of competition and much of the ground it covers is already comprehensively addressed by some excellent recent studies from such eminent Bartók scholars as Benjamin Suchoff, Lázsló Somfai and Ernő Lendvai.

The main problem, however, is that Cooper can’t quite decide what he wants his book to be. It constantly switches between straightforward narrative biography to complex musical analysis and back again every few pages, which makes it a difficult and frustrating read for anyone without basic musical education or even university training. The author states that anyone not conversant with musical terminology can always skip those pages, but that would remove about 45% of the text, which would be profoundly irritating to many people.

On the plus side, Cooper’s narrative style is engagingly fluent, when it isn’t bogged down in dense musical analysis. There is a detailed list of works and a useful bibliography, and Bartók’s life is placed cogently in the context of the turbulent political times through which he lived. Cooper clearly loves his subject, and has many insights to impart.

There are no photographs. ultimately, while any new Bartók study in English is to be welcomed, this book is most likely to appeal to musicologists and music students, rather than the lay reader wanting a good biography, and it is not likely to replace the leading critical biography of Bartók by Halsey Stevens, recently reissued in a revised and expanded edition and still very much the benchmark. Perversely, this major work is not listed in Prof Cooper’s bibliography, a most curious omission for what purports to be a definitive work.

BRENDAN G CARROLL Read the full review on Agora Classica


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