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Charles Munch [Hardcover]

D. Kern Holoman

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Book Description

Feb. 2 2012
A mesmerizing figure in concert, Charles Munch was celebrated for his electrifying public performances. He was a pioneer in many arenas of classical music - establishing Berlioz in the canon, perfecting the orchestral work of Debussy and Ravel, and leading the world to Roussel, Honegger, and Dutilleux. A pivotal figure, his accomplishments put him on a par with Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. In Charles Munch, D. Kern Holoman provides the first full biography of this giant of twentieth-century music, tracing his dramatic survival in occupied Paris, his triumphant arrival at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his later years, when he was a leading cultural figure in the United States, a man known and admired by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. He turned to conducting only in middle age, after two decades as a violinist and concertmaster, a background which gave him special insight into the relationship between conductor and orchestra. At the podium, his bond with his musicians unleashed something in them and in himself. "A certain magic took wing that amounts to the very essence of music in concert," the author writes, as if "public performance loosed the facets of character and artistry and poetry otherwise muffled by his timidity and simple disinclination to say much." In concert, Munch was arresting, even seductive, sweeping his baton in an enormous arch from above his head down to his knee. Yet as Holoman shows, he remained a lonely, even sad figure, a widower with no children, a man who fled admirers and avoided reporters. With groundbreaking research and sensitive, lyrical writing, Charles Munch penetrates the enigma to capture this elusive musical titan.

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"A fascinating read. Holoman's passion for and knowledge of his subject is quite compelling. In contemporary discussions of the great conductors of that era, Munch tends to be relatively overlooked. Holoman makes a persuasive historical case for Munch's importance, both to musical life in France and to the evolution of the Boston Symphony. Along the way, he also provides a detailed look at what life was like for conductors (and orchestras) in the middle part of the twentieth century." --Aaron Sherber, Music Director and Conductor, Martha Graham Dance Company


"A joy to read: well-conceived, well-executed, well-written. Holoman's combination of musical and literary skill brings twentieth-century culture to life throughout, on both sides of the Atlantic. 'Ah, qu'il était beau!' and he still is, in Holoman's vivid biography." --Thomas Kelly, Harvard University


"Charles Munch--the musical icon. When you played a concert with Charles Munch or attended one of his performances as a listener, it was not just a concert. It was an event. He never used the same palette twice. As a player, you had to give 110% of yourself, or be left out of the music. This book is an excellent portrayal of this musical phenomenon!" --Vic Firth


"The qualities that marked D. Kern Holoman's biography of Berlioz and his epic The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire--the grand sweep combined with the minute attention to detail, the narrative flair, the breadth of human sympathy, the evocation of the musician's existence, which, as himself a conductor and organiser of concerts, he understands so well--shine out in this new book. Charles Munch's life, spanning three continents and two world wars, raises fascinating issues--personal, social, political, as well as musical. Reading it, we learn both about the teeming, intricate world of mid-twentieth-century music and about the struggles and achievements of one of its best-loved and most committed practitioners. Holoman has a remarkable story to tell and he tells it superbly." --David Cairns


"Among its other virtues, D. Kern Holoman's warmly sympathetic new biography sheds necessary light on an already forgotten chapter from the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Few readers of this book will be prepared to discover what was expected of a Boston Symphony music director as of 1949, when Charles Munch took over from Serge Koussevitzky--Munch was to stay put in Boston; guest conductors were a rarity. And there was new music on virtually every subscription concert. A lot has changed since then." --Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America: A History


"A book such as this has been needed for quite a while...Very strongly recommended: it is a masterly study." --Musical Opinion


"Beautifully written and arranged in every respect...Accessible to a wide audience...Recommended." --Choice


About the Author

D. Kern Holoman is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis, and conductor emeritus of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. He is the author of Writing About Music, Evenings with the Orchestra, Berlioz, and the popular textbook Masterworks.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charles Munch on the Surface Jan. 18 2012
By Tod Verklärung - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you had the good luck to hear Charles Munch in performance, this book will have some appeal. In its favor is the thorough coverage D. Kern Holoman gives to Munch's career and the many names that appear along the way, including Albert Schweitzer, Honegger, Dutilleux, Poulenc, and others. Much time is spent on his spontaneity in concert and his lack of interest in rehearsal. He is portrayed as a charismatic but shy man who came alive on stage; an art collector, a generous colleague and friend, and a man of some considerable courage. The book is well researched, as well. And yet...

The sadness and loneliness that Munch experienced are not explained and the author admits as much. Nor does he do more than describe the outward aspects of Munch's marriage to a rich, intelligent, somewhat older but infirm woman who helped finance the early portion of his conducting career, but with whom Munch might never have consummated the marriage. Apparently the conductor had numerous extra-marital affairs, some long lasting, making the conductor's personal life look a little bit like that of Don Draper, the protagonist in "Mad Men."

Perhaps more importantly, Munch's ability to achieve hair-raising musical results is not really explained. Within the body of the text there is little critical analysis of Munch's recordings. For myself, many of these recordings paled in comparison with Munch's electric renditions in the concert hall. The best explanation I ever heard of this had to do with the conductor's spontaneity: since multiple "takes" were required in the studio, Munch supposedly had to rein himself in during recording sessions so that he could produce consistent results in terms of tempo, etc. In a public concert, by contrast, Munch was unpredictable, with no two performances being quite the same.

Despite multiple heart attacks and other illnesses going back many years, Munch pushed himself to do his work to the end of his life. To some extent, perhaps, it was a "mission," to some extent an "addiction" (suggested at one point by Holoman); perhaps in part it was simply doing something he loved and in which he lost himself. Whatever it was, his capacity to communicate from the stage was second to no one I heard in a lifetime of concert going that included virtually all the great conductors from 1964 to the present.

Until and unless someone else takes on the job of writing Munch's biography, we must be grateful to Mr. Holoman for what he was able to accomplish here. Perhaps what he could not express was due to the elusiveness of his subject. In the meantime, we have the recordings and especially the growing list of DVDs, to tell us in music and images, not words, what made Munch special. To the good, discographical material and many video clips are present on a companion website.

There are a few errors. Leinsdorf, Munch's successor with the Boston Symphony, lasted more than the five years Holoman gives him credit for. Does Roussel's Bacchus & Ariadne have a chorus? If so, I've never heard a recording or performance that includes it, as the author indicates. (Please see Mr. Holoman's comment below for more information on this question). Nor was Kurt Sanderling a member of the Leningrad Philharmonic, but one of its chief conductors. One pet irritation: Holoman frequently uses French phrases without translating them.
2 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars bio long awaited! March 11 2012
By Robert Chadis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
speilberg should make film of this.
charles munch is greatest of all conductors.
his very unusual life is amazing.
bio helps understanding of music.

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