October 27, 2005


Uneasy Listening: A Caricature Guide to 20th Century Composers. By John Minnion. Checkmate Books. ₤12.50 from Checkmate Books, www.checkmatebooks.com.

     Caricature is an old art and one step more honorable than cartooning, especially in the hands of such famed practitioners of the form as Thomas Nast, bane of Boss Tweed and the old Tammany Hall – and inventor of the symbols of both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Musical caricature is somewhat more rarefied, being a subgenre within a genre that is itself a subgenre of cartoons.  There are few towering figures in this area.  Perhaps the greatest was Gerard Hoffnung, whose works remain hysterically funny and very pointed, and whose popularity led to production of not one but three Hoffnung Music Festivals (the last of them posthumous) in the late1950s and early 1960s.

     Still, it is arguable whether Hoffnung was a caricaturist or simply a highly specialized cartoonist.  There is no such argument about John Minnion.  He is not only a caricaturist of the highest skill but also – now this is a surprise – someone who communicates quite as well in prose as in his drawings.

     Uneasy Listening shows Minnion at his best.  It is a year-by-year guide to the 20th century in music, listing notable works from every year, providing narrative about musical trends throughout the century, and presenting lovingly produced, occasionally caustic caricatures of a wide (though by no means comprehensive) selection of composers.

     The far left of each two-page spread gives dates and compositions: Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy is among those for 1908, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony appears in the 1917 listing, Copland’s Billy the Kid dates to 1938, John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer comes from 1991, and so on.  Some pages pithily discuss and delightfully illustrate individual pieces: for example, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1918) gets a wonderful illustration of the soldier and the Devil, plus an explanation of the controversy caused by Stravinsky’s extensive use of jazz.  Other pages describe broad musical trends, such as “Decline and Fall of the Romantic Empire.”  All the text is well written and very much to the point.

     But it is Minnion’s caricatures that make the book so outstanding.  Here are bearded, patriarchal Charles Ives sitting on a wicker chair on a lawn in his beloved New England; pipe-smoking Ralph Vaughan Williams strolling in the English countryside; wide-eyed Béla Bartók beside an old-fashioned victrola; Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev, both bespectacled, with a Soviet flag flying behind them; Bohuslav Martinů with a much-lengthened, impossibly curved head; Leonard Bernstein in extreme closeup – all lines and creases with half-frame eyeglasses and half-smoked cigarette; and many more.  It is easy to quibble with Minnion’s inclusions and exclusions (Robin Holloway is in; David Diamond is not) – but quibbling is quite beside the point here.  This is a highly personal book giving Minnion’s views of 20th-century music and some of the people who made it.  It is a delight to read and a joy simply to thumb through for the sake of the art – even for people not totally immersed in classical music.

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