Michael Morley

Over the decades, Richard Strauss has been well served by English-language commentators and scholars, ranging from George Bernard Shaw, through Norman del Mar’s magisterial three-volume study (1962–72), to Michael Kennedy’s shorter, though no less illuminating, critical biography (1999). The focus of Raymond Holden’s work is explicitly narrower than theirs, offering as it does a thorough documentation of Strauss’s career as a practising musician and jobbing conductor.

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Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim & Sondheim on Music by Mark Eden Horowitz

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May 2011, no. 331

Given Stephen Sondheim’s well-known fondness for verbal games and puzzles (as a diversion from his day job, he has devised crossword puzzles for the New York Times), it seems appropriate to begin this review with a short quiz based on some of the ‘attendant comments and grudges’ referred to in the subtitle of, and dotted throughout, Finishing the Hat. Match the author’s critical judgements to the selected lyricists listed below:

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One of many dangers lying in wait for the writer (and reader) of theatre-insider books is that he or she may slip into an endless series of tired anecdotes linked by preening paragraphs of luvvie-speak – though most readers may find luvvie-speak rather more interesting, and amusing, than the piles of polly-waffle foisted on us by our elected ex-representatives. In his preface to this collection of conversations (they are described as ‘interviews’, but this is no rag-bag of formulaic questions), by turns urbane and provocative, humorous and perceptive, and always engaging, director Richard Eyre (whose production of Mary Poppins is currently filling Her Majesty’s in Melbourne) acknowledges his editor and publisher’s help in ‘[discriminating] between what is interesting to me and what is interesting to the general reader’. Over 331 pages and forty-two interviews, Eyre manages this balancing act with the skill of a practised performer combined with the (always) essential awareness of the audience.

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Early in this magisterial and exhaustively researched examination of Duke Ellington’s role in American music and society, the author offers a succinct summary of the musician’s significance as an American artist. It is worth quoting at length, as it encapsulates most of the questions addressed over the book’s 577 pages of text and almost 100 densely packed pages of notes:

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Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship by Erdmut Wizisla, translated by Christine Shuttleworth

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March 2010, no. 319

German commentators have often asserted – not without some justification – that pas­sages of the established Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare are superior to the original. A contentious proposi­tion, perhaps. But in the case of the volume under review, which first appeared in German in 2004, there is no doubt that although, as the publisher’s note points out, ‘a section devoted to a discussion on the debate … about the initial republication and publication of Walter Benjamin’s work in Germany from the mid fifties’ has been omitted, the resulting book is clearer and more user-friendly than the original, with its arguments shown to better advan­tage. A chronology of the Benjamin-Brecht relationship (relocated more sensibly at the front of the book), plus a map and time chart of the two writers, make it easier to refer back to the stages and dates of the relationship, along with – so crucial to an understanding of the course of the friendship and temper of the debates between the two principal participants, as well other involved contemporaries – the stations of the exile years between 1933, 1941 (Benjamin’s death), and 1947 (Brecht’s return to Europe).

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