music’—is raised not as the starting point for a discussion but as the close of a chapter. Never claiming objectivity, Letellier indulges his special interest in Meyerbeer not only by including many obscure Meyerbeer pieces in his survey but by turning the fifth and final chapter, ‘Biblical Theology in Opera’, into an apologia for French grand opéra— repertoire in which much of the backdrop may have been religious but which itself could hardly be described as biblical. Many of what might be described as Christian works have little basis in actual Bible stories, and this book stretches things still further by including a number of Christmas-themed operas that have nothing to do with the Christmas story itself—such pieces as Reber’s La Nuit de Noël, Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith, Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Puts’s Silent Night. Nor do those operas about medieval saints such as St Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc really qualify, or those about non-biblical martyrs (be they in Khovanshchina or Dialogues des Carmélites).
The indexes are needlessly complex and not always easy to use; if you are interested in particular composers, you may not wish to look them up in separate Old and New Testament listings. And the divisions between opera and oratorio within the text give rise to some mis-classifications, most seriously perhaps Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron as an example of the latter.
There are 258 illustrative plates, most of them in colour—and of a high quality that makes interlopers such as a dark snapshot of Christ Church, Highbury, look out of place. It is there on account of it being the scene of the premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Tobias and the Angel, and a full page and a half is devoted to this community opera, which can be found via one of the ten indexes (listed as ‘Tobit and the Angel’) but not via Dove’s name in the register of composers. Such inconsistencies, of which there are many, may limit the book’s practical reliability as a reference tool but not as a source of browsing potential. john allison
Conversations with Rossini By Ferdinand Hiller. Translated and annotated with an introduction by Richard Osborne. Pallas Athene (Publishers) Ltd. 96pp. £16.99. ISBN: 978-1843681694
Ferdinand Hiller (1811-85) is not well remembered nowadays, but in his time he was an admired musician, a busy composer and administrator who could count as friends or colleagues many distinguished figures, from Berlioz and Mendelssohn to Wagner and Brahms.
His conversations with the retired elder statesman of Italian music were recorded in Trouville-sur-Mer—a rising resort—in September 1855, when Rossini was 63 and Hiller 43. The elder man, who had first met the younger when Hiller was 17, clearly liked him and spent some time delivering comments on his own career, the works of his contemporaries and predecessors, and the general state of
music in the mid 19th century. These are published complete in English for the first time with a clear translation and expert annotations by Richard Osborne.
Hearing Rossini discourse on similar subjects on an earlier occasion, Mendelssohn spoke of ‘the sly expression on his face’, as if he was praising contemporaries more than he felt they really deserved, but such speculation is not borne out here: instead his comments are often generous but perceptive, though a slight bias towards German composers of the past and present may represent a compliment to Hiller himself, whom he might have supposed to prefer them.
Opera, December 2018