Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year by Hugh Macdonald - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Key Changes

Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year


The Boydell Press 208pp £25

‘Sexual intercourse began’, according to Philip Larkin, ‘in nineteen sixty-three’. Modern music, suggests Hugh Macdonald, took off exactly 110 years earlier. Something seismic appears to have happened in 1853 which, however imperceptible at the time, would shake the European musical cosmos to its core. And before we jump to conclusions, this tectonic shift was due not only to the admittedly unsettling presence on the scene of a certain Richard Wagner. Other forces were at work, whether in the shape of Hector Berlioz, nerving himself at last to start work on the titanic Les Troyens, Johannes Brahms, setting out from Hamburg to seek his fortune like some diffident, wide-eyed hero of folklore, or Franz Liszt, shedding his earlier incarnation as an international acrobat of the keyboard to become the inspired enabler of burgeoning genius among a rising generation of composers and performers.

Music in 1853 brilliantly re-enacts this cultural sea change by drawing out the various discontents, hankerings and frustrations that obsessed not just the musicians themselves but their patrons and audiences too. Macdonald’s narrative method, so successful that you wonder why it isn’t used more often, plays a version of the

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