Year of Wonder, by Clemency Burton-Hill [book review]

Written by: Guy Holloway

Year of Wonder
Clemency Burton-Hill
ISBN 9781472251824
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Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder has the subtitle “Classical Music for Every Day” and is a potpourri of the known and little-known and even the most ardent music-lover is likely to encounter pieces hitherto unfamiliar. Burton-Hill is at pains to stress that her book is not to make the reader feel “more classy”, but that music is to be enjoyed by all, regardless of background, and at any time.

Burton-Hill has selected a piece of music for each day of the year. So August 26 is “happy birthday to the outrageously talented Nico Muhly” and the choice is his choral work Set Me as a Seal. On May 31 we have the Piano Quintet No.1 by Louise Farrenc “who was born on this day”. January 26 is “Australia Day” and the suggestion is to hear Unsent Love Letters by Elena Kats-Chernin, “one of the most exciting classical composers to have emerged from down under in modern times” – which may be true but it seems nevertheless an omission not to mention her Soviet background and education.

The standard ‘These You Have Loved’ classical favourites are included, from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to Grieg’s Piano Concerto. With the prevalence of music-streaming services, not to mention the treasures that also turn up on YouTube, it has never been easier to branch out and discover music that is new to one or to listen almost instantaneously to one of Burton-Hill’s recommendations. Indeed there is a specially-curated iTunes list to accompany this book and I found all the more arcane works without problem on Spotify.

One notable recurring theme of Year of Wonder is Burton-Hill’s cri de coeur to hear more women composers and the inclusion of over forty female writers is laudable. In this respect Clara Schumann has a couple of entries and is first introduced on January 13 as the composer of Three Romances, Opus 22. There follows a delightful footnote that reads “Clara was married to a man called Robert who also wrote music.” When Robert appears during the following month, he is introduced as “Clara’s husband”.

At her best Burton-Hill is charming. Of Fauré’s A-major Violin Sonata she writes “I adore this sonata for the way it immediately and unapologetically thrusts us into the middle of a conversation between the violin and piano.” That said, Burton-Hill’s chatty writing style is too often self-consciously dumbed-down and impedes her flow of thought. On the subject of the possible links between science, mathematics and music, she writes “It seems unlikely to me, because I can barely add two plus two without a calculator.” And whilst at least one contemporary musician and broadcaster can get away with calling composers “badass”, I’m just not so sure about Burton-Hill (she applies this epithet to Hildegard of Bingen).

But none of this matters too much; Burton-Hill has written the book she wanted to write. Her advocacy of under-appreciated composers, the prominence given to some female creators, and her inclusion of a number of Millennials such as Alissa Firsova and Charlotte Bray all make for an imaginatively-conceived book, which I have lived with for a couple of months and friends have enjoyed picking it up – it’s made for a good conversation piece as well as occasional puzzlement, such as the notion that Britten and Shostakovich were “musical giants who were drawn to write for Hollywood.”

This is a handsomely produced volume, and would make an interesting Christmas present for a music-loving friend or family member, as well as for a curious teenager who is starting on his or her adventure of musical discovery.

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