Category Archives: What I’m Reading This Month

What I’ve Been Reading (November)

Cameron Pyke, Benjamin Britten and Russia (Boydell Press, 2016).

This exceptionally well-written and well-researched study by Cameron Pyke (Dulwich College and University of London) explores many of the ways Benjamin Britten engaged with Russian composers, musicians, and literature against the backdrop of Anglo-Soviet cultural and political relationships, particularly from the 1930s through the early 1970s.

Pyke organizes the book thematically, but there is a broad chronological shape to the whole. The first four chapters are devoted to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, the Russian composers whose music most appealed to Britten. Pyke’s nuanced discussion of Britten’s changing and problematic relationship with Stravinsky is welcome and provides an additional context for understanding why Shostakovich became so important to Britten. The fifth chapter focuses on Britten’s visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. Chapter six considers Pushkin’s influence on Britten and the composer’s engagement with Russian performance styles. The final chapter returns to Britten and Shostakovich, focusing on their friendship in later life and their concerns regarding war and death.

To build his case, Pyke draws thoroughly from journals, letters by Benjamin Britten and others, new interviews with people who knew both Britten and Shostakovich or were involved with Britten’s trips to the Soviet Union, reviews of performances, and Britten’s library of scores. Pyke’s use of these sources is convincing; taken together, they support  his contextual and interpretive points. Furthermore, Pyke’s insightful analysis of Britten’s compositions, complete with many notated examples, highlights the composer’s preoccupations in light of the quartet of featured Russian figures he stresses in the first four chapters of the book. Indeed, Pyke’s discussions of the music of both Britten and Shostakovich throughout the study are high points in this exceptional book.

I highly recommend Pyke’s Benjamin Britten and Russia. It is one of the best studies of music I have read in quite some time.

Stan Pelkey

November 18, 2016

What I’ve Been Reading (September)

Paul S. Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I have read a number of books from Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series, including Kathryn Kalinak’s on Film Music, John Polkinghorne’s on Quantum Theory, and several on world religions and ethics. Paul Boyer’s American History did not disappoint. It is the perfect refresher on US history, and I found the chapters on the colonial period, the revolutionary era, the early republic, and the Civil War particularly valuable. It was also interesting to read the final chapter, which traced American history from the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the present—an era that overlaps completely with my own life. To see (and feel) this period treated as “history”—and to observe my own emotive reaction to this experience—was fascinating, but I also found Boyer’s linkages of events, trends, causes and effects over those four decades convincing and his assessments compelling. One of the final chapter’s subsections, “Historic Election; Uncertain Future,” which covers the presidency of Mr. Obama, also gave more flesh to the idea of the “long shadow of 9/11” and left me contemplating—not for the first time—that the growth, prosperity, and relative peace of the 1990s (years when I attended graduate school, began my career, and celebrated the birth or my children)—rather than the conflict, economic insecurity (real or only perceived), and rancorous partisanship so prevalent since 2000—may be the aberration in post-1970s American society (and history).

Stan Pelkey

October 1, 2016




What I’ve Been Reading: A Review of “Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema”


David Neumeyer, Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015).
David Neumeyer (University of Texas at Austin) expands his significant contribution to film music studies with this magisterial volume, which is in three parts. In the first part, Neumeyer deploys a series of close readings of numerous film scenes to demonstrate that the sound track as a whole—dialogue, music, and sound effects (99)—is the proper object of study. This commitment is grounded in “vococentrism”: human voices dominate the sound track, just as human faces do the image track (100) (Vococentrism is obvious whenever music gives way to dialogue; without the human voice and human agency, neither film image nor film music would make sense.) Music supports film narrative, but editing and mixing, synchronization of sound and image, acoustical fidelity, and excessive expressiveness shape how one hears and interprets film music.
In part 2, Neumeyer crafts a series of close readings of Casablanca that utilize concepts outlined in part 1; the closing pages, in which Neumeyer considers sound effects, dialogue, and music in the final minutes of Casablanca, provide an outstanding example of what his consistent attention to the sound track as a whole can reveal about incredibly nuanced meaning in film.
Finally, in part 3, Neumeyer explores sound tracks that include J. S. Bach’s C Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, or the prelude from his Cello Suite in G Major. He considers ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral embodied in these excerpts. Here he addresses the ideas of topic and troping while exploring how these musical excerpts embody a range of ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral. When characters on screen perform these pieces by Bach, simplistic oppositions between the diegetic and nondiegetic and empathetic and nonempathetic break down.
Throughout the book, Neumeyer summarizes and draws upon a vast body of critical work in film and film music studies and offers ways to understand scholars’ differently nuanced ideas about film and film music as a cohesive body of analytical and critical approaches. Numerous photographic stills and notated musical examples reinforce his arguments.
Highly recommended.


Review by Stan Pelkey (April 6, 2016)

What I Have Been Reading This Month… and Then Some (December)

I love books. I have been collecting them since my teens, and I have a lot of them now, both at home and in my office at the University. It has gotten expensive to move my library, which is one reason I’m looking forward to putting down roots in Tallahassee. Before our most recent cross-country move, I tried to downsize, mostly books related to my teaching that I figured I would not need again. The risk, as I see it, however, is letting go of a friend you might need again.

Case in point: in 1993, while I was still a student living in Kentucky, I purchased An Ocean Apart: The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century by David Dimbleby and David Reynolds. I know it was 1993 because I write the date I buy a book on its inside cover. I also date when I read (and reread) books. Yes, I know, that may seem very strange, but I like to keep a record of what I am reading and have read, and the purchase dates help me trace in my own mind what topics were of most interest to me at different stages of my life.

I have been reading An Ocean Apart this week for an article I am writing on a British television show from the 1960s. It is a very good book, if a bit dated now (it was published in 1988, before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union – both critical components of the story told by the two Davids). Nevertheless, it is still an excellent read and provides a very thorough analysis of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States throughout the last century. I was aware that there had been highs and lows in the “special relationship,” but Dimbleby and Reynolds provide a richly detailed overview of just how volatile that relationship has sometimes been, both at the level of the governments and political elites, and among the citizenry of the two countries. Their generous quotation from letters, memoires, newspapers, and declassified government documents brings their historical overview to life. Their analysis is balanced, and they do not hold back on their assessment of both personal and professional conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is especially fascinating to consider how very human emotions and reactions among American and British leaders to each other actually influenced the shape of the relationship and ultimately global politics.

I originally purchased An Ocean Apart because of my general interest in British history, which stretched back long before my teaching career began. I finally read it this month because of a particular article I am writing. But reading the book has also reinforced a number of leadership principles about which I have been reflecting for several years now. Obviously, there have been lessons to learn (or review) as I have read about British prime ministers and American presidents in World War II and the Cold War, but the clear examples of the relationships among economics, politics, policy, and culture that Dimbleby and Reynolds highlight are especially valuable to me as I have immersed myself in recent years in issues of organizational mission, budgets, and cash flow. There are never unlimited resources, and this shapes the destiny of each individual, every family, every organization—large and small—all educational and performance organizations, and even entire nation-states. I know, dear readers, that insight is achingly commonsensical, except that our contemporary political discourse—not to mention many conversations I have heard on three campuses as a faculty member—seem to unfold in an environment where that commonsensical insight regularly is ignored or misunderstood.

A key component, then, of leadership at any level and in any organization will be helping to define priorities and clarifying how missions and values will shape budgets and expenditures.

The bottom line: Books are heavy, and money does not grow on trees.