Review by Kirkus Book Review
Cameo sketches in high style. Although the author, the cultural correspondent of The New York Times, who formerly spent 20 years as the paper's senior music critic, devotes much space to the purely artistic merits of his subjects, a good deal of the book is devoted to the foibles of artists and to their fantastic earnings. Schonberg's numerous anecdotes therefore hold as much appeal lot the layman who knows little about music as for the cognoscente. In terms of artistry and earning power, one of the greatest performers was the 19th-century soprano Adelina Patti. Even colleagues like Jenny Lind and Nellie Melba rated her the greatest of all singers, while George Bernard Shaw, who first heard her sing after she had been before the public for more than 30 years and who had ridiculed her musicianship, paid tribute to her ""wonderful vocal instrument."" Shaw was also amused to note that when the enormously rich Patti, who in the 1880s received $5,000 a performance and who acquired a fortune in jewels from royal admirers, sang a ballad that ran ""O give me my lowly thatched cottage,"" there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Half a century after Patti, many thought Maria Callas the world's greatest singer. Others disagreed, but few would argue that Callas was the world's singing superstar--one who lived up to the image of what the public expected a diva to be. She had few friends, however, and to her colleagues she was vengeful, malicious and ungrateful, given to dismissing people she had no use for. To her mother she once wrote: ""Don't come to me with your troubles. I have to work for my money and you are young enough to work too. If you can't make enough money to live on you can jump out of the window or drown yourself."" While money seems to have been a major preoccupation of many of the great artists, many others could be generous with it. Caruso, for one, enjoyed playing Santa Claus at Christmas and would walk around the opera house with a plate of gold pieces which he offered to the stagehands. But on another occasion, after the San Francisco earthquake, the tenor was found walking the streets wearing a fur coat over his pajamas and clutching a signed portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt. ""'Ell of a place,"" the singer said. ""I never come back here."" Not so with Schonberg's book. One can come back to it again and again. It may not be very important to know that Paganini was so cadaverous that he was described as a vampire, or that Clara Schumann invested in securities for herself and her friend Brahms, or that Ernestine Schumann-Heink was so fat she once knocked over a whole row of violin stands, as well as some violinists, when she came on stage during a rehearsal. But it certainly is fun. It is also interesting to learn that many 19th-century artists, some born as early as 1819, can be heard on recordings, and that many of them, according to Schonberg, put contemporary artists to shame. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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