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Book Review: Charles Munch by D. Kern Holoman

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Charles Munch (1891-1968) may not be as “big” a name as he once was, but in his time, he had a major impact on the world of classical music. A huge factor in this was that he helped “bring the music to masses” (for lack of a better term), as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As D. Kern Holoman points out in his new Oxford Press biography Charles Munch, the man in many ways defined the world of classical music as we now know it.

The span of Munch’s life encompasses some of the biggest events in world history. Namely, the two World Wars, and the Cold War. As an admittedly brilliant musician, composer, and conductor, Munch’s life was lived during a time when so much of the attention of the world was simply focused on survival. As a backdrop to his life and career, this in itself adds a fascinating element to the story.

We really would not be discussing Charles Munch 44 years after his death, though, if not for his achievements. Holoman vividly describes Munch’s conducting style, which was as extravagant and charismatic as any I have ever witnessed. Thanks to the magic of the online world, there is a companion website which features audio clips, additional video and audio, and supplementary text. This is all wonderfully illustrative additional material, but the book itself is where one should begin. Munch’s journey to Boston alone is a fascinating tale.

Considering the impact, and events of Charles Munch’s life, it is surprising that this is the first substantial biography of his life ever published. Although classical composers and conductors are often referred to as “dead white men,” the truth is that so much of the music has stood the test of time because the quality and devotion of men such as Charles Munch.

The philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) once made a brilliant observation; “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” This was obviously made in regards to world events such as war and dictatorships rather than music, but it applies there as well. In the case of the life of Charles Munch, remembering his life is a fascinating experience.

D. Kern Holoman’s biography made Charles Munch come alive for me. This is no dry textbook, for Holoman’s own personality in his writing is very much a part of the reason I enjoyed the work as much as I did. He has also included quite a number of black and white photographs of the composer’s life over the years.

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