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An e-book with music

Photograph of Arthur Bloomfield by Susie Biehler

By Mark J. Mitchell

You may have read recently that New York author Pete Hamill’s new book is going straight to digital format, skipping print altogether. But the Fillmore’s own Arthur Bloomfield has beaten him to it.

Bloomfield latest book, “More Than the Notes,” made its debut online a few weeks ago and is available at no charge. In addition to his lyrical prose, it includes more than four and a half hours of music clips, enabling readers to hear the precise performances he’s writing about.

Bloomfield is a respected scholar of music, having written “The San Francisco Opera, 1922-1978.” He performed in the Stanford Chorus under both Pierre Monteux and Bruno Walter. He also writes on architecture and cooking in the books “Gables and Fables” and “The Gastronomical Tourist.”

His new book was inspired by a passion for music and the knowledge that there is more to music than the notes on the page. In this era of electronic and digital reproduction, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that each performance of a given piece of music differs from all others. We tend to forget that, if you wanted to hear music as recently as 125 years ago, you had to go where it was being performed or play the music yourself. Bloomfield’s book reminds us.

“More Than the Notes” is about conductors — specifically, conductors who were born in the later half of the 19th century. While we can read about earlier performers and conductors, these are the earliest we can actually hear.

Arthur Bloomfield knows a lot about music and assumes that most of his readers will have some sort of familiarity with the terms, the scores and the composers, if not necessarily all of the conductors he has chosen to spotlight. Because he never condescends, he manages to educate
gently — at least somewhat gently. Music is about passion and Bloomfield is a passionate listener.

Bloomfield grew up around a radio and heard the various weekly broadcasts by the great American orchestras under some of the best batons of all time. There is a joy to the sections of the book in which he recalls the old broadcasts and the enthusiasm he discovered as a child and young man hearing the performances. Of course, he also performed under a couple of the batons, which adds a touching human element to his discussions.

It is the insight that Bloomfield brings, however, that will light up any music lover. He discusses each conductor, providing some biographical information — but more important, he goes into detail about specific performances, giving the dates of the recordings or broadcasts.

The book’s opening essay on Fritz Reiner gives a sense of his flavor and also his subject:

What, forever asks the commentator, does a conductor really do?

Well, he does the sort of thing Fritz Reiner is doing in the full-page portrait decorating his French RCA recording of the Bach orchestral suites. His baton-holding hand raised crisply above his head, a handsome show of starched white shirt-cuff next thereto, he’s fixing the left side of an invisible orchestra with a look that might terrify a Martian, a call to action flamed in part by an instant invocation of stage despair, or maybe it’s the sullen dignity of a challenged monarch (here, now, this instant, the most important thing in the world is your entrance!) while his left hand waits in reserve at waist level, ready to italicize a point.

He is, in other words, mesmerizing his musicians into sharing with him one hundred and one percent, as if by instantaneous transfusion, an emotional moment, some superb phraseological felicity transferable by a magnificent glance. Ordered yet passionate, this optical sting is emblem of a style almost stark in its beauty yet rich in nuance of the subtlest and warmest sort.

This word picture conjures the conductor’s function as well as Bloomfield’s love for music and his musical erudition, which is always laid on lightly.

A few words about the format: This is a book that’s available online only. The conductors are arranged chronologically and you click on a name to read a particular essay. In most books about classical music, there are long musical examples in print. Some books also come with CDs that can be cued up.

But for this book, the online format has a serious advantage. Bloomfield tells you about the details of a performance, then you can click on a link and listen to that exact performance as you read his words. There are also different versions of the same pieces by different conductors, so you can get a strong sense of each musician’s personal style.

“More Than the Notes” will reward you and renew your sense of wonder about serious music. You will find yourself going to your CDs — or vinyl, if you’re of a certain age — and checking to see who is conducting and which pieces they perform. It will attune your ear to the differences among conductors and increase your appreciation of music and music making. And it will also entertain you.

Not bad at all for the web.

Read more: Q&A with Arthur Bloomfield

Neighborhood poet Mark J. Mitchell’s first chapbook, Three Visitors, is being released in September by Negative Capability Press.