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Song and Self

A Singer’s Reflections on Music and Performance

Award-winning singer Ian Bostridge examines iconic works of Western classical music to reflect on the relationship between performer and audience.

Like so many performers, renowned tenor Ian Bostridge spent much of 2020 and 2021 unable to take part in live music. The enforced silence of the pandemic led him to question an identity that was previously defined by communicating directly with audiences in opera houses and concert halls. It also allowed him to delve deeper into many of the classical works he has encountered over the course of his career, such as Claudio Monteverdi’s seventeenth-century masterpiece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Robert Schumann’s popular song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. In lucid and compelling prose, Bostridge explores the ways Monteverdi, Schumann, and Britten employed and disrupted gender roles in their music; questions colonial power and hierarchy in Ravel’s Songs of Madagascar; and surveys Britten’s reckoning with death in works from the War Requiem to his final opera, Death in Venice.

As a performer reconciling his own identity and that of the musical text he delivers on stage, Bostridge unravels the complex history of each piece of music, showing how today’s performers can embody that complexity for their audiences. As readers become privy to Bostridge’s unique lines of inquiry, they are also primed for the searching intensity of his interpretations, in which the uncanny melding of song and self brings about moments of epiphany for both the singer and his audience.

120 pages | 4 color plates, 6 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2023

Berlin Family Lectures

Music: General Music


“Bostridge uniquely combines the gifts of a celebrated tenor with the gifts of a professional historian.  The result in these remarkable essays is an exploration of both the emergence of certain powerful musical compositions and the experience of performing them. These ‘hidden histories,’ as Bostridge calls them, at once complicate and intensify our responses to the works of art he so effectively brings to life.”

Stephen Greenblatt, author of 'Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare'

“Finally a book that highlights something I have always felt to be true: the immutability of creative art. Bostridge's new book shines a light in the corner of often neglected, fragile beauty, and brings that beauty a relevance to current issues of the world we live in: gender, race, and the universality and humanity of death.”

Yuja Wang, pianist

Song and Self is an engaging, elegant, and provocative meditation on identity in music. Focusing on the performer and the text, Bostridge writes from deep thought and scholarly research but also from thirty years of personal musical experience; he formulates and articulates this combination with eloquence—indeed with poetic power.”

Linda Hutcheon, author of 'Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten'

“This book gives an old cliché a new and fresh life. Bostridge shows how music creates personal and social identities, evoking the ways song shapes character in vivid and unfussy prose. It’s a wonderful essay.”

Richard Sennett, author of 'The Craftsman'

"In this short but powerful book, acclaimed tenor Bostridge explores themes of gender roles, politicizing, decolonizing, and death within a range of operatic and song repertoire ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Bostridge’s earlier training as a historian provides a solid grounding for his foray into this exploration of subjects of timely import to the artistic community."

Library Journal

Table of Contents

1 Blurring Identities: Gender in Performance
2 Hidden Histories: Ventriloquism and Identity in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
3 “These Fragments Have I Shored against My Ruins”: Meditations on Death


These essays started life as lectures, the Berlin Family Lectures at the University of Chicago, and I would like to start by expressing my thanks to the Berlin family and the University of Chicago for the invitation. It has been a precious opportunity to reflect. As a singer, I spent much of 2020 and 2021 unable to perform live music because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To that extent, like all performers worldwide, I have been forced to question an identity, a self, that has, for the past twenty or thirty years, been defined by getting up on stage and communicating music in physical proximity and real time to audiences in concert halls and opera houses.
I have had an unusual career in that before I became a professional singer in my late twenties I was an academic historian. The enforced silence of the last year has given me the opportunity to fall back on my identity as a historian and to think. It has given me the chance to delve deeper than I might otherwise have had the time to do into the backstories of some of the works of classical music that I have performed in the past, or have been thinking about performing in the future, by composers ranging from the Italian Renaissance (Claudio Monteverdi) to twentieth-century Britain (Benjamin Britten).

In these essays I will venture on a journey under the surface of those works, share my excavations, and ask questions about them that are not usually asked in the concert hall. The tradition of Western classical music, far from being moribund or culturally authoritarian, continues to be alive because it continually invites us to ask questions. The individual musical works I will explore prove to be fluid and open-ended while at the same time making us emotionally engage with the conflicts and contradictions of human experience—including power relations, whether gendered or colonial, and the way we confront the ultimate dissolution of self, death, something that has been at the forefront of our minds during a year and more of global pandemic. Music, at its best, embodies with peculiar force what the poet John Keats called “negative capability,” the creative ability to live with doubts and mysteries. It makes us think and at the same time it takes us beyond thought.

The question(ing) of identity is the starting point of these essays, but they remain essays: provisional, experimental, suggestive. They do not set out a thesis; they have no agenda. Improvisatory rather than systematically theorized, they aim to reveal or underline complexity, to add texture, to problematize. Drawing instinctively on my practice as a performer, I come to these issues not as a philosopher or social theorist but with a sense that personal identity is somehow formed out of an encounter between the self and what is outside the self; that it is both culturally constructed and inflected by intuitive subjectivity. If identity is in part performative, these essays are, in turn, offered as an open-ended performance in which I invite readers—the audience—to respond to their different strands, their themes and variations, as they would perhaps to a piece of music itself.

The first essay explores the ways in which vocal pieces by Monteverdi, Schumann, and Britten—none of them straight-forwardly operatic—can blur the boundaries of gender. In the second essay, I research the historical and political roots of a single song by Ravel from his Chansons madécasses (Songs of Madagascar) that has always both haunted and unnerved me. I hope to deepen and inform our response to it, to use it to reflect upon the past and the present by exploring its ambiguous and often disturbing context and the way it constructs and deconstructs colonial and “othered” identities. I end with death in the third essay because death is the end of everything, because music speaks to death, and because death is the absence in the face of which all human identity is constructed.
In these essays I want to look at a selection of diverse pieces that might benefit from having their presentation of identity problematized and historicized. It’s my conviction that this is both a practical and a moral issue. We owe it to both the past and to the present to understand the context from which art emerges, as part of that mysterious creative current that attempts to bind together in cultural catholicity the dead, the living, and the as yet unborn. I want to examine performative constructions of identity in music through the lens of gender, politics, or the ultimate paradoxical grounding and denial of identity, death. Works that seem difficult for us to perform, like Robert Schumann’s Romantic song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, can be reimagined by taking a closer look at their origins. Works that have languished in an ideological exile like Ravel’s Chansons madécasses are not just aesthetic objects, for Ravel’s song cycle exists in a historical matrix that both opposes and is complicit in the European colonial enterprise. In these essays I will be looking at pieces that I have performed or that I might perform. In doing so, I want to raise questions, questions that help the past to inform the present, the present to inform the past, and that can enrich as well as interrogate performance.

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