The richness and colour of his involvement makes this book an endless source of reference and delight in terms of both scholarship and poetry. A mine of information, it is difficult to imagine a finer or more glowing tribute.
Bryce Morrison, Gramophone, London, 2012
Reflections is Paul Roberts’s third book, published in 2012. The book is a vivid and lively account of the genesis of Ravel’s piano music in relation to the imaginative influences in his life, with chapters on the influence of Liszt and Debussy, on the writers whom Ravel admired, and on his wide group of friends, including the poet Leon Paul Fargue and the pianist Ricardo Viñes.
Paul Roberts writes in the Introduction: ‘The piano music of Maurice Ravel is among the most thrilling, the most colourful, the most subtle, and for pianists the most challenging, of the repertoire. This book is about this music, how we might relate to it as listeners and performers, what it sounds like – if ever that is possible to put into words – what it feels like under our fingers and what we might do with it. But this book is also, inescapably, about the man who created the music. To write about one’s own experience of the piano music, to explore the impulses behind the great works in the hope that clues may be found to a deeper understanding for practitioners and listeners alike, is to find oneself engaged in a form of biography.’
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Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy
This absorbing study, first published in 1997 and since reprinted in paper-back, relates the piano music of Debussy to the cultural background of Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century. It has become a seminal text on the subject, admired by scholars, teachers, and concert pianists all over the world.
Images has a wide canvas of reference, with an appeal that goes far beyond its starting point of piano music and pianism.
Chapter headings include ‘Impressionist or Symbolist?’, ‘Japanese Prints’, ‘Music and Painting’, ‘The Javanese Gamelan’, ‘Humour and Childhood’, ‘Debussy and Baudelaire’.
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Debussy: a biography
Paul Roberts has aimed to win new insights into the music of which, as a concert pianist, he’s a distinguished interpreter. He has succeeded, distilling a lifetime’s reading, listening and thinking to create an intimate portrait that takes us nearer to the heart of that music than any biography before.
Michael Church, Independent, London, 2008
In this short biography of Debussy, published in 2008, Paul Roberts narrates, with keen insight and sympathy, the life of the composer who has meant the most to him since he first discovered his music as a boy.
‘I had long been intrigued by the relationship between this composer’s life and his music,’ he relates in the Preface. ‘In my childhood I had singled out his portrait from a row of composers’ heads above the walnut upright piano in my teacher’s studio. I was impressed by the domed brow and beard, and the arrestingly sensual eyes, which I found both frightening and kind. The large head and the pointed black beard made the shape of a triangle, which in my child’s mind I associated with the strange sound, and the alien shape, of the name written underneath – Claude Debussy. So the sound of the name preceded, for me, the sound of the music. Then came the haunting piano piece, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, with its sensuous sonorities and frissons of archaic romance. How could such music come from one who was considered, I soon learnt, rude and unpleasant? I needed to trace such rumours, which I refused to take at face value, to their source.’
The book discusses all the major works, and most of the minor ones, and shows how they emerged from Debussy’s frequently chaotic life.
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Reading Liszt [in preparation]
The intention of this book is to urge a greater involvement with context, with extra-musical material – expressly indicated in Liszt’s titles, epilogues, and extensive quotations – than is usual among performers trying to grapple with the technical demands of the music. Technical mastery can have little meaning without stylistic and imaginative understanding – a truism, but one often overlooked. Continuing the fundamental themes of his previous books – their abiding concern with musical intention, with what it is that pianists are trying communicate – Paul Roberts will take readers through the whole gamut of Liszt’s literary inspiration. He will discuss the great love poetry of Petrarch, the inventor of the sonnet form in the 14th century, whose work Liszt discovered for the first time during his travels in Italy and turned into the finest piano pieces of his early years, the Three Petrarch Sonnets; there will be a chapter on Dante, whose Divine commedia inspired the ‘Dante’ Sonata (via Victor Hugo’s poem Après une lecture de Dante); and chapters on Byron and Sénancour, two writers who had enormous influence on Liszt (and whom he quotes extensively in Années de pèlerinage) and who guided the sensibility of the age. Other chapters will introduce the religious poetry of Lamartine (Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude) and the Saint Francis texts that inspired the Two Legends; the visual associations of Années de pèlerinage (Raphael and Caspar David Friedrich); and finally a chapter on the antidote to descriptive music, Liszt’s B minor Sonata. The fact that not a single word of text is associated with this great work has not stopped commentators for over 200 years from finding in it Liszt’s biography. Paul Roberts will not be one of them. Nevertheless the grand scale of the work, both structural and emotional, offers fascinating parallels with dramatic narrative. (Publication 2016)