On Opera


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Bernard Williams

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In his last work, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century explores the pleasures of opera

Bernard Williams, who died in 2003, was one of the most influential moral philosophers of his generation. A lifelong opera lover, his articles and essays, talks for the BBC, contributions to the Grove Dictionary of Opera, and program notes for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the English National Opera, generated a devoted following. 

This elegant volume brings together these widely scattered and largely unobtainable pieces, including two that have not been previously published. It covers an engaging range of topics from Mozart to Wagner, including sparkling essays on specific operas by those composers as well as Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Debussy, Janacek, and Tippett. Reflecting Williams’s brilliance, passion, and clarity of mind, these essays engage with, and illustrate, the enduring appeal of opera as an art form.

Bernard Williams was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University, Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University. He was a member of the board of the English National Opera in London and author of many articles on music.

"Most of the stuff one reads about opera is either hack or musicological maundering. With Bernard Williams you’re in touch with a subtle, well-furnished mind which visualizes opera as a cultural artefact with complex literary and philosophical implications. And yet at the same time the text is lucid, intelligible and diverting, without a trace of post-modernist jargon or structuralist bullshit."—Jonathan Miller

 ". . . a new standpoint and an unfamiliar kind of thinking . . . the writing is a delight."—Stanley Sadie

"The most powerful of Bernard [William's] intellectual dispositions was his humanism: a great delight in what people can be, at the beauty of what they can make in music, art and ideas, at the rich varieties of culture they can imagine and live, but also an empathetic sense of people's limitations and failures, their humanity in the sense of weakness as well as achievement."—Ronald Dworkin

"Music was deeply important to Bernard [Williams]. He did not just like it. He studies it, practised it, and wrote about it."—Sir Keith Thomas

"His sheer appetite for life was wide in scope and varied in mode. He brought clarity of mind and gaiety of spirit to crucial issues of identity, justice, society, psychology, art and (particularly) music."—Reverend John Drury

“What leaps from every page in this collection of Williams’s essays is his own delight in opera. … Williams was not only a great philosopher, and a passionate opera-lover, he was also a writer of superb concision. … This is not a book for beginners, but anyone with a love of opera will be intrigued, stimulated, probably sometimes enraged by Williams’s probing wit.”---Patrick O’Connor, Literary Review

"Eclectic in range and engaging in appeal, within this volume there are essays reflecting every facet of the operatic world from Debussy to Puccini, Wagner to Mozart. Williams' palable passion for opera as an art form is conveyed in a vividly entertaining volume that collates both his well-known and more obscure articles."---Good Book Guide

"In his introduction to On Opera, Michael Tanner says that, as with all of Williams's work, this book is "an invitation to argue." Williams would certainly have wanted to argue vigorously in defence of his view of Wagner. It is a great sadness that he can no longer do so. This collection, however, stands as a worthy memorial to his view of philosophy as a discipline whose central concern is with the ultimate truths about the way we live our lives."---Prospect

"Having read this book one might be tempted to say, 'Well, I always thought that.' One might have felt it, but to write it in such loving yet clinical terms is possible only to the very few. A short review can only scratch the surface of such a welter of fascinations."---Robert Tear, The Oldie

"Brilliant essays on Mozart, Debussy, Janacek, and above all, Wagner, by one of Britain's leading philosophers. A wonderful example of how intelligence can illuminate musical appreciation."—The Economist

“The collection engages the major operatic texts in a more universal philosophical discourse, appealing to opera fans of every level.”—Publishers Weekly

"What does one say when one of the most brilliant moral philosophers of the twentieth century . . . decides to turn his attention to opera? The only thing to say is, thank goodness. . . . On Opera, a collection of essays by Bernard Williams, edited and published posthumously by his wife, is a rare treat that shows a mind so refined, yet so captivated by its subject, that the insights come across as both astonishing and accessible. . . . It is a mind that will be sorely missed, not only for its precision and imagination but above all for its humanity. Opera was lucky to have such a fan."—Jonathan Rabb, Opera News

"It would have been fun to argue opera with Williams; he knew a great deal about it and he loved it. One feels both in reading these essays."---Jerry Fodor, Times Literary Supplement

"This collection has now been seen into print under the watchful eye of Williams' widow Patricia, with an excellent introduction from The Spectator's opera critic Michael Tanner, and it constitutes an unusually thoughtful and humane addition to opera criticism." ---Tom Walker, Classical Music

Selected as an Outstanding AcademicTitle for 2007 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300223040
Publication Date: February 16, 2016
176 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4