The Best Books on Classical Music

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The Best Books on Classical Music

Hello, I’m trying to track down the best books on classical music. I have tried expanding my knowledge using online articles, but I find most of them to be unsubstantial. I now want to just stick with the books.

CURRENT BOOKS I HAVE:

The Essential Canon of Classical Music’ by David Dubal

The Lives of the Great Composers’ by Harold C. Schonberg

These two books by Schonberg and Dubal are probably my favorite because of thier impressive ability to capture the emotional impressions given by the music as well as the overall intentions of the composers. And together, with their ability to emphasize the importance of their music without having to discuss too much technical jargon, makes these books the most accessible and exciting of my [minuscule] collection of classical books.  

‘All Music Guide to Classical Music’ A very comprehensive collection of writings discussing background info on compositions and detailed descriptions of the music. But that’s all it really does. I feel that it doesn’t cut to the core of the music. However informative these writings are, I find them to be very bland. They simply do not have the personality and emotional depth that the writings of Harold C. Schonberg and David Dubal have. Perhaps it is just me, but there is something very repellent about this book.

Modern Music and After - Directions Since 1945’ by Paul Griffiths This book reads exactly the way your instruction manual for your HD television would read. Very technical. But it has to be. How else does one understand modernism? Griffiths places little emphasis on aesthetic qualities of the music and instead sets out to basically illustrate the compositional developments in modern music and he achieves this goal wonderfully. In short, this is a great book. However, one must have a thorough understanding of musical concepts and also know how to read and understand sheet music before engaging in such a book. But its worth it.

 

Other books I’m checking out:

American Music in the Twentieth Century’ by Kyle Gann

Twentieth-Century Music’ by Robert P. Morgan

Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez’ by Paul Griffiths

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century’ by Alex Ross

 I need to find more books on classical music. I’m mainly looking for books that focus on certain eras, but any book will due.

frostwalrus

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

That’s a fairly comprehensive list – and I agree that Schonberg is a good read which I re-read constantly. The only ones I would add would be The Music Instinct by Philip Ball and Music: A Very Short Introduction by Nicolas Cook.

 

And I would urge you (and everyone else) to check out Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise – it’s one of the best books about twentieth century music I’ve come across. It’s a huge book, but always fascinating, whether discussing the premiere of the Rite of Spring or the odd friendship that developed between George Gershwin and Bela Bartok. It’s really a history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the holocaust, the rise of Stalinism, etc.  – told from the point of view of developments in music.

 

Part of his thesis is that classical music as a separate genre is increasingly difficult to maintain as a discrete activity and in his epilogue he argues that 'the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual sense'. (Not I suspect an argument which would find favour with a number of regular contributors here.) Ross wrote a follow up this year, Listen To This,  which I’ve not read yet, but ranges from Bach to Björk any everything in between. Here Ross takes his earlier argument further and states that ‘I hate 'classical music'’ – meaning that the discursive practices which ascribe to classical music a greater value than any other forms is simple snobbery which does the music itself a disservice.

 

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

“Here Ross takes his earlier argument further and states that ‘I hate 'classical music'’ – meaning that the discursive practices which ascribe to classical music a greater value than any other forms is simple snobbery which does the music itself a disservice.”

Uh-oh, I sense an argument coming (an argument that which has already taken place on other threads). By all means guys go ahead and debate this, but mention some classical books along the way for my own sake.

frostwalrus

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

I would agree with the praise for 'The Rest is Noise", but it is a mistake to assume that it covers the twentieth century absolutely. Ross (whose day job is music critic for 'The New Yorker') covers a lot of ground very passionately, but there is a natural slant towards the US in the later chapters. His second book, 'Listen to This' is a collection of previously published articles and essays form the New Yorker which has a less focused theme. Ross is one of the best writers about music out there - certainly he is one of the reasons I keep buying the New Yorker, even though where I live a copy off the newstand costs almost $15!

If you have some understanding of music theory I understand Charles Rosen is fascinating.

It is difficult to find good books about classical music in general, much easier when the subject is more focused. I recently read Kyle Gann's book about John Cage and 4'33" which I thought was excellent in every way, given how easy it would be to sound either superficial or pretentuous on the subject! I would also recommend Alfred Brendel's "On Music', a collection of his very lucid essays. Then there some fine books by Eduard Said "On Late Style" and Daniel Barenboim, who actually makes more sense on paper than his conducting sometimes does.

The is a great dela of interesting writing now on the internet - mainly it has to be said based in the US. Terry Teachout, Kyle Gann, Greg Sandow and Jeremy Denk all write well, although I have to admit Sandow is somebody who tries too hard for me at times. They are all better than Norman Lebrecht - who is excellent comedy and gossip value but not much else. It is unfortunate that Andrew Porter does not seem to have a web presence - he is a wonderful critic.

Naupilus

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

CraigM wrote:

 

Part of his thesis is that classical music as a separate genre is increasingly difficult to maintain as a discrete activity and in his epilogue he argues that 'the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual sense'. (Not I suspect an argument which would find favour with a number of regular contributors here.) Ross wrote a follow up this year, Listen To This,  which I’ve not read yet, but ranges from Bach to Björk any everything in between. Here Ross takes his earlier argument further and states that ‘I hate 'classical music'’ – meaning that the discursive practices which ascribe to classical music a greater value than any other forms is simple snobbery which does the music itself a disservice.

 

 

What he (Ross) is of course saying is that he doesn't hate the music produced and then termed 'classical music' but he hates the grouping together of such works under a general banner implying greatness. This is his view and a view that holds water. However what he is not saying is that he hates the piece of music termed classical music or that the piece of music may not be greater than another piece of music, he is saying judge each work on it's merits. He is also not saying that one work cannot be better than another work, either in the same genre or across genres. Most people who listen to Pop, Rock or Jazz find these 'groupings' to be helpful, but one group should not be considered inherently better than another, even if the work contained in that group is better.

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

 A History of Western Music - Norton Press, is an excellent (long but it convers a huge amount, so not overlong) read. And so is The Guilded Stage, a Social History of Opera by Snowman. Renee Fleming has also writen an interesting (short) book on being an Opera Singer. 20th Century Composers by Mark Morris is good, but he tends to recommend composers who use 'clusters', 'series in retrograde' and 'mathematical formulas' in other words, looks good on the page, sounds awful.

 

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

Pablo

I think Alex Ross speaks for himself:

'I hate "classical" music: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beeethoven can still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour-de-force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of "the music". Some jazz aficionados call their art "America's classical music" and I propose a trade: they can have "classical", I'll take "the music".

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulations of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: "art" music, "serious" music, "great" music, "good" music. Yes, the music can be great and serious, but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vular, and insane. Composers are artsts, not etiquette columnists; they have a right to express any emotion, any state of mind. They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that music should be marketed as a luxury good, one to replace the inferior popular product. These guardians say, in effect, "The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music." They are making little headway with the uncoverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierachy of values. The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.'

(Ross A.,2010, Listen to This. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

 

Naupilus

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

You're right, he does speak for himself. BUT remember that doesn't make it FACT. He can be a bit immature at times in his phrasing. I was not speaking FOR Mr Ross, I was only suggesting what he hadn't implied in what he said. BUT you are right, he speaks for himself. He does seem to repeat himself though, or was that you speaking for him !!!!

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

Pablo Largo wrote:

You're right, he does speak for himself. BUT remember that doesn't make it FACT. He can be a bit immature at times in his phrasing. I was not speaking FOR Mr Ross, I was only suggesting what he hadn't implied in what he said. BUT you are right, he speaks for himself. He does seem to repeat himself though, or was that you speaking for him !!!!

Pablo,

Why are you intent on picking a fight? Not only do you have Dr Brodsky's habit of incorrectly using the apostrophe but you also have his habit of assuming you know my thoughts, which is rather invasive. Ross would undoubtedly not claim his opinion as 'fact' but instead just an opinion, but a very well expressed and heartfelt opinion (to my mind at least).

Before this thread descends into another tiresome, dull debate over an issue that has no resolution, do you have any books worth suggesting?

Naupilus

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

Being (on a mission) in a very difficult (far away) place to follow such an intriguing thread, I simply have to repeat what I was told by a wise old man: Opinion is the cheapest of the commodities; when you agree with it, you don't care about an explanation; when you don't agree, no explanation is needed"!

So, if you need books on music or for classical music in particular, read first books from the composers themselves (there are some) or from musicians (there are plenty), not from opinionists or even worse opinion-makers. In other words, learn the music first, not about music.

Parla

RE: The Best Books on Classical Music

I am also glad to see that you have managed to remove that double post naupilus, it does make the comment I made about Ross repeating himself look a bit strange now though. However let me assure you that I take full responsibility and in no way blame you.

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