Three Books Offer Valuable Insights into the World of Classical Music

One day near the end of high school, I brought home from Westlake’s Porter Public Library a record album entitled something like “Classical Music: A Sampler,” put it on the turntable in our living room, and sat—fists clenched, eyes closed—and listened really hard. Trying with all my might to GET IT. Having been raised on Barbara Streisand and light rock and with no musical training, I might as well have been trying to read hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone. I’m not sure how long I gave the “greatest hits” blaring from our stereo, but it didn’t take long to realize I was in over my head.

Thirty-three years later, I still neither sing nor play an instrument, I still don’t read music, and I’m still listening really hard to make sense of the mysterious universe that is classical music.   One big difference between my struggles then and my struggles now:  Now I have some great mentors. Some of them are people I’m privileged to know and to attend concerts with. Others I learn from through amazing podcasts books. And some I discover in books. By way of recommendation, this post is dedicated to three excellent books I’ve read recently that offer valuable insights into classical music and how to listen to it, each representing a distinct approach.

This blog is primarily dedicated to opera, so let’s start there. One way to approach the task of initiating a reader (listener) into the world of classical music is through the grand sweep of history. Such is the approach of the magisterial (but not creatively titled) “A History of Operas” by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. Starting with opera’s early beginnings in church music and chant, the book takes us through Mozart, the Bel Canto superstars, Verdi, Wagner … it’s all there. If you love opera and want to know more, this book is a worthy read. If you’re just getting your feet wet with opera, it’s probably not the best place to start. (That would be by attending a Met in HD presentation at your local movie theater!)
While certainly informed with deep knowledge of the history and development of the genre, Joseph Kerman’s approach in Concerto Conversations is more discursive, more topical than historical. Essentially a compilation of a series lectures Kerman, an American musicologist and critic, gave at Harvard in the 1990’s, Concerto Conversations looks at the concerto from a variety of angles. For example, in the opening chapter, “Getting Started,” Kerman examines various ways composers begin, focusing especially on the challenge of the relationship between the concerto’s two major “musical agents” (the soloist and the orchestra).  Chapter 2: “Polarity and Reciprocity” discusses in a helpful way a significant difference in approach to how to manage the relationship between solo and orchestra: On the one hand, “polarity” is a mode in which solo and tutti are not responding directly to each other and may even seem to be in tension with one another. It is a mode of contrast. This is the mode of Vivaldi’s concertos. On the other hand, “reciprocity” is a mode of much more engaged, relational dialogue, in which the relationship between solo and tutti seem to be much more obviously in conversation with one another. This is the mode of Mozart, Beethoven and the Romantics. Other chapters/lectures include “Reciprocity, Roles, and Relationships,” Virtuosity/Virtù,” and “Diffusion: Concerto Textures.” The book is filled with dozens of musical examples and comes packaged with a CD, an attempt to allow the reader at home to experience some of the listening allow the way that attendees of the original lectures would have enjoyed.

Finally, another wonderful approach to taking a guided deeper dive into classical music is to read the biography of a composer. Judith Chernaik’s 2018 masterpiece Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, which I picked up not because I was dying to know more about Schumann but because pianist Jeremy Denk’s NYT review of the book was so compelling. This book is a revelation—a gorgeously and lovingly well written biography. And it’s such a treat to read a composer’s biography in this era of YouTube and Apple Music. I was able to soak myself in Schumann’s music—finding and listening to any and every piece Chernaik referenced as I saw fit, any time of day or night—during the 10 or so days it took to read this book.

Any one of these books would be a great way to take a big step forward in one’s journey in listening to and appreciating classical music. Happy reading! Tim

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