Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (Norton, 1981)
David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music (North Point Press, 2001)
Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music (Simon and Schuster, 1959)
Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music (New American Library, 1970)
Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music (Mentor, 1999)
"I could talk myself hoarse about Mozart on a thousand television shows and never convey to you a fraction of the insight and knowledge you could gain from an hour of playing Mozart sonatas by yourself. And no book on Beethoven symphonies can tell you as much as you can absorb by playing four-hand versions of them with your favorite partner."
--Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music
And yet, the vast majority of people who might want to explore the world of classical music have no such recourse, because such musical fluency has never really been either encouraged or developed (Bernstein does admit this). For the person newly initiated into classical music, the person hoping to make some sense of a forest of Italian and German words and find their way through an ocean of composers and performers and orchestras and conductors, books are precisely where they are going to turn. And they're going to be confronted, again, by all manner of volumes about music: composer biographies, academic studies, books about esoteric terms like "counterpoint" and "orchestration," books about operas alone and books about symphonies alone. Books and books and books, about music and music and music. Where on earth to start?
Here are five titles that can help.
First, a general history of classical music is in order. There are many on the market, but my favorite still is Harold Schonberg's The Lives of the Great Composers. In this work, Schonberg (onetime music critic for The New York Times) gives precisely what the book's title promises: a series of small biographical sketches of the very greatest composers. These are the composers whose names one will see most often on concert programs, the ones whose works form the spine of what is sometimes called "the standard repertoire". Schonberg devotes an entire chapter each to the very biggest names in classical music -- Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et cetera -- while occasionally using a single chapter to group slightly lesser-known composers whose works share certain characteristics, such as the "Russian Five" or the French Impressionists or the English masters of the early twentieth century. Schonberg discusses the composers' works in brief, but only as they pertain to their lives, as opposed to the other way around. His goal is to give a sense of the people behind the works. Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers, while focusing on the specific figures at the heart of classical music, also gives the reader an excellent starting-point for understanding the history of the art itself.
A book that does deal more with the works themselves is David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music. Dubal is a teacher at Juilliard and a longtime classical radio host in New York City, as well as the author of a book on his long personal relationship with pianist Vladimir Horowitz. This is the most comprehensive guidebook I have found for the neophyte classical listener wanting to build his or her library. Dubal gives biographical sketches of the composers as well, but his are much less extensive than Schonberg's; Dubal's focus is on the music, and as such, his book forms an excellent companion to Schonberg's Lives.
Dubal includes sections on just about every composer whose music can be found in a normal classical section at the record store, and he provides specific information on the composer's most important works, even going so far as to offer recording suggestions. The classical section of the record store can be an unforgiving maze, and many will find Dubal's book extremely helpful if they are to tell Berwald from Berg from Berlioz from Bernstein. Of course, as in Schonberg's book, the greatest composers get far more extensive treatment here -- Brahms gets an entire chapter, whereas Gerald Finzi, for example, gets a single paragraph -- but Dubal's coverage is, while briefer in nature, more extensive as a whole than Schonberg's; Dubal includes many composers not even mentioned by Schonberg, both in the arena of early music (pre-Bach) and that of modern music. Thus, if you want to know about the life of Mozart without reading a book-length biography of him, read the chapter that Schonberg devotes to him. If, however, you want to know which of Mozart's works are essential to the listener, read Dubal's Mozart section. I, of course, recommend reading both.
The other three books in this review offer more technical discussion. As with any art, appreciation of classical music increases as one's knowledge of its methods (and madness, to be frank!) likewise increases. However, many books that deal with the technical side of music -- the how, as opposed to the who and the when -- can be dry and scholarly. These three books are not.
In many ways, Leonard Bernstein did for classical music what Carl Sagan did for astronomy: he popularized it, and made its inner mysteries more accessible to the lay public. (Actually, since Sagan came later, perhaps I should say that Sagan did for astronomy what Bernstein did for music!) In addition to composing concert music and scores for Broadway shows, and his active conducting career (especially his decade as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), Bernstein hosted television programs in which he discussed classical music (often with the aid of his own New York Phiharmonic Orchestra), the scripts of which form the backbone of his books The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music, along with a number of essays Bernstein wrote for various magazines and other publications. What's great about these two books is that Bernstein's points lose none of their value despite having been made, in some cases, nearly fifty years ago. These books are so similar in tone, and so self-complementary, that they could almost be taken for two halves of the same book.
The Infinite Variety of Music opens with the essay containing the quote above, in which Bernstein describes what he sees as the state of American musical fluency and what should be done to correct it. His most surprising statement is that "we hear too much music," which he differentiates from "listening": hearing is a passive activity, in which one allows music to hum along in the background without paying much attention to it at all. Consider the Muzak in the shopping malls, the car radio, the CD in the player while we wash dishes. The effect of all this constant music, Bernstein says, is to deaden us to music's special effects upon us. Too many of us are unable to really listen to a work of music and, if not understand it, at least be able to follow the traces of one theme or another through all its developmental stages. Bernstein suggests that musical education is the answer, and as he goes on to demonstrate in the remainder of the book (and in The Joy of Music), the basics aren't as hard to come by as we might think. Other essays delve into issues such as whether music can illustrate anything on its own, whether the symphony continues to be a viable form, and the problems facing the theatrical composer. These sound like dry topics, but Bernstein's writing style is unique: he frames these essays not as essays, but as dialogues between him and friends of his from other walks of life (he even summons George Washington as an interlocutor!). This mode of writing allows Bernstein to make his points in a free-form style that masks the seriousness of what he is trying to convey.
The television scripts are also excellent, although they do suffer a bit in translation to print, because their accompanying musical examples -- performed by the New York Philharmonic on the programs themselves -- can only be shown in musical notation, which at times makes it hard to understand just what Bernstein is getting at if one is not immediately familiar with musical notation in the first place. But still, his points are well-drawn, and one can follow his train of thought most of the time, by resorting to recordings of the works he discusses. The topics of his scripts include the role of the conductor; the greatness of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach; the role of jazz and atonality in modern music; and most notably, just how those hundreds of years of composers have been able to wring so much amazing music out of a tonal system that has just twelve notes at its disposal. Consider, Bernstein tells us, how hard novelists would have it if the English language only had twelve words -- and yet, that's what the composer has done for centuries. Hence the title, The Infinite Variety of Music. (The Joy of Music is probably the easier of the two books, since The Infinite Variety of Music contains several essays toward its end that are more difficult and theoretical, including several in-depth symphonic analyses and a fascinating transcript of a lecture Bernstein once gave on the subject of a composer's working life.)
Finally, once a reader has absorbed Bernstein's lessons, there is the book What To Listen For In Music, by Aaron Copland, arguably the greatest American composer of the twentieth century and certainly one of the first to lead the way into an American style of music that was appreciably different from its European forebears. After Bernstein's diagnosis that we simply don't listen to music enough, Copland's book comes as a primer on just how to listen to music in the first place. He gives clearly-written chapters describing just what all those weird musical terms mean, how they are executed by the composers, and what they mean to the listener. After reading Copland's book, the reader is much better equipped to follow the development in a passacaglia, for instance, or to trace two subjects through a sonata-allegro movement. Copland also assumes a small amount of musical literacy on the part of his reader, but I suspect that anyone who has taken a few years of piano lessons will be able to follow his main points, and the book will be invaluable to anyone who studied music fairly seriously some years ago but feels the need for a "refresher" course in the technical details of classical music. Copland is also wonderfully open-minded, and his book is devoid of the judgmental quality that can so often be found in works of similar aim. (Copland even includes a chapter on film music and the particular problems posed by that particular subgenre of classical music. This chapter was of particular fascination to me, as film music has long been a hobby of mine.)
The phrase "music appreciation" probably conjures up unpleasant classroom memories for many, but readers who are curious about classical music will find their own appreciation greatly enhanced by these five books.