Saturday, August 10, 2013

Books on Music

I always find it ironic when people talk about making classical music more "accessible". I think it is more accessible now than ever before in human history. You can go to YouTube and listen to just about any piece of music ever written in multiple performances. Yesterday afternoon I listened to Emil Gilels, piano, Leonid Kogan, violin and Mstislav Rostropovich, cello, play the Shostakovich E minor trio recorded in London February 28, 1959.

Then I went to a concert in our chamber music series to hear the Gryphon Trio from Toronto play the same piece along with trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn. Here they are playing the first movement of a Beethoven trio.

So you can go to YouTube to listen and even to watch performances of just about anything. And if you want to do some reading, you can go to Wikipedia where they have articles on just about every topic. Some of them are better than others, but with a few exceptions, you can learn a lot just from Wikipedia. Here is the article on the Shostakovich E minor trio. Quite brief, but it gives the basic facts and links to both recordings and more extensive essays on the piece.

But all this, while certainly very useful, is not quite enough. If you really want to understand and learn about music, at some point you will need to buy some books. A long time ago I put up a post in which I listed some suggestions for a basic library of compositions you should be familiar with. Today I am going to list some books that will be useful. But let me start out with some books that will NOT be useful. Many, many books published recently on music are chatty excursions that avoid actually exposing the reader to any hard information. That is, they avoid musical examples so as not to offend those people who don't read music. One of these authors is David Hurwitz who has published books on both Mahler and Shostakovich. Here is an excerpt from my review on Amazon that received many "helpful" votes:
Here is the problem: this book, like so many books on music written recently, takes the position that it would be the kiss of death to actually include a single musical example. To which many might say, yahoo! But if you resolutely avoid any use of musical notation, or even musical terms, in talking about music in a detailed fashion, then you find yourself having to say things like "and now the bippity-boop theme returns, this time on the flute."
The books I am going to recommend actually do teach something about music and to do this, they often use music notation, which is far more precise and exact than trying to describe music in florid prose!

  • One of the most extraordinary achievements in recent years in writing about music was Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music. It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified to write about the whole history of music in the West and he does a spectacular job, making use of a great deal of recent scholarship and giving a fresh perspective on things. These five substantial volumes will take you some time to get through, but it will be time and money well spent. A bargain for what you get. And yes, stuffed full of musical examples!
  • Another great writer on music is Joseph Kerman who has written outstanding books on both Beethoven and Bach. His book The Beethoven Quartets is my go-to source on that music and it displays a profound depth of musical understanding. Buy that, plus the new bargain-priced recording by the Emerson quartet, plus the Dover edition of the score and for fifty-six dollars you will have in your possession one of the greatest monuments of Western Civilization.
  • Kerman's book on Bach, The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard 1715 - 1750 just came out in 2005 and it is another wonderful and deep book. But you don't have to buy anything else because it comes with a CD of much of the music discussed. Also on the CD are the scores! Sadly, it looks like it might be out of print, but you can still get it from other sources.
  • Also in this genre of books about specific composers and repertoire is a classic: The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven by Charles Rosen (who just recently passed away). This is a brilliant book about the musical "language" of the great classical masters with a wealth of musical examples. Rosen has written other excellent books on the romantic generation and the Beethoven piano sonatas, but this is his masterwork and I don't think anyone else has written about this repertoire with such insight.
  • Biographies can sometimes be very useful as long as they don't descend into melodrama. Three good ones are Christoph Wolff's recent book Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Alexander Thayer's Life of Beethoven, originally written in the later 19th century, but updated in the mid-20th century and still invaluable, and Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life that was published in 2000.
  • For a little more hard-core knowledge about music, you need to turn to one of the bibles of music theory, Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter's Harmony and Voice-Leading, 4th Edition. This is a college textbook and a very comprehensive (640 pages) course on harmony.
  • For counterpoint, the choices are less clear. Fux is the traditional text, but there are a number of modern ones with varying levels of quality. You might be better off just getting a copy of the score of Bach's Art of Fugue and studying it yourself. There is a new edition that I haven't looked at myself yet, but it looks like it might be excellent.
  • And finally, a book that was given to me a long time ago and one that I still refer to: Willi Apel's The Notation of Polyphonic Music: 900 to 1600 which was originally published in 1942. The graphic score I use as a header on this blog is from the book which is a thorough guide to the various kinds of music notations that were used from the beginnings up until our modern notation was largely complete, around 1600 AD. Here is a performance of that piece done by computer (sorry, the only one I could find!):


Rickard said...

You're 100% right, the internet makes classical music incredibly accessible. Just a few clicks away from accessing almost all works by all major composers and many works by lesser known composers. There's information, you can listen to the music and easily find the score (assuming it's not under copyright). To make classical music "accessible" I think people need to be exposed to it more, learn about it as part of school for instance. Music literacy (note reading, some basic music theory) should be taught everywhere just like "regular" literacy. Music is a "universal language" yet only few can read or write it, sadly. If more people would get a better grasp of music I think pop music in general wouldn't be as appealing for instance. I may be wrong though, plus getting schools to teach musical literacy is most likely a very tough task.

Bryan Townsend said...

I couldn't agree more, Rickard! Musical literacy is one of the things I am constantly arguing for. I think that the arguments and discussions about making classical music "accessible" boil down to dumbing it down. Dumbing down classical music, unless it is part of a fiendish plot to trick people into gradually listening to easy music at first and more challenging music later on, is the worst thing you can do. And unnecessary. Friday night I attended a concert by the Gryphon Trio, a Canadian ensemble of violin, cello and piano. They played one bright, cheerful trio by Haydn and a warm, romantic trio by Mendelssohn. But in between they played the Trio in E minor by Shostakovich which is eerie, dissonant, challenging and haunting. The audience loved it and gave them a standing ovation. It was the presence of this, a challenging piece of music, on the program that made the whole experience more significant.