Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ten Books and Ten Books

I just ran across a little post about the ten books everyone should read. Here they are:

1) The Iliad and Odyssey, by Homer
2) Plato’s Dialogues
3) The Aeneid, by Virgil
4) The Confessions, by St. Augustine
5) The Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas
6) The Divine Comedy, by Dante
7) Shakespeare’s plays
8) The Penseés, by Pascal
9) The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky
10) The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Talk about overwhelming whiteness! I guess a lot of present-day academics would be severely triggered, but so much the worst for them. Now what about music? What would be the ten books on music everyone should read. Ok, let me take a stab at it:
  1. The Oxford History of Western Music, by Richard Taruskin
  2. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin
  3. The Beethoven Quartets, by Joseph Kerman
  4. The Art of Fugue, by Joseph Kerman
  5. The Classical Style, by Charles Rosen
  6. Sonata Forms, by Charles Rosen
  7. Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, by Charles Rosen
  8. New Essays on Musical Understanding, Peter Kivy
  9. Aesthetics, by Monroe C. Beardsley
  10. Life of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer
I'm looking for books that are detailed and informative without being excessively technical and obscure--ones that the general reader with some musical knowledge would find interesting and stimulating. I also lean towards those few authors who combine both excellent writing skills and profound knowledge of their subject. There are lots of other possibilities: I was tempted to include biographies of Bach and Shostakovich and some collections of essays on Sibelius and Shostakovich. There are also several collections of essays by Taruskin that are well worth reading. But these ten books are the ones that I have, in recent years, found the most valuable.

For our envoi, let's have the Sonata in A major, op. 110 by Beethoven performed by Hélène Grimaud:


Steven Watson said...

Gosh, it seems I have a fair bit of reading to do! I noticed there’s a new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson which is being widely praised, though admittedly in ways that make me suspicious -- ‘radically contemporary’ wrote the NYT. Will probably borrow it from the library if available. I’m pretty ignorant of most of the ancient Greek and Roman literature.

Anyway, two questions about the music books come to mind. How important do you think reading about music is in understanding music (as opposed to, say, listening and playing music or studying 'dry' theory -- can't think of the right term)? And why are all but one of the books you list from the second half of the twentieth century?

Bryan Townsend said...

The two translations of Homer in the list I posted are the Fagles ones, which I have and quite like. But you know, you might start with a couple of Platonic dialogues. The Euthryphro is very brief, just 20 pages or so, and it might whet your appetite!

I read about music largely because I enjoy doing so and I have that kind of mind. I should probably spend a lot less time reading and a lot more time composing!! Reading does help you understand music, but a lot of the practice and enjoyment of music has very little to do with understanding it in an intellectual way.

That's a very interesting point! The Thayer is older, of course, and the Beardsley was first published in 1958, but yes, the rest are all fairly recent. Until the culture warriors invaded, I think music scholarship was at a very high standard and still is in some redoubts. I have read older books as well, I'm thinking of Spitta's three volume work on Bach dating from 1873 which I used to own and read with pleasure. But I doubt there has ever been a finer musicologist than Richard Taruskin and the writings of Charles Rosen and Joseph Kerman are also pretty much without peer.

Anonymous said...

Brian --

What are your thoughts on the doctrine of 'Concatenationism'' as outlined below? Do you basically agree with all of it?

Why do we listen to music, how do we listen to music, and what is the main source of our satisfaction in listening to music?

The answer to those three closely related questions, I believe, is to be found in the phenomenon of following music, that is to say, of attending closely to, and getting involved in, its specific movement, flow, or progression, moment by moment. That is to say, it is not so much a matter of thinking articulately about the music as it passes, or contemplating it in its architectural aspect, as it is a matter of reacting to and interacting with the musical stream, perceptually and somatically, on a non-analytical, pre-reflective level. The important thing is not what is listened to (i.e., what aspect of the overall structure), but how one listens; a) how unity and organization are perceived; b) how one appreciates and imaginatively participates in music; c) how one relates the preceding parts and anticipates the future ones; d) how ready one is to respond to music's expressive dimension, to be alive to its human content.

Understanding music is at root being able to hear it in a certain way or experience it in a certain manner, and the long and short of it is that this ability can be achieved through repeated present-focused listening alone. One need only position oneself and then be willing to listen closely and repeatedly, until the unique shape of a given musical entity engraves itself on the mind's ear...... Contemplation of formal patterns, apprehension of spatial wholes, intellectual grasp of large-scale structural relations are of an entirely different, and lesser, order of importance. One can readily forgo them and still have entrée to the essential. Music for listening appreciation, of whatever scale or ambition, lives and dies in the moment and it is there that it must be fundamentally understood, there that its fundamental value lies. No reflective analysis of or theoretical grip on musical architecture can substitute for the real-time, part by part synthetic apprehension of a musical work.

Here is the plain truth: Every time we attentively listen with focus and patience, we find different properties and qualities of the musical work. Our ear becomes more acute and sophisticated and we understand the piece to a more complex degree. And we have more evidence which suggests that listeners without musical training DO have an implicit knowledge of things that musicologists and scholars can talk about explicitly.

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, thank you very much for this summary. Concatenationism comes from the work of Jerrold Levinson who takes an opposing view to that of Peter Kivy. I have read various papers by Kivy, including one critiquing Levinson, but I have not, to date, read anything by Levinson (except for a couple of brief excerpts). I intend to rectify this omission! As you have summarized it, I find a lot to say for concatenationism. It uncovers a lot of my discomfort with Schenkerian analysis which seems to me to exclude much of what we really hear. So the account you have sketched above I find both accurate and appealing. However, one of the most powerful musical experiences does come from, for example, the recurrence of musical themes. Whether in Beethoven or Sibelius or Shostakovich, the architecture of when and how a theme returns is a very powerful part of the musical expression. In order to know how Levinson handles this, I will need to read up on his theory!

Anonymous said...

You're welcome.

In case you haven't seen it here is an excellent précis of Levinson's book Music in The Moment:

Concatenationism, Architectonicism, and the Appreciation of Music

Craig said...

After that first list of books, I was feeling pretty good; I've read them all (except the Summa, which nobody can read in its entirety in one lifetime). But then I've only read one of the books in the second list (Taruskin's big history). Thanks for the recommendations!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you get a gold star, Craig! Of the first list I have only read parts of Virgil, St. Augustine and Aquinas and have never read Pascal. And if you have read all of the Oxford History, that's pretty good!

Will Wilkin said...

I presume most or all of us here at Music Salon have read a fair number of hundreds of books, yet most of us haven't read most of this "Top Ten," and if by chance Craig has, then still none of us have read much of the many other equally valid Top Ten lists that could be compiled. But whatever one reads, it does seem to generally make the person a more interesting conversationalist to have read a lot of...well, almost anything.

Regarding books on music, that is a frequent area of my own reading choices, and one good if not "monumental" work I recently read is "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony." I recommend it to anyone interested in Early Music, and/or scale and temperament systems.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, you could certainly compile a quite different top ten list of general books. But I can't see any that would omit Homer or Shakespeare!

I recall that book on temperament, but not the author. A number of people, including Harry Partch, have made similar observations.