The Well-Tempered Ear

Books about classical music – matched with a recording — make an excellent holiday gift

December 21, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Books make an excellent holiday gift for music lovers.

Reference works, critical guides and biographies are often standard and last as long as the music. They abound — Cambridge Companions, Oxford Guides, New Grove volumes. Just check search engines at Amazon or Barnes and Noble for ideas, then add some tickets to a live performance or some recordings – and you have a nicely integrated package that promises a lot of pleasure.

But this year has had some memorable issues.

At the top of my 2010 book list is “Listen to This” by Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), who writes for the New Yorker and is the reigning classical music critic in the country, maybe even the world. You don’t have to like everything he says – I disagree with him quite often – but his writing is accessible, his opinions strong and his observations always thought-provoking.

Anniversaries are also celebrated with new books.

This was a Mahler Year, so British critic Norman Lebrecht’s “Why Mahler?” (Pantheon) is a good starting place if you don’t know a lot about Mahler and his 10 symphonies and several song cycles. You have to get through some of the irritating egotism of Lebrecht, who is quite taken with himself and his own story. But there is a good mix of criticism, musicology and biography along with a critical discography of many Mahler performances. It’s not the last word, but not bad for a starting one. How can you argue with the premise that Mahler is the Beethoven of our time?

This is also the centennial of the birth of American composer Samuel Barber. So you can find a good introduction to him in Thomas Larson’s “The Saddest Music Ever Written” (Pegasus). It focuses on the famous “Adagio for Strings” but also covers other works, including the gorgeous Violin Concerto as well as songs and instrumental works. There is a bit too much about the author’s family and its relation to the Adagio. But overall you’ll find out much about the secretive Barber. Still, the music says it best: In the age of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the conservative Barber preferred beauty to modernism.

American pianist Leon Fleisher has been an amazing story, from his days as a prodigy to his late life rebirth after his fourth and fifth finger son his right hand were paralyzed for the better part of 40 years. He recounts all the steps in “My Nine Lives” (Doubleday), which is written with the help of Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette. Again, I would have liked less about his family, his love of beautiful women and his several marriages, and more about playing the music. I especially like the recollections of his time with Artur Schnabel and the chapters, called  “master classes,” on Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms concertos. A couple of his CDs (especially the last two two-handed ones) would be a nice complement.

This past year also saw the publication of Karl Aage Rasmussen’s biography of the giant piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter (University Press of New England), which promises to be definitive for quite some time. The author draws on new material and doesn’t mince words about Richter’s being gay and its effect on his career. Again, a couple of the many, many recording Richter made would be a good accompaniment.

This was also a Schumann Year and a Chopin Year. There are excellent books on both — , and they could be combined with countless fine recordings. And in 2011, it is a Liszt Year (his bicentennial), so we should see those coming out any day.

For Schumann, I recommend John C. Tibbetts’ “Schumann: A Chorus of Voices” (Amadeus Press, $40). The 495-page volume is particularly distinguished by its unusual, welcome and long overdue approach.

The author, an amateur pianist and a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas, has combined oral history with serious musicology and music criticism. In essence, he does in print what various radio hosts, including Bill McGlaughlin, Karl Haas and Tibbetts himself, have done on the air. But Tibbetts goes further, and here is a link to his web site:

Over some 30 years and in a wide variety of venues and settings on a variety of occasions, Tibbetts (below) has interviewed — sometimes more than once — dozens of major and well-known performers, scholars and others about who Schumann was, what his music means to them and how we should appreciate him.

I didn’t see much new — or something similar to Tibbett’s Schumann volume — on Chopin this year, unfortunately. But I highly recommend Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s “Chopin, Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils (Oxford University Press). It has fascinating anecdotes and quotes as well as details of Chopin’s fingering for his own pieces.

I also find books and music (tickets to live performances or CDs) complement each other well. These days, some music books even come with a CD – while many others don’t but should.

Finally, most of us listen to classical music while some lucky ones among us make it.

But they may not feel so lucky at times. It’s a tough world for the career musician. There is the bad economy and there is also an ever-growing body of very talented musicians. So if you have an aspiring musician in your family, you might consider a gift of Angela Myles Beeching’s “Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music(Oxford University Press). It is well researched and written and superbly organized, covering everything from repertoire and tryouts to stage fright and giving press interviews.

Here is a link to the latest edition:

I’m sure there are some other good books about classical music I missed this year.

Can you recommend any?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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