23 July 2008

Harold C Schonberg - The Lives of the Great Composers

I am a novice fan of classical music. I didn't grow up with it or learn an instrument, and I didn't appreciate more than the most obvious cliches until quite recently, and even now most of it is impenetrable to me. But since last year I've regularly attended concerts on the South Bank, starting with familiar pieces such as Mozart's Requiem and Beethoven Symphonies, trying to understand the appeal, or just to relax and appreciate the music for its own sake.

While, as with art appreciation, I was trying to divorce the emotional reaction to a piece from the intellectual knowledge of its creator, there comes a time when the most elemental knowledge, of chronology and influences, becomes useful for a better appreciation. This hefty overview of the history of classical music provides that.

Schonberg is an American music professor, and his approach is non-technical, aimed at the untrained amateur. There's far more about the lives of the composers, following the title, than the music. It's hardr for me to question the veracity of the contents, but there's an extensive bibliography which I may use to follow up on specific composers. Schonberg obviously has his biases, and he justifies a composers worth often on how much of his works survive in the modern repertory. This leads to contradictions - Rachmaninov, despite criticisms of his lack of rigour, is proven solely because he remains extremely popular, yet Charles Ives, plainly a particular interest to an American music professor, is a genius who is not yet fully appreciated. Schonberg is also a traditionalist - while he understands what modern music is trying to do, he doesn't necessarily agree that it's worthwhile or as profound as the composers and audiences claim.

This is a good introduction to the history of classical music, unpretentious and well-organised, although pretty huge - I read it two chapters at a time over about a month.


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