Turning Up the Volumes: A Classical Education

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

There have been many great writers about music -- a short list would include Hector Berlioz, George Bernard Shaw, James Huneker and Virgil Thomson, and there are others -- but none of them deigned to write introductory volumes. And so, unfortunately, most of the academic attempts to sum up "Classical Music 101" have been dry affairs that quickly devolve into dispassionate lists of names and accomplishments, giving the reader a plethora of facts but little insight into why this art can move us so deeply.

And so, for starters, I recommend a venerable, distinctly middlebrow but passionate and vastly entertaining book titled "The Lives of the Great Composers" (Norton) by Harold C. Schonberg, who wrote for the New York Times for almost 50 years and was that paper's chief critic from 1960 to 1980.

Schonberg possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the central classical repertory; moreover, he was a master storyteller, with an eye for the telling anecdote that sums up a world.

The book has its flaws -- there is scant information about music before Bach, for instance, and Schonberg was never in sympathy with most of what happened in the 20th century, especially after 1950. Nevertheless, if you want the proverbial "meat and potatoes" of classical music, you will find them here, well served. (Interested readers might investigate Schonberg's volumes on "The Great Conductors" and "The Great Pianists," which are dated and fiercely opinionated but still manage to impart an enormous amount of technical and aesthetic information in the liveliest possible manner.)

To fill in the many blanks in Schonberg's study, try "The Penguin Companion to Classical Music" by British poet, novelist and critic Paul Griffiths. Here you will find thousands of deft, proportionate and well-written entries on every conceivable musical subject, from the conductor Claudio Abbado to the rocker (and occasional classicist) Frank Zappa. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are given their full due, of course, but also the 12th-century French composer Perotin ("musically vital but dimly documented").

Musical terms, techniques and creative movements are discussed and explained, succinctly and just when you need them. And for those who delight in fascinating obscurities, take Griffiths's description of the bizarre contraption known as the "serpent," a French instrument from the 16th century that owed its name to its "sinuous shape" and had a range of three octaves. "Cumbersome, it needed judicious handling," Griffiths admits; and quotes English musical historian Charles Burney to the effect that when it was played badly it could sound like "a great hungry, or rather angry, Essex calf." There are many more such discoveries in Griffiths's 900 pages.

Writing descriptively about the human voice is an especially difficult challenge. No matter how differently Hilary Hahn and Jack Benny may have played the violin, their sounds, musical and otherwise, were made on the same basic instrument. But every singer has a unique tonal quality. If Luciano Pavarotti, with his honeyed sweetness and lyrical ease, was a representative tenor, what do we make of Peter Pears, who gasped and squawked his way through much of what he sang, yet remained a master interpreter? And how to explain these differences to a reader without benefit of recording?

British critic J.B. Steane has never had any problems with this particular task, which is why his work, "The Grand Tradition: 70 Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970" (Gerald Duckworth & Co., available secondhand from ), remains the best book on the voice ever written. This meticulous and exacting study of opera and classical song recordings from the first primitive, hissing wax cylinders through the great years of the stereo LP permits Steane to examine the work of hundreds of artists.

Here is Steane on Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli: "Beauty of sound is certainly there on the records, its characteristic form being a kind of shining precision. He drew sound with the thin definition of a pencil line, but glowing brightly as if the pencil were pointed with fire." Exactly. Or, after a comparison of five sopranos singing Bellini's "Casta Diva," Steane sums up the artistry of Maria Callas: "Hers is simply the most interesting and most fully human face there. Hers is the most aptly expressive treatment of the music: She is rapt but not sleepy, dignified but not statuesque. She sings with what can best be called love: that is, with care, understanding and sudden personal insights."

Human. As usual, Steane zeroes in on the precise word. It's Callas's humanity that we find mirrored in her recordings, the sense that she is not merely playing a role for us but sharing something momentous, speaking to us as one doomed, storm-tossed, deeply feeling individual to another.

There have been two excellent recent books by colleagues from a rival newspaper. "The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music -- A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" by Allan Kozinn takes the listener through the standard repertory and beyond, from the medieval Hildegard of Bingen up to the contemporary works of Milton Babbitt, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, all with commendable wit and precision. I would quibble about a few of the performances (Arthur Rubinstein's recording of the Chopin Preludes continues to strike me -- as it struck the pianist -- as one of his least successful recordings) but Kozinn is generally a reliable guide, and his prose style is always engaging.

Anthony Tommasini's "The New York Times Essential Library: Opera -- A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings" is impassioned and illuminating. It is also decidedly quirky. (Six operas by Benjamin Britten? "Nixon in China" instead of "Einstein on the Beach" or "Satyagraha"?) But a book of this sort is supposed to start arguments and Tommasini is a patient, persuasive advocate for the operas he has included. His analysis of the lyrical and dramatic qualities Mozart brought to the genre is especially astute.

Finally, now that it is possible to find copies of virtually any book, in or out of print, through one of the online sources ( , and others), I encourage readers to track down Ira Glackens's "Yankee Diva," an unrelentingly lively biography of the American soprano Lillian Nordica; soprano Frances Alda's "Men, Women and Tenors" ( the great gossipy prima donna memoir); Hector Berlioz's "Memoirs," which is not only autobiography but literature in itself; Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "Notes of a Pianist," a mid-19th-century tour of the tropics by a gifted and original American artist; and "The Diary of George Templeton Strong."

This last is a dazzler. Strong was a wealthy Manhattanite who flourished in the middle of the 19th century. He was a Wall Street lawyer, a trustee of Columbia University and an early president of what became the New York Philharmonic. But he is best known for the gigantic diary that he kept from 1836 until his death in 1875. Over the course of the diary's 4 million words, 19th-century New York comes vividly to life, with all of its sights, sounds, temptations and terrors.

And its music. Indeed, after juicy murders and spectacular fires, both of which Strong relays with salacious glee, music criticism makes up many of the most fascinating pages of his diary, as Strong attended concerts practically every night and came home and told posterity about them. When a large selection from Strong's chronicle was published in 1952, editors Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas wrote: "Though we give numerous excerpts from his discriminating criticism of concerts, oratorios and operas, an interesting volume of musical comment could -- and some day will -- be compiled from the diary."

Vera Brodsky Lawrence took up the challenge and published three gigantic volumes of "Strong on Music." Strong lived through heady years for music in New York. A myriad orchestras banded and disbanded; concert halls opened, prospered, and occasionally burned down; minstrel songs were mingled with Italian arias in the vaudeville theaters. A great deal of musical life revolved around the church and, then as now (but with much more reason), the general public looked toward Europe for "culture." Still, our nation was beginning to find its voice, and George Templeton Strong, along with Walt Whitman (a character the autocratic Brahmin would likely have detested), truly "heard America singing."

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