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Log on and listen. Created with Naxos, the world's largest classical music label, the book includes a unique Web site featuring more than 500 examples cited in the text. Look up barcarolle. First read about its swaying 6/8 meter and Venetian origins; then log on to the music Web site and hear it performed in Act IV of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann. If that whets your curiosity about Offenbach, click to hear the cancan in his La vie parisienne. All online samples are marked by an icon in the text.
I happily agreed to take on the assignment, not having the faintest idea how long it would take me or how difficult the job would be. In spite of the sizable amount of information I had accumulated over a lifetime of listening to and writing about music, there was a huge amount of research I needed to do. As I learned new things I often had to unlearn old ones, and in order to put concepts across clearly I really had to understand them myself. The task of laying all that information out in encyclopedic order as a series of individual entries on composers, performers, topics, terms, and named pieces—and making the result selective (yet inclusive), balanced, fair, and fun—proved to be the most daunting thing I’ve ever tried to do. But that was only part of the job. To add value to the book, we decided to include listings for well over two thousand recommended recordings. And then we went further, and arranged to have a Web site built where readers of the book could listen, over the Internet, to hundreds of hours of musical examples. The years dragged on, and so did work on the book.
One might well ask why a publisher or a writer should invest so much effort in a book about classical music. There are lots of ways one can answer that. One= might remark on America’s growing taste for small, affordable luxuries like $4.75 boutique-brewed cappuccinos, or budget CDs. One could point out that we live in a world that is crying out for the curatorial function, a world in which guides to the best of anything are in great demand. That is surely the case with music. But there are other handbooks out there. What makes this one special? For one thing, quite a few single-volume encyclopedias put heavy emphasis on theory and terminology, while giving short shrift to the music itself and to musicians past and present. I’ve tried to avoid that, in the belief that the general reader will be better served by information that relates directly to musical works, especially those that have found a place in the repertoire, and to the composers who created them and the performers who have interpreted them. Some guides seem= obsessed with delving into the most arcane corners of music history and the contemporary compositional scene. While that may be appropriate for specialists, my aim has always been to connect with the broadest possible public, and to focus on those areas of the literature that are well represented on recordings and accessible to the general listener.
In the process I have tried not to oversimplify things. I do not believe in writing down to anyone, but in trying to write imaginatively and accurately about what is by any measure a complex subject. My hope is that by doing so, and communicating my enthusiasm for the literature of music and its creators, I will open a door for the reader. Which brings me to the real reason for writing this book. Nietzsche hit on it when he said, “Ohne Musik wäre das Leben unträglich.” (“Without music, life would be unbearable.”) For me, as I am sure for many, music has been an inestimable comfort in times of sadness and loss . . . and an inspiration at all times.
The gift of music, given to the world by composers and performers going back through the centuries, has been one of the most precious things in my life. For a long time I have felt an obligation to pay tribute to the accomplishments of music’s great creators, and to honor their work as artists. Still, I was surprised when I tallied the number of people written about in this book whom I have actually encountered over the years: those I have interviewed formally, those I have heard in performance and rehearsal, and those I have known more intimately—with whom I have broken bread, clinked glasses, shared a warm embrace. This book is in part a thank-you to them. It is also, in part, a response to what happened on September 11, 2001, when the world we live in was changed forever. One of the many side effects of the attacks that occurred on that day was that, for a while, the bottom dropped out of our cultural life. In the face of such destruction and loss of life it was hard to pay attention to anything else. For me, the moment of recovery came in December 2001, with the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Here, three months after the atrocity, New York was back on its feet, lustily cheering at the end of a magnificent performance of one of the largest and most complex works in the repertoire, a comedy, but at heart a serious opera about love and loss. It was a bracing demonstration of what is of value in Western civilization, and why it is important to preserve it, protect it, and understand it.
Some specifics about how entries for this book were selected and presented. There are biographical entries on major composers as well as on lesser but important figures. There are similar entries on performers of historical importance, especially those who have left meaningful recorded legacies, as well as significant performers of the present day. Other entries offer a discussion of instruments, musical terms, and concepts (forms, procedures, genres, and historical periods) that have a bearing on the performance of music and the development of style. There are entries for named pieces, including operas and other vocal works, orchestral works (symphonies, tone poems, overtures), and chamber pieces. And there are entries on institutions and organizations such as orchestras, opera companies, ensembles, festivals, and schools.
For entries on composers, the “template”has been to start with a broad evaluation,
sketch the biographical details, and go on to a discussion of the oeuvre, touching on specific works as appropriate and identifying the composer’s most important contributions to the repertoire. For more important figures I try to identify the hallmarks of their sound and style andoffer an appreciation of their place in history.
For performers, the entries take a similar approach: biographical details emphasizing major milestones in the career, followed by a discussion of the performer’s artistry, drawing attention to his or her interpretive strengths. For entries on pieces, I first provide the facts relating to their genesis and composition, then try to give a description of their layout, their programmatic or expressive content, and their broader significance.
Nearly all of the entries for composers,
performers, and named works include a box of Recommended Recordings.”These are selective listings of what I
consider the best examples in the catalog,
with information on each recording’s content,
the performers, and the record label,
but no catalog numbers, as these are likely to change. There are more than two thousand such recommendations, and while it would have been nice to include capsule reviews of the recordings, that would have added several hundred pages to the book, and duplicated much that is already in The NPR Guide to Building a
Classical CD Collection.
Throughout the book there are abundant cross-references to direct the reader to entries where additional information can be found: These cross-references appear at the ends of entries, or within entries as words or titles set in small caps.
For example, titles of works that have their own entries appear in small caps within their composer’s entry, as do references to techniques or terms that distinguish a composer’s style, if they do so in a particularly significant way, or if the crossreferenced article was specifically designed to shed more light on the subject at hand.
Terms or technical words with component parts will cross-reference the component parts; for example, “suite” will refer to “bourée” and “bourée” will have a cross-reference to “suite.” The book’s production team gave considerable thought to the way cross-references could be used to enhance the reader’s understanding of a subject, but at the same time took pains not to overuse them.
Thus, important works, composers, and terms mentioned in generic entries such as “opera” are not cross-referenced, since the reader will realize that they are very likely to have their own entries anyway.
The aim in cases such as this is twofold:
to avoid situations that would tend to produce visual clutter, and to leave the reader free to explore items as the spirit
(and his curiosity) moves him, rather than constantly pointing him typographically in this or that direction. In general,
titles of musical works are listed in their original language (followed by parenthetical
English translation); the exceptions are generic titles such as Variations on a Theme by Haydn as well as Russian,
Czech, and Hungarian works. As a rule,
when a composer who does not have an entry is mentioned in another entry, that composer’s dates are given in parentheses following the name. Composers and conductors who have their own entries (Debussy, Toscanini) are often mentioned by last name only.
No one book can include everything that’s important to everybody. I got a humorous reminder of that as this book was in its final stages. A good friend, one to whom I have often turned for advice,
called one day and in the most salacious voice he could manage began, “I’ve put together a list of the composers that don’t belong in your book.”
Oh?” I said.
“Yes. Here it is: Beethoven, Vivaldi,
Bach, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Nielsen,
Ives—I can’t stand Ives—Elliott Carter,
Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Berlioz, Schubert,
that horrible Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner
Henze, and Hawaiian music.”
I started laughing, and he kept right on going. “Now you have the master list,
and if I can think of any Russian composers,
I will let you know.”
It was just what the doctor ordered.
My friend knew how seriously I had taken the job of deciding what ought and ought not to be included in the book, and knew as well that it was time to bust things up a bit. I assured him
I would take his advice very seriously. But in the end, only Henze and Hawaiian music failed to make the cut.
Behind the teasing was a point: This book should be read for what it has in it,
rather than for what it doesn’t. And there is a lot more to it than what is between its covers. Specifically, there is a dedicated
Web site, constructed by Naxos, with links to more than 500 musical selections—entire pieces, whole movements, or passages within movements that illustrate a specific technique or procedure under discussion—each one coded in the book with a special symbol . (See “Using Naxos,” page xii.) In effect, The
Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Musiccomes with a music library containing well over 75 hours of sound files available to all readers of this book.
The time was ripe for this. In a little more than 15 years, Naxos has grown from a budget start-up with a handful of titles into the largest classical label in the world, with a catalog of enormous breadth. Its founder, Klaus Heymann,
whom I have known since the mid-1990s,
learned about this book when we ran into each other at a radio conference in the winter of 2004. He immediately offered to create a Web site exclusively for readers of the book, where they could have access to a full range of music samples drawnfrom his catalog and others. Something on this scale could not have happened any sooner, for only in the past couple of years has sufficient bandwidth been available to permit the streaming of high quality audio over the Internet to people using their home computers.
The result has been the most ambitious linking of any book on any subject to a dedicated
Web site—certainly the most robust linkage that has ever been attempted for a book about music. You want to know what pizzicato sounds like? Now you can hear it.
Never encountered the Hebrides Overture?
It’s here, as are hundreds of other excerpts and complete works. The delays I encountered in finishing the book were thus fortuitous,
in that they permitted us to add an entire new dimension to it. And I’m confident that for the general reader this will be a huge value-added feature. In the course of forging these links with my editor, Ruth
Sullivan, over several days of intensive work,
I looked on with delight as she became a convert to early music. The more she heard,
the more enthusiastic she became. I believe this feature will open many doors, and I am doubly grateful to Klaus for thinking of it and for putting his talented Hong Kong–based media team to work on it.
While on the subject of the Internet,
I should point out that an increasing number of artists maintain their own
Web sites. Where there was information to be gleaned from them, I went in and got it. Also, I have made judicious use of material from the official Web sites of various orchestras, opera companies, and other institutions. But I have been very leery of fan sites. Sometimes one finds interesting nuggets in such places, but often the facts are garbled. In order to check the facts against an established and respected authority, the production team at Workman settled on The New
Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,
Second Edition, published in 2000,
which we in the field call Grove II for short. In 29 volumes, filling two shelves on a standard bookcase, it is the most comprehensive reference on music in the English language. Its lists of works re remarkably thorough, and it offers an enormous amount of information about almost everything. Even so—and this is not meant to disparage Grove or its editors in any way—Grove II has gaps and mistakes. I have tried to make sure that errors there did not become errors in this book as well.
Doubtless there will be errors still, and for these I accept full responsibility. By the same token, there are certain cases when what may appear to be inconsistencies and errors really aren’t. Some “facts” cannot be presented in a single, ironclad formulation.
For example, for a large work like an opera that may have taken a composer several years to write, sometimes it is useful to cite the date of the premiere, sometimes the span of years during which the composer worked on the piece. In such cases,
I have tried to make the best choice based on the context in which the information is presented in the entry.
Facts are important, but in the end it comes down to something else—one’s feeling for the art of music, one’s personal experience of it and one’s ability to communicate that. And here I must admit that against the vastness and complexity of this subject there were many times when knowledge and memory seemed to desert me. After all, what can one say with any certainty about what made
Arthur Rubinstein such a great pianist?
And how could anything I might venture on the subject be enough? Trying to do justice to some of the greatest talents God has put on earth has not been easy, and
I leave this book with you wishing I could have said more, and said it better.
After browsing this book at a friend's home, I purchased it for my high school age nephew. He is studying classical violin and is a classical music fan. This volume, along with its recorded samples of important pieces, is proving to be a good source of reference and inspiration for him. I really need to buy a copy for my own edification and browsing pleasure.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 5, 2006
The book is written for the lay person. It has entries on performers, conductors, specific music works (such as 'Appalachian Spring'), music theory, and music history. It also has recommended recordings. Its most useful feature is that it allows the reader-listener, through a Naxos web site, to hear examples of what's discussed in the text. A good way to learn about classical music.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.