The Essential Canon of Classical Music

The Essential Canon of Classical Music

by David Dubal

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The Essential Canon of Classical Music by David Dubal

The ultimate guide to classical composers and their music-for both the novice and the experienced listener

Music, according to Aaron Copland, can thrive only if there are "gifted listeners." But today's listeners must choose between classical and rock, opera and rap, and the choices can seem overwhelming at times. In The Essential Canon of Classical Music, David Dubal comes to the aid of the struggling listener and provides a cultural-literacy handbook for classical music. Dubal identifies the 240 composers whose works are most important to an understanding of classical music and offers a comprehensive, chronological guide to their lives and works. He has searched beyond the traditional canon to introduce readers to little-known works by some of the most revered names in classical music-Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert-as well as to the major works of lesser-known composers. In a spirited and opinionated voice, Dubal seeks to rid us of the notion of "masterpieces" and instead to foster a new generation of master listeners. The result is an uncommon collection of the wonders classical music has to offer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865476646
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/28/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 800
Sales rank: 1,291,929
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.27(h) x 1.86(d)

About the Author

David Dubal, a professor of piano literature at the Juilliard School, was the classical-music program director at WNCN for more than twenty years. He is the author of many books and lives in New York City.

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The Essential Canon of Classical Music



We can only speculate about the origins of music, but its seemingly magical qualities must have been apparent early in human prehistory. Primitive music of some sort probably preceded speech by thousands of years. Those with unusual vocal abilities may have used their power in rituals or to convey messages over a distance. These ancient singers, like their brothers the cave painters, may even have been privileged members of the clan. But it was a long time before people started making vocal utterances in intervals, thus creating melodies that could be repeated again and again.

The first musical instrument, if you can call it that, was the pursed lips of a whistler (no doubt first used in an attempt to imitate bird calls). Early peoples thereafter developed banging, twanging, and scraping instruments, most of which were used, with the dance, to practice magical and sexual rites and to worship the sun and the moon. Charles Darwin was convinced "that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex."

As the concept of pitch developed, those with good musical ears could start to imitate sounds. The pitches they heard, however, were not those that we have come to know. Each area of the world developed a different vocabulary of sounds. We do not know who the first musical geniuses were, or when they first organized sound into a musical form. How interesting it would be to go back in time and hear the music used for prehistoric funeral and marital rites, or the humming and singing (if any) that accompanied hunting and gathering!

Our knowledge of music in ancient civilizations is unfortunately scanty. We know very little about Egypt, and only a little more about the strides made inIndia, Persia, and the Far East. The five-tone or pentatonic scale was first developed in China around three thousand years ago. In ancient Greece music was almost held sacred, and the mythological musician Orpheus was feted. Pythagoras realized that music had healing agents, but Plato found it dangerous and enervating. The Greeks made great advances in musical theory, developing scales or modes, but only a few fragments of their music survive. This gifted civilization was probably the most musically expressive up to that time.

It was with the emergence of Christianity that the Western musical tradition began. Gregorian chant, named for Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), had its roots in Jewish liturgical chants. In addition, psalmody, hymns, antiphons, and so forth became part of a common liturgy that spread through the Christian world. For several hundred years after Gregory, theory and practice slowly evolved together (for creativity could not blossom until theoretical problems were solved).

The Middle Ages saw the birth of polyphony, a revolutionary new form of music based on two or more parts, or melodic lines. Polyphony made possible the mass, the chief musical ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. It also saw the birth of a secular musical tradition, alongside the liturgical. Wandering minstrels, known as troubadours, based their popular melodies on poems of courtly love. They made creative use of new musical instruments to accompany their chivalric stanzas, which were usually written in the vernacular languages and not in Latin.

The vernacular was making rapid progress in the other arts, especially after 1300, when both Dante and Petrarch started to write verse in Italian. Their poems expressed emotional states not previously addressed by the arts. (Petrarch, for example, dedicated his sonnets to his lady love, Laura.) Music could not yet rival the flexibility of poetry, but Petrarch's contemporary Guillaume de Machaut brought music to a new rhythmic complexity through syncopation. Like other composers, he worked for the Church, but in his ballades he codified a new type of secular song in courtly language, accompanied by an instrument, with sections of ornamental freedom. The ballade form would retain its popularity for a century.

As it did with the other arts, Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance, developed a flourishing musical culture, especially after 1450. While Giovanni Bellini was painting his incomparable madonnas, Italians were reveling in madrigals, a mostly secular polyphonic form using two to as many as eight vocal parts. In the humanistic Renaissance, as one scholar put it, "music was not a set of compositional techniques but a complex of social conditions, intellectual states of mind, attitudes, aspirations, habits of performers, artistic support systems, intra-culturalcommunication, and many other ingredients which add up to a thriving matrix of musical energy." Beauty in art and craft was a highly valued element of life. The artist of the Renaissance was in fact more integrated into general society than he would ever be again.

Italian and English musicians were artists of the highest cultivation. Performances were constant and lively, and for the first time notated music was published. New instruments were created in abundance and were of exceptional beauty in their ornaments: organs, harpsichords, cornetti, shawms (forerunners of the oboe), sackbuts (early trombones), viols (cousins of the modern violin, cello, and viola), flutes, lutes, and dozens of others. Like many noblemen, Henry VIII of England, who considered himself a fine composer, had a splendid collection of instruments (nearly four hundred by 1530).

By the late sixteenth century, any person of rank or pretension was expected to have musical proficiency. Most were excellent sight-readers. The reign of Elizabeth (1558—1603) was a golden age for the arts, and music thrived in the home, at church, and in the theater. Shakespeare used song prolifically in his plays and showed not only his love for the art but his knowledge of it. He may have played the recorder. In his 128th sonnet, he wrote of "jacks," that part of the virginal (keyboard) action that makes possible the plucking of the strings:

I envy those jacks that nimble leap To kiss the tender inward of thy hand.

In Italy madrigals continued to rule the secular musical scene in the later Renaissance. Both Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo provided greatness to this form. The madrigal is the neglected glory of the Renaissance. Two close contemporaries, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlande de Lassus, were giants: Palestrina's masses, with their beautiful euphony, are among music's purest, most angelic manifestations. The versatile master Lassus fulfilled the motet form, the villanella, and the chanson. These and many composers in other lands—such as the Swiss Ludwig Senfl, the Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, and the Englishman William Byrd—make the sixteenth century a time of high musical adventurousness. Composers had never had more options in vocal and instrumental expression. During this time, conflicts between polyphony and melody grew. At the end of the sixteenth century, a group of Florentine dilettantes, poets, and musicians plotted the germ of a new art form. They rejected polyphony as unsuited to accompany song in drama. Jacopo Peri's Dafne (1598) may be called the first drama to be completely set to music. It signaled the birth of opera—and of the Baroque era.


(c.1300—1377) France


Machaut was perhaps the most famous composer of the fourteenth century. His music, both secular and religious, has been described as the most fully formed of the period. Ordained a priest, he led an adventurous and dangerous existence as secretary to the warring John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia. Machaut, also a poet, used his own verse in composing secular ballades, rondeaux, and virelais. He has been called a fourteenth-century Romantic and a champion of medieval chivalric ideals. Machaut was one of the first composers to experiment with rhythmic syncopation.


Messe de Nostre Dame (mass) (c.1350)

Hilliard Ensemble, Hillier: Hyperion CDA 66358

Copyright © 2001 by David Dubal

Table of Contents



Part 1 - The Medieval, Renaissance, and Elizabethan Ages

Guillaume de Machaut

Guillaume Dufay

Josquin Desprez

Thomas Tallis

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Orlande de Lassus

William Byrd

Tomás Luis de Victoria

Giovanni Gabrieli

Carlo Gesualdo

John Dowland

Claudio Monteverdi

Gregorio Allegri

Part II - The Age of the Baroque

George Frideric Handel

Johann Sebastian Bach

Domenico Scarlatti

Other Baroque Composers

Girolamo Prescobaldi

Heinrich Schütz

Jean-Baptiste Lully

Dietrich Buxtehude

Arcangelo Corelli

Henry Purcell

Alessandro Scarlatti

François Couperin

Tomaso Albinoni

Antonio Vivaldi

Jan Zelenka

Georg Philipp Telemann

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello

Part III - The Age of Classicism

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Franz Joseph Haydn

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven

Other Classical Composers

Francesco Geminiani

Giuseppe Tartini

Thomas Arne

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

William Boyce

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Pietro Nardini

Antonio Soler

Luigi Boccherini

Domenico Cimarosa

Muzio Clementi

Luigi Cherubini

François-Adrien Boieldieu

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Fernando Sor

Mauro Giuliani

Part IV - The Romantic Age

Nicolò Paganini

Carl Maria von Weber

Gioachino Rossini

Franz Schubert

Gaetano Donizetti

Vincenzo Bellini

Hector Berlioz

Felix Mendelssohn

Frédéric Chopin

Robert Schumann

Franz Liszt

Richard Wagner

Giuseppe Verdi

Charles Gounod

Jacques Offenbach

César Franck

Bedrich Smetana

Anton Bruckner

Johann Strauss II

Johannes Brahms

Alexander Borodin

Camille Saint-Saëns

Georges Bizet

Modest Mussorgsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Antonín Dvorak

Edvard Grieg

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Gabriel Fauré

Leoš Janácek

Sir Edward Elgar

Giacomo Puccini

Hugo Wolf

Gustav Mahler

Frederick Delius

Claude Debussy

Richard Strauss

Jean Sibelius

Other Romantic Composers

Daniel-François Auber

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Franz Berwald

Albert Lortzing

Adolphe Adam

Mikhail Glinka

Otto Nicolairi

Charles-Valentin Alkan

Franz von Suppé

Édouard Lalo

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Karl Goldmark

Amilcare Ponchielli

Henryk Wieniawski

Léo Delibes

Mily Balakirev

Max Bruch

Hermann Goetz

Emmanuel Chabrier

Arrigo Boito

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Jules Massenet

Charles-Marie Widor

Pablo de Sarasate

Henri Duparc

Vincent d'lndy

Engelbert Humperdinck

John Philip Sousa

Anatoly Liadov

Ernest Chausson

Ruggiero Leoncavallo

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov

Gustave Charpentier

Edward MacDowell

Isaac Albéniz

Charles Martin Loeffler

Anton Arensky

Pietro Mascagni

Alexander Glazunov

Carl Nielsen

Paul Dukas

Part V - The Age of Modernism

Alexander Scriabin

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Arnold Schoenberg

Maurice Ravel

Béla Bartok

Igor Stravinsky

Alban Berg

Sergei Prokofiev

Paul Hindemith

George Gershwin

Francis Poulenc

Aaron Copland

Dmitri Shostakovich

Benjamin Britten

Other Modern Composers

Erik Satie

Ferruccio Busoni

Umberto Giordano

Enrique Granados

Scott Joplin

Hans Pfitzner

Albert Roussel

Franz Lehár ardAlexander von Zemlinsky

Max Reger

Gustav Holst

Charles Ives

Josef Suk

Reinhold Glière

Fritz Kreisler

John Alden Carpenter

Manuel de Falla

Ernö von Dohnányi

Ottorino Respighi

Frank Bridge

Nikolai Medtner

Ernest Bloch

George Enescu

Karol Szymanowski

Joaquín Turina

Percy Grainger

Zoltán Kodály

Anton Webern

Sir Arnold Bax

Alfredo Casella

Edgard Varèse

Charles Tomlinson Griffes

George Butterworth

Marcel Dupré

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Jacques Ibert

Bohuslav Martinu

Frank Martin

Arthur Honegger

Ferde Grofé

Darius Milhaud

Walter Piston

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Carl Orff

Virgil Thomson

Howard Hanson

Roger Sessions

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Roy Harris

Silvestre Revueltas

Carlos Chávez

George Antheil

Kurt Weill

Harry Partch

Gerald Finzi

Joaquín Rodrigo

Maurice Duruflé

Sir William Walton

Aram Khachahirian

Dmitri Kabalevsky

Sir Michael Tippett

Elliott Carter

Olivier Messiaen

Grazyna Bacewicz

Samuel Barber

Alan Hovhaness

Gian Carlo Menotti

John Cage

Morton Gould

Witold Lutoslawski parGeorge Perle

Milton Babbitt

Alberto Ginastera

Lou Harrison

Leonard Bernstein

Karel Husa

Iannis Xenakis

György Ligeti

Ned Rorem

Luciano Berio

Pierre Boulez

Hans Werner Henze

Karlheinz Stockhausen

George Crumb

Toru Takemitsu

Rodion Shchedrin

Krzysztof Penderecki

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Alfred Schnittke

Arvo Pärt

Philip Glass

William Bolcom

A Brief Glossary of Musical Terms

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