The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford
One of the many marvels of classical music is the symbiosis of efforts from three different actors: the composer who writes the music, the performer who plays it, and the listener who hears it. This is not a universal characteristic of classical music (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were all accomplished concert keyboardists), though it became nearly so as the composer/performer archetype went out of vogue in the last century. And it is not unique to classical music as compared to other genres; some musicians have made a lot of money playing music written by other people, and I've long been a fan of "covers" in rock and folk (see e.g., the Cry Cry Cry album). Nevertheless, I think there is something special about the mechanics of this phenomenon in the classical genre, where an enthusiastic contemporary listener can be exposed to multiple interpretations of the same written piece of music, each synthesizing an entirely new experience every time it is played.
As my collection of recordings has slowly expanded, I've put together a simple page displaying the covers of each album I own. A quick perusal of the first few rows reveals that I have already crossed that line from novice to enthusiast (or obsessive) demarcated by owning multiple recordings of the same piece, in this case Bach's Cello Suites and Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. As works for solo instruments, these lend themselves especially well to the varieties of style and technique of the different performers. But even in the most heavily-orchestrated symphonies or choral works, there is plenty of room for interpretation by different conductors, by different orchestras, or even by the same conductor at different stages of his career (Herbert von Karajan famously recorded no less than four complete cycles of Beethoven's symphonies; one each in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s).
A second-order benefit of this aspect of classical music is that it greatly increases the number of subjects to which I can devote my literary appetite. To help me navigate the thousands of classical recording options available today, I've consulted several sources, including The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. But that leaves a great deal to learn about the artists themselves, both the composers and the performers. Of the latter, I've spent an embarrassing number of hours reading Wikipedia biographies of the great violinists and pianists of the past century. For the composers, and the developmental arc of the Western classical tradition, I turned to Jan Swafford's The Vintage Guide to Classical Music:
I don't claim that the life of a composer tells you everything about his music. There are technical factors, too, that I touch on to the extent appropriate in a nontechnical book. I do claim, however, that a composer's life, personality, and milieu tell you as much about his music as anything else does. Haydn wrote over a hundred symphonies as compared to Beethoven's nine, because for various reasons a symphony for Haydn was a less weighty matter than it was for Beethoven. What symphonies were to Beethoven, operas were to Mozart; in both cases, they were the most ambitious of their works and what they preferred to be writing most of the time, As we move through the years we'll find that each new generation tends to raise the ante of its forebears: the achievements of Beethoven prepared the way for Wagner's exalted notion of the artist, which led in turn to the still-more-exalted ideas of Mahler and Schoenberg. Meanwhile, that train of thought--involving the near deification of the artist--contributed to Stravinsky's disgust with the whole Romantic apparatus. While these historical developments did involve technical concerns, they were social, political, economic, and personal as well, so they fall within the scope of this book.
Swafford takes a strictly chronological approach to his subject, opening with the Middle Ages and proceeding through the major composers of each of five subsequent periods: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth Century. The basic template for each composer is a brief introduction, followed by a biography, an outline of their music development (and how it fits into those that came before and after), and finally his recommendations for introductory works by that composer. Interspersed through the text are a series of sidebars in which Swafford provides an introduction to important musical topics, such "Consonance and Dissonance," "Fugue and Canon," and "Sonata Form," in a way that does not require the reader to have any existing technical proficiency:
What we call sonata form indicates a general way of organizing shorter pieces or individual movements of longer pieces... It can be found in numerous genres--symphony, string quartet, and sacred choral works, to name a few. Most commonly, first movements of instrumental pieces are organized according to sonata form.... In the classical instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, key changes became dramatic events, often signaled by thematic, rhythmic, and textural contrasts.
To rationalize this new variety, composers of the period developed some habits of musical syntax and long-range organization which worked so well that they pervaded Western music for over a century. It was these habits that were later abstracted and dubbed "sonata form."
In addition to these sidebars, Swafford also provides a twenty-page glossary of musical terms, covering everything from "a capella" to "glissando" to "woodwind instruments." In his vignettes of the various composers, he makes an effort to indicate the changes in the lifestyles and social status of composers, from the sponsorship of church and court in the Baroque to greater independence with success dependent on popular approval (resulting either in mass fame or utter obscurity) to the almost anti-social alienation of some movements in the 20th-century. Particularly enlightening are Swafford's insights into the evolution of classical music in the context of broader artistic movements; composers, after all, were influenced and inspired by the same economic, social, and political events as other artists, as well as by those artists themselves. Take, for example, the explosive premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps:
That evening in the spring of 1913 was the symbolic beginning, with a bang, of twentieth-century music. In fact, Schoenberg's Pierrot luniaire had made an equally important beginning the year before in Berlin. But Schoenberg did not have the glamour of the Ballets Russes backing up his revolution, and Paris in those years was the epicenter of the new in the arts. So in history books if only partly in reality, Le Sacre begins musical Modernism. It shook the Western tradition to its foundations; it made Stravinsky the champion of the avant-garde and the bete noire of traditionalists. He was seen as the musical counterpart of his friend Picasso, the Cubist and Primitivist. Just under a year following its tumultuous premiere, after the first concert performance of Le Sacre, Stravinsky was paraded through the streets of Paris on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. Around the world, the same pattern was enacted: violent rejection at the early hearings, soon followed by enthusiasm. By the thirties, the work was famous--and safe--enough to accompany animated dinosaurs in Walt Disney's Fantasia (Stravinsky was outraged but helpless to stop it).
The book is not perfect; for one, I question spending more pages on the 20th-century than any other period, with composers such as Ives, Webern and Shostakovich getting equal or greater attention than Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. Swafford pleads as an excuse that the passage of time has yet to measure the relative worth of more recent composers, but that seems all the better reason to spend more time on those whose work has already passed that test. I also would have appreciated a greater number of musical sidebars, to further bridge the gap between those with musical training and those without. Nit-picking aside, this is an excellent introduction for those who lack a musical background but want to complement their listening with a basic understanding of the history and lives behind the music.