Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Nonfiction Book Review: The Classical Music Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

by David Ryan, Arts, Literature and Sports, Central Library

The Classical Music Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained 

We all have regrets concerning our college years. One of mine is not taking a classical music class and learning more about the foundation of modern music. When meeting friends who are composers or musicians I feel distinctly ignorant when the conversation takes a classical turn and downright desperate if they begin discussing historical movements or start using technical terms. The irony is that I actually enjoy quite a few classical pieces.

That’s why discovering the Classical Music Book from DK publishers was like discovering a treasure. The book is separated into 8 eras. Each musical era has multiple chapters of 2 or 3 pages. These chapters focus on a composer, or famous piece, representative of that era.

Occasionally the editors gently introduce a technical term. A timeline also places the composer, or piece, in context. There’s a large glossary in the back of the book. Did I mention the illustrations? Some are quirky color drawings resembling something by Salvador Dali, but paintings and photographs of famous musicians and composers are sprinkled liberally throughout the book.

I never had strong feelings about Hector Berlioz. Prior to picking up this book I had, of course, heard his Symphonie Fantastique, but was not bowled over. To my untrained ears it sounded…jumpy. The classical music book tells the story behind the piece. Berlioz had fallen in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson while visiting Paris. “He felt compelled to write a piece that would describe his heightened passion and its attendant joys and sorrows.” Now I understand why this work seems to veer between ecstasy and despair.

While in high school I discovered the works of Niccolo Paganini and was struck by how it seemed like rock and roll on a violin. (Alright, actually I was just curious about the "theory’ that his unique musical gifts came from a deal he had struck with the Devil.) The chapter on the Romantic Period and Paganini introduced me to phrases like double and triple stopping and pizzicato. I also learned that Paganini’s virtuosity probably had more to do with the rare genetic disorder Marfan syndrome than any possible meeting at the crossroads with Ole Scratch.

This volume is like a cool encyclopedia that you can read chronologically, or dip into at random. (Remember, if you come across a piece or a composer that you’ve never heard, you can go to our catalog and borrow the actual performances reviewed in the book from one of the 41 libraries in the county.) By the way, the best part about this book is that you won’t be left with any regrets.

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