Books on Music: 9 Top Picks

The death of pianist and author Charles Rosen in New York on Dec. 9 represents a loss to the world of classical music. His recordings of the music of Debussy, Beethoven, and John Cage were especially distinguished. His book The Classical Style (1972), which won the National Book Award, is a model of scholarship and insightful commentary on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It is among the most enlightening and enjoyable books on music of the last several decades, although the scholarship and musical analysis can be formidable at times for the non-specialist. Fortunately, Rosen’s books, of which The Classical Style is the earliest and still perhaps the most distinguished, are not alone in supplying pleasurable reading, not to mention instruction, to every lover of classical music.

RossThe Rest Is Noise (2007) by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, is a witty, elegant, and beautifully written survey of music composed in the 20th Century. His analysis is well-considered, and his judgments are measured. The depth of analysis tends understandably to thin out somewhat as the century nears its conclusion. Still, there is no better introduction to the music of the last century for specialist and non-specialist alike.

winifredWinnifred Wagner (Eng. Trans. 2005) by Austrian author Briggitte Hamann is a biography of the wife and early widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried who became heir to the family legacy of leadership of the Bayreuth Festival. Even more, it is a history of the Festival and its uncomfortable relationship with “Wolf,” Adolf Hitler, Bayreuth’s patron and nemesis. Wagner’s music has always been bound up with politics, but through Winnifred’s leadership the Festival managed to survive its Nazi ties, more or less intact, into the postwar era. The book is beautifully written and elegantly translated from the German by Alan Bance. For the dedicated Wagnerian, it is an uncomfortable tale.

verdiFor composer biographies, none come more highly recommended than Verdi (1993) by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. This book is destined to become the last word on the life of the great Italian Romantic opera composer. Along with Julian Budden’s three-volume The Operas of Verdi (1991), little more is to be added to our understanding and appreciation of the works of the greatest Italian opera composer of the last half of the 19th Century.

Although scores of volumes have been written about the life and works of Mozart, there is no finer study of his life and cultural environment than Mozart: A Cultural Biography (1999) by Robert W. Gutman. His Mozart is not only a musical genius, but a cultured, generous, and humane man. Mozart lived during a time when the role of the composer was evolving from a servant of the privileged aristocracy to a public figure who was required to appeal to the general public. The world will be forever indebted to 18th Century Austria for having produced one of music’s most profound and enduring creators.

SnowmanFor the lover of opera who appreciates learning about the art form in its social and historical context, The Gilded Stage (2009) by Daniel Snowman is indispensable. He places opera in historical context, explaining how opera’s themes, libretti, and performance practice were informed by the historical events that attended its creation and performance.

LeeFor pure pleasure, few collections can equal A Season of Opera (1998) by Fr. M. Owen Lee, a collection of his lectures and commentaries from the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. His commentaries are personal and insightful, always expressed clearly and with great understanding of the works and the operatic form in general.

beranekFinally, a topic often neglected is the acoustic environment in which opera, recitals, and concerts are performed. Two books, one primarily for the nonspecialist and one directed at the specialist, aim to remedy that shortcoming. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (2012) by Victoria Newhouse is a beautiful book worthy of a coffee table that features wonderful photos of some of the world’s newest concert halls and opera houses (many of them in China). But beyond the photos, the commentary reflects a keen appreciation of the acoustic properties of these new halls, many of which, despite the advances of technology, fail to equal the sound quality of our greatest older opera and concert venues.

For the specialist, Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound (1996) by Leo Beranek is indispensable. The author is a world renowned acoustic consultant, and the book was published under the auspices of the Acoustical Society of America. For the reader who wants to know why some halls sound better than others, Beranek has some of the answers.

The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list of distinguished books about music, but it will provide a starting point for the avid music lover and listener.

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