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Music Book Reviews- The Great Composers

With a busy term over and a new year already well started I had to re-think the writing time I allocated in line with other music projects I am working on. So I decided to review Music books as I read them. This way, my reading discoveries can be shared with those with similar interests and I don’t need to quit writing at the same time! My first book review listed here is of ‘The Great Composers’ – The Lives and Music of 50 Great Composers by Jeremy Nicholas, first published in 2007 by Quercus, UK.

+ Pros

  • I liked the author’s introduction whereby he admits his real struggle in narrowing down ‘Great Composers’ to 50! The list included him having to omit his own favourites too in a carefully selected process.
  • As a visual learner, the use of pictures of composer’s portraits and music sample excerpts broke up the text, thanks to Victoria Huxley’s collaboration. I felt better connected to the composers and can recall things categorized in association with the composers ‘faces!’ Useful I suppose if I am ever quizzed on matching composers’ portraits to names!  
  • If you are interested in the Western World’s Composers lives and Music History from Renaissance until 20th Century then I would recommend this book.
  • A real highlight for me was the memo style list of recommended works by each composer. Chart hits from the day, if you like! This is one man’s opinion however, so condensed to a short section but a handy one for the reader nonetheless. Spotify additions to here I come…
  • In an era where so many questions are ‘Googled,’ Nicholas has cut to the chase for you in avoiding Wikipedia re-directed sources, he has nicely summarised biographical content.
  • I think this would make a really pleasant gift book for people interested in Classical Composers lives.
  • A great starting point to give historical context to music and its development within the Classical realm.
  • I appreciated some quirky paragraphs that entertained me about the composers which the author admits are simply ‘rumours’ but are memorable nonetheless.
  • As a Music Teacher, I can see passages from this book being suitable to use with older Secondary School pupils for reading/revision sessions/quizzes or research projects.

– Cons

  • Honestly, the book does not delve into as much content for each composer as I had expected based on its weight and thickness (hardback and slightly smaller than A4). Only 2 pages of reading are required for some composers. (Ideal perhaps for musicians wanting a light bedtime read!)
  • Not every composer has equal distribution of detail either. Less is written about Palestrina, for example, than Mozart (as maybe some readers would expect).
  • Due to its size and attractive sleeve, had the potential to become one of those books that is a ‘nice coffee table book’ which would be a shame for it to be admired in this regard alone!
  • If you are not familiar with musical terms such as ‘maestro di capella, tremolando, libretto, oratorio etc. then you may think Nicholas speaks a foreign language. It is not the easiest, to get a balance between acknowledging musicians’ Italian vocabulary and mixing such words into the book as generously as a pizza restaurant’s menu. From this regard, a glossary should really have been included to expand the reading audience. Alternatively, a footnotes section could have been included to reference the meaning of the Italian musical terms and would widen the reading audience. If unfamiliar with these, you will need to refer to a Music Dictionary.

Takeaway

To me, it felt like a refreshers course since my Music History school and College studies, which I did enjoy. You would need to have a sound understanding of Italian musical terms or be ready to look them up in a Music Dictionary for unfamiliar terms as they are not explained. A Level Music students (17-18yr old) reading level and upwards would be an appropriate level. For music graduates, information on most commonly known composers within the list should already be familiar. I did enjoy discovering new information on composers I was less familiar with, for example, Bedrich Smetana and Maurice Ravel.

One reply to “Music Book Reviews- The Great Composers

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