I love books. If it weren’t for music I’d love books more than anything in the world. I have too many of them, and having moved twice in the past two years, I can say for sure that they comprise the bulk of my possessions. So why not talk about some of my favorite music books? I’ll just sit here in my living room and glance at the shelves and briefly describe the ones that catch my eye.
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise and Listen to This
Ross mirrors my background in that he grew up listening to classical music and only moved into other genres in adulthood. In The Rest is Noise he writes on 20th century music with passion, like he really listens to this stuff to put his heart, mind, and soul back together. There is not a hint of snobbery in his approach. Maybe this is because, while getting into heady avant-garde music, he does not eschew more popular composers like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, or because he relates the music to what was going on in history at the time. Whatever it is, Ross brings new enthusiasm to many musical styles that have been weighed down by the popular perception that they’re dry or academic or even hostile to the audience. If anything could soften a cantankerous Romanticist’s attitude towards modern music, this book might be it.
Listen to This was a major stepping stone for me. Ross interviews a number of contemporary artists such as Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who confesses an admiration for Olivier Messiaen–an influence that can be heard in their album Kid-A. In fact much of this book encouraged me to bridge or even transcend genres in my own work. Unfortunately a quick glance at the table of contents reveals that I don’t remember a whole lot about its specific contents, but I’ll never forget the change of mind it created in me. Among other things, I learned a new respect for pop artists and how substantive their music can be. I might have to revisit this one soon.
H.C. Robbins-Landon: 1791: Mozart’s Last Year
Everything you know from the movie Amadeus is wrong, such as the supposed rivalry between the protagonist and Antonio Salieri. Robbins-Landon undoes a lot of the myth-making surrounding Mozart’s death, which might make for less dramatic movies but also for more beautiful story lines, such as the fact that shortly after Mozart’s death, Salieri used many of his Masses for the various coronation services throughout the Hapsburg Empire at the accession of Emperor Franz Joseph II. Sounds to me like he was anything but a rival.
Another mind-blowing fact from this book: Shortly before Mozart got sick he was appointed to become the next Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna whenever his would-be predecessor, Leopold Hoffman, should die. This would have allowed him to make a living from something other than commissions, which then would have given him more freedom in his compositional style. Like the public of today, the aristocracy of Mozart’s time knew what they liked, and liked what they knew, so Mozart was somewhat unfulfilled in writing their ditties. He lamented in a letter to his wife Constanza (is there a more beautiful name than that?) shortly before he died that now that he finally was going to have the freedom to compose as he wished, he had to die. One of the greatest composers of Western history looked down on his own music.
Robert Sherlaw-Johnson: Messiaen
A lot of information about Messiaen focuses on biographical details, which surprises me because I don’t think his life was particularly interesting, save for a few episodes, like writing the Quartet for the End of Time in a prisoner of war camp. He was a deep thinker about music but not much of a reader. He owned two books: the Bible, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. When it comes to his music, writers are often content to speak of it in almost mystical fashion, making a few mentions of the modes of limited transposition and leaving it at that. Maybe this makes the subject matter seem more profound to some people.
But Johnson doesn’t fall for it. He pulls back the veil in the temple, so to speak, and discusses Messiaen’s actual compositional approach. The direct path turns out to be far more fascinating than the mystical one.
Besides components such as his system of scales and his borrowing of Eastern rhythms, Messiaen was pretty much a finger composer–deciding on chords on a case-by-case basis by virtue of their timbre. There was no systematic theory of harmony that went along with his modes, but don’t let this “finger composing” seem too easy. It’s actually quite difficult to compose the way Messiaen did and still have the music make sense. Thoughtless randomness will not work, not even in supposedly-dissonant music.
Christopher Hogwood: Handel
I’m not much of a Handel fan. I don’t know if my contrarian spirit dislikes his popularity, or if I’m just more of a Bach guy–or if I’ve played too many weddings. This could be viewed a number of different ways, all of which run the risk of coming off as polemical. But I will plead that I am in good company–Brahms. He subscribed to periodicals featuring music from the Baroque era, and when something new by Bach would come in, he set aside whatever else he was looking at, Handel included, and turned to “Old Bach,” as he called him.
After reading Hogwood’s biography, though, I found new respect for Handel. His work ethic was like Mozart’s without the mania. His sense of humor was hilarious: “Welcome back!” he once said to a tenor whose errant voice wandered through several keys before arriving in the correct one. He had more business sense than most musicians then or now. There’s a lot to admire about Handel, even before you get to those gorgeous aria melodies in The Messiah that are too often beaten to death by conductors (or soloists?) who don’t know how to dance.
Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea
Reading Schoenberg, like reading Nietzsche, usually feels like getting an electrical shock. He is blunt, opinionated, and sometimes obnoxious. A little goes a long way before exhaustion sets in. But as with Nietzsche, Schoenberg is worth the effort, and there’s never any reason to wonder what he’s really thinking.
Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on music, his own and that of others. Two of my favorite take-aways:
–Brahms the Progressive. Schoenberg points out the asymmetry in Brahms’s work, particularly in phrasing. He argues that there are tendencies in Brahms that point to the future, in spite of his interest in early music and his desire to emulate the best contrapuntists in the Western canon. This casts serious doubt on any rigid conception of Brahms as a Romanticist or a neo-classicist, two mostly-mistaken categorizations I’ve heard repeatedly. No good music, of course, could simply live in the past, which is why everyone knows Brahms but almost no one knows the Caecilians.
–Throughout the book, Schoenberg rails against listeners who focus on what he calls the surface-level impressions of music. They get lost in snapshots that sound harsh, rather than following closely how the themes work. They hear the “dissonance” but not how it came to be. Most people just want music that sounds nice and goes “straight to the feet.” I guess not much has changed in the past half-century.
It is important to note that Schoenberg wrote not of composing dissonant music but rather of emancipating the dissonance. In his mind, there was no dissonance, just themes worked out to their logical conclusions, regardless of any resulting harmony. Interestingly, this is similar to the approach used in Medieval and early Renaissance music, where more attention was paid to each individual line and not the “chord,” per se.
There’s a whole pile of books I could write about, but this is a good start. I can’t claim to remember everything about them, or even to get all the facts right–and feel free to correct me. If, however, this short list contributes a little bit of understanding, or lights a small fire of inspiration for someone, that’s good enough for me.