Summer Reading: Music Books

birds music engraving

Ever since I got back from college, where I didn’t have nearly enough time to read for pleasure, I’ve been devouring every book in sight. This was fueled by several trips I have made to used bookstores, which are currently my favorite place in the world. I’d highly recommend them if you don’t frequent them already! They always have unusual, often out-of-print, and extremely cheap finds. It’s like searching for buried treasure, and you find something each and every time.

I’ve discovered that used bookstores have a wealth of books on Classical Music. A while back I posted about some books about Classical Music I thought you would enjoy. Now, I’ve read enough books since coming back home to make another blog post about them.

So here they are!

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (by Eric Siblin)

I’m in love with this book, for three main reasons: I love Bach and his cello suites, I love the way it’s structured (each chapter is named after a movement of the suites, with beautiful quotes from great cellists at the beginning of each chapter), and I love the eloquent way it’s written (without being heavy-handed.) It’s a very easy read, regardless if you’re an experienced musician or just a curious reader who doesn’t know much about Bach or his works. The book switches in between each chapter from Bach’s biography to the biography of legendary cellist Pablo Casals, who was the first to truly champion the long-forgotten Cello Suites by the composer. In doing so, the book discusses music, the appreciation of music, life as a composer and as a musician, the politics and history of the era, the intimate lives of two geniuses, and how great works of art have always been and will be timeless, infinitely intriguing, and mysterious. A great, relatively quick read, written in a fascinating and engaging way. Highly recommended!

Mozart: A Cultural Biography (by Robert W. Gutman)

A word of warning: this book is massive. It’s 865 pages and looks like an elegant phonebook. But boy, is it worth it. It’s an intricately detailed, well crafted, and absolutely riveting read on the life of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. At the end of the book, you feel as if you’ve gone on a long odyssey with the composer as a guide, and now know him as intimately as anyone who actually knew him when he was alive. The book doesn’t merely discuss his life, but also his times – the history, political landscape, cultural norms, and artistic innovations of his time. You not only get to know the man, but his world. If you love Mozart, or love 18th century European history, or are just looking for an intense and extremely informative read, this book is for you. It took me a while to finish it, but it was definitely worth it.

The Poetics of Music (by Igor Stravinsky)

This is a small and unassuming book, elegantly structured, by one of the most notorious and striking giants of Russian music. In measured, elegant prose, Stravinsky analyzes music as an art form, music on the role of the composer, the critic, the musician, and the audience member. It serves as an intimate look not only into his compositional process, but into the way he saw the artistic world and the music of his age (and ages past.) It’s a quick read, thought-provoking, and well written.

A Passionate Journey: A Memoir (by Robert Mann)

Robert Mann was one of the giants of chamber music (music in general, really) in the 20th century. But people don’t talk about him as much as they do about more mainstream classical artists. As a founding member of the famed Juilliard Quartet, he went on to become an esteemed teacher and extremely respected figure in the world of music. He recently passed away, less than a year ago, but he did write an auto-biography before he died. His writing style is simple and conversational, but on each page lies a wealth of experience, terrific anecdotes, and a burning passion for music as a sophisticated yet universal, emotionally-charged art. This book really makes you look at music in a new way, through the eyes of someone who devoted his life and work to it. For anyone who likes Classical Music or chamber music, this is a fun yet thought-provoking must-read.

Joseph Haydn: Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and Genius (edited by Vernon Gotwals, original works in German by G. A. Riesinger and A. C. Dier)

This book is a translated/edited edition of two important Haydn biographies, both written by men who knew him personally in Vienna. While the writing style in itself of either isn’t terribly imaginative or eloquent, the depiction they paint of the composer is affectionate, detailed, and charming. While they based all of their information on things Haydn told them as an elderly man, which means some of it may be exaggerated or remembered mistakenly, it’s still an important and significant look into the life of a great composer who wielded enormous influence on all composers who came after him. The respect that genuine love that creeps in between the lines is truly touching, and gives you a very human characterization of the composer. He truly was “Papa” Haydn to these writers, and by the time you finish the book he’ll feel like a father figure to you too. Definitely highly recommended to anyone who likes Haydn, or biographies written by people who were intimately acquainted with the person they’re writing about.

And that’s all I’ve gotten a chance to read, non-fiction wise, since I got back from college! The stack of books I have yet to read (I’m looking at you, Isaac Stern memoir, and you, out-of-print Mendelssohn biography…) is still growing, however, and there’ll probably be another blog post about it coming soon!

Are there any music books you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments!

PS: I haven’t only been reading music books. Partly because I absolutely adore F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lovely writing with a burning passion, and partly because I was just in Key West and visited Hemingway’s house and thus contracted a severe case of Hemingway-obsession, I’ve been devouring a lot of books by them. (I read The Sun Also Rises in two days. Did I ignore all other important tasks? Yes. Am I now in love with that book? Yessss.) So I’m thinking of doing a post on books by them! Would you like to read it? Let me know in the comments!

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7 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Music Books

  1. I am going to get the Stravinsky. I discovered him in university while taking a music course and it was one of those moments when I thought my life would never be the same. I also love the stories about the first performance of Rite of Spring. I think Nijinsky choreographed it and the uproar from the audience was so loud he was in the wings shouting the count to the dancers. That must have been quite a night!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s amazing! Yes, Stravinsky is quite the musical giant. I’m so glad you had one of those moments where you feel music changing your life – I live for those moments and each of them reminds me of why I adore music so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there! These books look really interesting—especially the one on Stravinsky! If you’re into 18th century music though there’s Gjerdingen’s book “Music in the Galant Style” which goes through patterns 18th century listeners might have actually heard at the time and how THEY would have experienced the music. Also Edward Cone’s “The Composer’s Voice” talks about classical music as being enacted by a fictional composer “agent” which I found pretty cool. Anyways, thanks for sharing your reading list! Cool stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Aubrey! Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Those are awesome recommendations! I’ll try and find those books right away. Yes, I do love 18th century music, so that book sounds wonderful. Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m currently making my way through Rubinstein’s “My Young Years.” It’s a a textbook-sized book, but his style is easygoing. I’ve really enjoyed the bit I’ve read of it so far, so I recommend that if you can get your hands on a copy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Amy! Thanks for stopping by. That book is actually sitting on my bookshelf right now! I’ve been meaning to get to it – Rubinstein is one of my favorite pianists. My former teacher actually studied with him in her teens and never ceases to say what a great artist he was. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

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