I love classical music. For almost as long as I can remember, the music of the great masters – from Bach to Brahms, from Vivaldi to Stravinsky – has been a wonderful part of my life.
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg (1915-2003) is an invaluable aid for all readers interested in learning more about classical music and the great creative geniuses who composed it. Schonberg was the senior music critic for the New York Times from 1950 to 1980. In 1971 he became the first person in the field of music to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. In his introduction to The Lives of the Great Composers, Schonberg says he wrote the book for “the… music-loving lay audience.”
Schonberg’s brilliantly written book is comprised of short, lively, and anecdotal biographies of those composers he considers the greatest or most influential of their times. From Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) to Philip Glass (b. 1937), The Lives of the Great Composers provides a fascinating, well written, and incisive look into the lives of those men (and, until recently, only a very few women) who composed the world’s greatest music.
Schonberg provides the most detailed and expansive biographical sketches to those composers universally recognized as the “greatest of the great” – among them, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Fréderic Chopin, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But Schonberg does not neglect the lesser known classical composers; he includes articles on a wide variety of “minor” composers including: Berlioz, Dvořák Verdi, Wagner, Debussy, Franck, Elgar, and Vaughn Williams. Part of each biographical sketch is an in-depth analysis of each composer’s body of work as a whole.
All of Schonberg’s biographical essays are written with enthusiasm, wit, eloquence, and candor; the author’s prose is clear, concise, easily understood, and avoids most of the technical jargon and high-flown “artsy” language that prevails in many books on classical music. Both Schonberg’s understanding of history and his musical criticism appear to be unfailingly accurate.
The Lives of the Great Composers was first published in 1970. Two successive revisions of this durable and popular book have appeared since then: the Second Edition in 1981 and the Third Edition in 1997. I currently own a copy of both the First and Third Editions of The Lives of the Great Composers. The first time I read this book, I read my local library’s copy of the Second Edition. It rekindled my casual interest in this musical genre and inflamed it into a genuine lifelong passion.
Of the three editions of The Lives of the Great Composers, the First and Second Editions are clearly the best; the Third Edition doesn’t quite live up to the standard of excellence set by its predecessors. A few of what the author considers “improvements” in the Third Edition actually make the book slightly less useful to me than the previous editions. For example, in the earlier editions, Schonberg provided short sections which explained the different musical periods – for example, the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. These sections are missing in the Third Edition, even though I (a non-academic, non-musicologist) find them to be invaluable teaching tools. I also have a complaint about the inclusion in the Third Edition of Claudio Monteverdi, whose music has only recently re-entered the performing repertory, and the exclusion of Antonio Vivaldi, much of whose music (especially his universally beloved The Four Seasons) has remained a staple of the performing repertory for over two centuries.
Having said all this, The Lives of the Great Composers is excellent! It’s highly entertaining, fast paced, witty, anecdotal, and authoritative. Lovers of classical music, and those who know nothing about this music genre, will both derive great enjoyment from this book.
Read and enjoy!