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Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music Hardcover – July 11, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


"Sachs leaves us thinking of Cowell as not just a great American musician but a
great American, period." --Booklist

"Gorgeously written...Sachs sets a furious narrative tempo from the get-go, each page seemingly revealing a nugget of information that history was hitherto reluctant to divulge...This man made of music deserves this first biography and a revival too; let's hope Sach's book seals the deal." --Gramophone

"A magisterial biography...Essential." --Choice

"A more complete picture of these years than we could have hoped for. Henry Cowell is a compelling read, but it also offers a remarkable contribution to studies of American musical culture in the twentieth century...Sachs has offered both a captivating biography for the general reader interested in American music and an excellently documented version of the composer's life in which even a dedicated Cowell scholar is sure to find something new and of interest." --ARSC Journal

"Offers a rich discourse not only on the life of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), but also a
commentary on the many prolific figures close to him...Joel Sachs has not only deftly navigated through an extraordinary amount of source material but also delivered a riveting
account of Cowell the musician. This book will provide a rich resource for anyone with
an interest in American music, ethnomusicology, music and politics, and music and
society in the first half of the twentieth century. Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music is
an extraordinary contribution to the field." --Notes

"An expert sleuth, Sachs is able to tease a trustworthy narrative out of conflicting reports, correcting, corroborating, and expanding upon the account of events given by both Henry and Sidney Robertson Cowell, his wife...This careful approach is fully displayed in Sachs's treatment of Cowell's arrest, jail term, pardon, and unusual marriage...Joel Sachs is to be commended for his detailed attention to the wide variety of documents and sources in the Cowell Collection at the New York Public Library and elsewhere, a patient and major undertaking of several decades...With Sachs's monumental new biography we can now examine all facets of Cowell's entire life and career. His book is a major contribution to U.S. musical scholarship and points scholars of early twentieth-century experimental music in new directions."--Journal of the Society for American Music

About the Author

Joel Sachs is Professor of Music History, Chamber Music, and New Music Performance at The Juilliard School, where he conducts the New Juilliard Ensemble.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195108957
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195108958
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.4 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #773,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Virginia Musician on July 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joel Sachs quotes Henry Cowell as feeling that as a composer, he was most concerned with the future of music. But in this beautifully-written biography, there is much to inspire and inform us about the past: information about not only the unusual life and career of this composer of over 1,000 concert works, but also about challenges faced by artists as they lived through wartime, Depression, and more positively, efforts to promote peaceful exchanges in the climate of a Cold War.

This account of Cowell's life and work provides succinct overviews of his activities as creator, performing pianist, educator, cultural representative, and promoter of his colleagues' works as well. Multitudes of details lead the reader to be in awe at the accomplishments, networking, bravery, and generosity of this gifted artist--who flourished despite a highly impoverished childhood with little schooling, and despite four years in prison (on a charge that today would probably never be prosecuted at all). One also comes away with admiration for the role of his wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell.

A riveting book to be read and treasured not only by musicians and music students, but also by anyone interested in knowing more about how serious creative artists functioned and survived in America during the earlier half of the 20th century. The notes and bibliography provide welcome information about sources for further exploration. Hopefully this excellent and long-awaited book will spur further performances and recordings of Cowell's music. Bravo!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By peter on August 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Exceptionally well written biography of one of the pioneers of contemporary music.
Should be required reading for anyone interested in the cultural history of the United States in the first half of the 20th Century.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A good biography can be as engrossing as any fiction and now I add Joel Sachs's "Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music" to my short list of those that in and of themselves make for a great "read." Henri Troyat's "Tolstoy", and Robert Massie's recent "Catherine the Great" come to mind as I write. True, much like those subjects (curiously both Russian), Cowell was both a complex and a truly noble human being and his inspiring life story quite boggles the mind. But how easily its telling could have ended up as little more than fodder for academia had it not been rendered by such expert, imaginative, caring and balanced hands as Sachs, who in an unusually natural and fluid writing style, brilliantly gives palpable life not only to the composer and the wonderful cast of colorful and often historic characters (e.g. Ives, Gershwin, Percy Grainger) who figure in his exciting life, but as well to the fast-moving period in twentieth century music to which he so exuberantly and generously gave himself. In fact, I thank you Joel Sachs for not only telling this reader how much things cost and how much Cowell was paid in 1920, '40, or '60 but for taking the trouble to translate the amounts into 2010 figures that I can truly grasp their meaning ....a rare bonus that more biographers should consider, and just one of a myriad details, that, while not intruding into its flow, add authenticity and immediacy to Cowell's already extraordinary story.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a thorough, sympathetic and detailed (over 500 pp.) biography of one of America's most important musicians and composers. It is purely biographical -- the author notes that he wanted to write two volumes, with the second covering the music, but his publisher demurred. It is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking; Cowell was an unusually generous, helpful person, who took some unusually harsh hard knocks in his life. It is unusual among composer biographies in openly discussing financial details, and part of the heart-break is learning how difficult it was, even for someone at the very peak of the profession, to earn anything like a secure living.

One of the hard knocks Cowell faced was a famous morals charge. Sachs necessarily treats that in considerable detail, objectively and without unnecessary prurience. One hopes that particular issue can now be laid to rest and all future writing about Cowell can get beyond it.

A natural result of reading this book will be to motivate you to listen to more of Cowell's music, and if the book accomplishes only that, reading it will have been time very well spent indeed. Cowell's music has largely dropped out of the regular repertoire, which is another ground for heart-break, because so much of his music is beautiful and wonderful. His later music often reminds me of Schubert, in being at once immediately enjoyable and seemingly simple, but growing more and more interesting on every repeated hearing.
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