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The Lives of the Great Composers Hardcover – April 17, 1997

4.5 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This third edition of a work that has become a standard resource since its publication in 1981 includes brief but significant changes. A new chapter brings the work up to date, covering later serialists such as Stockhausen and Carter, minimalists Philip Glass and John Adams, and Alfred Schnittke and Peter Maxwell Davies. Schonberg discusses the recent phenomenal success of recordings of Gregorian chant and the search for styles of composition that combine originality and complexity with audience appeal. Women composers Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Amy Beach, Cecile Chaminade, Ethel Smyth, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich are now included. Though each has been given only one paragraph, it is valuable to see them placed in the context of their contemporaries and their predecessors. Schonberg writes for the lay reader. His intention is to humanize the composers and the writing, always highly readable, emphasizes biographical information rather than musical analysis. Recommended for all public and academic libraries.?Kate McCaffrey, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.


A smooth, closely woven sequence of brief biographies . . . set in a surrounding continuum of depth and breadth which reflects the author's solid musical culture, his erudition, his command of socio-historic background, and his long experience in every kind and degree of performance. -- The New York Times

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 3 edition (April 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393038572
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393038576
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #147,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In this substantial and attractive tome, Schonberg describes the lives of the great composers in moderate detail, the treatment going beyond mere thumbnail sketches. He starts with Monteverdi, proceeds through Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, and ends with the post-1945 era (Cage, Carter, Stockhausen, ...) and the fragmentation and exhaustion of the great classical tradition. Clearly, for definitive treatments of individual composers one must look elsewhere -- to Maynard for Mozart and Beethoven, Newman and Gutman for Wagner, Barzun and Cairns for Berlioz, de la Grange for Mahler, and so on. But even in the short space allotted to each composer Schonberg has things of interest to say and insights to share, and he manages to plumb to a moderate depth.
I have only two reservations about this book. First, the treatment of Mahler is infuriating. Schonberg hates Mahler, and here he has a deaf spot the size of a continent. To me Mahler is among the very greatest, but to a large extent the music is the man and Schonberg can't stand him -- he finds Mahler weak, hysterical, exhibitionistic, and trite. But he is unable to do justice to his position because out of sheer spite, he makes this influential and controversial composer share a chapter with Bruckner (okay, but misguided) and Reger (!!). This is a real pity, because his arguments are fascinating and cry out for expansion and development. He does manage to quote a sentence by Bruno Walter describing Mahler's cruel insensitivity to a hapless composer during an audition, thus illustrating Mahler's deficiencies in ordinary social intercourse and basic human sympathy. But does this have any real bearing on the music?
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Format: Hardcover
When I first read "The Lives of the Great Composers" by Harold C. Schonberg, it was the second edition, published 1n 1981. That edition probably did more than any other on the subject of classical music to turn my casual interest in this musical genre into a genuine passion. So, when I recently saw a copy of the third edition in my local bookstore, I eagerly bought it. It's still a very well written book, made up of short biographies of those composers whom Schonberg considers the greatest or most influential of their times. It's an invaluable aid for readers interested in learning more about classical music and the great creative geniuses who composed it. The biographical essays are written with wit and eloquence. (I found myself really liking Joseph Haydn the man, and gaining a greater appreciation for his music as well.) The author's prose is clear, concise, easily understood, and written for (in his words) "the intelligent, music-loving lay audience." He avoids technical jargon, which is commendable.

However, to my disappointment, the third edition is not as good as its predecessor. Many of what the author considers "improvements" in the Third Edition actually detracted from its usefulness to me. For example, in the second edition, Schonberg provided short sections which explained the different musical periods - (i.e., Baroque, Classical, Romantic.) These were eliminated in the third edition, even though they're probably invaluable teaching tools for non-academic, non-musicologists like myself. I also found myself wondering about how the author selected composers for inclusion in the new edition.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Schonberg's third edition of this perennial favourite includes a few subtle changes to the first edition (which I'd read numerous times), as well as new accounts of the serialists, tonalists, minimalists (and other -ists) who have bored and bewildered audiences during the last 45 years or so. And while Schonberg doesn't say so explicitly, in many ways this book poses the ultimate riddle of our supposedly advanced culture and times - how on earth did we go from the heights of Mozart in the 18th century, and then Beethoven in the 19th, only to fall in the last century to a level of such mindless mediocrity? Reading the latter pages of this book, I was reminded of Thomas Beecham's immortal riposte to the question of whether he had ever conducted the music of Stockhausen. "No, but I've trodden in some," was his sardonic reply.
Beecham would surely have applauded the author's straightforward style. Not for Schonberg is the stuffy, academic approach to the great composers so favoured by classical poseurs, but rather a witty series of vignettes designed to make the subjects come alive. Schonberg shows the composers warts and all, and our appreciation of their strengths and flaws (both musically and characterwise) is all the keener for his lack of pretentiousness. For some readers, he will undoubtedly have his blindspots when it comes to assessing certain composers' musical worth (his section on Elgar, for example, is not as glowing as the subject deserves), but he makes no apologies for possessing strong opinions - and nor should he.
If you're looking for a politically correct account of the great composers, then look elsewhere. Meanwhile, the intelligent lay-person (rather than the musical expert) will find many rewarding hours in this witty feast of a book.
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