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The Symphony: A Listener's Guide Paperback – December 10, 1998

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Anyone compiling a guide to the symphony faces two problems: impartiality versus personal enthusiasm and detailed musical analysis versus help for the newcomer. Michael Steinberg succeeds brilliantly at the task, as he has with his guide to the concerto. He has pared this vast repertory down to 118 entries (Franck and Bizet being the surprising omissions), thus keeping room for music by Schmidt, Hartmann, Harbison, Piston, and Tippett. Many of the chapters have helpful general introductions; the brief one on Mendelssohn and the longer one on Schubert are ideal. The Mahler chapter is superb, with consideration of the original version of the First Symphony and the unfinished Tenth Symphony framing a chronological discussion of the works. Steinberg includes all texts and translations of vocal movements and places even isolated works (such as Górecki's wholly atypical Third Symphony) in context. Absent is the clubby tone that infects classical music programming on public radio, and readers will not need to follow scores to understand Steinberg's points. There are some great but peripheral tidbits in the footnotes, as well as frequently trenchant quotations from various composers' letters. Best of all, Steinberg has clear concerns and enthusiasms: orchestral seating plans for the violins and the reasons that repeats in first movements are so often disregarded become refrains. The descriptions of William Schuman's Sixth Symphony and Bohuslav Martinu's Fantaisies Symphoniques may send readers rushing to listen, and the overly familiar Beethoven Eroica and Schubert "Unfinished" are once again fantastical, odd, and fresh in these pages. In Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, we read, "the oboe is the sweetest and most seductive of tour guides." Steinberg might well have been describing himself. --William R. Braun

From Library Journal

Critic, lecturer, and program annotator Steinberg describes 36 composers and, movement by movement, 118 symphonies, including all the standard repertory regularly programmed by North American orchestras as well as a few by less well known composers such as Gorecki, Harbison, Martinu, and Sessions. The writing varies from formal and factual to chatty, with candid asides and stories relevant to the composer, the composition, or an important performance. The information is on the level of good program notes (the origin of most of it), although reader familiarity with some basic musical technical terms is assumed. A well-written, informative introduction to the repertory for most music collections.?Timothy J. McGee, Univ. of Toronto
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 10, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195126653
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195126655
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1.9 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #426,855 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Carroll on July 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
The other reviewers here have given you the perspective of die-hard classical music fans. I am not really expert enough to comment on ommisions and such. But I would like to present another possible reason to purchase this book. Classical music can seem kind of inscrutable to the outsider, but this book sort of walks the reader (and listener) through each piece. I've used it to pick what piece to track down next. This book will enrich the listening experience and the listening skills of the musically minded amateur i think. It did for me.
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Format: Hardcover
A wonderful book. Michael Steinberg is probably the premier writer of program notes for symphony orchestra concerts in the English-speaking world, and his two books, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995, 678 pages), and its companion volume The Concerto: A Listener's Guide (Oxford UP, 1998, 506 pages), are probably the two best collections of program notes on the symphony and the concerto that have ever been published in English. Steinberg formerly wrote the program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently writes them for the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He was music critic of the Boston Globe for twelve years. These two books come with glowing recommendations from such distinguished musical figures as Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Andre Previn, Herbert Blomstedt, Roger Norrington, and John Adams. Speaking as one who has attended countless symphony orchestra concerts on the East Coast, West Coast, and in Dallas for more than forty years, and has always read the program notes, I can say that I've never read any as good as these. They are readable, learned, witty, accessible, and delightful, full of important biographical and historical information, and of course musical description, evaluation, and analysis that is genuinely illuminating and enlightening, without being so technical you need to be a musicologist or seated at a piano to understand it. (Inevitably, there are some musical examples, but these are relatively few, usually fairly simple, and you don't have to understand them to grasp the meaning of the text.) I would recommend these two books strongly to any lover of classical music, anyone who attends symphony orchestra concerts.Read more ›
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The other reviews have addressed the content in some detail. Readers are warned that the Kindle edition of the book is of poor quality. Text appears to have been scanned without proper conversion. Unlike other Kindle books legibility is poor and text scalability is limited. This is really unacceptable and should be an embarrassment to the publisher.
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Format: Paperback
I greatly enjoyed this book: Steinberg's style is lively and full of wit, but authoritative nonetheless, which is rare. As a reference book, this is an invaluable "tool" for the music lover and the scholar alike. As a fan of British and American music I found the Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Schuman chapters really praiseworthy. So, why not 5 stars? I think that, if you write such a kind of book (a "guide"), you should try to find a balance between the objective and the subjective, Steinberg tends decidedly to the subjective, which is good when he gives us so many insights about composers or conductors he met, much less so when this affects the selection criteria. For example, talking about American music, he spends pages talking about the Steinberg-dedicated Harbison Second (I bought the CD after I read the book and I found it very empty and rambling) and just a few (denigratory) lines about the Copland Third, which is a a classic , like it or not. And what about the almost total omission of the French symphonies? You won't find Franck and Bizet, as Amazon points, but also Saint-Saens is missing , and I don't think a book about symphonies can be without his Third. All in all, an indispensable issue, but with some flaws.
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Format: Paperback
I couldn't help but notice the seemingly endless complaints about works that aren't included in this book. Well, let's turn to the first page of Michael Steinberg's introduction, where he states that "Most of these essays began life as program notes for symphony concerts." In other words, he wrote about what the Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, which he worked for, were actually playing in the 1970s and '80s. If the Franck Symphony and the Copland Third, let alone any of C.P.E. Bach's twenty or so symphonies, aren't among the "electives" in this book, blame it on the orchestras' music directors, or perhaps the purchasers of season tickets.

Steinberg has the rare talent of writing about music in prose as precise and informed as it is imaginative and informal. He opens our ears to music that so often passes as background noise that we've nearly forgotten how to listen to it. Here, for example, is a stunning passage about the slow movement of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 in B flat:

"For the Adagio, Haydn borrows a movement from the Piano Trio in F-sharp minor he had written earlier that year...The actual sound of the movement is the most remarkable that Haydn ever imagined. Trumpets and drums are muted, a solo cello injects its gently penetrating timbre into the middle of the texture, and just before the end, the two trumpets in their lowest register contribute a sound so extraordinary (literally) that it still tends to frighten conductors, many of whom remove it."

A lifetime's worth of listening, learning, and writing have been distilled into this book, and gems of observation are on nearly every page. Try Steinberg on the question of Nowak vs.
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