What books have given you great insight into great music?
May 22, 2006 12:49 PM   Subscribe

What are the best books offering analysis of Beethoven's symphonies? Other classical works?

I am looking for books that essentially walk you through symphonic works and give description and analysis as you go. I've got a beginner-level understanding of music theory, so the more layperson-friendly the better.

I've got all of Robert Greenberg's Teaching Company courses, and I'm basically looking for more of the same, in book form. Here is more detail on one of his courses to give you a better idea of what I'm looking for. I'm most interested in in-depth studies of works, but I also enjoy books with a broader focus, like some of those I've listed below.

For Beethoven, I've got:
Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, by George Grove
The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, by Antony Hopkins

For general symphonic music, I've got:
The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music
The Essential Canon of Classical Music, by David Dubal
Guide to Symphonic Music, by Edward Downes
The Lives of the Great Composers, by Harold Schoenberg

What other books have given you great insight into great music?
posted by agropyron to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Lewis Lockwood's biography of Beethoven devotes space to analyses of the symphonies, especially the Ninth.

David Hurwitz, editor of Classicstoday, has authored a series of books:

Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos : An Owner's Manual
Exploring Haydn : A Listener's Guide to Music's Boldest Innovator
Getting the Most out of Mozart : The Instrumental Works
Sibelius Orchestral Works - An Owner's Manual
Dvorak : Romantic Music's Most Versatile Genius
The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner's Manual

Although, I would recommend you start with his earlier book: Beethoven or Bust: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Listening to Great Music. It starts with an exposition of typical forms encountered in classical music, illustrated using famous works (like Eroica). After the expository content, he provides 88 recommended "listening groups", each consisting of 4 works, chosen with an aim of balance and contrast.
posted by Gyan at 1:11 PM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: The Classical Style by Charles Rosen is practially required reading.
posted by kdern at 2:21 PM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: I highly recommend Charles Rosen's The Classical Style; the original edition (which I have) focused on Haydn and Mozart and finished up with some early Beethoven, but I see the new edition adds considerably more Beethoven material (and a CD of Rosen playing two Beethoven piano sonatas). It presupposes a basic grasp of harmony (tonic and dominant, that kind of thing), and it helps if you can read music at least a little, but it's far and away the best technical discussion of the music of that period that I've read (accessible to the average reader, which I am when it comes to music).
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on May 22, 2006

Bah! Concise kdern wins the day.
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: Rosen's Sonata Forms is also very good and traces the development of form a bit further back than The Classical Style. And I like Hutchings' Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Bet you can find it cheaper than that, though. Sheesh.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:54 PM on May 22, 2006

This is a great question. As a small addendum, if anyone reading has recommendations for similar works written at a more advanced technical level, I'd appreciate those as well.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:01 PM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: I have pored over Kerman's The Beethoven Quartets and still learn from it.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:04 PM on May 22, 2006

All volumes of Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis, and his Companion to The Art of Fugue.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:15 PM on May 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My Amazon wish list and shopping cart are both overflowing. A lot of these look great. Keep the suggestions coming.

Bet you can find it cheaper than that, though. Sheesh.
Heh. They wanted $99 for the Hopkins book. I found it for $14 on Abebooks.com.

The Kerman book looks great. Although some of the reviewers seem to have had a difficult time with it, I'm not afraid. Has anyone tried The Beethoven Quartet Companion?
posted by agropyron at 4:28 PM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: Has anyone tried The Beethoven Quartet Companion?

Yes, I recommend it. The author of the main analyses in that book, Michael Steinberg, has also written very readable books on The Symphony and The Concerto, which discuss all of Beethoven's symphonies and concertos as well as many other works. He is generally fairly layperson-friendly (as you requested), though he does use phrases like "G major" and "mixolydian mode." All of those books include a lot of interesting background material about how the works were composed.

Cambridge Music Handbooks is an excellent series, with each book devoted to one landmark piece of music.

Joseph Kerman's Concerto Conversations is good if you're interested in something that focuses more on the concerto itself than on particular concerti.

Donald Francis Tovey was a legendary musicologist who probably inspired all of the more recent authors who've been mentioned. His book on Beethoven is full of insights.

Any of the Rosen books that people have recommended above will require a lot of patience—he assumes more knowledge of theory than you have. (But ludwig_van would love them.) On top of that, he's a less skilled writer than, say, Steinberg, Kerman, or Tovey.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:44 PM on May 22, 2006

The Penguin B. Quartet Companion is much more chatty, talking more about circumstances and biography than technical details of the construction of the quartets. The Marliave book on the quartets is also more philosophical, talking about the emotions in the works and the circumstances of their composition.

Kerman is not at all inaccessible, by the way, and also not exclusively technical.

By the way, Dover being what it is, there's no reason not to have the complete scores of the quartets and symphonies in your library if you don't already. It's more fun to ponder someone else's analysis when you have the full text to do your own.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:48 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: He is generally fairly layperson-friendly (as you requested), though he does use phrases like "G major" and "mixolydian mode."

For those who may be holding back recommendations because they use phrases like "mixolydian mode", I may have overstated my ignorance of music theory. I do know the basics, and can follow discussions of harmonic progressions and so on.
posted by agropyron at 5:22 PM on May 22, 2006

You might like this site I posted on the blue, too.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:24 PM on May 22, 2006

May I also suggest Tia DeNora's Beethoven and the Construction of Genius and Susan McClary's Feminine Endings?
posted by billtron at 4:51 AM on May 25, 2006

Response by poster: I noticed no one recommended any books on Brahms. Are there any good ones you know of?
posted by agropyron at 8:04 AM on May 27, 2006

Best answer: Wow, am I waaay late to this party, thought I'd add my two cents anyway, for the sake of posterity.

I actually conduct Beethoven's symphonies on a fairly regular basis (performances of 1 and 8 in the past month), and many of the books listed above, while really, really good, are no substitute for direct experience (as wolfdog mentions). If you want to learn a whole lot about this particular body of work--and shouldn't everyone??--read the recommendations above, get some basic analysis chops and dive in yourself.

The basics of form and style are suprisingly easy to grasp, so I encourage you to explore this route, as you seem truly curious about these great works. Also, as I think about it, you don't really need much in the way of theory chops to get a fairly detailed understanding of a Beethoven symphony (beyond being able to identify key centers and the occassional peculiar harmony). What you need to discover most is form--the architecture of any large-scale musical work is the first, most important element to discern and understand; it's the context into which everything else will fit.

Having said that, I recommend a few resources in addition to the ones listed here:

Norman Del Mar's Conducting Beethoven. From the description at Amazon:
This is an essential guide for students of the nine Beethoven symphonies and a starting-point for young conductors. Drawing on his lifelong experience of conducting these works, Del Mar offers an analysis of the music's structure, pointing out key events in the score and offering advice on how to achieve the desired effect. He also compares variant readings in the different editions and further traces the development of Beethoven's style and that of the symphony over the 24 years of their composition.
I also can't believe no one has yet to recommend A Critical Study of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies, by Hector Berlioz. (Yes, THAT Berlioz) It's not quite so insightful, in my opinion, as some of the later tomes, but is beautifully poectical and an excellent, more contemporary to the works, take on this music--by another great composer, no less.

Also, I highly recommend these editions for scores of the symphonies. They are the result of over a decade of scholarship and have numerous error corrections and are beautiful, comprehensive new engravings. The critical editions you can purchase to accompany each symphony are also quite interesting. (Much better to invest in these than the crappy Dover versions--those are copies of copies of copies of copies of engravings from 1870 or so.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:48 PM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]

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