Friday, June 02, 2006

“The Vintage Guide to Classical Music” by Jan Swafford – Striking a Responsive Chord

Music has been an important part of my life from the beginning. Somewhere in a dust-covered box lies a 45-RPM vinyl record of me as a 2 year-old belting out “Jesus Loves Me” at a church fair in Newburyport, Massachusetts! Beginning in the third grade, I studied violin and piano, and added organ in my junior high years. Singing has continued to be part of my life – solo work, choruses, church choirs and on stage – since my auspicious beginnings as a tuneful toddler! I took some basic courses in music appreciation as part of my liberal arts undergraduate education.

So, my knowledge of classical music is probably deeper than that of most individuals who are not professional musicians. Consequently, I was amazed and delighted with how much new information I learned as I worked my way through Jan Swafford’s “The Vintage Guide to Classical Music: An Indispensable Guide for Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music.” Mr. Swafford is an award-winning composer and musicologist who currently lectures in English as a faculty member at Tufts University here in the Boston area.

Swafford sets the tone for the book in the opening paragraph of his introduction:

"Enduring works of music not only refelct their composers and their times, but have the capacity to reflect many peoples and many times. While every kind of music is intended to be heard, some is meant to be reheard and re-created in new performances, to grow in meaning, to become part of our lives and our culture, to represent the best we've done. In societies both Western and Eastern, these qualities define a body of music that is called 'classical.'"

This very helpful tome is actually comprised of several books in one. At one level it is a chronological history of classical music. At another level, it is a compendium of mini-biographies of close to one hundred significant composers. Each biography ends with suggestions regarding which compositions by this composer would serve as the best introduction to his work. The book also contains a comprehensive glossary of musical terms, and offers a practical guide to building a classical music library. This volume is a portable treasure chest of fascinating and useful information for any lover of music – or for anyone who wants to learn more about, and better appreciate, good music. It has already made a difference in the way that I listen to music – my own CD’s and WCRB, Boston’s local classical FM station (102.5 on your FM dial!)

Before reading this book, I had little exposure to, or appreciation of, American composer Charles Ives. Swafford has managed the whet my appetite for Ives’ music, and I plan to add some of Ives' compositions to my personal collection. I also found fascinating the relationships and interconnections among many of the 19th century European composers. For example, the complex relationships among Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Schumann’s wife, Clara, are the stuff of soap opera.

For Swafford, this book was clearly a labor of love. He does a masterful job of harmonizing his passion for music with his erudition and broad knowledge of the full spectrum of classical music - from the Renaissance up to recent times.

I can’t think of a single music lover I know who would not find something of value and delight in this book.



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