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A preeminent composer, music scholar, and biographer presents an engaging and accessible introduction to classical music For many of us, classical music is something serious -- something we study in school, something played by cultivated musicians at fancy gatherings. In Language of the Spirit, renowned music scholar Jan Swafford argues that we have it all wrong: classical A preeminent composer, music scholar, and biographer presents an engaging and accessible introduction to classical music For many of us, classical music is something serious -- something we study in school, something played by cultivated musicians at fancy gatherings. In Language of the Spirit, renowned music scholar Jan Swafford argues that we have it all wrong: classical music has something for everyone and is accessible to all. Ranging from Gregorian chant to Handel's Messiah, from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to the postmodern work of Philip Glass, Swafford is an affable and expert guide to the genre. He traces the history of Western music, introduces readers to the most important composers and compositions, and explains the underlying structure and logic of their music. Language of the Spirit is essential reading for anyone who has ever wished to know more about this sublime art.


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A preeminent composer, music scholar, and biographer presents an engaging and accessible introduction to classical music For many of us, classical music is something serious -- something we study in school, something played by cultivated musicians at fancy gatherings. In Language of the Spirit, renowned music scholar Jan Swafford argues that we have it all wrong: classical A preeminent composer, music scholar, and biographer presents an engaging and accessible introduction to classical music For many of us, classical music is something serious -- something we study in school, something played by cultivated musicians at fancy gatherings. In Language of the Spirit, renowned music scholar Jan Swafford argues that we have it all wrong: classical music has something for everyone and is accessible to all. Ranging from Gregorian chant to Handel's Messiah, from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to the postmodern work of Philip Glass, Swafford is an affable and expert guide to the genre. He traces the history of Western music, introduces readers to the most important composers and compositions, and explains the underlying structure and logic of their music. Language of the Spirit is essential reading for anyone who has ever wished to know more about this sublime art.

30 review for Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music

  1. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    Such a treat. Taking the time to listen to all the music he suggests and making a playlist turned this into a mini independent study. His dry sense of humor and little anecdotes bring his subjects and time periods to light quickly and without pretension. I had so much fun, learned so much, and was so moved.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    This book is exactly what I wanted it to be. A few weeks ago I read The Noise of Time, a novel about Dimitri Shostakovich, by Julian Barnes. I loved it, and it inspired me to look up some of Shostakovich’s music. I’d heard his work before, but this time as I listened to his Cello Concerto No. 1 I was left in complete awe by what I was hearing and I realized that I needed to listen to a lot more classical music. In fact, in the past month I have listened to nothing else. Book leads on to book, and This book is exactly what I wanted it to be. A few weeks ago I read The Noise of Time, a novel about Dimitri Shostakovich, by Julian Barnes. I loved it, and it inspired me to look up some of Shostakovich’s music. I’d heard his work before, but this time as I listened to his Cello Concerto No. 1 I was left in complete awe by what I was hearing and I realized that I needed to listen to a lot more classical music. In fact, in the past month I have listened to nothing else. Book leads on to book, and The Noise of Time led me to Language of the Spirit. I went looking for a book to open up classical music for me, and that’s exactly what Language of the Spirit does. Jan Swafford is a good writer who lays down the basics of classical music with perfect clarity, and the pieces he recommends in each chapter are all fantastic. I’ve read this book at the pace of a couple chapters a day, queuing up Swafford’s recommendations on my music streaming app as I read, then listening to the music the next day. Reading the book this way has been a delightful experience.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mert Topcu

    I took more than a year to read this book: Chapter by chapter, listening to the composer's suggested listening in each chapter. I loved it. Had fun and learned a lot about classical music. And here's the Spotify playlist I've created to capture almost all the suggested pieces: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0LI... I took more than a year to read this book: Chapter by chapter, listening to the composer's suggested listening in each chapter. I loved it. Had fun and learned a lot about classical music. And here's the Spotify playlist I've created to capture almost all the suggested pieces: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0LI...

  4. 5 out of 5

    IWB

    I found this book to be charming, with the author’s love for classical music and the composers discussed, shining out from each page. His passion for the subject is infectious, and I’m no casual classical listener. Because this book is an introduction to classical music, it is not a full-fledged history of western classical music. It’s not an academic account of the periods (e.g., medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century, contemporary), the movements (minimalism, for ins I found this book to be charming, with the author’s love for classical music and the composers discussed, shining out from each page. His passion for the subject is infectious, and I’m no casual classical listener. Because this book is an introduction to classical music, it is not a full-fledged history of western classical music. It’s not an academic account of the periods (e.g., medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century, contemporary), the movements (minimalism, for instance), the theoretical development over time; nor is it merely a survey of ‘great’ classical composers, their lives and works; nor is it just a list of popular works from each period and composer. The book covers all the above but in just the right portions for the relative new-comer. In doing so, the reader will learn a lot about some very important things related to the above subjects, and such that I think it will increase one’s understanding of musical development and form, and one’s listening experience of great works composed throughout the centuries. Swafford is himself a composer and this makes a significant difference for writing a book such as this. His experience and expertise lends itself for an ease of explanation and appreciation that can only come from living a life in the rigors of hours and hours and hours of instrumental practice, pulling one’s hair out composing, and late night eye-straining readings of treatises on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. This is something that even true classical connoisseurs, who have spent thousands of hours listening to great works and are likely amateur musicians, cannot express authentically to readers. The result is that Swafford really gets across to the reader the pleasures and enjoyment that is the result of such hard work. The history of classical music is incredibly rich with so many wonderful varied styles and genres. With Swafford’s explanations, he has laid this history out for you in a lively, respectful, and intelligent manner. While the biographical accounts are not exactly cutting-edge scholarship they are nonetheless appropriately informative and interesting. Swafford makes no bones about the inevitable subjective choices in certain musical recommendations made—the composers and works to explore further. Certain recordings are also suggested along with some to avoid. If you are already into classical music then it’s likely that you would choose, say, different works, different recordings, even different composers, on which to focus then does Swafford; but get over it. This is his introduction, which reflects his tastes, knowledge, and expertise. You’ll get more out of it if he does indeed speak of things with which you are less acquainted. Forget what you think you know and set-aside your ‘must-have’ favorites and check out new things. Now, rarely are there “new” things in classical music—occasionally someone finds a hidden manuscript in some library (Shostakovich Viola music) or in the attic of a recently deceased nonagenarian (a lost Bach Cantata)—so “new” is new to you. I have my own list of works I think a newb should listen to for every composer mentioned in this book, and my choices did not always match Swafford’s. Some things are virtually self-evident truths, for merely one instance, that it is universally accepted that Haydn’s Op.76 Quartets are masterpieces and among the finest examples of the genre, if not the finest, that we could ever have the fortune to experience. (I highly suggest the Op.76 performed by The Takacs Quartet, but you’ll also do well with the Emerson and the Julliard Quartets; avoid the Naxos edition of the complete Haydn Quartets, which includes the Op.76, performed by the Kodaly Quartet—I cannot think of a less inspired, weak interpretation of these works.) Regarding his tastes, it’s clear that Swafford is passionate about choral and opera and a number of his top choices reflect this interest. Opera still remains something I do not care for but I did appreciate Swafford’s input on its development and importance. Perhaps you’ll feel similarly with respect to some genre you generally avoid. Don’t get me wrong here: he still talks about symphonies, concertos, quartets and trios, as well as great solo instrumental works, such as Bach’s masterful cello suites and Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The description for any given musical piece is, as one would expect, free from jargon and heavy on the d metaphor—as it ought to be. Providing a precise musical explanation of, say, any conrapuntus from Bach’s Art of Fugue in a book like this would be absurd (it would not have gotten past the editor for one thing) let alone infinitely boring for the average reader; hence, metaphors, similes, and analogies. They are good descriptions, regardless—you’re still getting an expansive view of the work. If you liked this book, check out his more substantive book The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Lastly, show contemporary composers some love and check out some of his own compositions.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Robsy

    Light, fun, educational, and profoundly interesting. Not overwhelming or dry. Explores the differences in eras, what to listen for in select pieces; with absorbing composer biographies all done in a very entertaining way. Great read if you want to get an organized overview of the huge library of symphonic music.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brian Barnett

    "What we feel from music is like what we feel from a sunset. The sunset contains no emotion. It's a physical phenomenon ... In any case, the feelings are ours--some of them universal to humans, some individual. In the end, the source of such responses is a matter of magic and mystery, and so music echos the magic and mystery of the universe."

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erica Bermudez

    I wish this book was just a playlist

  8. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Excellent, highly-readable survey of the history of classical music from the Middle Ages to the present. Divided into (short) chapters about the life of various influential composers, but *the best part* is the suggested pieces, helpfully highlighted in *bold*: I read the book with my Amazon Prime Music, playing excerpts on my phone. I think this book should be made into an app, or a web site, where you can listen to the music as you read along.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    This book was immensely disappointing, but for reasons that are not entirely surprising.  The author is a contemporary composer who wants to increase the legitimacy of his fellows in the classical music repertoire, and so this book has the exact opposite tendency that one would want--it focuses most of its attention on the less beautiful and less elevating parts of the repertoire, those which are the most contemporary, and less attention on the earlier music where a greater consensus about their This book was immensely disappointing, but for reasons that are not entirely surprising.  The author is a contemporary composer who wants to increase the legitimacy of his fellows in the classical music repertoire, and so this book has the exact opposite tendency that one would want--it focuses most of its attention on the less beautiful and less elevating parts of the repertoire, those which are the most contemporary, and less attention on the earlier music where a greater consensus about their worth and quality exists.  The author spends a great deal of effort trying to justify the hostility of composers to the interests of audiences while they simultaneously demand respect, money, and honor for their often ugly and discordant music that actively spites the expectations and standards of audiences and tends not to find a paying audience for predictable and understandable reasons.  The author seems to be unaware of the contradiction between trying to defend the pointlessness of so much contemporary music going back even into the late 19th century while pointing out how that music was directly hostile to audiences (much less to moral principles), even as the author celebrates a spirit of creativity that is definitely not a godly spirit.  Sadly, I was hoping for language of a different spirit when I read this book. This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into five parts and 36 chapters, most of them biographies of various composers.  After a short introduction the book spends only two chapters dealing with music from the beginning, with one chapter for the entire history of Western music through the Middle Ages (1) and another for the entire music of the Renaissance (2).  The next five chapters look at the Baroque, with one chapter discussing the period as a whole (3), others dealing with Monteverdi (4), Bach (5), and Handel (6), and then one more for everyone else in the period (7).  After that four chapters discuss the music of the classical era, with one of them an overall summary of the period (8), and then chapters on Haydn (9), Mozart (10), and Beethoven (11).  Twelve chapters follow on the romantic period, with a discussion of the period (12), as well as chapters on Schubert (13), Berlioz (14), Schumann (15), Chopin (16), Wagner (17), Liszt (18), Brahms (19), Tchaikovsky (20), Dvorak (21), Mahler (22), as well as any romantic composers he may have missed (23).  Finally, the last thirteen chapters of the book discuss the period since 1900, with chapters on the period (24), as well as on Debussy (25), Strauss (26), Ravel (27), Stravinsky (28), Schoenberg (29), Ives (30), Bartok (31), Shostakovich (32), Britten (33), Copeland (34), Ligeti (35), and anyone he may have missed (36).  The result is a clear case of chronological snobbery biased towards the most contentious and least accomplished periods of the Western concert music tradition. Ultimately, this book demonstrates the wide gulf that exists between those who celebrate the decadent spirit of so much of modernist and post-modernist art and the audience for such art, as well as the gulf between the desire of early creative artists to celebrate creativity in imitation of God and the selfish and egotistical desires of contemporary creators to be rivals to God and rejecting the need to honor and respect He who gave them their creativity to begin with.  The book is an increasingly dark look at the mental disorders and societal corruption that comes from a progressive rejection of God's way and a celebration of demonic spirituality rather than godly spirituality.  To be sure, the author does not appear himself aware of the corruption he exposes, as he tries to soften the reader's anger at Wagner's anti-Semitism or Strauss' politically compromised stance or the general wickedness and folly of so many composers who thought of themselves as something special and ended up being rotten human beings as a result of their arrogance, but he still writes about such things all the same, as if we had to respect composers and give them honor and money and prestige even for being loathsome people who misuse their God-given talents so often and so lamentably.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Darrin

    This is another book that caught my eye in the new books area of our city's main library. One of those books that you take off the shelf and immediately know you have to read. It isn't like I am unfamiliar with classical music or composers but when I read the cover blurbs and a little bit of the introduction I knew I would find a lot to learn in this book. In the introduction, Swafford suggests listening to the pieces he recommends as he talks about the individual composers and their pieces in hi This is another book that caught my eye in the new books area of our city's main library. One of those books that you take off the shelf and immediately know you have to read. It isn't like I am unfamiliar with classical music or composers but when I read the cover blurbs and a little bit of the introduction I knew I would find a lot to learn in this book. In the introduction, Swafford suggests listening to the pieces he recommends as he talks about the individual composers and their pieces in his essays. I did just that but realized about halfway through the book that there would be no way to finish it without returning it to the library if I listened to every classical music piece on Spotify or Youtube. Nonetheless, I still ended up putting a bunch of music CDs on hold just because I want to listen to some of his suggestions more and I also spent whole evenings just watching classical music performances on Youtube....oh, and by the way, watch this one....I can't get enough of it....https://youtu.be/9rAd0-pTuU8. It is Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A Minor...the finale at the 23:20 mark just makes me smile. One of the best parts of Language of the Spirit for me was learning about the history of classical music from medieval times to modern and the explanation of some of the jargon/terminology used. An essay introduces each historical musical period...baroque, classical, modern, etc...I was reminded of the World History class I had in high school which covered some of the same ground but via famous pieces of art rather than music. I really wish I owned a copy of this book as it would be something I would return to in order to explore the works of a different composer each time...especially from the Classical period. I tend to really like the modernists like Bartok and Shostakovich but I also realized I like a lot of shorter pieces like Bach's sonatas and partitas, and as usual I have a strong affinity for string instruments, especially played solo or as part of a small ensemble. Finally, Swafford is an engaging writer and you can tell he is passionate about many of the composers and their music. I was never bored and found myself deeply interested in all the essays and especially when I came to the individual essays on composers whose music I listen to frequently. So, I highly recommended Language of the Spirit to anybody who loves classical music like I do and do exactly as the author recommends and listen as well as read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Peggy

    I purchased this book after reading WQXR's "A Hand-Picked Gift Guide For the Classical Music Lover On Your List" (Nov. 22, 2017). Jan Swafford gives an introduction to the different periods of classical music along with some of the important composers. According to Swafford it is intended to be a basic reference not a scholarly work. The book is written with the novice in mind ( I have no musical training and no knowledge of music history). It is easy to understand and very readable. As you read I purchased this book after reading WQXR's "A Hand-Picked Gift Guide For the Classical Music Lover On Your List" (Nov. 22, 2017). Jan Swafford gives an introduction to the different periods of classical music along with some of the important composers. According to Swafford it is intended to be a basic reference not a scholarly work. The book is written with the novice in mind ( I have no musical training and no knowledge of music history). It is easy to understand and very readable. As you read the book you are also given a list of music examples to listen to which help enrich your appreciation and understanding of each period and composer. I used Youtube to play the "suggested listening" pieces, but Spotify or any other online music sources can be used.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Greer

    As a classically trained musician, I greatly appreciated all of the research required for this book. There is such a wide swath of years, styles and people covered here. The author does an excellent job of meeting the goal in this overview of the genre. There will be things that non-classical musicians will not know, but for the most part, the author explains those in the context of the style most fitting. This makes the book accessible to any music lover who wants the intro. Could be an excelle As a classically trained musician, I greatly appreciated all of the research required for this book. There is such a wide swath of years, styles and people covered here. The author does an excellent job of meeting the goal in this overview of the genre. There will be things that non-classical musicians will not know, but for the most part, the author explains those in the context of the style most fitting. This makes the book accessible to any music lover who wants the intro. Could be an excellent text book. This book also comes across quite well as an audiobook, thanks to an excellent narrator.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jorg

    If you are new to this Western Classical music thing, the book rates 5 stars: it is well-written, chockful of miscellaneous anecdotes and WILL expose you to some awesome music if you follow the listening recommendations. On the other hand, if you already know the difference between Bach and Schoenberg, or a fugue and a sonata, this rates a three: there are some interesting titbits about various composers that will be new to virtually everyone, but yuo are not likely to make any massively new disc If you are new to this Western Classical music thing, the book rates 5 stars: it is well-written, chockful of miscellaneous anecdotes and WILL expose you to some awesome music if you follow the listening recommendations. On the other hand, if you already know the difference between Bach and Schoenberg, or a fugue and a sonata, this rates a three: there are some interesting titbits about various composers that will be new to virtually everyone, but yuo are not likely to make any massively new discoveries (and, purely subjectively, my favouite composers from pre-Renaissance and before largely got short shrift here). So splitting the difference, a very respectable 4 stars.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Giovanni

    A brief summary of the world of classical music from the beginning to the end. I liked the way the author introduces many composers (even if I didn't like all the descriptions) and I loved the introduction, too. I give it three stars because he doesn't write too much about music itself from the different point of view of the composers. I know that's a difficult task if you want to tell this to people who know nothing about musicology, but that's not impossible. The book does not consider any opera A brief summary of the world of classical music from the beginning to the end. I liked the way the author introduces many composers (even if I didn't like all the descriptions) and I loved the introduction, too. I give it three stars because he doesn't write too much about music itself from the different point of view of the composers. I know that's a difficult task if you want to tell this to people who know nothing about musicology, but that's not impossible. The book does not consider any opera composer (although there is a chapter about Wagner, and I agree with this choice).

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    An excellence introduction to Classical music, it breezes over technical stuff, only explaining what the neophyte needs to know. Most of the book is focused on explaining music through the lens of composers, explaining how each composer fits into the larger artistic movements and discussing some of their more significant works, even going so far as to sometimes recommend which renditions of the work you should seek out on YouTube. A great primer for anyone who wants to know more about Classical An excellence introduction to Classical music, it breezes over technical stuff, only explaining what the neophyte needs to know. Most of the book is focused on explaining music through the lens of composers, explaining how each composer fits into the larger artistic movements and discussing some of their more significant works, even going so far as to sometimes recommend which renditions of the work you should seek out on YouTube. A great primer for anyone who wants to know more about Classical music but has no chance of getting into Julliard.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    This book introduced me to some beautiful music that was entirely new to me. I'm glad I took the time to listen to many of the pieces that Swafford recommended. The book is mostly very readable, although I did find some of the technical discussion to be a bit of a challenge. One word of advice: it's best to read this book when you have plenty of time to set it down and listen to the music being described. For that reason, this book is not a quick read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Julie Kuvakos

    This book sets out what it’s supposed to do. It gives a great picture of a brief view on classical music. My recommendation would be to listen to the music in each chapter to really give you a better idea of the vast array of classical music there is. I would recommend this to the casual listener or someone wanting to get their pallets wet. I appreciate he went in chronological order to give the reader an idea of how music changed.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Donald

    What a fun book. Swafford introduces major periods of classical music, then offers short bios of the major composers. The book is best when he describes musical concepts and forms and explains how they work. He has a tendency just to string adjectives together when reviewing musical works that he likes, but I can't complain too much. On the composers: almost all of them came from humble backgrounds, and they were mostly insane. The bios here are full of anecdotes and seedy details. Bach is probab What a fun book. Swafford introduces major periods of classical music, then offers short bios of the major composers. The book is best when he describes musical concepts and forms and explains how they work. He has a tendency just to string adjectives together when reviewing musical works that he likes, but I can't complain too much. On the composers: almost all of them came from humble backgrounds, and they were mostly insane. The bios here are full of anecdotes and seedy details. Bach is probably the most amazing man who ever lived. I wish there were a similar book for the history of visual art. If there is, please let me know.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    If you have an interest in classical music, this book is a great introduction to its great composers and the genre as a whole. Plus it comes with a suggested playlist which allows you to hear the music the author discusses.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ashish

    A really great introduction to western classical music. Very well written, informative, and passionate. I wish Swafford would have included women composers (the main reason I gave this book 4 stars and not 5). Also, I wish the book had a glossary if terms for reference.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Howard Sundwall

    If you already love classical music, or if you're curious and want to explore it -- you could not have a better guide than Jan Swafford. Witty, welcoming and vastly knowledgeable, Swafford fills 300 pages with a lively introduction to the best music on the planet.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Janet

    This book was very informative. This was a Goodreads giveaway.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Haris Odobasic

    Brilliant introduction to the major composers of classical music. Easy to follow, easy to find on Spotify and easing for the mind.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Meh

  25. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra

    Concise, well-written overview of different eras in classical music history, with basic social/historical context provided for major composers, as well as some suggested listening. Cool book if you enjoy classical music and want to gain an understanding of the bigger picture.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tejas

    Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, by Jan Swafford Published by Basic Books (2017) Rating: ****  Introduction By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, by Jan Swafford Published by Basic Books (2017) Rating: ****  Introduction By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind. Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it's history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford. Short Chapters  One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there's often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author's own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I'd want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public - an outcome that isn't the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.  Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn't seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him - displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.  Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn't come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read - to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day. Simplicity Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I'm not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon. Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.  What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each 'era' so to speak - to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject. Conclusion I'm looking forward to reading his more "heavy" work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations. 

  27. 5 out of 5

    William Dury

    Good guide to classical music. You’ll end up making a listening list. Sunny, positive and insightful, Mr Swafford’s only blatant vitriol is for contemporary Phillip Glass (“...tireless self-promoter...relentlessly repetitious...monotonous”). Mr. Stafford the academic, jealous and angry at Mr. Glass’ popular (such that it is) following? Mr. Glass studied at Juilliard but opted for a “pop” career, i.e., outside of academia. In his autobiography (“tireless self-promoter”) Mr. Glass was far more ent Good guide to classical music. You’ll end up making a listening list. Sunny, positive and insightful, Mr Swafford’s only blatant vitriol is for contemporary Phillip Glass (“...tireless self-promoter...relentlessly repetitious...monotonous”). Mr. Stafford the academic, jealous and angry at Mr. Glass’ popular (such that it is) following? Mr. Glass studied at Juilliard but opted for a “pop” career, i.e., outside of academia. In his autobiography (“tireless self-promoter”) Mr. Glass was far more enthusiastic about seeing the Jefferson Airplane at Fillmore East than in anything he encountered at Juilliard. The academic’s career depends upon the approval of his peers. They create a musical language restricted to academia; academics are his/her audience, but the bill is eventually footed by the public in the form of tuition and taxes. The pop artist takes his/her case directly to the public. Interesting dynamic. Mr. Swafford thoughtfully lists three of his own books in “Suggested Further Reading,” in case you’re wondering about the self promotion Humorous quibbles aside, I repeat: this is a good guide to classical music. You’ll end up making a list.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    I’ve been using this for my classes and I’m finding it to be much better than I originally remember from my first reading. I was so disappointed in his assessment of early music that I didn’t give it much of a chance, but this book actually functions really well in giving people new to classical music a basic idea of what’s going on. I changed my rating from two stars to four.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Brenda

    This is essential reading for anyone looking for a somewhat-better-than-basic education in classical music. Mr. Swafford is witty, down-to-earth, opinionated, and effortlessly erudite. Each brief essay includes a biographical sketch, commentary on the historical period and the relationship of the composer to his (and they’re all, alas, men) predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. Come prepared to listen along – this is a written survey course with suggested listening. You will find treasur This is essential reading for anyone looking for a somewhat-better-than-basic education in classical music. Mr. Swafford is witty, down-to-earth, opinionated, and effortlessly erudite. Each brief essay includes a biographical sketch, commentary on the historical period and the relationship of the composer to his (and they’re all, alas, men) predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. Come prepared to listen along – this is a written survey course with suggested listening. You will find treasures. Swafford is also priceless on entry-level music theory. He’s clearly in love with what he writes about and accepting of variations and experiments. His own preferences are here, but the too-typical snobbery about the stuff he doesn’t prefer is absent and unmissed. See especially Chapter 29 on Schoenberg for his rational, humanist take on what he calls the “anti anti-tonal strain.” “Nobody is required to like anything,” indeed. “… in the end art is all made of the same inexhaustible material as the human spirit.”

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rick Mathis

    Very readable introduction to classical music. It made me want to read more by this author.

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