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The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold…

The Lives of the Great Composers (1970)

by Harold C. Schonberg

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523730,848 (4.05)1 / 5
In the new edition of this highly successful book, Harold Schonberg traces the consecutive line of composers from Monteverdi to the tonalists of the 1990s through a series of fascinating biographical chapters. Music is a continually evolving art, and there have been no geniuses, however great, who have not been influenced by their predecessors. The great composers are here presented as human beings who lived and related to the real world. All of the important figures - Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and many others - are included, their lives woven into a fabric rich in detail and anecdote. For this new edition, Schonberg has extended the book's coverage with informative and astute descriptions of later composers. What has not been changed is the character of the book, which remains an object of delight to all music lovers.… (more)



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The tone of this book is as comforting as a cool blanket on a warm night.

From the movie "Last Action Hero"
Jack Slater : [John Practice has just betrayed Slater] Danny told me not to trust you. He said you killed Mozart.
John Practice : Mo- who?
Jack Slater : -zart. ( )
  MartinEdasi | Aug 10, 2019 |
First published in 1971, this magisterial one-volume book contains brief but erudite commentaries on the bulk of composers anyone would really want to know about.

In a 'Postlude', Schonberg comments on classical music post-World War II and says that none of the post-war composers have made any impact on the bulk of the classical repertoire, or the consciousness of the public. He declines to offer a view as to whether some musical form or other will capture that imagination, though he hints that the film composer might well fill part of that void. But overall, he says that there has been "a hiatus" in the stream of great composers which stretched unbroken from the time of Bach.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Shostakovich was still alive and composing in 1971; and there have been a few contemporary superstars that have arisen since then - Tippett, Williamson, Maxwell Davies, Lutoslawski, Stockhausen, Rorem and Turnage are just a few that come to mind. Oddly, Benjamin Britten is relegated to a virtual footnote on opera since Puccini. The Minimalists - Glass, Adams, Reich and Nyman - were a few years in the future and still brash young students when Schonberg was writing. And it's always possible to argue for re-discovered composers - Alkan, Brian and Lloyd are my candidates.

But these are minor quibbles. By the time anyone gets round to enthusing over the names I've mentioned, they're already well-immersed in the world of classical music. But this book should be the back-stop on their shelves as it is on mine. ( )
1 vote RobertDay | Apr 25, 2016 |
I rarely read biography, especially biographies of writers and other artists. I assume anything worth knowing about them is in their art, that the source of their creativity is a different self from the person the artists’ friends and family and public know. Also, artists are notoriously mistaken about themselves. You could even say they know themselves less well than does the average person who would no more think of writing a poem or a symphony than s/he would sign up to take a trip to the moon. Notorious bigots, if they happen to be good writers, create sympathetic characters whom by right they should be portraying in the worst light. Think Anthony Trollope’s MP in The Way We Live Now. And walking saints can produce pap and cant. But not always. Chekhov was saintly in some ways, and no one has matched him as a short story writer.

And then there’s the question of biography being just another form of fiction, or at least being as much about the author of the biography as about the subject.

Even so, I overcame my aversion, made an exception, as it were, for Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers and then for his The Lives of the Great Pianists. The reason is my schoolboy-like adoration of classical musicians. I know what neurotic jerks writers usually are (I’m one myself…a writer, I mean). But I put great composers and their interpreters high up on pedestals–or did until I read Mr. Schonberg’s books.

This “lives of” genre, of course, started with the medieval Lives of the Saints, and continued in the Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which tells you something about how Western culture has progressed or a least changed its focus over the last thousand years. By the 19th century artists pretty much had a clear field to themselves, and they played it for all it was worth.

Not that the Bachs, Chopins and Prokofievs or Liszts, Hofmanns and Horowitzes come off badly in these books. If anything, Schonberg is an even bigger groupie than I am, though much better qualified to see his subjects’ moral and social warts. It’s not a matter of any one of the greats being brought down a peg or two by what he puts in these volumes but of a cumulative impression one is left with and the standards of value by which a modern musicologist like Schonberg (not to be confused, by the way, with the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg) evaluates them and their work.

I don’t know why I was so naïf as to think musicians were not, like fiction writers, subject to the academic bent for seeing art as a progressive historical process classifiable into schools and periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, Modern, Post-Classical and God knows what else. Scholar’s minds work that way. But it never occurred to me that great musicians could fall for that kind of silliness. They create because they are moved to do so, and what comes out of them is the only thing possible. Or, so I had thought.

But they were in fact frequently all too conscious of the imperative to be innovative, if not always original. Truly great artists break the molds, create new forms, because the content of their art, what they must express, demands new forms. Beethoven didn’t have to think about in what ways he could show up Haydn and out-Mozart Mozart. He spent a few years under the influence of those two, but then found his own voice, matching it to the powerful creation inside him. He didn’t innovate for the sake of innovation. The content of his art dictated the form and the expression.

But others were more self-conscious. Brahms was looked down on as old-fashioned by the school that saw Wagner as the future of music, and then of course Wagner suffered the same fate, until by the time we reach the twentieth century composers would rather die than be thought anything less than avant garde. In consequence we got a dogged academic adherence to innovation for its own sake (and, perhaps, more tellingly, combined with mediocrity) that has driven otherwise sympathetic listeners in our own time to rock and jazz (which have their own issues with innovation for innovation’s sake).

The backbiting that went on in this fight to be at the head of the pack is worthy of a high school locker room. It’s embarrassing to read some of the things composers said about each other, and no doubt still do. I suppose they did so partly to keep their stock up in their own estimations. Unless they were fools they knew what Bach or Beethoven meant to music no matter how they tried to trash them with glib asides (they probably stayed up nights thinking up those nasty one-liners). What’s more disconcerting is the way they worried about their place at the cutting edge of their art. God forbid they should write something that was behind the times. Ever onward. The past, if not prologue, is something to be spurned. Who can write as if there had been no Wagner? Or no Stravinsky? Well, Brahms could, for one. And Rachmaninoff for another.

We’ve seen the same thing in literature. Who could expect to be taken seriously as a serious writer unless s/he wrote in a post-Joycean style? Not Saul Bellow. Not John Updike. And then who could expect to get the lit-crit establishment’s seal of approval if they ignored the tenets of Post-Modernism? How many first-rate talents have succumbed to this orthodoxy and diminished their talents rather than end up as, God forbid, “popular” writers?

Walter Kaufmann, best known as the translator of Frederic Nietzsche, pointed out that all the great philosophers were what today would be considered amateurs. Maybe something similar could be said about great writers and composers. The best educated in their craft are self-educated, i.e. they learn by experiencing others’ art. Frequently they are mentored by another great talent. But with the ascendance of the academy and its minions we have just the opposite situation: a cadre of mediocrities mass-produced and as conformist in their thinking and creations as any mainline clergyman.

It’s in the nature of the academy to foster conformity and uniformity, even when it professes to want the opposite. The firestorm of petty invective and personal insult that met B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto a few years back showed just how sensitive and insecure the establishment is to any questioning of its authority. The Inquisition was liberal-minded by comparison.

Schonberg seems surprisingly deaf to the diktats of the establishment of which he is of course a part. But I still say “surprisingly,” because the man is nothing if not a passionate lover of music–all music, it seems, though he is lukewarm about some composers I would think he would be enthusiastic about–Prokofiev, for example, who managed to write fabulous music despite the towering presence of Stravinsky. And how dare he! (I mean Schonberg) leave out George Gershwin in a book like this, while including, not to mention–not to mention–infinitely less talented contemporary composers.

Even so, The Lives of the Composers is a valuable book, as is The Lives of the Great Pianists, if only as an introduction to the subject, or subjects. A decent bibliography of related readings is included; musicians then as now are a garrulous and scribbling lot. ( )
2 vote Venantius | Sep 26, 2011 |
Stand Schonberg's Lives up against Milton Cross' Lives and Schonberg's is liable to topple over first. ( )
  jburlinson | Apr 5, 2011 |
Harold C. Schonberg

The Lives of the Great Composers

W. W. Norton, Hardback, 1997.

8vo. 653 pp. Third Edition. Preface to the Third Edition by the author [pp. 13-17]. General Bibliography [pp. 621-636].

First published, 1970.
Second Revised Edition, 1981.
Third Revised Edition, 1997.



1. Pioneer of Opera: Claudio Monteverdi
2. Transfiguration of the Baroque: Johann Sebastian Bach
3. Composer and Impresario: George Frederic Handel
4. Reformer of Opera: Christoph Wilibald Gluck
5. Classicism par excellence: Joseph Haydn
6. Prodigy from Salzburg: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
7. Revolutionary from Bonn: Ludwig van Beethoven
8. Poet of Music: Franz Schubert
9. Freedom and a New Language: Weber and the Early Romantics
10. Romantic Exuberance and Classic Restraint: Hector Berlioz
11. Florestan and Eusebius: Robert Schumann
12. Apotheosis of the Piano: Frederic Chopin
13. Virtuoso, Charlatan - and Prophet: Franz Liszt
14. Bourgeois Genius: Felix Mendelssohn
15. Voice, Voice, and more Voice: Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini
16. Spectacle, Spectacle, and More Spectacle: Meyerbeer, Cherubini, Auber
17. Colossus of Italy: Giuseppe Verdi
18. Colossus of Germany: Richard Wagner
19. Keeper of the Flame: Johannes Brahms
20. Master of the Lied: Hugo Wolf
21. Waltz, Can-Can, and Satire: Strauss, Offenbach, Sullivan
22. Faust and French Opera: From Gounod to Saint-Saens
23. Russian Nationalism and the Mighty Five: From Glinka to Rimsky-Korsakov
24. Surcharged Emotionalism: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
25. From Bohemia to Spain: European Nationalists
26. Chromaticism and Sensibilite: From Franck to Faure
27. Only for the Theater: Giacomo Puccini
28. Romanticism's Long Coda: Richard Strauss
29. Religion, Mysticism, and Retrospection: Bruckner, Mahler, Reger
30. Symbolism and Impressionism: Claude Debussy
31. Gallic Elegance and the New Breed: Maurice Ravel and Les Six
32. The Chameleon: Igor Stravinsky
33. The English Renaissance: Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams
34. Mysticism and Melancholy: Scriabin and Rachmaninoff
35. Under the Soviets: Prokofiev and Shostakovich
36. German Neoclassicism: Busoni, Weill, Hindemith
37. Rise of an American Tradition: From Gottschalk to Copland
38. The Uncompromising Hungarian: Bela Bartok
39. The Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern
40. The International Serial Movement: From Varese to Messiaen
41. The New Eclecticism: From Carter to Minimalists

General Bibliography


After Horowitz: His Life and Music and The Great Pianists: From Mozart to Present, The Lives of the Great Composers has been my third encounter with a book by the former senior music critic of New York Times Harold C. Schonberg (1915-2003). And for third time I am enchanted. I have rarely found in non-fiction writing such admirable combination of colossal amount of fascinating information and amusing, entertaining, hugely readable style as in Mr Schonberg's; his books are some of those treasures that you can always use as a reference source for classical music and its composers, pianists, conductors, superstars - or just open on any page and happily immerse yourself into a fabulous kaleidoscope of characters and events.

The Lives of the Great Composers seems to be Mr Schonberg's greatest achievement in the field - if the number of revisions is to be taken as something of a measure for that. To the best of my belief, The Great Conductors (1967) and The Glorious Ones (1985) were never revised, and The Great Pianists (1963) was revised only once (1987), while in 1997 was published, revised and expanded as usual, the Third edition of The Lives of the Great Composers (after the First in 1970 and the Second in 1981).

I think the best way to review this book would be a long quote from its fascinating Preface. As usual with Harold Schonberg it is a perfect piece of writing that makes you want to devour the whole book at once:

The emphasis in this book up to now has been on ''great''. The great composers always, one way or another, altered the course of musical history and have entered into, if not the consciousness of all humanity, certainly the consciousness of Western people. (Never believe politicians who prate about music being an ''international language''. It isn't.)
I have tried to humanize the great composers, to give an idea of what they felt and thought. This approach was considered unfashionable at the time of the first edition, and is still considered unfashionable today. Many music scholars insist that the work rather than the person is the thing; that a piece of music can best be explained as music; the only valid ''explanation'' can be made through structural and harmonic analysis. Anything else is sentimental program-note writing that has no real application to the music.
I disagree. I firmly believe that music can be explained by the man; indeed, must be explained by the man. For a man's music is a reflection of his mind and his reaction to the world in which he lives.
[...] Just as we see the world and other beings through the eyes of Rembrandt, Cezanne, or Picasso when we look at their paintings, so we experience the world through the ears and mind of a Beethoven, Brahms, or Stravinsky when we hear their music. We are in contact with a powerful mind when we hear their music, and we must attempt an identification with that mind. The closer the identification, the closer it is possible to come to understanding the creator's work.
It is easy to make a mystique out of form and analysis; but are not these topics best left to the professionals, to be read by other professionals? I have always been amused by books supposedly for the lay reader that are full of complicated music examples. Some of those examples - score reductions and the like - Vladimir Horowitz himself would have found difficult to play.

Indeed, there is hardly anything I could add. Still, let me try.

The Third Edition of The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg is a formidable book of more than 600 closely printed pages (and in a font a trifle smaller than it should have been) grouped in 41 chapters. The scope is simply staggering - from Claudio Monteverdi in the beginning of the XVII century until the avant-garde composers (if they may be called by that name) that dominated the second half of XX century. The style is typical for Harold Schonberg - gripping, chatty, witty, naughty and absolutely compelling. But just below the diverting surface, there lurk powerful intelligence, remarkable personality and tremendous knowledge of music history.

The title implies that biographical information is the main topic and certainly that is so, but the book might well have been called The Minds of the Great Composers or The Music of the Great Composers for there is a great deal of fascinating reflections both about the characters of these great men and about the eternal music they created. Mr Schonberg does not mince words and his frankness is exhilarating: Mozart was a really bad boy, Beethoven - a misanthrope, Chopin - a snob, Liszt - a poser, Schumann - a complete nut, Mussorgsky - a drunkard, Tchaikovsky - a homosexual and a total depressive, Wagner - a fierce anti-Semite and a colossal egoist, and so on and so forth. The beautiful thing about Harold Schonberg is that he never harps on these personal matters; he does mention them all right but the creative side of the great composers and its expression in music always comes first.

Considering the very limited space he has on his disposal, Mr Schonberg has done a fabulous job to summarize the human being and the great composer. I can't even imagine how one could write something about a Beethoven, or a Mozart, or a Wagner that has any semblance of completeness in just 20 pages or so. Yet the eminent musical critic has certainly succeeded in doing so. No matter what or who he writes about, he always remains wonderfully readable, and a great fun to read. Most importantly, together with basic biographical data, he always offers some startling insights and thought-provoking reflections about the man and his music, about traditions and revolutions, about art and future, about human nature.

Take Mozart for example. There are lots of books written about the Salzburg genius but I very much doubt you can find in any 20 pages of them so much to reflect upon than in the chapter from Harold Schonberg's The Lives of the Great Composers dedicated to this really great composer. It is nothing short of remarkable achievement - it is indeed unbelievable - in so limited a space to give a compelling idea of Mozart's music and character, his life and his age, and even the performance practice and how it did change since then. But there it is:

[On Mozart's music:]
Mozart's music is at once easy and hard to listen to; easy because of its grace, its never-ending melody, its clean and perfect organization; hard, because of its depth, its subtlety, its passion. It is strange to say of a composer who started writing at six, and lived only thirty-six years, that he developed late, but that is the truth. Few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality, concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781 (the year of his final break from Salzburg, significantly).

[On Mozart's character:]
He grew up a complicated man with a complicated personality and an unprecedented knack for making enemies. He was tactless, spoke out impulsively, said exactly what he thought about other musicians (rarely did he have a good word to say), tended to be arrogant and supercilious, and made very few real friends in the musical community. He had the reputation of being giddy and light-headed, temperamental, obstinate. We can look back to all this and sympathise. He was Mozart; he was better than any musician of his time; he did unerringly spot the mediocrity around him (and also the great figures: he had nothing but respect for Haydn), and in his musical judgments he was never wrong. But that did not make things any easier for him while he was alive.

[On Mozart's age:]
We in the late twentieth century, with recordings and radio and concerts in which Mozart is a staple of repertory, are apt to forget that in the 1780s even a professional musician could not be sure that the first time he was hearing a work might not also be the last. There were not that many concerts. A new piece of music had to be grasped immediately. It probably would not even be printed. Not until Beethoven and the Romantics could a composer be reasonably sure that all of his major works would be published.

[On Mozart's performance practice:]
Period instruments, thanks to the world popularity of the early-instrument movement, are now in constant use. Thus today we have, perhaps, a better idea of how the music might have sounded in Mozart's day. But how Mozart himself would have played or conducted it - that is another matter. What has happened is that modern musicians, with the best intentions of ''authenticity'', tend to perform classic music with late-twentieth-century ideas of fidelity to the printed note and regularity of rhythm. And, one suspects, at slower tempos than Mozart himself would have taken. In addition, musicians today seem to ignore Mozart's own strictures, spelled out in his many letters, that describe his kind of performance. Mozart, for instance, in a long letter, specifically describes his rubato. How many ''Mozart specialists'' playing the Mozart keyboard music use his kind of rubato? Or any rubato at all? None comes to mind.

Like all performing musicians of the day, Mozart not only constantly improvised cadenzas but also embellished the melodic line as he went along. It is a mistake to approach Mozart's music with the attitude that the printed note is the final word. Often it is, or should be, just the beginning. If recent research into eighteenth-century performance practice has demonstrated one thing, it is that our forefathers used much more freedom in interpreting the music than most twentieth-century musicians are prepared to admit.

Of course compressing three and a half centuries of music history into 600 pages compels vast omissions and a great many musical masterpieces must be mentioned with no more than a few words. There are no detailed musical analyses here, and for my part this is simply wonderful; music should be listened to, lived through, experienced, felt, suffered, everything you'd like - but certainly not analysed. Harold Schonberg has an ability for general description of the music of a given composer that is nothing short of astonishing. It is not just accurate and perceptive, but it shows a genuine passion for music - and that's something you don't often find in musical critics. Many of his musical impressions border on poetry and make for unforgettable reading. Absolutely the same may well be said about his character sketches of complicated personalities who have almost only thing of common - genius.

Indeed, as far as I am concerned Mr Schonberg is impeccable at all fronts. Even about my favourite composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff) he can always surprise me with something profound and stirring I have never before thought about. At the same time his chapters on composers whom I find extremely tedious (Bach, Handel, Haydn) or openly despise (Stravinsky, the New Viennese School, not to mention more modern ones) are equally absorbing and fascinating. That's saying a great deal indeed. As for his chapters on groups of composers, they are superbly organized and cover an amazing variety of material. Chapter 25, for example, manages to get under the skins of such diverse composers like Smetana and Dvorak on the one hand, and Sibelius and Grieg on the other - together with a hint of Granados, Albeniz and De Faia; Chapter 23 is certainly the finest synthesis, in so short a space, of Glinka, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky that is possible to exist. Though I would have enjoyed, for example, something more about Gustav Holst and The Planets or Carl Orff and Carmina Burana, to complain about those omissions when such a wealth of musical history is present seems like the purest form of idiocy there is.

It must also be noted that Mr Schonberg takes a lot of pains to avoid any technical language as to make his book accessible for the layman and he generally succeeds marvelously. I can guarantee for that since I am no musician myself, nor am I able to read music and, as a matter of fact, my knowledge of music theory is nonexistent. No matter, as Harold Schonberg would say, this in no way impairs my pleasure of reading his great book. Occasionally, he can slip into some unusual chords, Romantic keys or rave about some astonishing transition which is doubtless revelatory for a trained musician but also quite incomprehensible for the layman. But that happens fairly seldom and most of the time the language can easily be understood by everybody who can read. Furthermore, he is very often a real riot to read. Here are some examples at which I could not help laughing my head off:

Elegant pupils would enter Chopin's studio and put their twenty or thirty francs on the mantelpiece while he looked out of the window. He was a gentleman, and gentlemen did not soil their hands with anything as vulgar as business transactions. He liked to move in aristocratic circles, and was greatly concerned with style, taste, clothes, and bon ton He could be witty, malicious, suspicious, ill tempered, charming. There was something feline about Chopin.

No composer, and few human beings, have had Wagner's sense of mission. [...] Such was Wagner's ego that it is not stretching a point to suggest that he secretly regarded himself as god. He was sent to earth by mysterious forces. He gathered disciples unto Himself. He wrote holy scriptures in word and music (the Sacred Writings eventually to be gathered in ten large volumes of prose and twenty more of letters). He caused a temple at Bayreuth to be created, in which His works could be celebrated and He Himself worshiped. He cast out all who did not agree with His divinity.

But his egomania was supported by genius, and after him the music was not the same.

[On Musorgsky:]
At that time, 1857, he was an eighteen-year-old ensign in the crack Preobrazhensky Regiment, and had been taught what every good regimental office of the Preobrazhensky had to know - how to drink, how to wench, how to wear clothes, how to gamble, how to flog a serf, how to sit a horse. Of this set of accomplishments, Musorgsky found drinking the most congenial.

[On Gounod's womanizing on English soil:]
It was a situation out of Vanity Fair. She was a sort of Becky Sharp and her husband the equivalent of Colonel Crowley. Georgina became Gounod's business manager, and Tavistock house became the scene of amiable menage a trois after Gounod's wife packed up and indignantly went back to Paris. Later she sent her son, Jean, to look into the matter. He promptly tried to seduce Georgina and she threw him out of the house.

But if I have given the impression that Harold Schonberg is just a flippant writer with passion for pure gossip, I have done him a great injustice. He can be, and often is, extremely perceptive when deals with generalizations on a number of subjects like the personality of a composer, the most characteristic features of his music, his place in the history of music, his influence over other composers and vice versa. Consider the following short excerpts, starting with the finest description of the value of the musical critic that I have ever read - and a very telling insight into Schumann's personality as well:

The test of a great critic, in any case, is not how many talents he overpraises, but how many geniuses he fails to recognise. On these grounds, Schumann's record is near perfect. One of his very first reviews introduced Chopin, and his very last introduced Brahms.

The difference between Beethoven and all other musicians before him - aside from things like genius and unparalleled force - was that Beethoven looked upon himself as an artist, and he stood up to his rights as an artist. Where Mozart moved in the periphery of the aristocratic world, anxiously knocking but never really admitted, Beethoven, who was only about fifteen years Mozart's junior, kicked open the doors, stormed in, and made himself at home. He was an artist, a creator and as such superior in his own mind to kings and nobles. Beethoven had decidedly revolutionary notions about society, and Romantic notions about music. [...] The word ''artist'' never occurs in Mozart's letters. He and the composers before him were skilled at their craft; they supplied a commodity, and the notion of art or writing for posterity did not enter into their thinking. But Beethoven's letters and observations are full of words like ''art'', ''artist'', and ''artistry''. He was of a special breed and he knew it. He also knew he was writing for eternity. And he had what poor Mozart lacked - a powerful personality that awed all who came into contact with him. [...] With Beethoven, it was not a matter of adapting himself to the world and its ways. As with Wagner later on, it was a matter of the world adapting its ways to him. With this high-voltage personality, coupled to an equally high-voltage order of genius, Beethoven was able to dictate life of his own terms in almost everything except his tragic deafness.

[On Beethoven's late works:]
Here we are on a rarefied plane of music. Nothing like it has been composed, nothing like can ever again be. It is the music of a man who has seen all and experienced all, a man drawn into his silent, suffering world, no longer writing to please anybody else but writing to justify his artistic and intellectual existence. Faced with this music, the temptation is to read things into it in some sort of metaphysical exegesis. The music is not pretty or even attractive. It merely is sublime.

[On Tchaikovsky's music and personality:]
And he had what many of The Five lacked - sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody. It was this melody that was to make him famous, first in Russia, then internationally. It was a peculiarly Russian kind of melody, plangent, introspective, often modal-sounding, touched with neuroticism, as emotional as a scream from a window on a dark night. The music reflected the man. He was nervous, hypochondriacal, unhappy - unhappy at home, unhappy away from home, nervous in the presence of other people, terrified lest his homosexuality become open knowledge. He was largely successful in hiding his emotions, his fears and neuroses, from most of the persons with whom he came into contact. But to a few close friends and his diary he confided everything. He could converse in an urbane way with people, and little did they know they repelled him. [...] When he arrived in New York in 1891 he went to his hotel. ''I made myself at home. First of all, I wept rather long.''
This surcharged emotionalism implicit in almost every note he wrote, acted upon audiences in several ways. From the beginning, most listeners enjoyed the emotional bath in which they were immersed by the composer. Others, more inhibited, either rejected Tchaikovksy's message out of hand, or despised themselves for responding to it. A composer is supposed to be more ''manly''. There is something embarrassing, even immoral, about such hysteria in music. For a long time Tchaikovsky, so loved by the public, was discounted by many connoisseurs and musicians as nothing but a weeping machine. In recent years there has been a reevaluation, and musicians tend to find much more to praise in Tchaikovsky than they previously did.

It is worth noting some of the criticisms I have read about The Lives of the Great Composers for they show that some people obviously have a really remarkable ability for missing the point. Some of them complain that the book starts with Claudio Monteverdi and all earlier great composers are totally neglected. True. But, firstly, this is no History of Music and, secondly, Harold Schonberg explains this in his wonderful preface as well as in the very first paragraph of the first chapter. He wrote a book about great composers, to be read by the intelligent layman, not a musicological study in which every composer there ever was under the sun should be included and which can be read - if at all - only by musicologists. Harold Schonberg had to draw the line somewhere, he had to choose a criteria of greatness; a very tall order that he managed brilliantly. He decided - very sensibly to my mind - that the universal public acceptance and the presence of certain music regularly in the concert hall today is the best criteria to consider a composer "great" and therefore worth including in the volume. That's why he chose Monteverdi to start with, because his music is the earliest one that is still very much played in public. Mr Schonberg tells us that there are many great composers before Monteverdi and they are occasionally heard today and even have fanatic admirers, but they simply don't fit his criteria.

Nor does he make any bones about the modern composers - the accent here is on "composers", not on "great". This leads me directly to another ridiculous criticism about the book, namely that it isn't a reference for modern composers. Of course it isn't. This is so by deliberate design.

Perhaps the modern ''composers'' issue requires a more detailed discussion. Considering the astonishing degree of perversity they have achieved in their ''compositions'', it is very much to Harold Schonberg's credit that not only does he deal with them at all and even dedicates whole chapters to them, but he always remains with his tongue in cheek and he is never angry - which is quite an achievement in this case. But he is often very serious too, as when dealing with the so called Serialists, their ''music'' and their impact on the audiences:

A chasm developed between composer and public. The world of the international avant-garde in the 1960s had developed a variety of styles, but the music of virtually every serial-dominated composer had certain traits in common - the absence of melody, an emphasis on the linear (polyphonic) rather than the vertical (harmonic) aspects of music, total dissonance, objectivity, abstraction. The public would have none of it. This was something new in the history of music. Even the wildest experiments in the previous centuries had a hard core of public admirers, and after a generation or so their music, if it had anything to say, entered the repertory. Serial composers talked about the cultural lag. They said they were writing for a future age. But, it was asked, how long was a cultural lag supposed to operate? [...] Could it be that perhaps - just perhaps - the fault lay not with the public but with the composer?

Very sensible question! Indeed, how can one take these gentlemen seriously? Consider the notorious John Cage, the father of the so called indeterminacy in music, who made a real revolution and really did reach the peak of deliberate perversity:

This led to a kind of music that, for the first time in history, was completely disorganized. All music used to be organized sound. Now, in his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 the instruments are twelve radios sounding different stations simultaneously, with two players at each radio manipulating the knobs to change stations and volume. Of course every performance had to be different. [...] In his most notorious work, 4'33'', the pianist (or any other performer/s) sits at the keyboard without touching the keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds or any other period of time, ad libitum. The piece is in three movements, indicated by the pianist's lowering and raising the lid. The idea behind 4'33'' is that the audience sounds, ambient noise, noises coming from the street or whatever, or whenever, are the content of the piece. Nobody disputed the claim that Cage had a fertile - if wacky - imagination.

I am totally speechless!

At any rate, there is still a lot of time to pass before any modern composer can be regarded as "great", that is before (if ever!) his music achieves universal public acceptance and enters the standard repertory. At the same time Mr Schonberg dedicates a lot of space to Modernism: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, the New Viennese School. They all are covered in different chapters and by no means less extensively than the masters from previous ages. In none of them is Mr Schonberg in any way dismissive or contemptuous. Quite on the contrary indeed - his admiration for Modernism (at least until Stravinsky) is as genuine, if a bit qualified sometimes, as that for Romanticism or Classicism. But what if it wasn't?

The most serious accusation against Mr Schonberg usually is that he is biased and far from being objective. True. And a great advantage indeed. This is another thing I love in Harold Schonberg's writing - and another thing you rarely if ever find in musical critics - openly confessed subjectivity and a real understanding that this is something inevitable. As Mr Schonberg said himself:

I write for myself - not necessarily for readers, not for musicians. I'd be dead if I tried to please a particular audience. Criticism is only informed opinion. I write a piece that is a personal reaction based, hopefully, on a lot of years of study, background, scholarship and whatever intuition I have. It's not a critic's job to be right or wrong; it's his job to express an opinion in readable English.
[Interview with Editor and Publisher, 1967.]

Some critics profess to work according to a set of immutable esthetic and technical laws. They are only fooling themselves. There are no immutable laws. There is only the critic himself: his background, his taste and intuition, his ideals, his literary ability. If style is the man, so is criticism, and his criticism always ends up a reflection of what he is.
[New York Times, July 6, 1980.]

It must be stressed that Harold Schonberg was not only a Senior music critic of Times for 20 years, a prolific writer and a man of great knowledge about music and history. He also was a trained musician, accomplished pianist and a fine score reader (that is, he could hear the music in his head while reading the score). He was a man who knew both his mind and his subject pretty well. But musicians and musicologists should remember that The Lives of the Great Composers was not written for them, but for the layman. And if the latter is dissatisfied with its contents, there is in the end a simply staggering General Bibliography in which, chapter by chapter, a huge number of biographies, studies, diaries, volumes with letters and such like are listed for those who want to learn more.

The most angry about Mr Schonberg's subjectivity usually are the ardent admirers of Gustav Mahler who obviously is a composer the author holds in low esteem. For my part this is perfectly fine since I still can't persuade myself that Mahler is a composer that should be taken seriously, much less as a great one or a genius. At any rate, even in this most critical case Harold Schonberg is by no means entirely dismissive. He mentions some fine moments in certain of Mahler's works but ultimately he simply can't understand what all the fuss was about. Neither can I.

Speaking of myself, I don't always agree with Harold Schonberg. Far from it. Sometimes he can be exasperating, like his harping on Liszt's "charlatanism" and Don Juan status; both certainly were part of this complicated and fascinating personality, but probably to a much smaller degree than is usually thought, as Alan Walker made clear in his magisterial biography Franz Liszt. Harold Schonberg has all three volumes of this remarkable work in his spectacular General Bibliography, but he either never read them seriously, or he doesn't think much of Alan Walker as researcher; both statements beggar belief. Be that as it may, Mr Schonberg is quick to recognise Franz Liszt as one of the seminal and most prophetic forces among the myriad of great composers in the XIX century.

But he puts in the in the group of "minor masters" composers like Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius, another opinion of his I find a bit hard to agree with. He is especially harsh about Grieg's most popular works; surely the great Norwegian has a lot more to offer than the Peer Gynt suites and the Piano concerto but this doesn't at all mean that these works are not masterpieces - indeed, there are among the most wonderful music I've ever heard. As for the Finnish genius Jean Sibelius, I have my own problems with him, with his late works especially, but Karelia, Finlandia, En Saga and the first two symphonies (when played well!) are works of immense power and originality. The same can well be said about Richard Strauss' symphonic poems and I cannot for the life of me agree with Mr Schonberg that the effect dominates the substance. These orchestral masterpieces might well have been quite modern in the end of the XIX and the beginning of the XX century, and they surely were the talk of Europe at that time, but their musical value has nothing to do with such matters; yes, some moments of Eine Alpensinfonie definitely are bombastic and parts of Don Quixote are positively ludicrous, but both works are masterpieces nonetheless for that.

I assume the admirers of Vivaldi (and some other Baroque masters) would be somewhat exasperated to find his compositions described as ''wallpaper music''. (Well, his concerti grossi may well be, but The Four Seasons, despite its popularity, is surely a great work.) And sometimes, though seldom indeed, Harold Schonberg can write a downright nonsense, like a sentence in Chapter 34 which tells us a good case can be made that Rachmaninoff's music is less sentimental than Mahler's or Tchaikovsky's. Now, I wonder what case that would be. How exactly do you measure such thing as ''sentimentality''?

No matter. Truly, it doesn't matter at all how much I disagree with Harold Schonberg occasionally. I can never be angry with him. There are two main reasons for that.

Firstly, Mr Schonberg's knowledge and erudition are almost frightening and speak with a really commanding voice. I have no doubt that Harold Schonberg has listened to any of the thousands and thousands of works he mentions in passing through these 41 chapters; in the concert hall, on record or in his head while reading the score, the author seems to know everything about everybody's work. If there are any mistakes or inaccuracies in this matter, I am certainly not aware of them; quite as expected of course, since to question Mr Schonberg's conclusions one must have an overwhelming knowledge and understanding of classical music and its rich history.

Secondly, and far more importantly, Harold Schonberg has a writing style which, quite simply, is a pure delight and joy to read. He gives you tons of information but always remains wonderfully readable, no matter if he writes about Monteverdi or about Bartok. His digressions are always well calculated - the one about castrati in the Handel chapter is brilliant - and his historical background is perfectly placed. He is always amusing, quite often he is actually hilarious, but he is never flippant or tactless. His candour is refreshing, his reflections - stimulating. Had somebody told me just a few months ago that a musical critic would soon become one of my favourite authors, I would certainly have sent the poor fellow into asylum. Yet, that's precisely what has happened.

In short, reading The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg offers a fascinating view of the greatest music ever written through the life and characters of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived - and its reading does cause addiction. In conclusion, if you are even remotely interested in classical music, you must read this book. Period. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Feb 8, 2010 |
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