Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Actually, I will dispute tastes in classical music books

Symphony: A Listener's GuideSymphony: A Listener's Guide by Michael Steinberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Subjective and a conservative "playlist"

I got this book nearly a decade ago, and valued it a lot at the time. I hadn't seriously used it in quite some time, then, while reviewing some books I had just read, decided to post one about it.

When I got online, I first noticed the comments in the line of "It's too bad that 'Composer X' gets omitted."

But, this is a book about music, I was thinking, and "de gustibus non disputandum" will always be the rule in the arts.

Then, I started looking through my current collection of nearly 500 classical CDs and said, "Whooah, there."

First, Steinberg appears to operate with a narrow definition of what is a symphony, perhaps. Why else is Rachmaninov's "Symphonic Dances" omitted, for example? Or Hindemith's "Four Temperaments" or "Symphonic Variations"?

On symphonies themselves, where is Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms"? Or anything by Schnittke, the best symphonist of the last third of the 20th century? Or Malcolm Arnold? Or Nicolai Myaskovsky, a great contemporary of Prokofiev? Or Ernst Krenek? Or Szymanowski? Or Hovhaness, as "pop" as he may be to some?

And why so much Haydn?

In other words -- and this is why Steinberg's book started falling like a rock for me — his "playlist" is quite conservative. I don't think either Boston or San Francisco (he served as orchestra program annotator in both places) are that conservative musically, so why is he?

I mean, someone could do a separate volume just out of all the 20th century composers he omitted.

As my title notes, this is an in-depth book for what it covers, but it fails in what could have been a great didactive exercise. I moved my classical music boundaries beyond 1900 through dint of my own open-mindedness, but sure would have loved the help of a book like Steinberg's that analyzed more 20th century symphonic works.

If your "playlist" is stuck where many heartland American classical listeners' may be, then this book could be just for you. But, if you want to learn a lot about modern symphonies, skip it.

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