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This lavishly illustrated guide is arranged by period – ‘early’ (ie 1000- 1600), baroque, classical, romantic (with additional chapters on romantic opera and national schools) and modern. Each period is introduced by an overview, and the book opens with a general guide to classical music – its elements, instruments and performance.

The bulk of each section is devoted to many concise biographical sketches of composers, each including ‘key works’, not always ideally chosen. Covering such a vast period of music and so many composers (Léonin to Turnage) in 350 pages is a challenge, so some inconsistencies may be forgiven. Nevertheless, I do wonder why these composers were included – Pacius, Ethel Smyth, Järnefelt, Nordraak, Canteloube, Bantock, Goldmark, Rheinberger, Kilpinen, Anne Boyd and Maconchy – while these were omitted – William Schuman, Frank Bridge, Korngold, Weinberg, Sallinen, Roslavets, K A Hartmann, Duruflé, Kancheli, Donatoni, Golijov and Lachenmann.

I like the many titbits of information, such as Schoenberg’s superstitious fear of the number 13, or Charles Ives’ benevolence towards poor families, leading to the adoption of one particular girl. On the other hand, if Janáček’s love for Camilla Stösslová is mentioned, then why is Berg’s equally significant passion for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin overlooked? There are four pages on Beethoven, but the late quartets are virtually ignored, while the prevalence of nicknamed compositions among the ‘key works’ suggests the triumph of populism over greater musical importance.

On page 169 Verdi’s Requiem seems to be mistaken for Mozart’s – ‘highly operatic effects like the trombone in Tuba mirum’. In summarising the Brandenburg concertos, the writer (Burrows or one of the other contributors?) should have described No 5 as effectively the first harpsichord concerto and should have mentioned the absence of violins in No 6. Also, Bach did not write ‘a series of sonatas’ for harpsichord. One grammatical shortcoming (eg ‘Though a placid person, her music...’) recurs many times throughout the book. At its best this guide is very good, but overall it is a little too variable to deserve an unqualified recommendation.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Classical Music, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing