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This book’s five main parts are Music from the Beginning (mostly middle ages and renaissance, preceded by brief discussions of Sumerian artefacts, ancient Greeks and Romans); Baroque, Classical, etc, to Modernism and Beyond. Twenty-seven of the chapters are composer summaries, which are fresh, perceptive, wise and stimulating. The numerous anecdotes are often very funny, but accounts of deeper matters are succinct, penetrating and memorable. Swafford’s comments on Shostakovich’s 13th quartet – ‘bleak directness and unutterable sadness … like coming on a pile of dry bones in a forest’ – seem very apt. The summaries of such topics as polyphony, fugue and serialism are excellent, while on p204 his very important point about atonal music (and its necessity) is admirably expressed. He also ensures that we pay attention to social changes and how they have affected composers in various ways.

Swafford’s genuine love and respect for all the composers he has chosen to discuss (one exception is Philip Glass) are obvious on every page. Quotation of all the deserving passages would use up this entire review, but one or two humorous samples are essential. A viola-player in a rehearsing quartet asked the listening Brahms, ‘How do you like our tempos?’ ‘They’re good,’ Brahms said. ‘Especially yours.’ Apropos Ligeti’s violin concerto: ‘a chorus of ocarinas (that flute thing shaped like a potato) ... at once goofy and creepy ...’ I hope these give a flavour of this very special book, which in my experience is easily the best of its kind.

Swafford is American, so his allotment of eight pages to Ives is expected – and justified – but his entries on Elgar and Sibelius are disappointing, while his chapter on Schumann (otherwise fine) includes this inconsistency: ‘brilliant miniaturist, but had a limited ability to shape large-scale forms in an organic way….’ then (next page), ‘helped establish the idea of “cyclic” instrumental works.’ Mention of small errors is not intended to detract one iota from an enthusiastic recommendation – Liszt’s Transcendental Studies are not ‘after Paganini’, and he composed Hungarian rhapsodies, not dances.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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