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Book Review

A History of American Classical Music

A History of American Classical Music by Scherer
Barrymore Laurence Scherer
Sourcebooks, Inc. 2007. 247 Pages
Originally published in the UK by Naxos Books
Includes a Naxos CD. TT: 78.06. Illustrated
ISBN-10: 1402210671
ISBN-13: 978-1402210679
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This book originated as a text accompanying a Naxos boxed set of recordings called The Story of American Classical Music. Currently, besides including a single CD keyed to the text, it promises access to a huge amount of music available online. I have not been able to experience that benefit, perhaps because of the settings on my computer. In any case I will confine my remarks to the book.

Scherer is generously inclusive, especially for such a short book, and he takes a very broad approach to his subject, both chronologically and even with respect to what he includes as classical music. For instance, he includes ragtime, operetta and musical theatre. He goes way back, not only to the Pilgrims but even to the Conquistadors, and includes details of some obscure 19th-Century composers. As for the 20th century, he gives accounts of more than a hundred composers, with enough specificity that the book can be said to have reference value. Ives and Bernstein are given short chapters to themselves; Gershwin and Copland are also given a few pages. Quite a few others are discussed at greater length than one might expect. Scherer is remarkably evenhanded in his space allocations; he has no axes to grind and appears to like everything.

Actually, this book is not so much brief as concise. Scherer is frequently remarkably precise in his descriptions. To give two instances, he defines ragtime in terms of both its metric rhythm and harmonic chords, and he distinguishes Cowell's use of tone clusters from Ornstein's.

There is much I found of interest in this book that lengthier surveys of American and 20th-Century music by Struble, Gann, Ross and Horowitz do not include, to my recollection. For instance, I never knew that so many American operas had been produced, including one by Walter Damrosch on The Scarlet Letter, and that Louise Talma, one of Nadia Boulanger's students once called the "female Stravinsky", but whose style transformations ranged from impressionism to serialism, was the first American to have an opera (with libretto by Thornton Wilder) produced by a significant European house. Among more recent events, I had not known that André Previn, whose 2001 Violin Concerto was a love offering to Anne-Sophie Mutter when they married, was no longer married to her.

There is much more. I recommend the book.

Copyright © 2008 by R. James Tobin

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