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Book Review

The Listener's Guide to Classical Music

Kenneth McLeish and Valerie McLeish
G.K. Hall & Co. 278 pages
ISBN: 0816173699
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

This slap-dash volume is a gold mine of misinformation. Here are just a few of the most outrageous examples: Stephen Sondheim (not Marvin Hamlisch) is identified as the composer of "A Chorus Line." Samuel Barber is credited with three operas, three symphonies and two string quartets – one too many in each category. Fritz Reiner's student Leonard Bernstein "learned conducting from Koussevitzky." Robert Schumann composed four symphonies "plus an unfinished fifth, published as the Overture, Scherzo and Finale." There *is* an early, unfinished Schumann Symphony in G minor, but it has nothing to do with the Overture, Scherzo and Finale.

Nor is the music of the authors' native Great Britain exempt. The three movement English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams is described as a "chirpy four-movement suite – originally written for brass band." And as if that weren't enough, the authors even claim to know the cause of the nearly-universal hatred of new music in the twentieth century. The villain? The phonograph, of course.

The writing is execrable. Describing Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, the authors claim, "The tunes (as Kismet demonstrated) stick in the mind like burrs" – a rather unpleasant choice of words given that the authors are apparently trying to praise the music. In contrast, their criticism of Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik is pure gibberish: "He turned out a dozen new pieces each year, of every kind and length from operas to recorder trios, and evolved a style for them which was efficient, effective and boringly, regularly very nearly very good."

The single useful aspect of this book is that following superficial notes about each listed musical composition, there is a short list of recommended works in a similar style. These selections are invariably well chosen and would be helpful to a beginner wishing to expand his or her musical horizons. That aside there is no reason to bother with this volume.

Copyright © 1995 by Tom Godell.