Who is better to discuss music and the creative process behind it than musicians themselves? Here are seven titles to inform, enlighten, and change the way you think about music.
The Joy of Music by Leonard Bernstein
More than a simply a conductor and musician, Leonard Bernstein was a social activist and music lecture whose televised lecture series in the 1950s was very well-received. Subsequently, his 1959 best-selling book The Joy of Music was published, in which Bernstein covers topics such as composing, American music, and the genius of Beethoven with wit and insight through a series of imaginary conversations. Also included are photos, previously published articles, and transcripts of his television lectures. This is another volume that has been cherished by generations, and probably will continue to be esteemed by generations to come.
What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland
First published in 1939, this treasured title has gone through multiple runs, and for good reason. One of America’s foremost composers encourages readers to “take seriously your responsibilities as a listener.” His thesis is that intelligent listening is superior to “casual” listening, and gives readers the information and skills they need to be such informed, capable listeners of classical music, including contemporary and film music.
The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven by Charles Rosen
Pianist Charles Rosen’s award-winning analysis of the three most important composers of the Classical era — and indeed, of all Western art music — has been so influential that it even inspired a 2014 comic opera! First published in 1970 and revised for a 1998 run, Rosen’s intimate familiarity with his subject makes for a dense but interesting read that the New York Times called “a book for which both musicians and music-lovers should be grateful.”
Unfinished Journey by Yehudi Menuhin
Yehundi Menuhin was not only one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, he was also a great humanitarian, outspoken about politics and the events that unfolded during his life. In his autobiography, first published in 1976 and expanded and reissued in 1997, he discusses his career and creative process, but also his friendships with other luminous contemporaries, the issues he cared about, and everything from the atrocities to the pleasures of the great century in which he lived, whether those are his performance for the liberated inmates of a Nazi labour camp to the beauty of Yosemite National Park before it was overrun by tourists.
Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams
Described as “part memoir, part description and explication of the creative process”, Adams’ book discusses not only his own life and creative process, but the creative processes of his contemporaries, from Leonard Bernstein to Steve Reich, as well as the tumultuous musical and political environment of the 1960s and ‘70s, that era which ultimately produced the landmark docu-operas for which he is known, such as The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China.
Essays Before a Sonata by Charles Ives
Charles Ives’ music was revolutionary, and even contentious, in its time, and his essays are no different. These essays, meant to preface his “Concord” sonata, can be dense, philosophic, and even rambling, but also lively, interesting, and humorous. Now in the public domain and available for free online due to its 1920 publishing date, perhaps the best introduction is the one given by the writer/composer himself: “These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can’t stand his music—and the music for those who can’t stand his essays; to those who can’t stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated.”
Meet the Orchestra: A guide to the instruments of the orchestra through star constellations and Greek myths by Jonathan E. Peters
This beautiful and peculiar title might be thought of as a children’s book for adults. Composer Jonathan Peters has created a book filled with information and colour photographs, star diagrams, and illustrations, as well as a 14-track CD, that blends astronomy, myth, and narrative orchestral music using different instruments to illustrate each constellation/myth.