Composers: Their Lives and Works (DK, 320 pages) is a richly illustrated coffee table book in which eight authors profile some 160 composers over a thousand years of Western music, starting with Guido d’Arezzo (c. 991- c. 1033); the Benedictine monk was “not, strictly speaking, a significant composer” but he developed a system for writing down music that is the basis for Western music notation. It also apparently annoyed the other monks enough so that he left the abbey and became a music teacher.
The last profile in the book is of Eric Whitacre (born 1970) whose specialty is choral compositions, and is
big online. (Not mentioned in the book, since it surely happened after its deadline: Whitacre recently produced a video of 1752 singers from 129 countries performing his “Sing Gently”)
In the preface to “Composers,” the authors make clear (if unintentionally) that their book is less a methodical survey of Western music than a compendium of colorful Western musicians:
“The popular ‘Hollywood’ image of the great composer has been created largely by the giants of 19th century music whose lives are the stuff of legend: Beethoven, the proud, rebellious outsider, increasingly isolated by deafness; Berlioz, pouring his unrequited passion for a beautiful actress into one of the most original of all symphonies; Chopin, the exquisite poet of the piano whose career was blighted by debilitating illness; Tchaikovsky, whose turbulent personal life and puzzling death continue to inspire speculation, and Wagner, whose colossal ego was matched by his colossal creative energy and originality. Not all composers have been such memorable personalities, of course, but there are nevertheless many remarkable characters among them….”
Still, if there is more emphasis on the men and women than on the music, there is implicit in that preface an adherence to a musical hierarchy, which is made explicit by the number of pages devoted to each composer. At the top are Mozart (whose portrait is on the cover), Bach and Beethoven – each of whom gets six pages, including timelines and sidebars and photographs of their pianos and a page of their sheet music. This is followed by some thirty composers (the “giants” of that paragraph in the preface, as well as Schubert, Schumann, Straus and Stravinsky, etc.) who are profiled in four pages apiece. Then there are some 60 (including Whitacre as well as Aaron Copeland, John Cage and many I’d never heard of ) who get only a single paragraph. The rest get two pages each. So it’s no automatic disparagement that the profiles of two of the three American composers whose work included Broadway musical theater scores are in that last, largest two-page category.
What might give Broadway aficionados pause, though, is what the authors of the book say about their work.
Leonard Bernstein, we’re told, “was acclaimed worldwide for his contributions to both ‘serious’ concert music and Broadway musicals”
The quotation marks around the word serious are by the authors, who never explain what they mean by serious, nor why they put it in quotes. Are they trying to soften the blow? Are they trying to absolve themselves of the responsibility for the judgment that any music performed on Broadway is unserious?
They attribute that judgment directly in the two-page spread about George Gershwin, who provided “music for a string of hit shows…Despite his successes, Gershwin yearned to be a ‘serious’ composer..” Again with the quotation marks. Are they actually quoting Gershwin now, or is this just another dodge?
Six other Broadway composers are mentioned in “Composers Their Lives and Works.” Kurt Weill, composer of Three Penny Opera and One Touch of Venus, gets a paragraph: “A composer who bridged the gap between popular and serious music.” (This time the serious is not in quotes.) The others get this: “Composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Richard Rodgers learned their trade in Tin Pan Alley, but now turned their attention to writing songs for the Broadway musical theatre and the movies.” That’s it. That’s part of the two pages on Gershwin, in a short sidebar entitled The Great American Songbook. There is no other mention of any of them. There is no mention of Stephen Sondheim or any other living musical theater composer.
For that matter, there is no mention of Duke Ellington, even though that would give the authors another opportunity to talk about serious versus popular music. Indeed, I couldn’t find any African-American composers at all.
You can’t include everybody of course.. But these omissions seem all the starker for several reasons. The authors make an obvious effort to include women composers in each of the six chapters, from “Before 1600” to “Late 20th to 21st Century.” And there is an implicit promise in the preface, when the authors talk about how “the scope of music has expanded not only in genre but also in style and in the range of instruments….” I guess that doesn’t extend to jazz by Black artists or jazz hands on Broadway..