A HISTORY OF AMERICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC.
By Barrymore Laurence Scherer. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2007. 247 Pages.
Originally published in the UK by Naxos Books.
Includes a Naxos CD. TT: 78.06. Illustrated.
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 Andre
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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