‘Composers’ book offers secrets to enjoying classical musicWritten by Chelsea Tipton | | email@example.com
“Secret Lives of Great Composers,” is a fun and enlightening book about more than 30 composers from Antonio Vivaldi (born 1678) to Philip Glass (born 1937). Elizabeth Lunday’s $16.95 book about many of the world’s most famous composers was published by Quirk Productions, Inc. Lunday, a journalist who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, specializes in writing about the arts and writes the “Masterpieces” column for mental_floss magazine. Apparently, she did a great deal of research as there are many stories with little-known details about these composers.
The book is in chronological order by the year of the composer’s birth, and is easy to follow. The section on each composer begins with his name, birth and death dates, astrological sign, nationality, musical style, most-known work and where you have heard it, as well as a generally comical quote from the composer. Lunday goes on to tell great tales about the composer’s youth, how he got started in a musical career, his romantic entanglements and how his career progressed — or not. It’s easy to read about one or two composers now, and then pick it up later to read about a few more.
Some of the details remind me of the pre-concert talks that the Toledo Symphony presents before the Classics concerts, details that are told as if the storyteller is talking about someone of his own time, with whom he is quite familiar. Many people who attend these talks tell me that these details about the life of the composer and the circumstances that led to his composing a particular symphony or concerto make the experience of hearing the music much more rewarding.
I mentioned that the astrological sign is included about each composer, and thought it was a bit odd to include that. However, I also noted that the first two composers (Vivaldi and Handel) were Pisces and the next two (JS Bach and Haydn) were Aries, and thought that was interesting.
Since the Toledo Symphony Orchestra (TSO), along with The Toledo Choral Society and BGSU Chorus, will present Handel’s Messiah this weekend, you may find this interesting. Handel composed this oratorio in less than three weeks, and that’s not even his quickest composition. Lunday tells the three theories of why it is traditional to stand during the Hallelujah chorus: King George II is reported to have stood the first time he heard it because (a) he was honoring Jesus Christ as the King of Kings, (b) his gout bothered him and he stood for relief or (c) he had fallen asleep “and the triumphant chords shocked him into standing.” As the author says, though, it’s best to stand during this part of the performance because everyone else will be standing — whatever the original reason.
TSO, highlighting six of our own musicians, will perform Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in mid-January. Lunday notes that this is “Vivaldi at his best: charming, imaginative, inventive, and undemanding.” I agree. In telling tales about his younger days, however, the author reports that Vivaldi’s family expected him to go into the priesthood and that he spent 10 years studying for what was not his own calling. During his first year as a priest, “tightness in the chest” cut short his occupation as a clergyman but that this “tightness,” probably asthma, didn’t seem to limit his strenuous conducting duties.
In March, TSO will perform Concerto for Saxophone Quartet by Philip Glass. Local stars known as Sax Fourth Avenue will be the featured players. Lunday notes that Glass used a variety of sources to compose in a new style for his generation, including the music of Ravi Shankar and Steve Reich. Although he was writing compositions that were performed in New York City and around the world, he wasn’t making a living at it and, for awhile was a taxi driver. It was also interesting to learn that Glass and Reich started a furniture-moving company called Chelsea Light Moving. Even though I’m a student of the martial arts and yoga, I’m glad I don’t have to haul furniture up the stairs of high-rise apartment buildings in NYC.
I trust that the legends, anecdotes and quips about these great composers will inform and delight you. Some are quite colorful, even shocking.
More importantly, it will allow you to enjoy listening to their music — more and more.
Chelsea Tipton is now in his seventh and final season as Resident Conductor of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, and two weeks ago he began his tenure as Music Director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas in Beaumont.