Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Monteverdi, Yay! Puccini, Meh! an Opinionated Guide to Classical Composers

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Monteverdi, Yay! Puccini, Meh! an Opinionated Guide to Classical Composers

Article excerpt

What is greatness in music? Does it matter? Does there need to be a greatest composer in history?"

Anthony Tommasini, chief critic of The New York Times, poses these and more questions at the start of his fascinating, provocative and eminently readable new book, "The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide," pointing out that "the field of classical music has justifiably been criticized for its obsession with greatness, with certifying a repertory of canonical masterpieces."

The germ that sparked this book was a controversial series of articles the author wrote in 2011 on "The Top Ten Composers," which solicited suggestions from the NYT readership and pleased practically no one, because some of everyone's favorite composers were inevitably omitted from the list. Here, Mr. Tommasini gives 17 of his own choices, from Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) to Igor Stravinsky, who died in 1971 -adding an epilogue in which he discusses composers whose works are too recent for us to know whether they will eventually fall into the "greatness" canon.

"What's the big deal about Mozart? About Verdi?" Mr. Tommasini asks. "That's what I've attempted to explain."

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I can only write a subjective review of this very subjective book. Mr. Tommasini and I have much in common that has made my worldview of music akin to his. Although we have only met occasionally and under professional circumstances, and he's a decade younger, we were both born in Brooklyn, grew up listening to early LP recordings, taking music lessons while being exposed to New York's classical music scene, majored in music at an Ivy League college and went on to get doctorate degrees at Boston University.

When Mr. Tommasini cites Leo Schrade's 1950 Monteverdi biography to support the thesis that this composer was the seminal figure responsible for the coming of "modern" music, I recall that book as one of my musical bibles from college days -it still sits prominently on my shelf. I, too, would name Monteverdi as the first of the "great" composers. I could use the chapter on Monteverdi as notes for my own lectures on the birth of opera and the early Baroque without committing plagiarism. It contains everything I think an audience needs to know about the subject. Later in the book, Mr. Tommasini's explanation of Schoenberg and the development of the so-called 12-tone system is likewise brilliant and succinct.

I don't concur with all of Mr. …

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