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A History of American Classical Music
by Barrymore Laurence Scherer
237 pages
Naxos Books, 2007
Paperback: 978-1-84379-117-1


Naxos has long regaled listeners with its American Classics collection, a series of recordings that cover American music from its earliest days to the present. There are 235 volumes in the series as of the writing of this review in June 2007. With discs from Stephen Foster to today’s young composers, no other label offers such a wide-ranging collection of American classical music.

Naxos has now released a book that can be seen as a companion to this series. This provides an overview of the genre from its origins to the present. Together with the two accompanying CDs that contain excerpts from certain works, and access to a special web site where book owners can listen to many more excerpts, this package provides an excellent way for listeners to discover more music from the United States.

While many American composers have attained international status, few are well known outside the world of contemporary music. Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and the minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich are familiar to most classical music listeners. Those more interested in this area will know John Cage, Morton Feldman, Walter Piston, Ned Rorem and others. But with this book in hand, you may be tempted to seek out works by lesser-known composers, such as - to mention just a few interesting composers I have discovered through the Naxos series - Edward MacDowell, Elie Siegmeister and David Diamond.

The book covers American classical music from its early days - discussing Stephen Foster, whose music I would hesitate to call "classical" - through the new millennium. As in all books of this kind, composer bios are more than succinct. An exception is made for Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein, each of whom gets his own short chapter. As expected, the book proceeds more or less chronologically, and covers a vast range of other composers. What it lacks in depth it makes up in breadth, giving one of the best overviews available of American music.

The author attempts to integrate aspects of American history in order to place composers in their contexts. Curiously, some of his historic comments are such understatements that they make one wonder whether the author really thought about what he was writing. For example, when discussing the Civil War, he says, "in which thousands of victims were slaughtered on each side". Reducing the war’s 600,000 dead to this vague statement seems insensitive at best.

The accompanying CDs are very useful, but there are some annoyances with them. While the book comes with two generous CDs, totalling nearly 160 minutes, additional music is available from the Naxos web site. You have to enter a password and other information that you find in the book. However, the samples provided on the web require Windows Media Player, and are encoded at a desultory 20 kbps; needless to say, these are useful only to get an idea of the music, not to appreciate the recordings themselves. Also, the recordings on the CDs are not available from the website, so you have to juggle from one to the other to hear all the music. On the other hand, you do get to listen to a fair number of complete works on the web site - the book's CDs only contain short bits of works with the notable exception of the full American in Paris on the first CD. This is, I suppose, to be expected for this type of overview.

It's obvious that all the samples are from Naxos recordings, which makes the book a kind of advertisement for their CDs, but Naxos's American Classics collection is an extraordinary project, offering many recordings of great American works and lesser-known composers.

Finally, Naxos did not find the best way to include CDs with books. The CDs are in plastic sleeves glued to the inside front and back covers. To remove the CDs - which stick to the sleeves - you must insert a bit of card between the CD and the sleeve, or tear out the plastic sleeves, which would damage the covers. There are many better ways to add CDs to books than this.

Despite these reservations, this is an excellent book for anyone interested in American classical music, and even more so for collectors of the Naxos American Classics series. Well written, well printed, with copious illustrations, there is plenty of meat in these 200-plus pages. One might want a bit more depth, but what is here is certainly worth reading.

Kirk McElhearn

A note from Naxos

With each Life & Music biography comes access to a dedicated website for that composer, containing hours of extra music to listen to. The works featured on the CDs may be enjoyed in full on the website (so in the case of Mahler, there are seven symphonies and four major vocal works!) plus many pieces by contemporaries of the composer. There is also a substantial timeline showing the composer’s life beside concurrent events in arts, literature and history.

These websites, together with the book and CDs, make for an unrivalled multimedia approach the biographical format and a uniquely rounded portrait of each composer.



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