Books ABOUT music?

I just finished Piano Notes by Charles Rosen and loved it. I played piano for years as a child and teenager and never got as far as learning the nuances he eloquently describes.

A couple of the books I've read about classical music in the last year and a half are, I think, going to hold up as lifelong favorites for me (in any genre, not just writing about music). Those are Indivisible by Four by Arnold Steinhardt and Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson.

I would love other recos for great books about music, classical and otherwise. I've heard Patti Smith is a particularly good memoirist, but haven't actually read any of her stuff yet.

What say you, BKs?


  • Here are some music-related books I've enjoyed, though they do range rather far from serious looks at classical music:

    Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks: music-related neurological and/or psychological case studies, often quite fascinating.

    Edu-Manga: Beethoven - a manga-format biography of Beethoven, surprisingly thorough (at least I thought so).

    I Hate Myself and Want to Die, by Tom Reynolds:   an amusing and sometimes pointed book about themes of death in popular music.

    Touch Me, I'm Sick: also by Tom Reynolds, this one about creepy love songs.

    And in the fiction category: Terry Pratchett's Soul Music, in which he does in-depth Discworld riffs on "music with rocks in".
  • I found The Megamusical, by Jessica Sternfeld, to be really interesting.  It reviews the big spectacle shows of the 1980s (Evita, Cats, Phantom, Les Mis) and covers both the production history of the show and the musical arrangement.  I'm not a musician, so some of the finer points about repeating chords and recurring motifs were lost on me, but on the whole it was accessible even to someone without formal training.
  • Classical music:

    Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music, by Jane Glover, is very good.

    If you are also looking at fiction, I'd recommend Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, about a lutenist in the Danish court in the 17th-century.

    If you are interested in opera & gender, try Wayne Koestenbaum's The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and Corinne Blackmer's En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera.

    A couple of interesting books about instruments are The Countess of Stanlein Restored, by Nicholas Delbanco, and American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins, the art and science of the violin, by Quincy Whitney.

    RE:  Patti Smith.  I've read her memoir, Just Friends, and definitely recommend it, though it's really more about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe than it is about music.

  • edited June 2016
    @Lilithcat definitely interested in fiction! I tried Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (about a circus rider who becomes an opera diva during Napoleon III's time) and thought it was fluffy and not that interesting, and also Scarpia by Piers Paul Read, which is Tosca with the villain as a sympathetic character. The latter was better, although not a book that I'll go back and reread by any means.
  • Did you ever read Body & Soul by Frank Conroy? It's a novel from around 1993. I read it so long ago that I don't remember the details, but I remember I loved it and that it was beautifully evocative of what it is like to be a musician.
  • edited June 2016
    @Lilithcat definitely interested in fiction!
    In that case .  .  .

    Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett!   Utterly fabulous (except for what I thought was a tacked on ending).  (There's also quite a good opera based on it, by Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez, with libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Nilos Cruz.  The Lyric Opera of Chicago production will be shown on PBS' Great Performances during the 2016-17 season.  Keep an eye out for it!)

    Very different is La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman who organizes an amateur orchestra in a small English town during World War II.

    I like the Canadian author Robertson Davies very much, and several of his novels have music at their core.  I'd particularly recommend A Mixture of Frailties and The Lyre of Orpheus.  Though each is part of a trilogy (not the same one - Davies really liked trilogies!), they can be read on their own.

    Sharyn Crumb has written a series of mysteries set in Appalachia called The Ballad Series.  As the name suggests, each is inspired by a ballad.  The Songcatcher is more focused on music in terms of plot than the others; it's been described as the story of "a song's passage through history", from England to the Appalachians.  All her books have an air of the otherworldly, and are beautifully written.

    And now for something completely different .  .  .

    The Metropolitan Opera Murders, by Helen Traubel
    and the original source of the popular musical, The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux
  • BTW, I'll add that I do NOT recommend Richard Powers. On paper, his novels sound so "me" -- I read Orfeo, which is about a molecular biologist whose life revolves around classical music, and The Time of Our Singing, which intersects opera singing and race issues. Sounds fascinating, right? Except the way he writes is so dense and esoteric that I couldn't enjoy them, neither as stories nor as commentary on music or society.

    A friend of mine who tried to read Orfeo told me he was relieved that I felt that way. He said he felt like he was reading a music history textbook that he couldn't understand, but if I didn't get it either (I'm more of a classical music fan than he is), then he wasn't going to feel bad for quitting the book :P
  • I agree that The Time Of Our Singing was unreadable.

    And I second the recommendation of the Sharon McCrumb ballad novels (especially the earlier ones) and especially Robertson Davies.

    I have to say that the ending of Bel Canto ruined it for me completely.
  • What an interesting thread!  I’m shy about recommending this one, @stellavision, because it might not be at all the kind of thing you’d like, but...Grand Obsession, by Perri Knize.

    It’s nonfiction.  Knize goes piano shopping and falls in madly love with the voice of a specific Grotrian-Steinweg that is crazy-far out of her price range.  Here’s her description of that voice:  “, dark, and warm, with singing overtones.  The middle section is smoky and mysterious… The treble is bell-like and sparkling; it hangs in the air, full of color, a shimmering Northern Lights.”

    She names the piano Marlene, then goes all out to possess it...and of course things go very wrong!  Some of the odd characters she meets along the way are a writer’s dream.  Who knew that piano-tuners, for example, can be such artistes? :)

    (One negative:  I dunno, but there seems to have been some attempt – perhaps it was even the publisher’s idea after the fact? – to cast her story in the same light as the popular-at-the-time ‘quest' books like Eat Pray Love.  Because at times  the “obsession” just feels unnecessarily ginned-up a bit.  For me that was easy enough to get past, though...and otherwise I really liked this unusual book!)

  • @WinterWhite I did enjoy The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, so who knows?

    Definitely some titles in this thread I want to look into, although it doesn't help that I popped into a bookstore last night "just to browse" and my queue suddenly expanded by four books :P
  • If people like fiction, one of my favorite books is How to Kill a Rockstar by Tiffanie Debartolo. Its a really light read but its about this singer who signs with a big-shot record label when all he really wants is to just do his own music. 

    That's all I can say about that without giving anything else away. But here's the URL for anyone interested:
  • How about Clockwork Orange by Burgess?   I never listened to Beethoven the same again! 
Sign In or Register to comment.