Frederick the Great plays flute in his summer palace Sanssouci, with Franz Benda playing violin, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach accompanying on keyboard, and unidentified string players; painting by Adolph Menzel (1850–52)

On a Literary Note

From works of non-fiction to novels, and video documents to feature films, Xerxes F. Unvala, General Manager – Symphony Orchestra of India & Western Classical Music at the NCPA, recommends essential reading and viewing to widen your understanding of and delve deeper into the genre.

Framing a list of resources that one should seek out on Western classical music is not a simple task, not least of all due to the broad scope of the genre. There is an endless list of iconic biographies and scholarly resources for those wanting to delve into the lives of composers or performers and their work. However, rather than detail these, in selecting the items listed below, I have tried to create a list that may appeal both to new listeners as well as those familiar with the genre. This is by no means suggested to be exhaustive. Rather, it is a broad swathe of materials I have encountered over the years that helped ignite my interest in or have in some way shaped my thoughts on music – those that I feel have taught me something and that I have simply enjoyed reading or watching. They range from introductory materials that I consumed early on in my discovery, to books I am in the midst of today. 

Video documents and films

A lot of my initial interaction with the genre was through films, whether documentaries, rehearsal videos, or concert performances, many of which I continue to return to even today. One of the forever-classics in classical music appreciation is Leonard Bernstein’s series of Young People’s Concerts recorded with the New York Philharmonic. Perhaps one of the best pedagogues music has seen, apart from his “other” jobs as pianist, conductor and composer, Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts display an uncanny ability to explain even complex musical ideas in a way everyone, including children, can understand, appreciate and enjoy. In a world where classical music, and art in general, tends to get pushed to the margins, we need more Leonard Bernsteins who showcase so exceptionally how classical music can be for everyone.

The behind-the-scenes look at what goes into creating a performance or a recording is also fascinating. The ability to peek into the off-stage lives of the artistes serves to, in a way, “humanise” the music and the genre. The films of Christopher Nupen come to mind here, particularly The Trout, which takes us backstage with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim as they prepare for a performance of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet. The performance that follows is all the more enjoyable for the glimpse at the preparation and camaraderie between some of the biggest names in the genre. 

Similarly, The Golden Ring gives us a rare seat in the recording studio with Sir Georg Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic and some of the leading singers – Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Wolfgang Windgassen and Gottlob Frick – and recording engineers of the day. This is an intriguing insight into what went on during the sessions for what remains one of the most iconic recordings of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle. This was the biggest recording project when it was created and the documentary offers a glimpse of the energy, emotions and tension in the studio, along with some remarkably beautiful excerpts of the music.

Several video documents of rehearsal footage also exist, published variously as ‘In Rehearsal’ or ‘Great Conductors in Rehearsal’, which show just how a performance is shaped behind the scenes. The differences in rehearsal style of each conductor – from Solti and Celibidache to Mehta and Salonen and many more – is striking, and these films prove as enlightening as they can be entertaining.

Fiction and non-fiction

For those seeking a deeper understanding of the music they are listening to, Aaron Copland’s book What to Listen for in Music provides just that, with succinct chapters on topics of music theory including the common forms employed in musical composition. Central to Copland’s vision is his proposition that there are three “planes” on which we can listen to music – the sensuous, the expressive and the sheerly musical – and that armed with this basic knowledge, one will get greater enjoyment out of the experience, listening on all three planes.  

Alex Ross is music critic for The New Yorker and writes regularly on music and related topics. His book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which won numerous awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer, takes the reader on a century-long journey beginning in 1906 with the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome. In tracing this journey, the book touches upon everything from Bach and Beethoven to Brecht and The Beatles. The book focuses not simply on the music, but also the cultural and social milieu that creates and defines it. Ross attempts to break the false boundaries of perception that have been set up between classical and other genres of music. This is also a central theme of his 2004 essay in The New Yorker titled Listen to This (also found in this book of the same name). The subhead – “A classical kid learns to love pop, and wonders why he has to make a choice” – succinctly describes the real-world impact of this imaginary division of genres, and Ross’s tongue-in-cheek style, peppered with tidbits of music history through the ages, makes for entertaining and pertinent reading.

The year 2020 was to be a major moment in music history, marking the 250th birth anniversary of the composer who least needs an anniversary year to be feted and heard. While the prevalent situation has severely altered plans for Beethoven celebrations around the world (many have moved online), the stack of Beethoven biographies has grown. There are, of course, several biographies of his that have been published over the last two centuries, including acclaimed classics by Maynard Solomon and Lewis Lockwood. Amongst the new entrants this year is Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces. In this relatively short book, aimed also at the classical music novice (explanations are given for musical terms used), Tunbridge identifies nine works spread across Beethoven’s career and uses these as an entry point to tell the story of his life and times. The “times” are an important feature – the book eschews the now-clichéd image of Beethoven as the Romantic genius with a wild temper and hair to match – and we are also presented with grasping anecdotes dealing with everyday life of a highly regarded composer, from rehearsal time, to his love of coffee, and copyright woes. 

Music has also proved a source of inspiration for several authors and has become a central theme in some of their writings. Vikram Seth and Haruki Murakami come to mind, as does Julian Barnes. Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time features Dmitri Shostakovich as the protagonist, detailing his struggles with the Soviet authorities, and consequently, with his own conscience. One must keep in mind to not treat this book as a biography – though based on real events, this is a fictionalised retelling of the composer’s life. Nonetheless, it makes for a gripping read, unearthing larger questions of a composer’s role in society, struggles between art and politics, and the human experience during this period in history. And through this, it brings us closer to the real Shostakovich. 

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the October 2020 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.