A comprehensive introduction to the world of classical music makes a case for the 100 greatest composers.
Intended as an entry point for those interested in the subject but who lack knowledge, this debut book offers an overview of the history of classical music and Smook’s list of the greatest composers, beginning in the Baroque period and ending with 20th-century giants. The volume’s ranking relies on a six-tier rating system for composers based on “the aesthetic importance of their major musical works; the overall substance of their musical legacy; their innovations in musical form and style; their influence on other composers.” In the first and highest tier, the author lists Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Unsurprisingly, German and Austrian composers are the most represented in Smook’s conservative list. Each composer entry delivers a brief biography and includes a section on the artist’s musical legacy. The author offers this description of Chopin’s legacy (the Polish composer is in Tier 3 of Smook’s rating): “Chopin created or developed a number of new forms of solo piano music to exploit his poetic use of the instrument.” The legacy sections include samplings of the composers’ popular works. There are also miniprofiles of artists who almost made the top 100 list (among them, Anton Webern—musical cousin to Schoenberg—and the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt). The author’s descriptions are a bit dry though the book is intended for neophyte listeners. The brief overview of classical music history effectively avoids jargon and includes clear definitions of musical terms (for example, “cantata” and “recitative music”). In the introduction, the author admits to no formal musical training and confesses that he doesn’t play an instrument. The work adds nothing new to interpretations of classical music (“I am not presenting new information,” Smook asserts). The volume also suffers from a bizarre insistence on categorization—“Remember that music falls into four basic categories,” he tells readers, which he identifies as Orchestral, Chamber, Keyboard, and Vocal. Still, the book should serve as a helpful and handy guide to those new to the genre.
This compendium of musical biographies offers useful insights and accessible descriptions of various styles, composers, and periods.