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Symphony: A Listener's Guide [Paperback]

Michael Steinberg
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 Dec 1998
Enriched by biographical detail, historical background, musical examples, and many finely nuanced observations, this volume is a treasury of insight and information. Readers will find illuminating discussion of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Elgar, Sibelius, and Mahler, as well as of the most loved symphonic works of Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, and others.

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Symphony: A Listener's Guide + The Concerto: A Listener's Guide (Listener's Guide Series)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 698 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (1 Dec 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195126653
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195126655
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 4.8 x 15.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 489,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review

, renowned critic Michael Steinberg offers music lovers a monumental guide to this most celebrated of musical forms, with perceptive commentaries on some 118 works by 36 major composers.

a treat for those addicted to reading the program notes before the concert begins (Booklist)

About the Author

an essential book for any concertgoer and any new or veteran fan of classical music (Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director, The San Francisco Symphony)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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A mass of images, remembrances, and ideals comes instantly to mind when we hear the word symphony. Read the first page
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Symphonic Splendor 1 July 2009
By Roochak
Format:Paperback
This is the first of three collections of reworked and expanded program notes that annotator Michael Steinberg wrote for the Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras in the 1970s and '80s. It's quite an entertaining and informative guide to the standard symphonic repertoire.

Steinberg has the rare talent of writing about music in prose as precise and informed as it is imaginative and informal. He opens our ears to music that so often passes as background noise that we've nearly forgotten how to listen to it. Here, for example, is a stunning passage about the slow movement of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 in B flat:

"For the Adagio, Haydn borrows a movement from the Piano Trio in F-sharp minor he had written earlier that year...The actual sound of the movement is the most remarkable that Haydn ever imagined. Trumpets and drums are muted, a solo cello injects its gently penetrating timbre into the middle of the texture, and just before the end, the two trumpets in their lowest register contribute a sound so extraordinary (literally) that it still tends to frighten conductors, many of whom remove it."

A lifetime's worth of listening, learning, and writing have been distilled into this book, and gems of observation are on nearly every page. Try Steinberg on the question of Nowak vs. Haas in the slow movement of the Bruckner Eighth: "I am talking about thirty-five seconds of music, but the difference is stunning." Then there's the question of "composer approved" cuts in the Rachmaninov Second: "Some of the standard deletions consist of petty impatiences like reducing the four measures of accompaniment at the start of the first Allegro to two, but they have also entailed such brutal surgery as the removal of the entire principal theme from the recapitulation of the Adagio.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beginner's perspective 26 July 2001
By Steven Carroll - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The other reviewers here have given you the perspective of die-hard classical music fans. I am not really expert enough to comment on ommisions and such. But I would like to present another possible reason to purchase this book. Classical music can seem kind of inscrutable to the outsider, but this book sort of walks the reader (and listener) through each piece. I've used it to pick what piece to track down next. This book will enrich the listening experience and the listening skills of the musically minded amateur i think. It did for me.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensable 17 Sep 2001
By David A. Kemp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A wonderful book. Michael Steinberg is probably the premier writer of program notes for symphony orchestra concerts in the English-speaking world, and his two books, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995, 678 pages), and its companion volume The Concerto: A Listener's Guide (Oxford UP, 1998, 506 pages), are probably the two best collections of program notes on the symphony and the concerto that have ever been published in English. Steinberg formerly wrote the program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently writes them for the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He was music critic of the Boston Globe for twelve years. These two books come with glowing recommendations from such distinguished musical figures as Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Andre Previn, Herbert Blomstedt, Roger Norrington, and John Adams. Speaking as one who has attended countless symphony orchestra concerts on the East Coast, West Coast, and in Dallas for more than forty years, and has always read the program notes, I can say that I've never read any as good as these. They are readable, learned, witty, accessible, and delightful, full of important biographical and historical information, and of course musical description, evaluation, and analysis that is genuinely illuminating and enlightening, without being so technical you need to be a musicologist or seated at a piano to understand it. (Inevitably, there are some musical examples, but these are relatively few, usually fairly simple, and you don't have to understand them to grasp the meaning of the text.) I would recommend these two books strongly to any lover of classical music, anyone who attends symphony orchestra concerts.
Having said this, I can't help noting a few unfortunate omissions. The Symphony is a thick book and perhaps one is ungenerous to cavil at such a generous and generally inclusive and comprehensive volume. All the Beethoven symphonies are included, of course, as are all the symphonies of Brahms and Schumann, and all the major symphonies of Haydn (only two symphonies before No. 86), Mozart (no Mozart symphonies earlier than No. 35, "Haffner"), Tchaikovsky (three symphonies), Dvorak (four symphonies), and Bruckner (six symphonies). The two greatest twentieth-century symphonists, Mahler and Sibelius, are covered in full, including all of their published symphonies and the unfinished Mahler Tenth (but not the early Sibelius "Kullervo" symphony). The third great twentieth-century symphonist, Shostakovich, is represented by seven of his fifteen symphonies. Both Elgar symphonies are included. The most striking lapses are in the French repertoire: the Franck D minor symphony and the Saint-Saens Third ("Organ") are unaccountably omitted, and these are serious omissions. The Schubert Fifth is omitted. Copland is represented by his Second ("Short Symphony"), not his much better known and more frequently performed Third. The same can be said of Hanson, who is represented by his Fourth ("Requiem"), not his Second ("Romantic"). Among the moderns, there are some strangely arbitrary (and, one suspects, personal) choices and omissions: for example, Roy Harris' Third is omitted, although symphonies by Harbison and Hartmann are included; the Harris is surely better established in the standard repertoire than either of these composers. For Vaughan Williams, two of his most popular and accessible symphonies, the First ("Sea") and Second ("London"), are omitted in favor three later symphonies (only 4, 5, and 6 are covered).
Despite these omissions, I recommend this book and its companion volume warmly and wouldn't be without them. Now I wish Mr. Steinberg and Oxford University Press would give us a third volume, covering the large body of orchestral music that is neither symphony nor concerto (such as tone poems and symphonic suites and dances, ballets and ballet suites, incidental music to plays and pageants, major overtures and preludes, et al.).
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars great, but with 20 pages more it would have been perfect 20 Sep 1999
By N. Daniele Pietro - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I greatly enjoyed this book: Steinberg's style is lively and full of wit, but authoritative nonetheless, which is rare. As a reference book, this is an invaluable "tool" for the music lover and the scholar alike. As a fan of British and American music I found the Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Schuman chapters really praiseworthy. So, why not 5 stars? I think that, if you write such a kind of book (a "guide"), you should try to find a balance between the objective and the subjective, Steinberg tends decidedly to the subjective, which is good when he gives us so many insights about composers or conductors he met, much less so when this affects the selection criteria. For example, talking about American music, he spends pages talking about the Steinberg-dedicated Harbison Second (I bought the CD after I read the book and I found it very empty and rambling) and just a few (denigratory) lines about the Copland Third, which is a a classic , like it or not. And what about the almost total omission of the French symphonies? You won't find Franck and Bizet, as Amazon points, but also Saint-Saens is missing , and I don't think a book about symphonies can be without his Third. All in all, an indispensable issue, but with some flaws.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Symphonic Splendor 22 April 2009
By Roochak - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I couldn't help but notice the seemingly endless complaints about works that aren't included in this book. Well, let's turn to the first page of Michael Steinberg's introduction, where he states that "Most of these essays began life as program notes for symphony concerts." In other words, he wrote about what the Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, which he worked for, were actually playing in the 1970s and '80s. If the Franck Symphony and the Copland Third, let alone any of C.P.E. Bach's twenty or so symphonies, aren't among the "electives" in this book, blame it on the orchestras' music directors, or perhaps the purchasers of season tickets.

Steinberg has the rare talent of writing about music in prose as precise and informed as it is imaginative and informal. He opens our ears to music that so often passes as background noise that we've nearly forgotten how to listen to it. Here, for example, is a stunning passage about the slow movement of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 in B flat:

"For the Adagio, Haydn borrows a movement from the Piano Trio in F-sharp minor he had written earlier that year...The actual sound of the movement is the most remarkable that Haydn ever imagined. Trumpets and drums are muted, a solo cello injects its gently penetrating timbre into the middle of the texture, and just before the end, the two trumpets in their lowest register contribute a sound so extraordinary (literally) that it still tends to frighten conductors, many of whom remove it."

A lifetime's worth of listening, learning, and writing have been distilled into this book, and gems of observation are on nearly every page. Try Steinberg on the question of Nowak vs. Haas in the slow movement of the Bruckner Eighth: "I am talking about thirty-five seconds of music, but the difference is stunning." Then there's the question of "composer approved" cuts in the Rachmaninov Second: "Some of the standard deletions consist of petty impatiences like reducing the four measures of accompaniment at the start of the first Allegro to two, but they have also entailed such brutal surgery as the removal of the entire principal theme from the recapitulation of the Adagio. Cuts do not solve formal problems: they merely shorten the time you have to spend dealing with them."

We also learn of Schumann's homage to Bach in the Second Symphony, and of how much Mahler learned from Schumann's example; of the surprising parallels between Beethoven's rollicking Eighth Symphony and his "Serioso" opus 95 string quartet; and on the seemingly intractable second movement of the Sibelius Third: "Not only can you yourself reverse your hearing of the melody much as you can make the tick-tock of a clock change step, but Sibelius also calls in the basses ever so softly to contradict the flutes and clarinets or the violins in their rhythmic reading. And those basses, though they hardly ever rise above mezzo-forte, want very much to be heard."

Steinberg tells an irresistable anecdote of how Leonard Bernstein, having read one of his program notes for the first time, accosted him at Tanglewood, saying "You -- you have always been such a bitch to me, but now it turns out you love music." Steinberg certainly does, and that love is evident on each page of this book.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle edition is poor quality 4 Oct 2011
By Colin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The other reviews have addressed the content in some detail. Readers are warned that the Kindle edition of the book is of poor quality. Text appears to have been scanned without proper conversion. Unlike other Kindle books legibility is poor and text scalability is limited. This is really unacceptable and should be an embarrassment to the publisher.
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