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The Lives and Times of the Great Composers
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 9 September 2010
It's "The Lives and Times of the Great Composers". Not "The Lives and Works of the Great Composers". There's a significant difference. As Michael Steen points out in his introduction:-

"The art of Biography
Is different from Musicography.
Musicography is about cellos
But Biography is about fellows".

This is very much a book about fellows; it is certainly not an introduction to classical music for the beginner, but appears to be written for those who are already familiar with the Classical repertoire and want to know more about the personal lives of those who wrote it. It is essentially a series of potted biographies of famous composers, concentrating less on their works than on their finances and their love lives and also, often, on the political background against which they wrote. That phrase "and Times" in the title is significant too; Steen clearly has a good knowledge of European political history and wants to make maximum use of it.

It is always going to be a matter of debate which composers deserve the label "great", and fashions in musical greatness tend to vary over the years. Bach's music was regarded as unfashionable for nearly a century after his death. Mozart was not venerated in the late nineteenth century in the way he is today. It is unlikely that a book with this title published fifty years earlier would have included Mahler; today it would be virtually impossible to exclude him.

Steen's emphasis in this book is very much on the nineteenth century, possibly reflecting his own personal preferences. The Baroque period is represented by Handel and Bach alone, and then it's straight on to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Even a figure as familiar to the modern concert-goer as Vivaldi is omitted. Only two composers born after 1900 (Britten and Shostakovich) are covered at all, and no composer born in the final third of the nineteenth century has a whole chapter dedicated to him. Modernist atonal composers are omitted altogether. Even among nineteenth century composers there are some surprises, with Bruckner possibly the most surprising omission and Scriabin the most surprising inclusion (apart from the minor members of the Russian "mighty handful" who get in by association with the likes of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov). The entries on some big names are surprisingly brief; Dvorak, for example, is lumped in with Smetana, Janacek and Bartok as a "Central European Nationalist", although that may be less a reflection on the quality of his music than on the fact that his life was not very eventful.

Any music-lover will be able to think of his own particular favourite whom he would like to have seen included, but that is not really a criticism of the book. Any attempt to increase the number of composers covered would have either led to the book becoming impossibly bulky or to a reduction in the length of individual entries, which would have made it indistinguishable from a biographical dictionary. My own criticism would be that I would have liked to have seen more about music and less about politics. To take an example, was it really necessary to take up three of the ten pages devoted to Edvard Grieg with a discussion of the Dreyfus affair? (His Piano concerto, however, possibly his greatest work, only merits a few lines). Steen's justification for bringing French politics into a discussion of a Norwegian composer was that Grieg played a very minor part in this affair, refusing an invitation to conduct in Paris in protest at the way Dreyfus had been treated. Oddly, however, Steen ignores altogether Grieg's support for Norway's independence from Sweden, something achieved two years before his death.

Events such as the War of the Austrian Succession or the Crimean War may be of great interest in themselves, but here they are given more prominence than one might expect in a book on music. I felt that political matters like these only needed to be dealt with in depth where composers were directly caught up in them (e.g. Wagner's participation in the 1848 revolutions) or where they directly affected their music. Beethoven's music, for example, would doubtless have been very different had there been no French Revolution or Napoleonic Wars, and one cannot understand Shostakovich without reference to Soviet cultural politics.

Although Steen states that detailed musical analysis was beyond the scope of his book, there are times when I felt there should have been a greater emphasis on the music written by his subjects. To take an example, I would not have expected in a book of this nature a lengthy disquisition on all five movements of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony", but I would have welcomed a mention of the fact that Beethoven wrote it, if only because the fact that he had a deep love of nature and was inspired by that love to write one of his finest works would have acted as an antidote to the general picture given of Beethoven as a grumpy, reclusive, drink-sodden misanthrope.

Beethoven is not alone in having a negative picture drawn of his character; a lot of others come off equally badly. Steen writes of Puccini that, apart from Janacek, he is "probably the least likeable of all the composers described in this book", but does not say why he finds either man so obnoxious. (To be less likeable than Wagner is no mean feat, and if Steen's allegations about Tchaikovsky are correct he was not only a deeply unhappy man but also a deeply unpleasant one). Certainly, both Puccini and Janacek were serial womanisers, and compulsively unfaithful to their wives, but they were far from being alone in that. Indeed, miserably unhappy marriages are a recurring theme in this book, Elgar being singled out as a rare exception. Sometimes I felt that it was the wives who the subject of unfair criticism. Steen writes of Berlioz being "caught between two dreadful women"; this may be true of his mistress Marie Recio, but I have always felt sorry for his wife Harriet. Someone should have taken her on one side and told her that a man who writes a programme symphony depicting, inter alia, his own execution on a charge of uxoricide is unlikely to prove an ideal husband.

There were a few errors, most surprising being the statement that Mahler completed his tenth symphony, which was famously left unfinished at his death. The French president who sent troops to Rome in 1849 was Louis Napoleon, not Cavaignac, and Mussorgsky's birthplace Karevo is 250 miles south-east of St Petersburg, not south-west (which would place it in Latvia).

Overall there is a lot of useful biographical information in this book, but I felt that Steen fell into the same trap as Bill Bryson did when writing about scientists in his recent " Short History of Nearly Everything", that of writing about famous men with insufficient reference to what they did to become famous. The subjects of this book are, after all, famous because of the music they wrote, not because of their personal eccentricities or the number of women they slept with.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
"[Mad King] Ludwig had been given Wagner's 100,000-word essay 'Opera and Drama' when he was thirteen years old. It was thus no wonder that the boy suffered from hallucinations.' - The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, pg. 474
There are startling, or new, or witty observations like this on practically every page of this meticulously researched 984-page book that chronicles the lives of the great composers and the times in which they lived. I have been reading such books for nigh on fifty years and yet I found something new and instructive frequently in this marvelously written book. Michael Steen studied at London's Royal College of Music but later made a career in the City. He writes in a graceful style that urges the reader on.
There are chapters devoted to individual composers (or groups such as 'Glinka and The Five') from Handel to Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. Lesser composers are remarked upon in the many interesting digressions contained within the main chapters. One certainly gets a sense of the social and political ambiance of the times under discussion, and Steen makes an effort to draw connections between those events and the works written in their midst. There are many illustrations including maps, pictures of the composers and other musicians and other cultural figures of the times. There is something here for the neophyte as well as for the grizzled music history buff like me. Clearly great thought was given by the author and by Oxford University Pressto the arrangement and presentation of the book and it could hardly be bettered.
An enthusiastic recommendation.
Scott Morrison
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
"[Mad King] Ludwig had been given Wagner's 100,000-word essay 'Opera and Drama' when he was thirteen years old. It was thus no wonder that the boy suffered from hallucinations.' - The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, pg. 474
There are startling, or new, or witty observations like this on practically every page of this meticulously researched 984-page book that chronicles the lives of the great composers and the times in which they lived. I have been reading such books for nigh on fifty years and yet I found something new and instructive frequently in this marvelously written book. Michael Steen studied at London's Royal College of Music but later made a career in the City. He writes in a graceful style that urges the reader on.
There are chapters devoted to individual composers (or groups such as 'Glinka and The Five') from Handel to Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. Lesser composers are remarked upon in the many interesting digressions contained within the main chapters. One certainly gets a sense of the social and political ambiance of the times under discussion, and Steen makes an effort to draw connections between those events and the works written in their midst. There are many illustrations including maps, pictures of the composers and other musicians and other cultural figures of the times. There is something here for the neophyte as well as for the grizzled music history buff like me. Clearly great thought was given by the author and by Oxford University Pressto the arrangement and presentation of the book and it could hardly be bettered.
An enthusiastic recommendation.
Scott Morrison
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on 17 February 2015
This is a very disappointing and mediocre book. There is far too much material about the times and in in this respect it is greatly inferior to any standard school text book. There is not a lot to be learned about the lives of the composers, even less about their personalities and not much at all about their music. The writing is very poor. Overall, the book is greatly inferior to Harold Schonberg;s lives of the great composers. I first read Schonberg over 30 years ago but as a stimulus to follow up the music of the composers and understand its provenance he greatly excels Steen's unexciting tome. Sconberg is a bit outdated but has not been surpassed.
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on 25 February 2015
Very enjoyable from a content point of view - it is biographical in the main, so don't expect an in depth exploration of the music itself. I would have given 5 stars - but the kindle version is atrocious! There are no links to many 'asides', and the text is clumsily copied. I'd have asked for a refund, but am enjoying it enough to keep going - needs fixing though!
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on 7 December 2014
Have only just started this book and have found some parts of the section on Handel out of order with the font changing from one page to the next, some parts repeated and some missing.
I hope it doesn't continue like this.
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on 11 August 2014
If you like classical music, this is a fantastic book. Totally readable. Extraordinarily well researched. Own it and enjoy.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2013
This book is pleasant but very frothy and lightweight. It is full of gossipy anecdotes but - as other reviewers have pointed out - contains next to nothing about the actual music.

The author's distinction between fellows and cellos is all very well, but at the end of the day, we are only reading about these people because of the music they created, so the whole exercise is a waste of time unless the author tells us something about that music - how the composer came to write it, who influenced him and whom he influenced in turn, how his music changed over time, how popular it was and is now, which were his more important works, etc.

"Lives of the Great Composers" by Harold Schonberg The Lives Of The Great Composers: Third Edition gets the balance right between personal biography, anecdote and music. Plus, it's much better written.
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on 3 August 2014
A good and interesting book
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9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 14 April 2009
Lured by the enthusiastic blurb, I made the mistake of buying a copy of this book. It was, for me at any rate, an almost complete waste of money. The selection of composers covered is, to put it politely, eccentric, with woefully inadequate coverage of early and twentieth-century composers (Bartok has to make do with less than four pages whereas Offenbach and Johann Strauss get a 26-page chapter to themselves, while Byrd, Tallis, Hindemith and Ligeti are not even mentioned in the index). The coverage elsewhere is patchy and superficial. There are howlers (the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does NOT state that St Anne was a virgin after giving birth to Mary, something a former Oriel organ scholar should not have found it too difficult to check). Gossipy this book may be, but it contains surprisingly little about the music written by its subjects, and nothing of any substance. This is a kind of musical Suetonius, without the literary style - all the salacious details you don't really need to know but no artistic insight or judgment worth bothering with. I am sorry to be so negative, but I really do consider this book a waste of money. Anyone wanting a reasonably detailed account of the lives and times of the great composers would do far better to hunt down a second-hand copy of Greene's 'Encyclopaedia of Composers'.
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The Lives Of The Great Composers: Third Edition
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