Music Matters Blog (MMB): What is your musical background?
Ben Lansing (BL): As an instrumentalist, my music training includes piano from middle school to college and trombone in high school. As the author of a music history book, however, I also include music listening and music appreciation as part of my musical background. When I was twelve I bought my first classical music recording, a collection of excerpts from Beethoven’s most famous compositions. I knew absolutely nothing about music when I bought this recording. I didn’t know how to pronounce Beethoven’s name and had no idea what a symphony was. I didn’t even know that “classical music” was considered intimidating or “high brow” by a lot of people. I just liked the Beethoven sound and immediately became fascinated with classical music. Over the years I discovered more composers with even wackier names and was amazed at the diverse sounds and styles that were included in the category of “classical music.” Some of my favorite courses in college were music history courses because they helped to fill in the gaps for me.
MMB: What compelled you to write Bigwigs of Classical Music?
BL: I finished writing Bigwigs of Classical Music last year at the age of 22, but the book has roots that go way back to when I was a freshman in high school. Throughout my teenage years I collected a vast library of classical recordings, always searching for new composers and new styles in the seemingly limitless category of “classical music.” I quickly found that keeping a mental record of hundreds of composers from a period of over 1,000 years was a bit taxing, so I started jotting down the names of the composers in a notebook. Taking inspiration from my baseball card collection, I dedicated each page of the notebook to a composer and jotted down a few “career stats” under their names (like nationality, famous compositions, etc.). (Sure, it was different from the hobbies of most kids my age. But I didn’t watch much television so I had a lot of time on my hands.)
At the same time I was sharing all of the amazing music and fascinating music facts I was discovering with anyone that would listen. At first, I think many of my friends thought I was a geek. But slowly, they recognized that when the snobbish, high-brow facade is brushed away, classical music can be as meaningful, moving, and relevant as any other kind of music – and often even more so. As a result, a number of my friends began their own classical music collections.
I enjoyed sharing classical music so much that I eventually began a process of turning my composer notebook into a full-blown book that would introduce others to the joy of classical music. I wanted it to be fun and accessible for all ages, with not a hint of snobbishness. The result was Bigwigs of Classical Music, a music history book that traces classical music’s amazing history from ancient times all the way up to the 21st century.
MMB: How does Bigwigs of Classical Music differ from other music history books?
BL: There are a lot of good classical music books, but I don’t know of any classical music history book quite like Bigwigs of Classical Music. Most classical music books are humorless and dry. They assume that the reader is already familiar with names like Ockeghem and Stockhausen and terms like monophony and neoclassicism. Bigwigs covers scary-sounding names and terms, but it approaches every aspect of the classical music history with a spirit of discovery and fun. Each era of classical music contains fascinating anecdotes, cartoons, and novice-friendly information.On a deeper level, Bigwigs looks at classical music not as an isolated historical phenomenon, but as a product of the cultures, times, and events of the society in which the composers lived. Each composer’s life is examined in the context of those who came before and how the composer’s life influenced those who came later. When we listen to the music of Beethoven, for example, we’re not just hearing the music of some German guy that lived two hundred years ago. We’re hearing the emotional, spiritual, and artistic impact of the revolutionary period of the 1800’s that profoundly shaped our world into what it is today. When we look at classical music in this way, Stravinsky is no longer just Stravinsky, he is a representative of the war-torn 20th century. Hildegard, similarly, embodies the spirituality of the Middle Ages and the era of the Crusades, etc. History, after all, is the product of the struggle for ideas, and these ideas are expressed in no more compelling way than through classical music.
MMB: Do you have any specific ways you could envision a teacher using Bigwigs of Classical Music in their teaching?
BL: This book can be used in a lot of different ways. I have used it to teach high school students in a classroom setting, but it also works well for a self-guided study.
Whether the teacher is a music teacher, a home school mom, or a classroom teacher, they can use Bigwigs of Classical Music as an introduction to students who are new to classical music or they can use it to expand the interest of young folks who have already developed a taste for classical music and want to know more about it. I think it is also a great way to flesh out a general world history education. Classical music is literally the soundtrack of history. It’s one thing to learn about Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, through a textbook. However, when you can hear the great music of Napoleon’s time you gain a unique connection to how people of the Napoleonic era expressed themselves and their ideas about life. An entirely new dimension of history can open up.
MMB: Do you have plans to write any other music-related resources?
BL: There are a number of projects I am considering right now, some of which are music related. However, they’re all in the very preliminary stages right now, so I’ll wait until later to toot those horns.
MMB: Any other comments you’d like to add?
BL: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about my book and my love for classical music. I hope all of your readers find the same joy that classical music has given me throughout my life. Happy listening!