On its back cover Bigwigs of Classical Music promises the reader a unique, easily accessible, humorous, illustrated presentation of the fascinating story of history’s greatest music. And amazingly, author Ben Lansing delivers on every count! If I had to sum it up in two words, I would call my journey through this 310 page music history guide Engaging and Memorable. (Thankfully I don’t, though, so I’ll continue. 🙂 ) I found myself quickly drawn into the overview of each musical era and the subsequent composer biographies, understanding more completely than ever before the context for their lives and the times in which they lived (and not at all overwhelmed by any of the dry, cumbersome facts that often accompany music history texts).
From Ancient to Contemporary music, Mr. Lansing utilizes his witty writing style to draw the reader into the pages of history and then give him a glimpse into the lives of the composers who both reflected and influenced the society in which they lived. Whether reading from beginning to end or randomly selecting composer biographies, readers of all ages and musical backgrounds will appreciate the down-to-earth, easy-to-follow story that Mr. Lansing weaves throughout his book.
Biographical sketches of 75 of history’s great composers fill the book, along with an illustrated portrait of each composer (drawn by the author, a professional cartoonist), a quote by or about the composer, and a creative byline like “The Nineteenth Century Rock Star,” “The Roly-Poly Opera Guy,” or “Stalin’s Pincushion” (wanna guess who any of those are?? 🙂 ) to capture the essence of each composer in a memorable way. The chapter for each composer (consisting of 2-3 pages) concludes with Mr. Lansing’s personal listening recommendations and a few brief notes to help the reader become familiar with each composer’s key contributions to the music world. (I absolutely love this about the book and feel like I have a road map to guide me in exploring the music of composers I’ve not been very familiar with up until now!)
In addition to these 75 composers, an additional 97 composers and their notable works are referenced and briefly described. The book’s three appendices include a Glossary of Musical Terms to define words printed in bold throughout the book, an alphabetically arranged Glossary of Composers, again with short descriptions of each composer, and a Complete List of Music Recommendations, organized by genre, then composer. An extensive bibliography with books referenced organized by composer is the second to the last entry in the book, followed by a brief biography of author Ben Lansing.
Formatted on 8½x11″ paper, there is lots of room to underline and make additional notes in the margins. The layout is consistent throughout the book and is typeset in a traditional Times font that allows for easy reading. Bigwigs of Classical Music is available as both a traditionally bound book and as an e-book. The e-book version is especially useful for teachers as Mr. Lansing has stated that although his book is copyrighted he has “no problem with a teacher printing several pages from their version of the book to distribute to their students.” This is a perfect way to help students get to know the composers of the pieces they’re studying! Just print out the couple of pages for the composer and send them home with the student to read as part of their assignment for the week.
I’m over halfway through this fun book and have already found occasion (okay, so maybe more than one!) to impart to my students my newly acquired knowledge of anecdotal information about these composers and I’ve got the biography of Dvorak printed out and ready to give to my highschool student who’s playing the theme of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and told me he loves Dvorak’s music. Between the easy-to-print e-book version on the computer and the traditionally bound version on my bookshelves I’m sure my studio will be overflowing with music history geniuses. 😀