The Essential Canon of Classical Music, by David Dubal. First edition, 2001, 770pages. North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-608-X. $40.00 (list)
Endeavoring to summarize classical music for both the initiated and uninitiated in one volume is a tall order indeed. David Dubal, a pianist and professor at Juilliard who was for over 20 years classical music program director at WNCN and is currently a broadcaster on WQXR in New York, has attempted a book that will provide necessary background information on Classical Music and Musicians to tyros and cognoscenti alike.
He succeeds half way. The book will be of great use to newcomers to classical music and occasional concert goers, but to the regular classical music lovers and professionals it'll mostly serve as a resource for a game of Musical Trivial Pursuit.
Dubal divided the book into five major sections for five major music periods, from The Medieval, Renaissance and Elizabethan Ages all the way to The Age of Modernism. The introductions to these chapters are the best and most useful part of the book, giving a well reasoned historical and cultural overview of how these periods evolved, where they came from and where they went. He repeatedly emphasizes the cultural continuity between the periods and the arbitrariness of such divisions. His own arbitrariness, however, is reflected in such odd categorizations as putting Richard Strauss among the Romantics but Sergey Rachmaninov among the Moderns.
Following these introductions, the book reflects more and more Dubal's own prejudices. He covers 60 of whom he considers major composers at length, giving a lot of biographical information and providing thumbnail sketches of what he considers their most significant works and influences. The problem is his choice of major composers: he has a love affair with Hugo Wolf, to whom he dedicates seven pages and Frederick Delius (5), but omits Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Philip Glass. Those three, together with 173 others, are relegated to the list of minor composers, meriting on the average less than a page each. Some contemporary hot commodities, like John Adams and Steve Reich, are omitted altogether. He adds a list of recommended recordings to the compositions discussed which is an interesting reflection on his personal taste.
Dubal states in the introduction that the idea for the book and its format was the result of the questions he encountered in the course of his radio work. Having run a weekly classical music radio program myself for ten years, I recognize the questions, but also the language. Sentences do not read the way they sound when spoken on the air, and Dubal frequently writes the way he probably broadcast, especially in the opening sentences of the individual chapters. This makes for choppy reading.
Reliance on spellcheckers and grammar checkers is the bane of contemporary book publishing because it tends to preclude thorough proofreading ("Smetana died nine years before his mind snapped..." p. 299). But occasionally Dubal gets his facts wrong as well. His discussions of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (p.566) and Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain (p.352) are in error and need further research and rewriting. The index needs proofreading as well: Anton Webern's page is listed under Carl Maria von Weber.