The newest book by Robert J. Stove, who has written for this website, A Student’s Guide to Music History, is a compact study of great composers prepared for ISI Press. For those who are looking for bulky surveys of Rob’s subjects or else detailed biographies of individual composers, such as Ernest Newman’s four-volume The Life of Richard Wagner, it may be necessary to look elsewhere. Rob himself, by the way has produced a learned work on the most famous Renaissance composer in Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World, but what he has brought forth here is quite different. Although an accomplished organist and a trained musicologist, who has broken the ideological barrier by being allowed to publish (on strictly aesthetic matters) in the neoconservative New Criterion, Rob has written here a short cultural history of the Western tradition of music as reflected in its most renowned practitioners.
The merits of his book are its graceful prose, which is exactly what one would expect of the author, and its insights into the creative process. Although some of Rob’s tastes are more avant-garde than my own (presumably he deeply admires the innovative symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich and the artistic value of Bartok, Kodaly, and the early Stravinsky), his withering comments on Arnold Schoenberg and on the “twelve-tone-alias dodecaphonic- method” of musical composition bristle with sarcasm. In a “grossly oversimplified but accurate summation” of Schoenberg’s method of “giving each of the twelve notes in the octave an equal value,” Rob calls attention to what seems a ludicrous modernist experiment. It is an intellectually challenging experiment but one that fails to produce anything that is pleasant to the ear, although Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg did well by cheating, that is by “allowing pre-Schoenbergian tonal implications into his writing.”
Among those cultural questions this guide engages, the most important one comes at the beginning, where Rob explains that often his “judgment on a specific recent creator defies today’s consensus.” He then goes on to note that musical judgments have been far from constant: “A hundred and fifty years ago, such currently obscure figures as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halevy stood unchallenged among composition’s supreme immortals. During the same period, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Louis Spohr were widely thought to surpass Beethoven.” All of this rings true, but it might also be asked whether Meyerbeer or Hummel was as inferior to Beethoven or Mozart as today’s pop music composers or producers of atonal esoterica are to Meyerbeer and Hummel. The great musical tradition in earlier centuries combined high levels of technical accomplishment with melodic themes drawn from a still vibrant folk culture. Such music also often reflected and incorporated religious sensibility, even in the cases of composers who were not personally devout. But what does one do when the communal context that nurtured earlier composition, written for the ages, no longer exists? I’m not sure Rob would have the answer to this tricky question.