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Discover Classical Music of the 20th Century
by David McCleery
ISBN: 978-1843792376
Published: 2008
Paperback format
224 pp.
NAXOS BOOKS, an imprint of Naxos Rights International Ltd


Experience Classicsonline

Discover Classical Music of the 20th Century
is part of the excellent Discover Series from Naxos Books. Like all the other books in the collection, it is meant as a companion to showcase and access the relevant music on the Naxos website. However, it aims higher than that. It attempts to make audiences lose any discomfort they may feel when confronted with “modern” music by helping them understand its context and origin.

The book follows a similar layout to the previous ones in the Discover Series. The first two pages inform you and show you (through screen prints) how to access the website and listen to the music, which itself is mentioned in the text. If one does not already have an e-mail address and password registered, one needs to register again; this can be a bit fiddly. Once registration is complete you will be automatically taken back to the initial screen where you will need to enter the address and password that you have just registered. Then after clicking on the link entitled ‘music’, one finally lands on the website. The webpage is built in the same way as for the other Discover Series. There is a control panel available at the bottom, for each track, once one clicks on the “Listen” icon. This is clearly stated at the top. One can also go straight to the detailed catalogue page after clicking on the relevant CD icon or on the numbers in italics, which will enable the user to purchase the work. The sound quality is generally very good and one is given the choice of listening to the extracts in two different modes: FM quality (20 kbps) or near CD quality (64 kbps). The recordings chosen are all by established, distinguished artists, delivering critically acclaimed interpretations and giving excellent performances.

After the Index of Contents and the website access instructions, the book again follows the same layout as the others in the series. It starts with an Introduction that briefly summarises the history of the 20th Century setting out the historical and social context in which the music originated. Writing a summary that is not exhaustive but contains all the important facts of such a convoluted century as the last one is a nearly impossible task. For this reason I read the three and half pages of Introduction with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the author succeeds in giving the reader a brief summary listing all the main facts. On the other if, like me, you think historical detail is necessary fully to comprehend a particular tendency or a movement in art, be it music or any other form, you will feel a little let down. After the introductory pages, the book is well organised into chapters, each dedicated to a specific aspect of the development of music in the 20th Century, detailing the lives and works of the composers that led the changes and had the greatest impact. These chapters are then followed by the familiar final sections in the books of the Discover Series, which are very informative and user-friendly - easily accessible for a quick consultation. These are: a table entitled “Timeline of the Twentieth Century”, arguably one of the best features in the book. This contains at a glance, important dates in music associated with a composition or a composer, the relevant historical facts and the important events in other art forms (art, architecture, literature). There is a section with a useful list of composers, organised by first and last name in alphabetical order, with place and date of birth and death if appropriate, as well as a map indicating where they were born. To finalise, there is a glossary of terms, a brief note about the author, photography acknowledgements and an alphabetical index.

David McCleery, the author of Discover Classical Music of the 20th Century, has made a name for himself through his career in arts administration and by working with various distinguished composers. He is now firmly established in the field of media music. He writes in a factual, journalistic style, with objective and informative descriptions of the works and their creators. While his writing is fluid and focused, which is arguably the proper way of writing such a book, I found it sometimes a little dry and repetitive, which makes the reading experience slightly too didactic. Having said that, this is not a creative literary work but a guide to the classical music of the 20th Century. Even so, a little emotional depth when describing some of the pieces or the lives of the composers would have helped people relate more closely to music that can sometimes still sound strange and even annoying. There are some chapters that I found excellent and that managed to grab me and others where I struggled to get through. Amidst the best are undoubtedly Chapter III, Post-Romanticism; Chapter VIII, Music from Behind the Iron Curtain and Chapter IX, The American Tradition. Very interesting as well, are the accounts written by the composers’ contemporaries or articles detailing the reactions when various pieces were premiered.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed that McCleery did not write about Erich Korngold, a composer who more or less created film music, and that he mentioned the establishment of fascist dictatorships in Spain, Germany and Italy in the years following WWI but neglected to mention Portugal. Nevertheless, he managed to create a precious, little book that will be very helpful for someone who is not familiar with the classical music of the 20th Century and wishes to be initiated. For scholars or musicians, the book is too elementary but it can become a valuable tool when teaching or giving a lecture on the period.

To summarise, Discover Classical Music of the 20th Century is not exactly entertaining reading but it is an informative and accomplished book. Whether it achieves its aim of demystifying the subject of “modern” music, as it ambitiously states on its back cover, is arguable. I am not convinced that people will feel less apprehensive about the music after having read the book and listened to the pieces on the website. However, what it really achieves is to provide the average person, who wishes to learn more about music or extend their knowledge, with a book that is easy to consult. This is an insightful simple guide to a period of great change in music and a suitable, effective companion to the compositions on the website. 

Margarida Mota-Bull 


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