Monday 11 November 2013

Music: The Definitive Visual History

Music: The Definitive History - The Electric Guitar
This new book is firm in its confident credentials, with 'Definitive' in the title. Music: The Definitive Visual History is from Dorking Kindersely so we can expect a high standard of presentation and plenty of images, all this in a substantial coffee table sized book running to 400 pages. There are a lot of images here. The editorial team is pretty impressive too, with Robert Ziegler as consultant and a 15 person authorial team including Malcolm Hayes, Nick Kimberley and Tess Knighton. 

The book is divided into eight sections, Early Beginnings, Music in the Middle Ages, Reniassance and Reformation The Baroque Spirit, The Classical Age, Nationalism and Romance, Music in the Modern Age and Global Music. The last two take up around half of the book, and Global Music covers both classical and world music since 1945 so that this isn't a history which is skewed towards classical music. The only area which is not specifically covered is folk music, though this is implicit in some chapters.

Music: The Definitive History - The Orchestra
Each chapter starts with an introduction and time-line, the time-line taking the form of a two page grid with years, each square of the grid containing an event or a picture. So that for Music and the Modern Age we get images including a poster for Strauss's Salome (Alex Ross's book The Rest in Noise in fact starts with Salome), pictures of a radio, of Prokofiev, of a poster for the film Man from Music Mountain along with facts involving people such as Sibelius, Holst and Hoagy Carmichael. Then there follows a series of double-page themed articles, these are more like patch-works full of information and images so that The Shock of The New includes discussion of Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky and Charles Ives, with pictures including a caricature of Richard Strauss, a page of the violin part from Berg's Lyric Suite as well as a box giving the basics about twelve-note composition.

Music: The Definitive History - Indian Instruments
Dotted throughout the book in addition to these historical pages, there are double-page spreads devoted to particular composers (e.g. Igor Stravinsky), instruments (e.g. the orchestra, the flute) and particular styles (Spanish Classical Music). Most of the articles include a 'before' and 'after' box to give an idea what came before and after whatever the subject, a neat device which enables the pages to remain thematic and still have a sense of development.

As a sample, I studied the two page biography of Handel in greater detail. The images include a large picture of the young-ish Handel, a picture of the organ in St Katharine Cree Church which was played by Handel, a manuscript of his as well as his tuning fork a contemporary depiction of the Royal Fireworks and an advertisement for Messiah. There is a neatly written biography which gives due weight to the various phases of his career, a list of key works and a time line.

Not every composer has his or her double page spread; if you want to learn about Vaughan Williams then he crops up on a number of pages (notably in the double page spread dealing with nationalism in music). But the index is admirably comprehensive.

The more recent subjects are inevitable rather varied. The last six in the book cover African Instruments, Hip-Hop, Club-Culture, The Korean Wave, New Voices in Classical and Digital Revolutions. These all discuss their subject in an admirably balanced manner. Whilst an expert would not learn anything new; I didn't learn anything from the article on Handel but then I would not expect to, but reading about The Korean Wave I find myself admirably filled in with background.

There is an eight page glossary at the back of the book covering everything from a capella and Boogaloo to Tresillo and Zarzuela, with a visual emphasis on music notation. There is also an admirably capacious index; Handel gets 16 references in addition to his double page spread, and Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen by Neil Sedaka gets an entry too.

The problem with any book like this is that the presentation can either be too thematic so that you loose any sense of history, or too historically driven which makes the reader think that history is a tidy procession. Here we have a nice balance which I think works. Though I do worry whether a reader might find it confusing, but then in the modern internet world, information comes in small bites so that is what we have here.

There is something wonderfully serendipitous about the book, you turn a page and there is an arresting new image, Malcolm Arnold conducting an orchestra in Walton's sound track for the film Battle of Britain, the score of Stockhausen's Mikorphone 1, Kenneth MacMillan's ballet to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The picture researchers have clearly worked over time, and it shows.

The book is £25 which isn't cheap, but given the size and content seems extraordinary value, and if you buy it from Amazon (see box below) then it comes far cheaper.

Alternatively you could enter our Competition to win a copy of the book.

Music: The Definitive Visual History
Dorling Kindersely
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781409320791

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