Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music
By Jan Swafford
Basic Books
A review by R.C. Speck

Jan Swafford is one of the best Classical music authors writing today. As a composer himself, as well as a historian and biographer, his books serve beautifully as gateways to the world of Classical music. They share a broad scope and reveal impeccable scholarship. Now, Language of the Spirit can be placed alongside his superb biographies of Brahms, Beethoven, and Ives.

Language of the Spirit does exactly what its subtitle promises—to introduce the reader to Classical music, starting with the beginnings and ending in current times. Unlike various listener’s guides and encyclopedias, this book weaves a clean and inviting narrative which reveals just enough about the music and its makers to entice one to take the journey even further. Also, since Swafford has at his disposal a tremendous bank of knowledge and experience, he includes enough esoterica and insider insights to keep Language of the Spirits interesting for expert readers and revelatory for the intermediate.

From Monteverdi to the moderns, each of the most important composers receives a chapter. Swafford provides biographical sketches within a broad historical context as well as a selection of what he thinks are composers’ most accessible pieces. Often Swafford recommends the A-list material, such as Mozart’s A Little Serenade or Brahms’ Symphony no. 1. In other cases, he goes out on a limb, as with Mahler’s The Youth’s Magic Horn or Stravinsky’s Les Noces. He doesn’t exclude the fun stuff either, such as Handel’s propensity for polylingual swearing, Dvořák’s passion for trains, Liszt’s James Brown–like onstage antics, or Wagner’s rather complicated (and scandalous) love life.

Swafford also pushes his pet favorites, such as the Jephte oratorio by obscure Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi. I’m sure that one will be a discovery for many.

As with all books of this nature, what Swafford leaves out also will invite commentary. Why do Britten and Copland receive their own chapters while Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff receive only special mentions? I’m sure fun debates will arise out of that.

Alongside the biography and history, Swafford also offers readable music instruction. For example, what are polyphony and counterpoint, and how do they differ from a historiographical standpoint? What exactly is a fugue? How does a clavier become “well-tempered”? What are the elements of sonata form? Why were the impressionists called impressionists? And finally, why is everyone so afraid of atonal music and the twelve-tone method?

In Swafford’s deft hand, this book is a fascinating primer on the fundamentals of music. With his love for music, its history, and its greatest practitioners, Language of the Spirit is a remarkable introduction to Classical music indeed.

This book review appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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