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The Life of Music: New Adventures in the Western Musical Tradition

The Life of Music: New Adventures in the Western Musical Tradition
Nicholas Kenyon
Oxford University Press, 2021
A review by Greysolynne Hyman

Western classical music has a long and fascinating history, which Nicholas Kenyon illuminates in several ways. Each chapter has a topical title such as “Chant” or “Masters,” and they proceed sequentially in time from early (35,000 years ago in a German cave) to late (Hamilton on Broadway). Kenyon is an expert on early music, having edited a book about it and as a member of the editorial board of the journal Early Music. Beginning with some of the first notated music of classical Greece, he takes us on a detailed journey through the gorgeous and increasingly complex world of medieval and Renaissance music. Along the way, we are always made aware of the influence these composers and their music have on each other.

Musical interaction is a theme throughout the book. For example, we learn that eighteenth century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt not only knew Beethoven but also studied piano with Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny. Antonio Salieri was Liszt’s music theory teacher, and he met with Claude Debussy. When Richard Wagner died, Liszt composed a musical tribute to his son-in-law.

Another area of expertise and passion for Kenyon is contemporary classical music. His technical explanations of these sometimes puzzling works are enlightening, and he sets them in their cultural and historical contexts. Particularly interesting is his discussion of how popular music—musicals, movie music, and dance music—and classical music influence each other. The clear conclusion is that classical music is alive and very, very well.

Two of the most remarkable features of this book come at its end. The title of one of them speaks for itself: “100 Great Works by 100 Great Composers in 100 Great Performances.” Not only does Kenyon provide that information, but he states in his charmingly lyrical style why he has chosen each of these performances. The other feature is “Further Reading.” These books form the bibliography from which he has drawn information for his own encyclopedic work as well as having their own bibliographies to broaden our knowledge.

A glossary of musical terms would have been a useful addition to this book. The Life of Music will be appreciated most by those with a substantial musical background.

This book review appeared in the fall 2021 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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