Friday Morning Reading: The Story of One Hundred Great Composers

Today my school is doing its second Live Remote Learning Rehearsal days.  These are days for us to test out remote learning in the event The Virus necessitates returning to distance learning full-timeLast time teachers tuned in from home while teachers were on-campus.  This time, both teachers and students are able to work from home, so I’ve been enjoying a more leisurely morning.

Indeed, I just wrapped up my first morning class of the day, a section of Middle School Music.  The students in that section wrote brief, rough draft biographies of renowned composers, and after giving them feedback in-class yesterday, they presented on their composers this morning.  It was a good lesson for digital learning, as it required their active participation for the bulk of the class, and they all did quite well.

I’ve assigned composer biographies in music courses for years, but what inspired the assignment this time around was the rediscovery of a charming little book I keep on a small end table in my den:  Helen L. Kaufmann’s The Story of One Hundred Great Composers.  Published in 1943, the book is a tiny, pocket-sized digest of two-to-three-page entries—arranged chronologically—of composers from the sixteenth century forward.

Bibliophiles will appreciate the following sentiment:  it’s a book that begs to be picked up and thumbed through.  It’s the size of my Moleskine pocket calendar (the only luxury office item I allow myself each year), and stacks beautifully with it.  It also slides neatly into my coat pocket, making it ideal to carry around for browsing during a rare moment of downtime.

Because of some renovations to my school’s gym, access to our tiny Music Room was blocked off, so my plan of rehearsing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” with the students was scuttled.  One thing I have learned from teaching in a small private school is that one has to be flexible, and able to think on one’s feet, so while rushing from the house Wednesday morning, I grabbed the Kaufmann.  In class, I passed it around, had the students take a picture of the pages for their chosen composer, and then spend some time researching their composers using the information from the book and from online sources.

One quality of the book that I appreciate is that, because it was written in 1943, it lacks so much of today’s hand-wringing about “representation” and the “problematic” details of the composers’ lives.  From scanning the table of contents, there does not appear to be a single female composer included—and the female author makes no complaints about this fact (how could she, if she’s the one compiling it).  I have nothing against women writing music, but this book doesn’t indulge in our distinctly postmodern habit of shoehorning in undeserving entrants simply because of their biology—or race, or chosen identity, etc.  It’s the same reason I loved The Story of Yankee Whaling, which doesn’t simper ineffectually about the endangered species status of whales.

Kaufmann also includes a very brief, humorous essays, “The People and Their Music,” about the origins of folk music, and how composers past and present pull upon folk melodies and ideas to enrich their compositions, and that the process of creating those folk-inspired works will continue to enrich music.  That assessment, in the light of the last eighty years of music history, might prove a tad optimistic, but it’s a powerful reminder that some of the greatest music—crafted in the hands of some of the greatest composers—comes from the humblest of origins.

Most importantly, though, The Story of One Hundred Great Composers is a wonderful resource for learning the quick details of a composer’s life and work.  The chronological arrangement also helps give a sense of a composer’s place in time, and who were his contemporaries.  Today, for instance, we realized that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died the same year Giacomo Meyerbeer was born.  That helped us better placed the lesser-known Meyerbeer historically and musically.

I highly recommend this little book if you can find a used copy.  It will make a charming addition to your collection—and may inspire you to listen to more music!

The Story of One Hundred Great Composers Cover Page

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