The Lives of the Great Composers

By Harold C. Schonberg

W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 653 pages

A Review by David Bugbee, Cheyenne, Wyoming

For fans of Classical music, a great book is Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers. I have the original edition, which came out in 1970 and covers composers from Bach through World War II with a small postscript to mention postwar trends. The third edition adds Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi, who preceded Bach, and covers Classical composers up into the 1990’s. 

Harold C. Schonberg (no relation, as far as I know, to composer Arnold Schoenberg) was for many years a music critic for The New York Times which carries a very informative online obituary about him. (He died in 2003.) Schonberg was a gifted writer, a real wordsmith who knew how to captivate the reader and hold his interest. His Lives is written, not for the technical or advanced musician, but for the educated general reader. He goes into some descriptions of pieces by the composers featured, but his primary focus is on their lives. The book contains a number of very interesting pictures and photographs.

I love reading about the composers’ lives. I have loved Classical music virtually my whole life. As a youth, Classical music was a big part of my identity, so reading about the lives of the composers is like reading about beloved old friends. For those who know nothing about these men, there’s a wealth of material covered. For those who, like me, have read other such books, there’s still plenty of information, a wealth of anecdotes, and interesting details. The book places the composers in the context of the cultures and times in which they lived and includes the ways in which they interacted with each other. 

Though not writing from a Christian perspective and intending his work for a general audience, inevitably Schonberg discusses the spiritual aspect of composers’ lives from time to time. Certain of them, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Anton Bruckner, were devout Christian believers. Others, such as Charles Gounod and Franz Liszt, had some measure of spiritual commitment, but seemed to live lives greatly embattled between flesh and spirit. Still others, sad to say, were out-and-out atheists or freethinkers, such as Richard Wagner and Frederick Delius. But most of the composers covered lived in an era when the West (primarily Europe, though there is one chapter on American composers) was still at least nominally Christian. Much of the music they wrote was beautiful and edifying—an approach which broke down dramatically during the Twentieth Century.

It would be fair to say that most of these musicians lived interesting lives. Some of them would probably have been wonderful to know personally. Among them would be Franz Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt, who went out of their way to help other composers, or Felix Mendelssohn and Antonín Dvořák, two of the more stable and well-adjusted. But for others, the music is all I would have cared to know. Richard Wagner was notorious for having an obnoxious personality. Arnold Schoenberg (whose early music was wonderful, but whose later pieces sound like kitty-cats ambling randomly across a piano keyboard) was embittered and nursed a persecution complex. Gustav Mahler could be a fierce, bullying tyrant at the conductor’s podium. At least three of these men, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and Bedřich Smetana, lived out their final days in insane asylums.  There is an especially haunting, troubling photograph of Hugo Wolf, whom the author regarded as the greatest writer of German art songs (Lieder). The haunted, staring, piercing eyes give some notion of a genius with a deeply troubled soul. 

The reality is that while the composers portrayed were master craftsmen, some of them musical geniuses, most of them could not be considered models of Christian character. Aleksandr Scriabin, whose early piano music was beautiful, was likely crazy in his later years and certainly bizarre in his beliefs. Hector Berlioz, considered by the author to be the epitome of musical Romanticism, lived an odd and obsessive life. The great Ludwig van Beethoven had disgusting personal habits and obsessively misguided behavior that drove his nephew to attempt suicide. A few did live honorably, but most of these men’s lives were troubled, bizarre, or simply messy. 

I don’t agree with every assessment made by the author. He gives too little space to a number of my favorite composers and includes a few that I would rather leave out. But on the whole, his views are informed and enlightening.

The book’s first edition ends with a discussion of serialism, the kind of music Classical composers were writing in the mid-twentieth century. Schonberg discusses the increasing gap between composer and listening public. His book ends with a metaphorical question mark. Classical music in the mid-twentieth century certainly had lost its way, the most prominent composers of the day writing pieces which might be suitable for horror movies but not for peace of soul. I would be interested to see how he handled the later decades in later editions of his book. The table of contents indicates his later editions cover more contemporary Classical music, some of which is much more approachable than the forbidding, experimental compositions being written at the time of the first edition. Though not mentioned in his book, it’s my own view that part of the reason for the increased marginalization of Classical music today, in addition to the omnipresence of Rock, is that during the early years of Rock, much of the Classical music being written was simply unlistenable for the average concert-goer, and people were just turned off by it.

Even those who don’t listen to Classical music would find interesting information in the Lives. Schonberg’s style is a pleasure to read, and the book covers an important aspect of Western civilization. 

–Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, former youth leader and mentor, Germanophile, and lover of Classical music, Dave is retired and is enjoying the cold weather of Wyoming.