Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Free Opera Webcast:  L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi

Orpheus and Eurydice, painting by Edward Poynter

Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo recounts the ancient story of Orpheus, who after celebrating his wedding, must descend to Hades in a quest to bring back Eurydice, his bride, who has died of a snake bite.  After beguiling the powers that be with song, he is told that he may reclaim Eurydice–but there’s a catch (isn’t there always?):  he cannot look back at her to see if she is following as he leads her back to the world of the living.

L’Orfeo is one of the first operas, written in 1607, and it is still performed today.  Monteverdi didn’t invent opera (Jacopo Peri did), but as Howard Goodall puts it, Monteverdi was the first one to write good opera.1

You can now see Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for free on The Opera Platform.  The opera is presented by the Komische Oper Berlin, with new orchestration by Elena Kats-Chernin.  The opera is performed in German.  There are no subtitles, but here are some libretto links:  in German, in English and ItalianThe full score may be found here.

The opera will be available until June 30, 2017.  Here’s the trailer.

And here you can see a lively aria from the opera.  This does not sound like music from 1607!   I hope you will enjoy it.



  1. BBC Howard Goodall’s Story of Music Episode 1 of 6: The Age of Discovery (time stamp 53:18); also Goodall, Howard, The Story of Music. New York: Penguin Books, 2013, pp. 69-74.


Image attribution: Orpheus and Eurydice, painting by Edward Poynter, [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, .


Haiku Wednesday: Classic Books on Classical Music

Photo of stack of books about classical music

Richard Taruskin
Howard Goodall, Burkholder,
Grout, and Palisca.

Aaron Copland and
Leonard Bernstein, Grove, Schonberg,
And Willi Apel.

Need some history?
Explanations, or old scores?
Then seek them all out.

I just finished reading Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music, and I highly recommend it.  Goodall does a fantastic job of presenting the development of music from prehistory to today in language that everyone can understand.  You don’t have to read music, or have studied music.  You won’t get bogged down in terminology.  And it is very entertaining.  There was also a companion tv series, but sadly it is not available on DVD.  It too was very well done, very lively.  You may be able to find recordings of the original series on the internet.

I got to thinking about classic books that provide an in-depth look at western music and music history, and I wanted to let you know about some of them.  Some of these are for reading, some for reference.  This list is far from exhaustive.  You may want to leave a comment if you know of a great classic resource that I’ve omitted that you’d like to share.

So who are these people in the haiku?

Richard Taruskin is the author of The Oxford History of Western Music, a five-volume set that reaches from the time of early notation to the late 20th century.  Taruskin and Piero Weiss are the editors of Music in the Western World, which is a phenomenal collection of primary-source documents.  You can read excerpts of the letters of Monteverdi, or CPE Bach’s writing on playing keyboard instruments.  Or Josef von Spaun’s personal recollections of Schubert.

Howard Goodall is the author of not only The Story of Music, but also Big Bangs, in which he discusses revolutionary developments in music history, such as the development of notation and equal temperament.  Big Bangs is also available in DVD format.  Again, an excellent, easy to understand exposition.

Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca are the authors of the current ninth edition of A History of Western Music.  My ancient third edition is by Grout alone.  The latest edition incorporates music of the twenty-first century and permits streaming of all the repertoire in the Norton Anthology of Western Music.  As in Taruskin’s five-volume tome, you will find a wealth of information, abundant detail, and sheet music to illustrate the discussion.  BG&P are well known to many university music students.

Aaron Copland’s What To Listen for in Music will help you learn to identify elements of music such as rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone.  It will also teach you about different forms of music, such as the sonata, fugue, and variations.

Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music takes a different approach.  He begins with a series of imaginary conversations to get at the meaning of music and other topics.  The second half of the book includes transcripts of some of his early Omnibus television programs on Beethoven, jazz, conducting, Bach, and opera, among other topics.  Later, Bernstein hosted the incomparable Young People’s Concerts, which are available on DVD.

Grove.  One word that speaks volumes.  20 actually.  But it’s not a person.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is the comprehensive source of information on all things musical.  There is also a Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music.

Harold C. Schonberg is the author of The Lives of the Great Composers, The Great Conductors, and The Great Pianists.  The slant is more biographical than analytical, and if you love a good biography, you’ll enjoy Schonberg.

I include Willi Apel because he and Archibald T. Davison are the editors of the two-volume Historical Anthology of Music.  These are some meaty HAMs, two volumes of music scores for the period before the Classical era of classical music.  The Norton Anthology of Western Music covers a greater span of time, but there is something special about this collection.  Norton looks like regular sheet music.  And here is a slice of HAM (here’s L’Homme armé, which I wrote about recently):

Song L'homme arme and Kyrie of mass of same name by Dufay

And finally, let me not forget Charles Rosen, whose books The Classical Style, Sonata Forms, and others provide an in-depth treatment of these very specialized topics.

All of these are books are available through your favorite book vendor.  Some are available as ebooks.  For the budget-minded, look to the library, or eBay (or Amazon marketplace) for earlier editions of these classic works (eBay–HAMs–$10–just sayin’).


Bernstein, Leonard, The Joy of Music. Amadeus Press, 2004.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V., A History of Western Music, Ninth Edition. W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.

Burkholder, J. Peter, and Palisca, Claude V., The Norton Anthology of Western Music.  W. W. Norton & Co, 2014.

Copland, Aaron, What To Listen for in Music.  Various publishers, Copyright Aaron Copland 1985.

Davison, Archibald T., and Apel, Willi,  Willi Apel, Historical Anthology of Music.  Harvard University Press, 1949.

Goodall, Howard, Big Bangs.  Vintage (Rand), 2001.

Goodall, Howard, The Story of Music.  Pegasus, 2015.

Rosen, Charles , Sonata Forms.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1988.

Rosen, Charles, The Classical Style.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Sadie, Stanley, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, Inc., 1995.

Sadie, Stanley, The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1994.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Lives of the Great Composers. W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Conductors. Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Pianists. Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Taruskin, Richard, The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Weiss, Piero and Taruskin, Richard, eds., Music in the Western World.  Schirmer Books, 2007.


Image attributions: C. Gallant, 2016.

1 Comment

What Would Mozart Play?

Well, he’d play a Stein piano, for one.  Here is a piano that Mozart played that was built by Anton Walter, based on Stein’s design.

Fortepiano specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout talks about how Mozart’s piano differed from the modern piano here.

Beethoven owned a number of pianos.  Here is an inventory.

A program on the restoration of Beethoven’s Broadwood is here (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Parts 3 and 4 feature bagatelles, part 5 contains Beethoven’s Fantasia Op. 77.

Chopin played a Pleyel (No 13819 in fact) from 1848.  He said, “When I am not in the mood, I play on the Erard piano, where I find the ready tone easily. But when I am full of vigour and strong enough to find my very own tone – I need a Pleyel piano”  Check out these offerings from (Chopin fans, your weekend is now planned) on Chopin’s Pleyel, Erard. and Broadwood pianos .  Here is Chopin’s Pleyel piano.

Here’s a historical recording of Raoul Koczalski playing Chopin’s Pleyel (year given here as 1847) in 1948 in Warsaw.

Want more?  A show in Howard Goodall’s BBC Big Bangs series is devoted to the history of the piano.  I own the series and recommend it (available for purchase at the usual venues).  I would also like to recommend his Story of Music tv series (from the paleolithic to the present!), but sadly, the BBC has not made it available for purchase at this time.  Clips from the series can be seen here.  It is, however, available in book form.

Leave a comment

Music History as Entertainment

I recently came across some entertaining and captivating music history series produced by the BBC (and was reminded of a few others from the past).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music.  Howard Goodall is a composer and a lively presenter (American PBS fans: he wrote the themes for the tv shows Red Dwarf, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Mr. Bean, as well as film scores, choral music, and musicals).  This six-part series covers music history from prehistory to modern times, with modern examples used in earlier periods to illustrate the timelessness of certain musical techniques.  Unfortunately, the only official venue to see the series is on the BBC site, which offers only clips.  A shorter version was also produced for use in schools.  I have an inquiry in to the BBC to find out if they will be releasing it on DVD, but have not yet received a reply.  The material of the series is also available in book form, available at the usual venues and possibly at your local library (The Story of Music, Howard Goodall, 780.9 G).  Here’s the BBC page with clips.  Sadly, this other BBC clip page doesn’t seem to be working at this time (or perhaps because I am not in the UK).  Here Howard Goodall talks about the making of the series.  One of his inspirations was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (more on that later).

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a more commercially accessible series.  The five-part series, instead of covering the panorama of musical history, focuses on key moments in music history:  the invention of notation, opera, equal temperament, the piano, and recording.  This is available on DVD and in book form.  No clips are available on the BBC website.

Goodall is not the first to use video to bring music history to the public.  Leonard Bernstein was a trailblazer here in his production of the Young People’s Concerts series and his Omnibus tv broadcasts.  Both series are available on DVD (and possibly at your library, 780.15L) at the usual venues and at the Leonard Bernstein website.  Here’s a trailer to give you a taste.

A slightly different and equally compelling approach was taken by Wynton Marsalis in his Marsalis on Music series.  This series focuses more on jazz, but also covers fundamental concepts like rhythm and meter.  My favorite title is Tackling the Monster-Practice.  The series has a companion book.  The DVD and book are available at your favorite seller and on his website.  If you’re a Marsalis fan, he has a lot of video clips on his website.   Here’s the trailer for the series.

One more BBC series and I promise I’ll stop, but this is the most musically beautiful of them all, though more narrowly focused.  It is Sacred Music with presenter Simon Russell Beale.  If you get a chance to see this, you’ll be blown away by the music of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.  Stunning, gorgeous choral music.  In the first series, the first program covers plainchant to Bach, the second Palestrina, the third Tallis and Byrd, and the fourth Bach.  A second series covers Brahms and Bruckner; Fauré and Poulenc; Gorecki and Pärt; and modern UK composers, including James MacMillan. Only the first series is available at present on DVD.  No clips are available on the BBC website for the seriesAn interview with Beale on the second series was published by The Guardian.  Here’s the trailer for the series Sacred Music.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a look at these series.  You’re sure to enjoy them.