Tag Archives: classical music

“Temperament – How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” by Stuart Isacoff.

Vintage Books, 2003. 233 pages, with illustrations, bibliography and index.

There’s a piano on the front of this book, but it’s funny looking. There’s a black key in the middle, with three white keys on each side, then alternating black and white keys, uninterrupted. Some of the black keys bear distinguishing marks. Who could play this mutant instrument?! What would it sound like?

I play piano, read music competently and occasionally sing in a chorus. I knew a little about the issues involved in piano tuning, but I had NO IDEA how long, convoluted and contentious was the historical path that led to our modern tunings and the pair of scales we commonly hear and employ (major and minor).

I would rate my understanding of this book at about 50%. Isacoff plunges into mathematics (including geometry), Egyptian, Greek and European history (including astrology and alchemy), psychology and philosophy as he discusses how we got to where we are today.

European music was initially greatly influenced by “the ancients”, the Greek philosophers. These were wise men, but some of their ideas about music were out of touch with physical reality, and it took a long time to sort things out. Music inherently requires selectivity. You can’t use every tone, every interval. Why do some tones or intervals sound good, others “dissonant”? Why does music have so much emotional impact? What kind of music is “natural”? Is there a link between music and morality?

Of course I want to hear some of the music referenced in this book, especially the intervals and the infamous “wolf” tones that emerge from certain tunings. Another reason to dig in to U-Tube.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a whirlwind tour of Western culture’s big ideas…” That sums it up very well.


“The Quiet Girl” by Peter Hoeg

Genre: crime fiction, sort of…aka, philosophical thriller (according to Amazon).

This book takes place in Denmark and was translated from Danish.

The plot is confusing, the characters interesting. The girl of the title remains mysterious. Hard to explain why I kept reading, but I did.

I’ve been told the test of “really good literature” is that you want to go right back to the beginning and read again. I re-read the first few chapters. I found that some intriguing elements of character from early chapters were not ever fully developed (psychokinesis?). Too bad. But lots of other good details emerged. Some reviewers refer to the mystical or metaphysical abilities of the hero.

Two other striking aspects of this book are the framework of a circus, and the science of geology. (Sounds crazy? Don’t blame me! I didn’t write it…)

The protagonist has an unusual (supernatural?) sense of hearing and a multidimensional relationship with classical music. He often refers to classical composers or pieces to explain his reaction to people or situations.

I recommend this book to whoever likes a book that slows you down a little. I returned it to the library, but may give it a second shot.

I believe I read the author’s Smila’s Sense of Snow a little before I started blogging in 2013. It was a blockbuster hit  (300 reviews on Amazon, four stars) and was made into a movie. Maybe I should dig out the comments in my old reading journal! If you saw the movie, please fill me in! Thanks.

“Beethoven for a Later Age – Living with the String Quartets” by Edward Dusinberre

This book is for the serious lover of classical music. Does that include me? Not quite, though I enjoy music and generally lean towards the classical. I wasn’t able to listen to the quartets as they were discussed in the book, nor was I close enough to a piano to pick out the measures included for illustrative purposes.

Why did I keep reading? Because this is one musician’s story, and I love autobiography. Edward Dusinberre joined the Takacs Quartet as a young man in 1993. The group originated in Hungary and now has its home base in Boulder, Colorado. They travel all over the world for many months of each year.

What’s is like to work with the same group of four people over years and years? How do they decide what to play? What to record, which is quite a different experience? How do they evaluate their performances? How often do they play something totally unfamiliar? In addition to discussing these interesting subjects, Dusinberre provides a great deal of information about Beethoven. Why did he write quartets? What else was he writing, and for whom? What happened as Beethoven suffered the loss of his hearing?

The title of the book reflects a comment by Beethoven, in response to criticism of his Opus 59 quartets. “They are not for you, but for a later age!” What on earth did he mean? Do we hear and understand music differently now?

I reflected a great deal on the difference modern recording technology has made for performers and audiences. At the time of Beethoven, very few people had any control over what they heard. The very richest citizens had musicians among their servants, and could arrange a concert at will. Most people would be lucky to attend a performance now and then. Perhaps they heard most of their music in church.

I can listen to whatever I want, almost anywhere. Sometimes I have chosen to listen to a piece over and over, to learn it for a choir performance or “just because”. Hayden’s “Creation” got me through a difficult time in my life. I put it on the car stereo and just let it cycle. There is beauty in it that wasn’t apparent on the first few hearings.

So who knows what I might hear if I did the same with the Beethoven quartets? I would try it, but my car stereo died…

If I ever face enforced immobility, I’ll return to this book and lose myself in the music.