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The Vintage Guide to Classical Music

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  304 ratings  ·  24 reviews
The most readable and comprehensive guide to enjoying over five hundred years of classical music -- from Gregorian chants, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Johannes Brahms, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, and beyond.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music is a lively -- and opinionated -- musical history and an insider's key to the personalities, epochs, and
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Paperback, 624 pages
Published December 15th 1992 by Vintage
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4.18  · 
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 ·  304 ratings  ·  24 reviews


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Paul Secor
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is as fine an introduction to Wester classical music as I've come across, although the title is somewhat of a misnomer. The book is a guide to classical composers. The other side of the musical equation - performances - is not discussed. Jan Swafford gives his reasons for this omission and I'm ok with that. EXCEPT - at one point, he makes the statement: "some quite famous names have never made an outstanding recording." As an acquaintance of mine used to say - if you're going to throw innue ...more
Joe
Mar 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: EVERY ONE
Recommended to Joe by: No one
This is a fantastic book. Jan Swafford is not only intelligent but approachable. His vocabulary astounds me, and the there is nothing to say about how enriching the biographies and "side-bars" are. This book is fantastic for every level of music lover - from performer to listener to historian to veteran to novice to beginner. Jan Swafford has done something special for the world in creating undersized-easy-to-use - guide to western "classical" music from circa. 1200-1992... there are endless thi ...more
Eric Smith
Dec 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
It sounds simple enough: write a series of short essays about all the classical composers that truly matter. The result though is actually a coherent and comprehensive tour through the language of the music, the composers themselves, and the evolution of the techniques and orchestration used over the centuries - and it is FUN to read.

The writing style is jaunty and descriptive and deeply reflective of the music being described. Try to describe sound, music, has got to be one of the most difficul
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Jay Gabler
Jun 14, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A real pleasure to read. Because Swafford has a justified confidence that he isn't a snob, he doesn't need to engage in any knee-jerk populism when writing about this freighted subject. Writing fairly and engagingly about the relative strengths and weaknesses of several dozen individuals who are all gods among men--with fewer than 600 pages, there's no space for mere demigods--is a real achievement.

My favorite two lines are from the section on twentieth-century composers:

*"Based on a medieval co
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Michael
Jan 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lifelong-learner
I picked this up as my starting point into the world of classical music, and I couldn't be more pleased with my choice. I found a first favorite composer (Beethoven, quite obviously! But also Brahms and Wagner and Prokofiev), and gained some great insight into appreciating the music in general. I found myself itching for more depth into the pieces or into the process of listening to music, but rather than a detraction, I see that as a strength: Swafford got me itching to go deeper. I've picked u ...more
Barbara
Feb 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing


My favourite introductory guide to classical music. I love Swafford's style - high-flown, personal, inspiring, sometimes touching, sometimes snarky. The little essays on technical subjects are clear but it's the historical overview that has been really helpful to me. I've got books on most of my favourites but it's nice to have my understanding of their works reinforced and, often, expanded. I also enjoyed seeing just where other composers I know little about, like Monteverdi and Domenico Scarla
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Lisa (Harmonybites)
Apr 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
This is one of four general guides I own to classical music. I have other books specifically on orchestral, concerto, chamber, choral and opera, but this is one that covers all the different forms. The Miller Barnes and Noble Introduction to Music goes over such things as tone, rhythm, melody, etc. The Hurwitz Beethoven or Bust goes over the various forms (the concerto, for instance) and their various types. Goulding's Classical Music concentrates on the core repertory--"The 50 Greatest Composer ...more
Shannon Wright
This is was very fun to read. I am a classical music novice. It was somewhat difficult to follow the explanations of technical terms. For example, the differences between sonata form and symphonies were lost on me, but I am not musically minded in the least. I do find listenig to classical music much more fulfilling now. The brief biographies were quite interesting. Thank you. I like this book. - Shannon
Kabir Chugh
Aug 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Encyclopedic,, interesting, and immensely useful for beginners
Nick
Feb 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Idk, I heard this book was good but I just cant follow along Swafford's writing style, personally. I learned many facts but many opinions and 5-600 pages is too long for opinions of a Harvard and Yale graduate I dont care who you are.
Sarah Larson Butler
Sep 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Exactly what this adult piano student was looking for - some context and background for the pieces/composers I've been playing. This is more of a reference book than something to read cover to cover and there's a lot of material here. I made my way through the composers I was most interested in, but plan on buying the book for second and third readings as my experience playing and exposure to classical music grows. The structure is simple: an overview of each musical era with chapters on the mos ...more
Barnaby Thieme
Jan 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
This serviceable overview of the history of classical music is primarily a collection of biographies of the lives of major composers. It gives short shrift to music before the classical period, which is a shame because the story of Medieval and Renaissance music is every bit as interesting and rather less well known than more recent developments. Swafford is a lively writer and the lives of composers are rarely dull.

His treatment of Wagner left me disgusted and bitter, but then many music histo
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Bill
Jun 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Bill by: my brother
Shelves: music
Swafford kept me engaged in this interesting history of classical music with his vivid character protrayals of composers, his accessible explanations of musical forms as they developed over time, and his way of placing the composers in the context of their times. His passion for the subject comes through so well that every time I read about a composer, I listened to some music by that composer. When I had finished the book, I had a familiarity with the composers and with the history of classical ...more
linhtalinhtinh
May 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arts, like-a-lot, non-fic
More likely 4.5 stars. I love it.

Classical music has always enchanted me, but at the same time eluded me. It is, as Jacques Barzun said in his From Dawn to Decadence, the most difficult art form. As a result, I succumbed, I let go. I listened but I did not try anything further. Yet, this Vintage Guide made me want to try again.

Highly recommended.
Emily
I am reading this for a class, history of musical style, I am taking at the local music school. My only complaint is that the author and I have different opinions of certain composers! Otherwise it is wonderful. It is very comprehensive and starts with chant rather than Bach. Only real music buffs know Palestrina right?!
Joe Crawford
Aug 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The only flaw of this book is what rabbit holes it will open: the music you will want to listen to, and the composers that you will want to know more about. Excellent primer. Now I have about 30 new books that I want go read.
Bob King
Sep 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Very helpful suggestions on building a classical music library. Nice essays on tonal vs. atonal music, consonance and dissonance, etc. plus lots of little details about famous musicians. Did you know Beethoven was only 5'4" tall and had a 10th symphony in the works before he died?
Melissa
This was required reading in my college music history courses, but has become one of my favorite music history reference books. It's concise, and it highlights interesting things about composers and pieces of music that help bring music history to life.
Vivencio
Sep 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
quite engaging and comprehensive - from musical terms to individual composers; a must for anyone building a classical music library.
Will
Apr 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Knowing very little about classical music, this was a perfect book for understanding the basics. It spans early Renaissance through the present day.
Tyler
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
Excellent source of information, and surprisingly engaging and easy to read. Best book of music history I've read (though that's not really saying much).
Janelle
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, music, nonfiction
If you're looking for a good guide to the history of classical music, this is it. It's very readable and user friendly. I found it to be highly interesting and written in an entertaining way.
James
Mar 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
the best music history overview book out there. Jan Swafford is nice and chatty.
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Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His musical works range from orchestral and chamber to film and theater music, including four pieces for orchestra, Midsummer Variations for piano quintet, They That Mourn for piano trio, They Who Hunger for piano quartet, From the Shadow of the Mountain for string orchestra and the theatrical work, Iphigenia, for choir, instruments and a narrator.

Swafford's
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“Perhaps an eternal law of art is that, for everything discovered, something of value is forgotten.” 2 likes
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