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Five Classical Music Biographies and Memoirs for Your Summer Reading List

Last week an excerpt from composer John Luther Adams’s forthcoming memoir was posted on the New Yorker’swebsite. It’s an enticing tidbit, but unfortunately it won’t arrive in time to make it on this year’s summer reading lists. However, there are several new biographies and memoirs written about and by musicians to dive into over the next few months, including the following five.

1. Words Without Music, by Philip Glass

At age 78, Glass looks at his storied career, concentrating most intently on the years prior to his success, when he had to work multiple grueling jobs to finance his music career. Through a series of anecdotes we see Glass learning life lessons from his father, who owned a record store, to two formative years in Paris where the composer studied under Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar. “Insight and practical common sense pervade his new book,” wrote Kyle Gann in his review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

2. Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music, by James Rhodes

Nearly banned in Britain, Rhodes’s memoir has been published after a judge overturned an injunction from his ex-wife. The book isn’t pretty—Rhodes, who doesn’t shy away from profane language, tells of being raped by his grade school gym teacher and particularly desperate moments that brought him to attempt suicide. Throughout he does explore the uplifting nature of music, and how it helped him and others such as Bach, Beethoven and Ravel heal.


3. Béla Bartók, by David Cooper

At 456 pages in length, this scholarly biography of the great Hungarian figure isn’t a light read for the beach but a serious consideration of his life’s work as an ethnomusicologist, composer and pianist. The book includes in-depth analysis of many of Bartok’s works, along with sources of his inspiration from Eastern European folk songs to Nietzsche. However, it has received special attention for its author’s controversial assertion that Bartok may have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. (Watch for an interview with Cooper in the week ahead.)

4. Charles Mackerras, edited by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell

A pair of British musicologists and writers lovingly assembled this collection of biographical essays and personal remembrances with the blessing of the Mackerras family. Several of the conductor’s collaborators, including pianist Alfred Brendel, mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, baritone Simon Keenlyside, and conductor Antonio Pappano, provide anecdotes from their experiences with the maestro. Special attention is paid to his contributions to opera and his career-long fascination with Czech music, particularly that of Janáček.

5. They Told Me Not to Take That Job, by Reynold Levy

Levy, who didn’t heed the advice alluded to in the title of his book, led Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 2002 to 2012 as its president. He recounts his tenure in this tome. At onceshockingly candid and a little self-serving, Levy’s book will undoubtedly serve juicy nuggets for close observers of the classical music and opera scene in New York. Contentious and controversial subjects such the collapse of New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera’s budget balancing and the renaming of Avery Fisher Hall are all fair game for the former arts executive.

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