Harvard Book Store welcomes New York Times chief classical music critic ANTHONY TOMMASINI for a discussion of his new book, The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide.
When he began to listen to the great works of classical music as a child, Anthony Tommasini had many questions. Why did a particular piece move him? How did the music work? Over time, he realized that his passion for this music was not enough. He needed to understand it. Take Bach, for starters. Who was he? How does one account for his music and its unshakeable hold on us today?
As a critic, Tommasini has devoted particular attention to living composers and overlooked repertory. But, like all classical music lovers, the canon has remained central for him. In 2011, in his role as the Chief Classical Music Critic for the New York Times, he wrote a popular series in which he somewhat cheekily set out to determine the all-time top ten composers. Inviting input from readers, Tommasini wrestled with questions of greatness. Readers joined the exercise in droves. Some railed against classical music’s obsession with greatness but then raged when Mahler was left off the final list. This intellectual game reminded them why they loved music in the first place.
Now in The Indispensable Composers, Tommasini offers his own personal guide to the canon—and what greatness really means in classical music. What does it mean to be canonical now? Who gets to say? And do we have enough perspective on the 20th century to even begin assessing it? To make his case, Tommasini draws on elements of biography, the anxiety of influence, the composer’s relationships with colleagues, and shifting attitudes toward a composer’s work over time. Because he has spent his life contemplating these titans, Tommasini shares impressions from performances he has heard or given or moments when his own biography proves revealing.
As he argues for his particular pantheon of indispensable composers, Anthony Tommasini provides a masterclass in what to listen for and how to understand what music does to us.
“[Tommasini] defends the value of distinguishing the great from the merely good . . . Tommasini does a fine job of conveying the inner life of a piece, through his rhythmic sentences and sculpted paragraphs . . . One cannot help coming away from it with a more rounded understanding of classical music at its peak.” —Phillip Lopate, New York Times Book Review
“A treasure trove of biographical information and a primer on the language and notation of music itself.” —Library Journal
“Anthony Tommasini’s book is itself indispensable—not only for those who already know how immortal are Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn down to Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók, but for those who want to read Tommasini’s take on what makes our great composers lifelong companions we like to take wherever we go and would ask/want nothing more than to hear a few last notes from before leaving them forever.” —André Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.