Does anyone have any suggestions for good composer biographies? It doesn't matter who it is (I have one of Haydn somewhere I think).
Never know their book might get me into their music if not already.
Thanks for any suggestions.
The Master Musician series published by J.M.Dent offers a very good introduction to the life and works of all the great composers, written by recognised authorities. Strangely, I can't think of any composer autobiographies!
Read the writings by composers themselves in addition to biographies of them. Berlioz was a prolific composer and the insights that his writings provide into what a hard thing it was to have his music played decently are a real eye-opener.
I second both the posters above. Also, on a slightly different tack Donald Tovey's essays in musical analysis and the BBC music guides are really readable and offer a mixture of analysis, biography and history, though like the master musicians series are a bit old fashioned.
I wouldn't recommend Auer.
Books about artists are legion, but of course they can be illustrated.
A book that I very much enjoyed as a young person was "Great Contemporary Pianists Speak for Themselves." I remember reading the section on a pianist (forgot his name) who taught at Northwestern, how he struggled to deal with the inferior students (as defined by anyone who couldn't/wouldn't prepare and memorize two sonatas per week). I also rather enjoyed the memoirs of Artur Rubinstein, although it's very long. Finally, "Music is My Mistress" by Duke Ellington is worth reading. I'll bet a scholarly biography of Shostakovitch would be interesting.
I just ordered Yehudi Menuhin's autobiog, but he's not a composer.
Also we shouldn't forget female players or composers. Fried Block wrote a biography of Amy Beach that is supposed to be pretty good. My dad enjoyed Wanda Landowska's writings -- I have not read them myself though.
I once heard a Landowska recording on the radio that was made during a bombing or artillery raid on the outskirts of Paris; and the explosions were causing the harpsichord strings to rattle, so that you could hear them in the recording.
I'm surprised that Harold C. Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers has not been mentioned.
I'll vehemently contradict Gordon on Hildesheimer's Mozart book: It is highly intelligent and highly critical, it blows away the popular myths about Mozart yet is full of admiration for his achievements. It is also humble as to what we can know and what we can not know: The Mozart paradox is that we have an enormous number of sources about him (more than about almost any other major composer; books full of his letters to start with) yet he stays mysterious; the source of his genius remains elusive in spite of all this material.
Like I said, I'm stuck on p.50. So far Hildesheimer has said almost nothing about Mozart and has generalised a lot about supposed Freudian theories of creativity.
I am ambivalent about Jan Swafford’s work. He got involved in a controversy in his Brahms bio (somewhat put to rest in a second edition) and he said some unpardonably lazy and stupid things about Beethoven and the metronome. On the other hand, he did a lot of research for both composers and caught the trajectory of their careers very well. Supposedly his Ives bio is also very good.
Re Shostakovich - many years ago I read 'Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov'. It was somewhat controversial when it was published, as to how much was Shostakovich and how much Volkov. But as I recall it was an interesting and thought-provoking read.
Testimony is excellent reading. The debates over its accuracy seem to have a lot of buried grudges getting worked over, but even some of the naysayers admit that it caught the mood of Stalinism very well.
My first book about the composers was Men of Music, by Brockway and Weinstock. Life of Rossini, by Stendhal is an entertaining read, has a lot about Mozart, and Stendhal's opinions on the culture of Italy vs. France.
Joel, I read Stendhal's Life of Rossini when the William Tell overture was a GE 'O' Level set piece. I have since read that it is just a spoof - The one scene I remember from it, of Rossini trying to compose staying in bed all day, is almost certainly spoof!
Prokofiev's diaries can be pretty interesting. He doesn't generally come off like the kind of person one would want to be too close friends with.
The Mahler biography by Jens Malte Fisher is a long read (700+ pages!) and full of interesting details about the composer's life, his work, and his impact particularly on Opera as a conductor.
@scott "I'm surprised that Harold C. Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers has not been mentioned." This arrived today. Something like this is probably much better than reading individual books. Better still if it contains historical and cultural context.