Composer (auto)biographies

March 14, 2020, 10:39 PM · Hello,
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.

Replies (20)

March 15, 2020, 3:32 AM · 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!
Edited: March 15, 2020, 5:17 AM · 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.

Read Stravinsky's "Poetics of Music" which are lectures he gave at Harvard University. Also read Bernstein's "The Unanswered Question" which is his series of lectures at Harvard.

Dover Publications has some great biographies of composers. They also have a number of books on the violin, its construction, history, and books by violinists, too.

There is a book by Leopold Auer in which he discusses his approach to teaching violin and another book by Ivan Galamanian in which he discusses his approach.

here's the link:

Project Gutenberg has a number of books free of charge and in various ebook formats on music, which can be found here:

Searching Project Gutenberg for the term Violin gets these results:

Using "composer" as a search term returns only this book:

Searching for "music composer" gets these results:

Not necessarily the latest research on any of those composers but you can't beat the price! (free!)

March 15, 2020, 5:58 AM · 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.

Alfred Brendel's books are good, too.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 6:18 AM · I wouldn't recommend Auer.
I wouldn't recommend the Dutch biography of Prokofiev I read last year.
I'm only 50 pages into Hildesheimer's Mozart and unlikely to get much further in the near future.
Wolff's Bach is fine, if forgettable.
For general historical flavour, you could do worse than read Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit.
Toby Faber's Stradivarius is excellent.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 6:45 AM · Books about artists are legion, but of course they can be illustrated.
Books about music are trickier. You are perhaps better off with TV documentaries and biopics. Lol, not that Ken Russell will be that accurate! (His stuff on Elgar was good though). Back in 1970 on the bicentenary of Beethoven's birth they re-released The Magnificent Rebel(?????). I enjoyed that, but it may seem very dated now.
I personally hate the movie Amadeus.

Maybe try to find access to this kind of thing:

Edited: March 15, 2020, 8:15 AM · 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.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 8:10 AM · I just ordered Yehudi Menuhin's autobiog, but he's not a composer.

Also, the Cambridge Companion to the Violin is worth having, but it's 1992, so don't expect much on string technology or carbon bows.

March 15, 2020, 8:22 AM · 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.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 8:48 AM · 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.
March 15, 2020, 9:33 AM · I'm surprised that Harold C. Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers has not been mentioned.

An entertaining classic by one of the great music writers. Anything by Charles Rosen is also likely to be very readable

Edited: March 15, 2020, 10:02 AM · 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.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 10:36 AM · 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.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 2:06 PM · 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.

Not the highest-end scholarship but an entertaining and perceptive early effort was Marcia Davenport’s bio of Mozart. Her own memoirs are also fascinating, even if I am not sure how much I would have liked her personally.

For style, wit, and humor, Berlioz. His own memoirs and his Evenings with the Orchestra are both priceless.

March 15, 2020, 12:55 PM · 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.
March 15, 2020, 2:08 PM · 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.
March 15, 2020, 7:41 PM · 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.
Edited: March 18, 2020, 6:40 AM · 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!
An explanation I have read for his stopping composing operas in his 60s is that he felt the competition from Meyerbeer was too strong - Well it isn't now!
We may still have in the family somewhere my childhood copies of biographies of Paganini and Wagner - both, as you can imagine, having had considerable expurgation at source.
The BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week series contained quite a bit of biographical material. Composers I remember hearing and hearing about on that programme include, Walton, Fauré and Cole Porter (whose attempt at serious music, made after urging by his sister, sounded to me something like a Music Minus One Cole Porter song - and not as good as that Music Minus One Gounod Ave Maria!).
March 18, 2020, 10:36 AM · 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.
March 18, 2020, 11:22 AM · 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.

Not a composer, but "Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose" by David Dalton is a must read (IMO) for any upper string player.

March 18, 2020, 11:34 AM · @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.

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