Classical Music for Dummies

It has always been my opinion that the more you know about classical music, the more you enjoy it. The same holds true for the wonderful world of beans, but that's another story. This is one of the reasons why I write about classical music for WhatzUp, that and the large cash payments (you'll have to check out "Legumes Unlimited" for my articles on beans). When I listen to a new piece of classical music, my first step, after struggling through the shrink wrap and peeling off that super-glued holographic sticker, is to read the english version of the liner notes (mein Deutsch est nich gut). Imagine my suprise (I'll wait) when I saw the book "Classical Music for Dummies" on the library shelf! I was aware that the "Dummies" people had a series of classical music CDs, but my repeated attempts to get a free copy of "Prokofiev for Dummies" from the publisher had thus far been ignored, but I couldn't pass up a "free" book from the library!

As I picked up the yellow tome, I wasn't sure what to make of it. The "Dummies" people started out publishing computer books and have recently diversified into everything from gardening to taxes to taxidermy (well, perhaps in a more perfect world) to the aforementioned (triple word score!) classical music CDs, but I had not really looked at any of their publications, pridefully finding myself too "undummied" to sully myself with such an "obviously" beginner book. I was as wrong as a fourth bean in a three bean soup (I need help). What I found in this book is what I have been trying to do with my article: removing the "mystique" and snobbery of classical that keeps most people from ever wading into the pool. In fact, this book makes ME look like a dummy! The authors, David Pogue and Scott Speck, both big-shot boys in the classical music world, write with wit and wisdom (um, okay, perhaps I borrowed that last bit from Car Talk) about the world of classical music as only insiders can. They don't assume you have a degree in musicology or that you even attended elementary school music class. What they don't do is talk down to you as if you were no smarter than a hill of beans (I must be stopped).

The book is organized so that you can jump in at any point. You could start with a brief introduction ("Prying Open the Classical Music Oyster"), learn about attending a concert ("Dave 'N' Scott's E-Z Concert Survival Guide", including information on the insane "no-clap" controversy raging in the music halls these days), or even learn music theory in the dreadfully funny (and easy to understand) chapter called "The Dreaded Music Theory Chapter". Among the many resources contained in this book is a diagram of a typical orchestra showing where each type of instrument sits. If you can't tell a fluglehorn from a tuba, there's a "field guide" where each instrument is pictured with details on how it is played and into what family it belongs. There is even information on the "sensitive and sometimes controversial topic of tonguing" among horn players, even the deeply religious ones (actually, tonguing is a technique used in getting a certain sound from horn instruments). For those who want a quick background in classical music in general, including entertaining biographies on the major composers, there is the chapter "The Entire History of Music in 80 Pages", which starts with the true-life story of a monk named Guido and proceeds to tell you all kinds of dirty secrets about the composers of the past (Moussorgsky was a bed wetter! Okay, I made that up. My apologies to the Moussorgsky family. Any defamation lawsuits should be directed at WhatzUp). To learn how to tell a symphony from a sonata from a tone poem, check out the chapter "How to Spot a Sonata", but I suggest you check out your free CD first. What? I didn't mention that you get a CD with this book that has over an hour of classical music? Yessir (or yesmaam, depending upon your gender at the moment), there is even a chapter that takes you through the eight or so pieces section by section, sometimes minute by minute, explaining what is happening in the music and why it is important, pointing out the themes and what they mean. Allow me to be so rude as to quote at length from the authors exegesis on the third movement from Brahm's Fourth Symphony (with which anyone who has ever heard the "Fragile" album by Yes should be familiar with):

1:27 All this leads to a big buildup, a huge one, in fact.
1:32 The main "beans, boys" theme again

Now I realize this isn't exactly lengthy, but how can I resist any book that ascribes a "beans, boys theme" to Brahms? I am weak. They do this for every piece on the disc, although not every piece has such a legumy theme!
Near the back of the book, there are chapters entitled "Ten Misconceptions of Classical Music" and "Ten Ways to Go Beyond This Book". More than that, these chapters actually contain the information advertised in the titles! NOW how much would you pay? There is even a suggested listening guide on what pieces you might want to next experience, ranked like Mexican foods, from Mild to Explosively Hot! While I'm not one for spicy foods, a number of my favorites were listed in the Explosively Hot section, meaning that your average Joe Schmoe Mozart worshipper (and my apologies to all non-Mozart worshipping Joe Schmoes out there) will probably turn and shriek in terror at the very mention of the pieces. And to such listeners, I quote the late, great Charles Ives by calling them "Lily boys!"... or maybe not. For a quick run through of music history, you might want to check out the Classical Music Time Line, with such entries as

1827 Beethoven dies.
1828 Schubert dies. Funeral homes prosper.

There is even a glossary of musical terms, written in a way that you don't have to know what "glossary" means to understand. Yet more examples: "pianissimo- pretty darned quiet. Pianississimo- unbelievably quiet". These guys aren't joking around... much. Obviously, I wish I had been the one to write this book. I truly am jealous at what these two authors have been able to pull off, even managing to sneak in a section of hilarious viola jokes (I guess you had to be there). For the brash, there are Snob Alerts scattered throughout, letting you, the dear reader, know of subjects that classical music snobs hold dear so that you can pop some snobbery balloons. And if I haven't sold you on this book yet, contained within is the secret name of the theme from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and who composed it, plus a limerick containing the word "Nantucket"! But perhaps one of the best things about this book is that operas and vocal music are barely touched on! For that, you'll have to get the book "Opera For Dummies", for which there are number plugs throughout this book. Those who are new to the world of classical music, or who have just been reading my columns (and I pity you more than a dried pea in a bag of navy beans if you fall into this category), this book will teach you much, young grasshopper. For those old hats who can tell Schubert from Schumann (and would understand that as a joke), this book may be unnecessary, but it sure is a lot of fun.

"Classical Music for Dummies"
David Pogue, Scott Speck
IDG Books

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 1998.