Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music,
by Jan Swafford
Published by Basic Books (2017)
By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind.
Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it’s history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford.
One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there’s often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author’s own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I’d want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public – an outcome that isn’t the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.
Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn’t seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him – displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.
Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn’t come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read – to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day.
Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I’m not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon.
Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.
What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each ‘era’ so to speak – to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject.
I’m looking forward to reading his more “heavy” work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations.