You have to love serendipity. A few months ago, I came across a new release in my neighborhood book store, Secret Lives of Great Composers: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the World’s Musical Masters by Elizabeth Lunday. I spent a good 20 minutes reading the book and was going to buy a copy but unfortunately, I didn’t have my wallet. Not two days later I get an email from Melissa Monachello, the Publicity Manager for Quirk Books (Ms. Lunday’s publisher) offering a review copy of the book…
Unsurprisingly, I said yes, the book arrived a few days later, and I’ve been enjoying it regularly ever since. Lunday examines the lives of 34 composers from as far back as the long dead Vivaldi and as recent as the not quite yet dead Philip Glass. Since each section is approximately eight pages long, it functions as a collection of short stories. As a result, getting through the book is easy since you can come and go as time permits.
Although the book’s PR is a bit more sensationalistic than it should be, Lunday approaches her topic with populist charm. As a byproduct of the traditional conservatory system, I learned a number of these accounts from history teachers tempted into digression but this isn’t the sort of thing that gets out into mainstream circulation.
Nonetheless, these are the real people and eccentricities aside, framing them outside the multisyllabic cage of traditional program notes will do this business (and their music) some real good. Lunday also includes some entirely relevant side discussions about women composers (or the lack thereof) as well as why jazz and commercial composers aren’t included (aren’t they real composers too?). Those sections go a long way toward shedding some light on topics otherwise unknown to most that are unfamiliar with classical music.
Frankly, the entire field would benefit from hiring Lunday to write program notes in the style of Secret Lives of Great Composers for a full season. At the very least, they should pair Lunday up with Jeff Curnow and the “Coalition to Expose Composers” (scroll down to “Berlioz Revealed“) to create a series of PSA style videos and show them before concerts.
I can’t recommend Secret Lives of Great Composers strongly enough and it makes an ideal holiday gift (right after a subscription to the Orchestra Compensation reports) so go out and pick up a few copies for colleagues, friends, and family.