6 Books to Read on Contemporary Music

Guest post written by Eastman Studies in Music series editor, Ralph Locke.

The field of musical composition since around 1950—whether for the concert hall or the opera house—has been astonishingly vigorous and varied. We have a great list of titles dealing with the lives and creative output of such fascinating composers as Olivier Messiaen, Julius Eastman, Elizabeth Maconchy, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Claude Vivier. Some of the books (e.g., by Arnold Whittall, Monica Hershberger, and Bálint András Varga) survey the contributions of multiple composers in different lands, including operas by Aaron Copland, Jack Beeson, and Elliott Carter. And others give precious glimpses into the lives of performers—such as renowned soprano Bethany Beardslee—who have helped bring works by Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and earlier modernists (such as Webern) vividly to life.

The Life and Music of Elizabeth Maconchy
Erica Siegel

With access to a wealth of documentation previously unavailable, this book explores Maconchy’s life and music within a greater consideration of the social and political context of the world in which she lived. While the influence of Bartók has been well documented, this book reveals the equally potent influence of Vaughan Williams on Maconchy’s musical idiom. It also discusses Maconchy’s foray into administration and her advocacy of young composers through her work as the first woman to be elected Chairman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain in 1959 and President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music following the death of Benjamin Britten in 1976.

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British Music after Britten
Arnold Whittall

This collection of revised reprints of essays, reviews and analyses first published between 1995 and 2018 surveys a cross-section of contemporary classical composition in the UK. The governing perspective is the impact of the life and work of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) on British composers who, with the exception of Michael Tippett and Robert Simpson, were born between the 1930s and the 1980s. Despite obvious and considerable differences in character and style, British composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Thomas Adès, Robin Holloway and James Dillon, have continued, like Britten himself, to seek personal perspectives on the still prominent procedures and personalities of more distant baroque, classical and romantic eras.

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Claude Vivier
Bob Gilmore

Claude Vivier’s haunting and expressive music has captivated audiences around the world. But the French-Canadian composer is remembered also because of the dramatic circumstances of his death: he was found murdered in his Paris apartment at the age of thirty-four. Given unrestricted access to Vivier’s archives and interviews with Vivier’s family, teachers, friends, and colleagues, musicologist and biographer Bob Gilmore tells here the full story of Vivier’s fascinating life, from his abandonment as a child in a Montreal orphanage to his posthumous acclaim as one of the leading composers of his generation.

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I Sang the Unsingable
Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

American soprano Bethany Beardslee rose to prominence in the postwar years when the modernist sensibilities of European artists and thinkers were flooding American shores and challenging classical music audiences. With her light lyric voice, her musical intuition, and her fearless dedication to new music, Beardslee became the go-to girl for twelve-tone music in New York City. She was the first American singer to build a repertoire performing the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Milton Babbitt, and Pierre Boulez, making a vibrant career singing difficult music.

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The Music of Peter Maxwell Davies
Nicholas Jones and Richard McGregor

Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) was one of the leading international composers of the post-war period as well as one of the most productive. This book provides a global view of his music, integrating a number of resonant themes in the composer’s work while covering a representative cross-section of his vast output – his work list encompasses nearly 550 compositions in every established genre. Each chapter focuses on specific major works and offers general discussion of other selected works connected to the main themes.

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Gay Guerrilla
Edited by Renee Levine-Packer and Mary Jane Leach

Composer-performer Julius Eastman (1940-90) was an enigma, both comfortable and uncomfortable in the many worlds he inhabited: black, white, gay, straight, classical music, disco, academia, and downtown New York. In addition to analyses of Eastman’s music, the essays in Gay Guerrilla provide background on his remarkable life history and the era’s social landscape. The book presents an authentic portrait of a notable American artist thatis compelling reading for the general reader as well as scholars interested in twentieth-century American music, American studies, gay rights, and civil rights.

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