The Best Music Books of 2017

Lou Fancher on January 9, 2018

While most people were reviewing or reviling new tax laws for 2018, I was reading a doorstop-size book, Toscanini, and other terrific memoirs or biographies about Mozart, Stevie Nicks, John Oates, Josephine Baker, Jimmy Web, Prince, and Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner. Between moans and feeling the global misery of #MeToo, there was partial escape in Mozart’s Starling, Maestros and Their Music, and more. (It did not escape notice that some featured musicians of the past would likely have been on sexual harassment worst-offender lists, had they existed in their lifetimes.)

Perhaps as odd as Trump’s tweets— but in no way as appalling — there was Art Garfunkel’s book, What Is It All But Luminous, a surprising, surreal story penned by one of America’s great singers. My reading stretched to a sharply illustrated graphic novel, an intimate glimpse into the machinations of the Takács Quartet, a dazzling collection of African American songs and ring games, a book that transforms into a musical instrument, a music-themed card game, and other surprising pleasures in a search for 2017’s best books on music.

The alchemy of writers who attempt to transpose sublime sound into simple sentences is in some ways an impossible task but provides a wonderful escape. Instead of consulting these books for answers to “what’s good about Mahler or Mozart” read these books purely for pleasure. Certainly, if you know of one we’ve missed, speak up! My wish for 2018 is more books about women and people of color in the field. Maybe I’ll write one myself.

Beethoven For a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets

Edward Dusinberre (The University of Chicago Press)

First violinist Dusinberre’s 20 years with the Boulder, Colorado-based Takács Quartet are the bases of a book that is deeply personal. Unfolding the process of rehearsing and performing Beethoven’s great quartets, the book’s first pages introduce the musicians’ fragility and power, both physical and mental. Fierce devotion to craft adds tension to the story. Historical insights into Beethoven’s era and information about contemporary matters like CD production, touring, and concert hall performance pressures establish connections between past and present, or leave the reader to notice the parallels. The slim 262-page volume should appeal to everyone from casual music appreciator to professionals.

Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting

John Mauceri (Knopf)

Conductor Mauceri is right: The “invisible” art form he writes about with clarity and wisdom gained from 50-year of experience is a “strange and lawless world” under the dominion of “conducting gods.” Among them are Leonard Bernstein, with whom Mauceri worked for 18 years, Leopold Stokowski, under whom he studied for 15 years, and Michael Tilson Thomas, a peer whose meteoric rise among conductors Mauceri notes repeatedly. Explaining the techniques, tools, and intentions of conducting, Mauceri covers ground thoroughly but not pedantically. There are plenty of mild swipes, opinions, personal stories, and entertaining, fresh takes on the job of a conductor. It’s a lively read with solid information.

Language of the Spirit, An Introduction to Classical Music

Jan Swafford (Basic Books)

Here’s a book for people who find classical music uninviting, formidable, or stuffy. After 15 years studying piano and two decades deciphering scores as a ballet master and choreographer, I still find something to appreciate or discover in a good “beginner” book. Swaffford is the rare music scholar who sounds moony over Bach and also writes with keen insights and verve about modernist 20th- and 21st-century composers. Suggested listening that includes lesser-known composers is a bonus, as are the correlations made between experiencing common emotions — love, hate, envy, joy — and listening to music.

The Ring of Truth

Roger Scruton (The Overlook Press)

While admiring and even occasionally adoring Wagner’s music — and with respect for Scruton’s scholarly prowess — I found this deep dive into Ring philosophy a tough read. Scruton often reaches positions with which I do not agree and is too often willing to set aside Wagner’s objectionable political and social writings. The tone is argumentative. A few exceptions made it worthwhile reading; especially in the chapter “How the Music Works,” an illuminating dissection of the composer’s masterful Ring.

Gold Dust Woman, The Biography of Stevie Nicks

Stephen Davis (St. Martin’s Press)

This is a cautionary listing: I found chronological errors in Davis’s unauthorized biography of the rare female rock ’n’ roll star’s life. The gossipy writing style was no surprise and was even well delivered, but the errors were unexpected, especially because Davis is co-author with Mick Fleetwood of the previously published Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac. This time, told in an overtly sexist frame, Nicks’s musicianship and songwriting are diminished to a fairy-tale soap opera, a drug- and man-addicted tragedy. Skilled writing doesn’t justify the book’s few positives that include a strong profile of the 1960s Bay Area music scene.

What Is It All But Luminous

Art Garfunkel (Knopf)

There’s a sense of self-importance blended with quavery self-doubt in this handwritten memoir. (The typeface, designed by the publisher, mimics Garfunkel’s handwriting.) Some readers will be surprised to find the iconic singer is troubled by his own waters and finds only a desperate peace through his family, seemingly because they affirm his importance. Most revealing and worth treasuring are accounts of his love of singing, kernels of history that partially explain his breakup with Paul Simon, and marvelous lists: books he has read, an iPod playlist, 25 “Life Achievements,” 25 records that changed his life, and more. Fascinating, but eerie.

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

Will Friedwald (Pantheon Books)

This is a wonderful resource and one of the best books of the year. Having written countless articles and nine books, including two highlighting pop and jazz songs and singers, Friedwald writes authoritatively about 57 albums. Selected in part for their cohesive, internal narratives, it’s not surprising to find albums from Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles. But then, up pops Fred Astaire or Tiny Tim — the first, a star known more for his dancing than vocalizing and the second, known for, well, being quirky and hardly a songbird. Most gratifying is recognition of Nina Simone (Nina Simone and Piano!, 1969). Friedwald admits to coming late to appreciate the singer whose background included classical piano, Southern Baptist gospel, and blues. One of the all-time greats, Simone’s influence was cited by nearly every contemporary singer Friedwald encountered: causing him to listen and become an admirer of not only her voice but her politics and courage.

Josephine Baker

Catel Muller, illustrations, José-Louis Bouquet, text (SelfMadeHero)

This graphic novel is meticulously researched and written in consultation with Jean-Claude Bouillon-Baker, son of the famous singer/dancer. But it’s the artwork that puts it a cut above. A fine timeline and biographical notes about key characters in Baker’s life and the era during which she reigned onstage worldwide (1930s to 1950s), are praiseworthy supplements. Stronger editing would have made the book’s pacing more dynamic and variable, but the story of Baker’s performances of songs of liberty in the face of the endless racism she encountered as a woman of color in the arts is an empowering message we can’t hear too often. The exciting format makes it listworthy.

No Time to Spare

Ursula Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

This is one of the best books I’ve read on a wide variety of topics (aging, art, profanity, contemporary culture, and more) and it has a lovely essay on Portland Opera Company’s production of Philip Glass’s short opera Galileo. The experience the 87-year-old, award-winning author had while listening to the work in 2012 has her write: “I was rapt from the first moments and by the last scene I could scarcely see the stage for tears of delight.” And about a Seattle Symphony performance of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, she writes: “When the deep music ebbed away at last, I felt that I’d come as near as ever I will to indeed becoming ocean.” At the same time, she’s not afraid to refer to opera as a “preposterous” undertaking or to include that some audience members experiencing Adams’s 45-minute Ocean were bored and audibly grumbling about it never ending. Regardless, her obvious joy in music and her conclusions — marveling that while “our republic tears itself apart” people continue to make “intangible, beautiful, generous” music — are sentiments to savor.

Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!

Collected by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Schwartz & Wade Books)

Kids experience music in daily play, and McKissack and Pinckney form a great duo in this children’s book. The former’s brief introductions to hand-clapping and jump-roping chants, circle game songs, folk sayings and stories, hymns, and oral folk tales carry historical essentials. The words are spun into swirling animation by Pinkney’s illustrations. Along the way, it’s impossible to overlook the rich musical legacy of people of color worldwide and how it has informed and continues to influence music in America.

This Book is a Planetarium

Kelli Anderson (Chronicle Books)

Chronicle Books’ clever edition shows you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars or even 50 bucks to wind up with a functional string instrument. A record player made with paper from a past project inspired Anderson to design a pop-up book that becomes, among other cool stuff, a sturdy string instrument or a speaker/amplifier. This is one of those times that sophistication arrives in a simple-seeming package.

Mozart: The Man Revealed

John Suchet (Pegasus Books)

It’s not at all a picture book for children, but the photos, paintings, scores, and letters reproduced in this well-written overview of Mozart’s life and times make it special. If you know a great deal about Mozart, Suchet’s deft handling of his subject won’t add a great deal to your knowledge bank. For anyone, however who’s learned about the musical child prodigy from movies (Amadeus) or pop culture (listening to Mozart while in the womb will make your unborn child a genius), the modern myths are dispelled and much is offered in the way of historical context for one of the world’s best-known and most-loved composers.

Toscanini: Musician of Conscience

Harvey Sachs (W. W. Norton & Company)

Whether or not you believe Arturo Toscanini to be a man of valor or a misogynistic villain, his star-studded conducting career and love affairs had him in the public spotlight for roughly 68 years. Sachs’s 1978 biography receives an upgrade in this expanded, 923-page brick of a book. With new access to family archives, recordings, thousands of letters, and other primary source materials, the complete spectrum of Toscanini’s remarkable life is revealed. Risky political stances taken, dramatic and erotically dangerous pursuits, meticulous and authoritarian approach — Toscanini wasn’t an easy man to work or live with, nor is he easy to read about. Nevertheless, his career was undeniably significant. Sachs’s biography captures every micro and macro detail with force and finesse.

Mozart’s Starling

Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown and Company)

Arguably the most unusual book about Mozart and his music is this gem written by a birder and naturalist. From humble beginnings—a real life starling that became the famous composer’s family pet and a different starling the author rescued—special appreciation for things great and small is celebrated in this charming memoir-biography hybrid.

Highly Recommended, but not (yet) read cover to cover —
and a game!

I’ve had time to read only a few chapters of these books, but didn’t want to leave them off the list. All are well-written and underscored by the author’s love of song or dance. If you’re interested in the individual featured, you won’t go wrong with this quartet. The game was delayed by holiday shipping and is recommended without having been played; something I plan to remedy as soon as I finish reading these four books!

The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince

Mayte Garcia (Hachette Books)

The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir

Jimmy Webb, (St. Martin’s Press)

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Joe Hagan (Alfred A. Knopf)

Change of Seasons: A Memoir

John Oates with Christ Eating (St. Martin’s Press)


(Abrams Books/Abrams Noterie)

Created by Eric Hutchinson and released by Abrams Books, these are 50 record-shaped cards printed with a music-themed question on each side (100 questions total). Card deck questions range from asking players to come up with an at-bat playlist while imagining they are MLB baseball players to naming favorite musical memories. For people or families who love to talk about music and maybe want to shake up the conversation, these will be fun and might find you coming up with questions — and answers — of your own.

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