August 2006

Ted Libbey

Roll back over, Beethoven
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With the new century, classical music is igniting more and more curiosity and wonderstruck devotion on the part of an ever-growing number of listeners. The statement sounds like magical thinking, but it’s borne out by facts and figures: rising classical CD and iTunes sales, the construction of new concert halls across the country, the level of renewed interest in music by living composers, and in timely response to all these events the appearance of Ted Libbey’s exceptionally well-crafted NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music (also available in hardcover), the long-gestated, vastly ambitious companion to his popular NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection.

In an interview with BookPage, Libbey characterized the burgeoning audience for his new, thousand-page guide: As the title suggests, this book belongs to listeners people who want to learn more about the music they like and be led toward new discoveries. As former music critic for the New York Times and longtime presenter on NPR’s Performance Today, Libbey understands the needs of this readership better than anyone else in the business.

Libbey’s decisions on what to include in the Encyclopedia and what to leave out took considerable soul-searching and countless winnowings. In the end, his selections reflect a solid practicality: I used the repertory of concert programs and available recordings as my guide, explains the author. There needs to be a way for the reader to follow up, a chance that the music might be heard. The generosity of subjects composers, individual pieces, genres, performers, definitions of musical terminology extends to the marvelously subjective language of individual entries. The author’s personal judgments on composers and their masterworks make for the liveliest kind of reading. I wanted to provide an assessment, not just a recitation of facts, he says. Still, there are very few Ôknocks’ in the book. Indeed, Libbey’s prose achieves its most vivid lyricism, as well as its definitive authority, in praise of certain composers. Of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, he writes, The mystical tranquility and paroxysmal ecstasy he expressed in the slow movement . . . remain unique in the symphonic canon, as does the desolate, mysterious beauty of the Ninth. Libbey smiles when this passage comes up in our conversation. My father who played an important role in inspiring my interest in music when I was a teenager is now reading the book from cover to cover. He’s made it to the end of the B’s and Bruckner stands out for him as someone who must be investigated. Clearly, for Libbey, introducing Bruckner to this particular, very careful reader signifies a special fulfillment of the book’s purpose a reimbursement in the same coin for all the music his father gave to him when he was a boy.

The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music brings together two further glories, neither one of which is currently available in any other publication. First is the beguiling and immensely instructive set of images that accompany the text, chosen by Libbey himself. As much as anything in his writing, the presence of so many delightful and historic photographs demonstrates Libbey’s enormous range of knowledge.

Second, and most thrilling of all, is the creation of a website developed jointly by Workman Publishing and Naxos Records featuring 525 recorded examples of musical works and terms discussed in the book. Peppered on almost every page of the Encyclopedia are the little disc symbols referring the reader to these audio links. As Libbey gleefully observes, It’s like giving the reader a 50-CD library to take home when they buy the book. Why such a groundswell in the classical music market in recent years? Could it be that the beauty and spiritual complexity of this repertory feed a hunger newly felt in the 21st century? It is certainly the case that the things we come to love best are often the things we can never fully understand. Ted Libbey is the best possible facilitator toward the impossible understanding of great music, all the more trustworthy because of his loving regard for what he had to exclude from this book. New discoveries of little-known masterpieces that’s the next book, promises Libbey. As our listening becomes curiouser and curiouser (thanks to him), we shall hold him to that promise. Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.

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