Cover image for Classical music : the 50 greatest composers and their 1,000 greatest works
Classical music : the 50 greatest composers and their 1,000 greatest works
Goulding, Phil G., 1921-1998.
First trade paperback edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fawcett Columbine, 1995.

Physical Description:
xix, 635 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
MT6.G685 C6 1992C Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Who are the ten most important classical composers? Who in the world was Palestrina? Why did Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" cause a riot? Which five of each important composer's works should you buy? What is a concerto and how does it differ from a sonata?
Maybe you don't know the answers to these questions; author Phil Goulding certainly didn't. When Goulding first tried to learn about classical music, he found himself buried in an avalanche of technical terms and complicated jargon--so he decided to write the book he couldn't find.
The result is a complete classical music education in one volume. Comprehensive, discriminating, and delightfully irreverent, Classical Music provides such essential information as:
* Rankings of the top 50 composers (Bach is #1. Borodin is #50)
* A detailed and anecdotal look at each composer's life and work
* The five primary works of each composer and specific recommended CDs for each.
* Further great works of each composer--if you really like him
* Concise explanations of musical terminology, forms, and periods
* A guide to the parts and history of the symphony orchestra
"This book uses every conceivable gimmick to immerse readers in the richness of classical music: lists, rankings, sidebars devoted to lively anecdotes, and catchy leads."
--The Washington Post
"One terrific music appreciation book...The information is surprisingly detailed but concisely presented. Goulding's writing style is breezy yet mature....[He] has raised music appreciation from a racket to a service."
--The Arizona Daily Star

Author Notes

Phil G. Goulding was born in San Francisco in 1921, grew up in Cleveland, attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, and spent World War II in the Navy. He has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1950 as a newspaper reporter, an assistant secretary of defense, and a petroleum industry executive. He wrote Confirm or Deny, a book about the Pentagon, the press, and the public. With his wife, Miriam, he now divides his time between Washington and a Chateaugay Lake cabin in the Adirondacks.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

The dogmatic title of this book is enough to raise the hackles of any music lover. That's unfortunate, because this is a well-designed primer on music for the intelligent but uninformed listener of any age. At 63, Goulding, a Washington newspaper journalist who moved to high government and business posts in defense and oil, attempted to learn something about classical music. Amazingly, he found no helpful sources for the adult absolute beginner. Ten years later, he presents this book for those in the same quandary. The user-friendly format features charts, pictures, and sidebars, simple explanations of musical terms, and descriptions of instruments. The writing flows easily, and the text is readable and browsable. There is nothing new here, but Goulding has done his homework carefully and thoroughly. Recommended for the curious but illiterate music lover.-- Philippa Kiraly, Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction   Seven years ago my wife, Miriam, gave me a tape deck for Christmas. We didn't have much in the way of music-making machines, and it was time, Miriam suggested, for me to acquire some music couth. My reading tastes were acceptable, and my professional life had been spent in and around the media and government in Washington, so it was safe to take me out to dinner. Musically speaking, however, I was an embarrassment at age sixty-three.   "We'll buy some good tapes," she said, "and you'll learn about music."   This appeared to be a reasonable idea, and one simple enough to implement. The first decision: What kind of music? Jazz? Opera? Folk, country, or western? The Beatles? Big-band sounds, to which I had not-too-smoothly danced in high school before the last big war our country won?   No, we agreed, let's not be intimidated. Let's go right to classical music--later narrowed to Western classical music of the last three or four hundred years. We would start buying some cassette tapes for my new tape deck and in a few months would have the beginning of a little classical library. We wouldn't worry about long-playing records, since the family turntable was a relic, and compact discs were then new gadgetry beyond the capabilities of my tape machine.   I would like to remember that we chose classical music because of a simmering deep within me since my youth, but that's really not the way it happened. Classical music seemed to offer the greatest mystery and the greatest challenge--and, therefore, maybe the most fun.   Nor were there then plans for this book, even though writing, unlike music, has been a big part of my professional life. My background included fifteen years as a Washington newspaper correspondent, and I had also written a book on the Pentagon, the press, and the public after serving as assistant secretary of defense under Robert McNamara, Cyrus Vance, and Clark Clifford. Initially, however, I just wanted to play with my new toy and make music a hobby.   But the writing background and the music did merge along the way. That marriage produced this book, an organization primer for:   * those who are just beginning with classical music, know little, and want to know more; * those who own a few records and tapes and plan to build on them; * those who have been listening and collecting on a hit-or-miss basis for years, but with little musical background and perhaps even less system; * those who enjoy an occasional concert and find program notes interesting, but too often condescending and somewhat over their heads; * and those who know something of Bach and Brahms, but nothing of Bartók or Borodin.   In other words, this is a book for amateurs. Anyone who can tell bake from broil or the League of Women Voters from the National Organization for Women can tell Johannes Brahms from Claude Debussy. Anyone who can tell a wide receiver from a cornerback can tell Johann Sebastian Bach from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And anyone who knows there is little in common between an Eastern Seaboard liberal Democrat and a Mississippi conservative Republican can quickly learn that there is little in common between Béla Bartók and George Frideric Handel.   But I'm getting ahead of my story. I simply wanted to begin a collection of music tapes, and when I went to the nearest record store for the first time, I didn't anticipate a problem. Explaining my amateur status, I asked for the best in classical music. Recalling my single music-appreciation class back in junior high school, I suggested something from the three B's: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. That would be enough for openers, and after listening to my new cassettes at home and at work, I would buy another three--perhaps a Chopin, a Liszt, and a Mozart. I was also familiar with at least the names of another dozen composers (over a lifetime I had absorbed a little gentility, owned a few old records, had attended an occasional concert, and had videotaped a few televised symphonies which I would rewatch someday).   Trips to the record stores, however, were disappointing and frustrating. Clerks, generally friendly if a trifle elitist, were interested in sharing their opinions about the most recent treatment of a work by a particular conductor. Mentally, they were not prepared to deal with my primer-level requests and weren't inclined to offer basic advice on which composer to buy, or which of his works. "That," they made clear with noticeable disdain, "is entirely up to you."   Overwhelmed by the thousands of available cassettes, I abandoned the record stores and turned to the classical radio stations for counsel. The men and women airing the music and commenting on it were informed, interesting, and highly professional. But each day they needed to offer listeners different fare, so their programs included music by composers with names such as Milhaud, Tartini, Carissimi, Locatelli, Boccherini, Crumb, Reger, Carter, Delalande, and Viotti. I hadn't heard of even one of them.   Buying a few dozen old copies of the monthly publications from the classical radio stations further confused me. While some of the names in the articles and advertisements were familiar, many more were not. And I had little sense of time-in-history or the various forms of music. Did Mozart come before Beethoven? I wasn't sure. Did it matter? If I liked Dvořák and Borodin, would I also like Prokofiev and Shostakovich? Wasn't one of them still alive? Who in the world was Palestrina? Sibelius and Grieg apparently were both "northerners"; were they from the same northern country?   What is a concerto? How does it differ from a sonata? Is a concerto fifteen or forty-five minutes long? Everyone knows that symphonies are major works, and I knew that both Schubert and Beethoven had written famous ones, but which others were as famous? Did Bach compose symphonies? Why is there always a hush when people say "Bach," as though they were saying Abraham Lincoln or Joe Di-Maggio? Who were the ten best symphonists? And if I collected one symphony composed by each of those ten, would I then have music's ten most famous symphonies? Somewhere I heard that Haydn wrote 104! Which, if any, of those did I want? Besides, Haydn seems to be famous for oratorios. But wasn't that Handel with his Messiah? Did those two live at the same time? Why does this thing by Stravinsky sound peculiar while that thing by Stravinsky sounds normal?   To answer these questions, I needed to listen to the best composers, but the total population of highly regarded ones was considerably larger than I had thought. My first goal was to whittle down that number to reasonable size. Ten was too small, one hundred too large. I settled on fifty.   Badly needing help, I turned next to the libraries and bookstores. I bought, borrowed, read, studied, and compared: music dictionaries and encyclopedias; biographies and autobiographies of composers, conductors, performing artists, and critics; music histories; books that specialized in chamber music, in opera, in orchestral music; and books highlighting the piano, the violin, and other individual instruments.   As an ex-reporter and a pad addict, I inevitably began to fill yellow pads with scribbling. My notes ranged from Claudio Monteverdi's contribution to opera to the definition of continuo. Out of my stacks of yellow pads came this book.   While some books I was reading, scanning, and studying dealt with as many as four hundred composers and some with as few as twenty, my notes began to show several dozen names appearing over and over again. Not only were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms always there, but also Berlioz, Debussy, and Liszt. So were Chopin, Stravinsky, and Mahler. And Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi. And Schubert and Schumann, with Haydn and Handel. And Wagner. Everyone wrote about Wagner, the musician and the man. Despite some dramatically different assessments of individual composers between experts writing in 1900 and those writing in the 1980s, the narrowing process to seventy-five pretty much took care of itself. From then on it was more of a coin flip.   The next step was to figure out a pecking order. No second-raters were among my fifty, but though each was a composer of great talent and artistry, surely there were different levels of genius and greatness. Why not start my musical library with the very best?   Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are the top three on my List. Some would shift the order, but who would violently disagree that those three belong there? And who would argue that the last Listed three, Janáček, Couperin, and Borodin, belong in a less-awesome category?   It is true that little case can be made for selecting Janáček as Number 48 rather than as 46 or 43--no case that would hold up in a court of law. But Liszt and Mendelssohn, Numbers 13 and 11, are unquestionably held in greater esteem than Smetana and Fauré, Numbers 45 and 41--which is not to put down the mastery of the latter two. Anyhow, if you start at Number 1 and collect through Number 30, you win. If you collect only through Number 20, you still win. Nothing is lost because somebody may be outraged that Shostakovich, at Number 19, is ranked higher than Berlioz at Number 21 or Franck at Number 36. Meanwhile, you can learn a little and have a lot of fun.   The ordering process was done in very much the same way as the selection process. Authors of books on music do pay much more attention to some composers than to others. Surveys of listeners of classical radio broadcasts show clearly that some of The 50 are much more popular than others. For instance, in 1950, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra published a survey taken of season-ticket holders. One question asked them to name their favorite composers. The top ten were Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy, Chopin, Sibelius, and Haydn. (Seven of The List's first ten were thus honored by Indianapolis; three, Schubert, Schumann, and Handel, were not included.) This just goes to show that I'm not the only one who ranks.   Excerpted from Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.