Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: From These Comes Music

Title: From These Comes Music
       
Author: Hope Stoddard
       
Date: 1952
       
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell
       
ISBN: none (click here to see the Amazon page)
       
Length: 246 pages
       
Illustrations: line drawings
       
Quote: “The harp’s for angels, so they say, / And yet it’s devilish hard to play.”
       
From These Comes Music is a serious music lover’s guide to the orchestra and beyond. It includes chapters on solo instruments as well as on the symphony standbys.
       
While writing each chapter, Stoddard says, she interviewed a recognized expert on the instrument and took “a few lessons.” This gives From These Comes Music an inside edge most children’s guides to the orchestra don’t have. Some of the consultants’ names are still familiar; Andrés Segovia for the guitar chapter, Bill Bell for the tuba chapter, William Kincaid for the flute chapter, Samuel G. Krauss for the trumpet chapter...(Pleasant exercise for music teachers: type each consultant's name into a search engine and see how many recordings you find.)
       
Stoddard, however, deserves full credit for the rhymes and anecdotes in each chapter.
       
Another thing that makes From These Comes Music easy to like is its freedom from the ignorance camouflaged as snobbery that dominated some books about music written in the early twentieth century. Stoddard resisted any temptation to write as if only the clichés of the symphony orchestra needed recognition as instruments. The guitar chapter gives brief consideration to other stringed instruments found in folk and country bands; if rock music had been invented, it would have mentioned electric guitars too. The section on wind instruments mentions obsolete specimens like the serpent and ophicleide. Stoddard discusses the mutant form of each of the standard symphony instruments that developed for extra-symphonic purposes—bugles, sousaphones, contrabassoons, recorders—and offers a separate chapter on saxophones.
       
It’s fair to describe From These Comes Music as a book written by serious adult musicians, for serious young musicians, who are not overly impressed by the cash outlay required to produce certain forms of music, but are simply interested in the different ways music is made.
       
Of course, no book can contain everything: “The bombardo, the tromba marina, the lyre, the oxhorn, Pan’s pipes are not with us because they do not meet our needs,” Stoddard laments. She does not anticipate that, later in the twentieth century, folk musicians would revive some but not all of the traditional instruments that had been buried in museums in 1952. There’s no premonition here that in the 1980s serious musicians would fall in love with the hammer dulcimer, which had developed an image problem as “lumberjacks’ pianos” in the 1930s and been buried under beds in the 1950s, nor that at the turn of the century Europeans and Americans would discover the didgeridoo. Nor, for that matter, that an early 1970s effort to restore interest in the shawm would not generate a major musical fad.
       
And there’s no anticipation of the late twentieth century’s obsession with electronic instruments. It’s hard to imagine what Stoddard would have said if a time traveller could have told her that, in the late twentieth century, the capacity of electronic instruments to produce ethereal “heavenly” melodies would be overlooked, that instruments designed to produce precise harmonies would be used mostly to produce monotonous banging and twanging noises that seem to express the frustration late-twentieth-century Americans feel with our crowded and polluted lifestyles.
       
There’s not even a suggestion of the sad fate that awaited the accordion. Why did the not unpleasing sound of accordions go so suddenly and completely out of style? Who knows? In the early twentieth century accordions were the most popular folk instruments, even featured in some orchestra pieces as a novelty. In the late twentieth century, Michael Kennedy sold one album of concertina music, and Bryan Bowers sold two or three albums featuring the autoharp, but nobody seemed to like the accordion any more.
       
The surprising thing, despite this evidence of its age, is that From These Comes Music is still surprisingly current. None of the music Stoddard describes is “top forty hits,” but, for that reason, recordings of it are still available. Not only can readers get recordings of most of the compositions mentioned in the book; they’ll probably find recordings of some of the individual performers. Schirmer ought to have complete sheet music for those who want to try playing these compositions, too.
       
From These Comes Music is recommended to all music lovers of all ages. It has a sixth grade vocabulary (and won’t seem juvenile if you’re reading it for the first time as an adult), but I’ve seen third and fourth grade students reading the chapters that interested them.


A web search reveals that a lot of younger people called Hope Stoddard are still active; I found no links for the author of this book, so, unless notified otherwise, I'll assume that Stoddard has no use for the Fair Trade Books program. To buy this book from salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com, send us $5 for the book + $5 shipping. You can probably find a better deal, and Stoddard probably won't mind.