Music can speak directly to our hearts. It needs no interpreter or intermediary, no academic analysis. Still, reading about music can enhance our enjoyment of it. A recent reference work and two biographies of American musicians encourage a trip to the library or music store, or to one's own shelves, to seek out good music. The rewards are deeply personal and enriching.
THE NPR GUIDE TO BUILDING A CLASSICAL CD COLLECTION: THE 300 ESSENTIAL WORKS, by Ted Libbey (Workman Publishing, 498 pp., $15.95 paper). Ted Libbey is known to listeners of the National Public Radio program ``Performance Today,'' on which he shares his views about the best classical recordings. Compact discs, with their many advantages, are the indisputable technology of choice for classical-music lovers (despite the price advantage of tapes and the historical cachet of vinyl).
But even within the CD format, exploring the depth and variety of classical music is still a daunting task. For example, there are 39 versions of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto available on CD, 81 versions of Vivaldi's ``The Four Seasons,'' and an astonishing 86 versions of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (plus another 24 sets containing the complete Beethoven symphonies). How does one choose?
Libbey acts in the role of a helpful friend. He selects the one or two recordings of each work that he most admires, giving background on the performers and the performance. (The pre-CD era is not neglected; many recordings made earlier have been converted into digital form.)
The book is divided into six categories: orchestral works, concertos, chamber music, solo keyboard works, sacred and choral music, and opera. Each is introduced by a short informative essay describing the history of that form. As each composer is introduced (most wrote in several of the categories), we learn something of his life and contribution. Brief margin notes are amusing and enlightening.
This is not a comprehensive catalog, and classical music buffs may take issue with Libbey's selections of either works or recordings. For example, he includes only the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth of Beethoven's symphonies.
But the novice will find it of great help; the experienced collector can enjoy comparing notes with Libbey, whose obvious affection for music is buttressed by a deep and wide knowledge.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday, 594 pp., $25). More than three years after the death of Leonard Bernstein it is probably still too soon to accurately assess his place in American musical history.
The conductor and composer's professional career was a long arpeggio, played at a vivace tempo, of performing, teaching, and writing. Bernstein deftly spanned the scale between popular culture (writing the score for musicals such as ``West Side Story'') and conducting with distinction the great works of classical music. His place as a serious composer remains to be established.
His largest work, ``Mass,'' Humphrey Burton writes, sought to bridge ``Broadway and the concert hall.'' But critics remain deeply divided in their views of it.
Burton, a British TV producer, collaborated with Bernstein on many projects over many years.
Though this is not an ``official'' biography, he was granted access to Bernstein's personal letters and papers and managed to interview widely those who knew him.
Bernstein, Burton writes, expresses ``the spirit of a restless, yearning, anxious age.'' Burton concludes that his subject is ``one of the most remarkable and flamboyant artists and towering musical presences of the twentieth century.''
This well-researched and written biography will contribute to our growing understanding of Bernstein for years to come.
DANCING TO A BLACK MAN'S TUNE: A LIFE OF SCOTT JOPLIN, by Susan Curtis (University of Missouri Press, 265 pp., $26.95). African-American composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917) aspired to be more than the ``King of Ragtime.'' Susan Curtis's biography extrapolates from the scant known details of Joplin's life to place him in a social and cultural context. She sets the roots of ragtime music firmly in the African-American experience, but then asks if that definition alone is too constricting.
Though Joplin borrowed from the ``ring shouts'' and ``juba patting'' of black slave culture, he also drew on established European musical forms like the waltz, march, and schottische to create an original, uniquely American sound. ``The success of African American ragtime promised a way of binding all Americans together through hybrid cultural forms,'' she writes, ``and though that promise was not realized at the dawn of the twentieth century, it continues to offer possibilities in the twilight of the century.''
Long before ``multiculturalism'' became a national buzzword, Joplin was showing an American synthesis of cultures taking place.
Curtis seeks not to give us insight into Joplin the man (perhaps a nearly impossible task given the sketchy details of his life) and writes in too academic a style to suit many readers. But for those who have fallen in love with Joplin's joyfully syncopated rags (perhaps having heard them enliven the popular film ``The Sting'' a generation ago), or those who simply want to better understand the roots of the black contribution to American music, it is a rewarding read.