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Guide to Chamber Music : by Melvin Berger (Dodd, Mead: $29.95; 470 pp.)

March 09, 1986|Gerard Schwarz | Schwarz is music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. and

The idea of writing a book that helps music lovers "deepen their understanding of chamber music" through discussions of specific works is, in principle, excellent. One might imagine the ideal concertgoer, studying or playing the compositions prior to attending a concert. Since this rarely takes place, there is a real need for a book such as Melvin Berger's "Guide to Chamber Music." Berger has written a book for the chamber music lover that includes a brief biography of 55 composers and a discussion of 231 of the most frequently performed chamber works.

Berger's choice of the literature to be discussed is excellent. There is, quite correctly, an emphasis on the chamber music masters: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. There is also a good selection of works by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bartok and many 20th-Century composers such as Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith; Dmitri Shostakovich, Olivier Messiaen and Elliot Carter.

Berger's biographical sketches of the composers are informative without being too stodgy. His flowery way of describing particular situations is appropriate for this kind of light and brief treatment of the composers lives. The notes on the works themselves are more detailed.

There is only one area in which the book is less successful, even if this lesser success is easily understood. To describe music only in words without musical (notated) examples is very difficult and at times almost impossible. Berger describes the finale theme in Mozart's viola quintet K.593 as " . . . a witty, peppy first violin tune . . . ." This theme is certainly that, but so are many others by Mozart. There is even an area of controversy about this theme since in its original form it was basically a chromatic scale and was only later (but prior to its first publication) revised, possibly but not necessarily by Mozart. The revision has a chromatic element but adds three interval jumps of a third to connect the chromatic notes. Both versions have their respected champions. To describe this interesting situation without musical examples is almost impossible. Understandably but unfortunately, Berger did not even attempt to deal with the question.

The argument could easily be made that many potential readers do not read music and therefore notated examples would be meaningless to them. That is probably true, but for the musically literate, an important element of this otherwise excellent book is missing. And yet even with this reservation, I feel that Berger's book is not only worthwhile but so beautifully written and so informative, that it should be in every chamber music lover's library.

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