Page Turners for the Proms: Books on Classical Composers

As the BBC proms kicks off tonight at the Royal Albert Hall, we take a look at books on classical composers from Yale University Press.

This year the BBC Proms is 117 years old, and is still seen as the greatest classical music festival in the world, holding over 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall and outdoor Proms in the Park events across the United Kingdom.

Since its inception in 1895 by Robert Newman, the Proms has become a mainstay of British culture, especially the famous Last Night of the Proms, which celebrates British tradition with patriotic music of the United Kingdom. Kicking off tonight with a programme of Liszt, Janáček, Brahms and a world premiere from the contemporary British composer Judith Wier, the festival will last for a staggering eight weeks of classical, choral and world music.

The festival includes music by all the grand masters of classical composition. For those that are interested to learn more about the lives of these great figures, Yale University Press publish a wide range of composer biographies. Here we take a look at a small selection of these composers, with book information, videos and links to the event pages so you can book ahead at the Proms.


Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) was a French composer known especially for his melodies, orchestral and instrumental textures and effects. Much of his challenging piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music has entered the standard concert repertoire. Ravel is perhaps known best for his orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and his Boléro, which he considered trivial and once described as “a piece for orchestra without music.”

Ravel by Roger Nichols

Ravel by Roger Nichols

Ravel by Roger Nichols is a biography by one of the leading scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French music. The book is based on a wealth of written and oral evidence, some newly translated and some derived from interviews with the composer’s friends and associates. As well as describing the circumstances in which Ravel composed, the book explores new evidence to present radical views of the composer’s background and upbringing, his notorious failure in the Prix de Rome, his incisive and often combative character, his sexual preferences, and his long final illness. It also contains the most detailed account so far published of his hugely successful American tour of 1928. The world of Maurice Ravel – including friendships (and some fallings-out) with Debussy, Faure, Diaghilev, Gershwin, and Toscanini – is deftly uncovered in this sensitive portrait.

Ravel at the Proms
More info on Ravel from the BBC

Richard Strauss

Richard Georg Strauss (1864 – 1949) was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs; and his tone poems and orchestral works, such as Death and TransfigurationTill Eulenspiegel’s Merry PranksAlso sprach ZarathustraAn Alpine Symphony, and Metamorphosen. Strauss, along with Gustav Mahler, represents the late flowering of German Romanticism after Richard Wagner, in which pioneering subtleties of orchestration are combined with an advanced harmonic style.

Richard Strauss by Raymond Holden

Richard Strauss by Raymond Holden

Renowned today as the gifted composer of a string of masterworks, Strauss is less often remembered for his achievement as a major conductor. Yet he held important conducting posts in Munich, Berlin, and Vienna and influenced generations of younger conductors. Richard Strauss: A Musical Life by Raymond Holden is the first to consider Strauss’ career as a conductor and place it in relation to his life as a composer. With unique access to extensive materials in the Strauss family’s private archives, Raymond Holden corrects misconceptions about Strauss and discusses the musician’s understanding of composing and conducting as intertwined processes. Holden throws new light on Strauss’ relationships, on his disputed role during the Third Reich, and particularly on his performance practices and principles.

Strauss at the Proms
More info on Strauss from the BBC


Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) was a late-Romantic Austrian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer, he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.

Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer

Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer

A bestseller when first published in Germany in 2003, Jens Malte Fischer’s Gustav Mahler has been lauded by scholars as a landmark work. He draws on important primary resources – some unavailable to previous biographers – and sets in narrative context the extensive correspondence between Mahler and his wife, Alma; Alma Mahler’s diaries; and, the memoirs of Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player and close friend of Mahler, whose private journals provide insight into the composer’s personal and professional lives and his creative process. Fischer explores Mahler’s early life, his relationship to literature, his achievements as a conductor in Vienna and New York, his unhappy marriage, and his work with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in his later years. He also illustrates why Mahler is a prime example of artistic idealism worn down by Austrian anti-Semitism and American commercialism. Gustav Mahler is the best-sourced and most balanced biography available about the composer, a nuanced and intriguing portrait of his dramatic life set against the backdrop of early 20th century America and fin de siecle Europe.

Mahler at the Proms
More info on Mahler from the BBC


Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. The core of Sibelius’s oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.

Sibelius by Andrew Barnett

Sibelius by Andrew Barnett

Informed by a wealth of information that has come to light in recent years, Sibelius by Andrew Barnett tells the complete story of the life and musical work of Sibelius. Drawing on Sibelius’s own correspondence and diaries, contemporary reviews, and the remarks of family and friends, the book presents a rich account of the events of the musician’s life. In addition, this volume is the first to set every work and performable fragment by Sibelius in its historical and musical context. Filling a significant gap, the biography also provides the first accurate information about much of the composer’s early music. Writing for the general music-lover, Andrew Barnett combines his own extensive knowledge of Sibelius’s music with the insights of other scholars and musicians. He lays to rest a number of myths and untruths – that Sibelius wrote no chamber music of value, for example, and that he stopped composing in 1926 and never needed to compose to earn a living. Barnett completes the volume with the most thorough worklist available and an authoritative chronology of Sibelius’s entire output.

Sibelius at the Proms
More info on Sibelius from the BBC

All these titles are available from Yale University Press. Click here to see a larger list of Yale’s music books.

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1 Comment

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