Book Review – Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

“Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavannaugh

This book looked very intriguing when I saw it on the shelf at the library. It contains short biographical sketches of twenty of history’s greatest composers, concentrating solely on the aspect of their spiritual beliefs, and how those beliefs impacted their music.

There are definite strengths and weaknesses to this book. It’s quite easy to read, and offers some interesting details about the lives of these fascinating musicians that weren’t covered in any of my music history textbooks. The citations and bibliography are very thorough, which I enjoy in a book of this nature, because it lends credibility and points in the direction of further reading about the composers who most piqued my interest. It’s also an absolute gold mine of quotes, providing fodder for many a Facebook status update!

Kavannaugh also devotes time correcting popularized misconceptions about some composers. For instance, we encounter a much more historic portrayal of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than his unflattering depiction in the movie Amadeus, which won 8 Oscars in 1984 (including “Best Picture”) but was notoriously bad history.

On a whole, though, the book missed the mark for me. I had high hopes for a book that would demonstrate how the beliefs of composers of all spiritual persuasions and levels of devotion were manifested in their work. Many of these men were very conflicted and troubled… how did their devotion to God (or lack thereof) impact their music? Is there an observable difference between the work of devout Christians and the work of, say, someone who devoted his life to one of the Eastern religions? These are questions that greatly interest me.

Unfortunately, the author chose instead to write a very superficial book, attempting to fit each of these composers into the mold of Christian orthodoxy. We are led to believe that all twenty musicians in this list were Christians, and this is meant to inspire those of us who are Christian musicians to take pride in the Christian heritage of our art.

I, for one, believe that we have all the inspiration we need, without having to exaggerate this heritage by giving a rosy and inaccurate picture of great composers who were more than likely not true believers. After all, it is our God who is the Creator of music, and the giver of every good gift! What else do we need? Upholding as Christian examples men who had profoundly unbiblical ideas about God such as Richard Wagner and Frederic Chopin tarnishes the testimony of true followers and lovers of Jesus Christ such as J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel.

A quick and interesting read, but take the author’s words with a large grain of salt. Buy it here.

One comment on “Book Review – Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

  1. […] Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, by Patrick Kavannaugh […]

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