Music Book Review: Why Beethoven Threw The Stew by Steven Isserlis

Why did Bach’s son call him ‘The Old Wig’?

What part did Stravinsky’s parrot play at dinner parties?

How did Mozart keep his pigtails styled?

What did Schumann invent to make his fingers stronger?

And why did Beethoven throw the stew?

In this book cellist Steven Isserlis introduces the reader to the lives and musical works of 6 of his favourite composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Stravinsky. For each composer Isserlis breaks down the information he gives about them into 3 parts. The first part is biographical information to illustrate the composer’s character; and this is not just dry facts about their life, but rather colourful details from the composer’s life to let you know more about who they were as a person.

The second section, titled ‘The Music’, is all about – yes you guessed it – the composer’s music! Isserlis tells us a little bit about that composer’s musical style, about how they wrote their music. And he makes suggestions for musical works you should think about listening to – assuming you have never listened to anything by that composer before. Finally in a section titled ‘Facts of Life’, Isserlis takes us through highlights of each composer’s life story.

In some ways this is a very traditional book about music history in that it is all about the lives of a few composers who have a number of similarities – they all lived a long time ago, and they were all white and male. And the composers are probably fairly obvious composers to choose for a music history book of this type (who am I to talk, eh, given that my first 2 Composers of the Month were Mozart and Beethoven? And yes I did read the sections on both composers in this book before writing my own blog posts.) Isserlis has said in the book that these are some of his favourite composers and that he wants to tell his audience all about his favourite composers. He is a famous and very well respected cellist who will have played the music of the composers many times in his career. In addition, he is writing this book for children who may well not have spent much, if any, time reading about music history or the lives of any composers. It is not at all surprising that these are the composers he chooses for this book. He has written another book about a further set of composers, and maybe if there is another book like this from Steven Isserlis in the future (and I hope that there is) he may well choose a more diverse cast of characters.

On the other hand, Steven Isserlis’ tone, when writing about these composers, is very different to traditional biographers. Where most authors would adopt a very serious, reverent tone writing about these Great Men, Isserlis’ tone is more irreverent and joking, fun even. It does not detract from the information he gives you about each composer, in fact I learned a lot about each one of them from this book. He makes them more human, talking about their temper, their relationship with family members, difficulties with their mental health. I think he gives a much more rounded portrait of these composers as real people, with more to their lives than just their musical genius. The book is fun, funny, informative and interesting and even for adults it is a good read. I must admit, though, that after reading this book I am not sure I would want to spend much time with any of these composers!

The book is available on Amazon, and from other retailers, and at the time of writing costs £6.55. Please be aware that the price on Amazon does go up and down based on demand for the item, so it may be a different price when you read this review. Amazon recommends the book for a reading age of 7-8 years. I would disagree with this suggestion, and would personally recommend the book for ages 11 or 12 and up. While there aren’t really any salacious details, rude words, or anything scary in the book, it is a relatively in depth look at each composer’s life – certainly for a child – and I am not convinced that it would particularly appeal to younger children. It talks about the composers’ love lives – again no particular detail is given, and struggles with mental health, topics that may be difficult for 7 and 8 year olds to read about and fully understand. I can’t see my nearly 9 year old son enjoying it yet – and he does read quite a lot of books about music, if only so I can put him to work and find out what an actual child thinks of a book before I review it!

So I do highly recommend this book for senior school age children, it’s a fun and very interesting read, and a very different way of looking at the lives of some of the Great Composers. I am aware that Steven Isserlis has written another book along the same lines and I am sure I will get hold of it and have a read of that one as well in then future.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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