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Five Straight Lines: A history of music by Andrew Gant

26 November 2021

A gallop through music history, says Ron Corp

WHAT an enjoyable read this is. The five straight lines of the title make up the stave that has been used for notating music for centuries, but Andrew Gant quite rightly goes back into the distant past (before anything was written down) and comes right up to date, even speculating in an epilogue what the next million years might bring.

His aim is to embrace all kinds of music from Albinoni and Al Jolson, Byrd and the Byrds, and, at one point, we find Schoenberg and Charlie Parker mentioned in the same sentence. Light music, films, and shows are here, as well as a fulsome account of popular music, embracing jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and hip hop.

In the early sections, the topics appear in roughly chronological order, covering the medieval and Renaissance periods, but, inevitably, some composers are mentioned several times when Gant takes on specific art forms such as opera and symphonic music from the 17th century onwards.

As in all similar histories, Gant has to cover a huge number of composers when it comes to the 19th and 20th centuries, but he manages to give space to all the important ones.

Twentieth-century giants such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen are given their due, and Gant mentions composers writing today, including Thomas Adès, John Adams, Brett Dean, Unsuk Chin, and Augusta Read Thomas.

Gant has an engaging style, and the joy of this history is the extra bits of information which he includes. He tells us about composers’ family lives, their affairs, and how many children they had, and along the way we hear that Haydn owned a parrot, and that Weber had a pet monkey. These little titbits help to bring the composers to life.

Gant also likes to make comparisons, not just in chapters such as the ones on Mozart and Haydn or Verdi and Wagner, but also between the output of Monteverdi and Beethoven, and certain parallels in the lives of Beethoven and Mahler. Female composers take their place, including women writing in Rome in the 17th century.

Some composers receive extensive coverage (including Domenico Scarlatti and Lully), but others less so (there is more to say about Machaut and Buxtehude, I think). Gant is rather scathing about Puccini, and analyses his operas to tell us why. I loved the reference to Liszt as being more Bowie than Beethoven: one of Gant’s neat observations in this entertaining history.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.


Five Straight Lines: A history of music
Andrew Gant
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