The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music by Robert Philip

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Acclaimed by The Times in 1992 on the publication of his book Early Recordings and Musical Style as a man who ‘dropped a bomb on musical orthodoxy,” Robert Philip continues to beaver away quietly in Edinburgh Scotland where he does not let his fame as an author, scholar, one-time broadcaster and lecturer concern him too much. He just gets on with the job of writing top quality work as his latest publication The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music attests. This book is a compendium of virtually every aspect of orchestral music that has ever been considered. In this single volume of 900+ pages he takes his reader by the hand to explore four hundred works from sixty-eight composers, paying particular attention to often performed works, including symphonies, concertos, overtures, suites, and ballet scores. The reader is treated to a magnificent spread of knowledge written in language that any aficionado of music can understand without effort, and in a style that encourages further studies in music.

The author openly admits that his purpose in writing the book was to “try to describe each piece of music so that listeners can find their way through it, hear the most important features and events, and gather a sense of what the whole piece consists of” (xvii). His written expression certainly follows that mantra. It is as clear as the sparkling waters of a burn, his ideas striking a chord in the listener, leading to a quick understanding, complex though a piece of music might be. Philip explains the subtleties of a Mozart or Beethoven or the intricacies of some other musician, shades of meaning that the reader on his own might well have missed. His touch is always light and encouraging, it never dismays. As Philip remarks, “The route through a piece of music becomes like a journey through an endlessly fascinating landscape in which any detail is clear, but the sense of direction is never lost” (xvi).

Having read large chunks of this compendium of knowledge I am staggered by the unrelenting display of erudition. Any topic the reader cares to choose from this vast history of the orchestral music of the western world is explained in depth without the author’s voice faltering, his commentary always informed, his mind encyclopaedic. He gives his readers the intangible essence of music, demonstrating not only an acute sensitivity but also his preparedness to search out the most appropriate word. The writer is insightful and engaging, his words illuminate rather than describe. I cannot fault the depth or breadth of esoteric knowledge or the accomplished style of writing of this scholar.

Philip is able to focus his intellect on, and understand the principles of the age. In Bach’s time there was no difference between secular and sacred music. Bach’s introduction of complex counterpoint was something like an act of worship. “Learning how intricate patterns of notes could be fitted together to form a[n] harmonious structure was a profound and mysterious art, part of the philosophical quest to express the nature of the universe, and the place of music, numbers and human beings in it” (1). His works contain all of his contrapuntal skill and display to the full his seriousness of purpose. Hence with Bach Philip writes of the inseparability of emotion and music; with Gershwin he identifies the questioning spirit of the age in a collaboration of heart with brain (276), while with Mozart he writes, “…there is something unique in Mozart’s command of the emotional landscape…the witty plot [in The Marriage of Figaro] is inhabited by real human beings who experience a full range of emotions, from sorrow and anger to bewilderment and delight” (473). He goes on to write, “Mozart had a unique way of creating a subtle integration of…drama with emotional depth, intellectual logic, and instrumental brilliance” (473).

The close of the eighteenth century saw the rigour of the classical age under threat and ultimately overthrown, and this is reflected in Mozart where “light and energetic music is touched with moments of doubt and melancholy, and sad music is coloured with hints of consolation and hope” (473). But then Philip reminds us that much, much earlier, “It was Haydn more than any other composer who revealed how it was possible to create a compelling four-movement drama out of purely instrumental music” (311). He reveals in another part of his text that, measured in terms of the impact on the course of musical history, Haydn was much more influential than Mozart (310).

Philip continues his destruction of musical myths with the argument that Schubert was “a composer with a vision of music that stretched its possibilities beyond even what Beethoven had imagined” (661). Schubert is presented as a composer whose music revolves around song, sometimes as endless, effortless melody, at other times struggling to surface from a tangle of conflicting ideas. Schubert calls for “our intense involvement [to be]…kept engaged by his precisely calibrated command of mood and tension” (662).

Robert Philip’s segment on Beethoven describes his intellectual brilliance and his forcing of the boundaries, best understood in the comparison between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies where the Fifth “punches its way through all obstacles to eventual triumph, the Sixth gently makes its way through an emotional landscape – though admittedly interrupted by one magnificent catastrophe” (74). This is a period of revolution, and Philip reflects the turbulence of the times in his searching and seeking vocabulary and dramatic sentence composition, identifying in the music, layers beneath the most serene of surfaces.

There is much to be said about this giant of intellectual endeavour. Such a simple thing as arranging the entries in alphabetical order, which is a huge positive in a book as searching and grandiose as this one. It is the sort of thing that many professional and knowledgeable critics might not see as important. Robert Philip might be writing of lofty imaginings but has not ignored such little things. In like manner, when defending the beginning and end points of his book, he points out that orchestral music did not sprout from Corelli’s head – it was known in one form or another for centuries. But orchestral music became possible with the decision to create violins in northern Italy in Corelli’s time. Corelli was of an era when one could talk comfortably of a conscious orchestral scene largely influenced by, if not explained by, this particular composer’s lead in insisting on high standards of discipline. Corelli, therefore, presented a strong case to mark the beginning of Philip’s book. Similarly, orchestras did not stop at the stroke of midnight on some date in 1950. End points had to be chosen and Philip has chosen dates that can be accepted on rational grounds.

This review could cover much more ground, but I think the point has been made, that if readers want to understand or expand their knowledge of orchestral music, this is the book most needed. This is the one to buy.

The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music


By Robert Philip

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-12069-1

968pp; $94.99
To order a copy of Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit


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