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The Classical period has been poorly served by large, one-volume, single-author books. The old Norton History of Music series (published by Dent in the UK), which appeared between 1940 and 1966, contained five volumes that reflected the active scholarship of the mid twentieth century and became well-thumbed and well-regarded primers for generations of students: Gustave Reese on the Middle Ages and on the Renaissance, Manfred F. Bukofzer on the Baroque, and then forward to Alfred Einstein on the Romantic era and William W. Austin on the twentieth century. The gaping void of the Classical period remained untilled, a general understanding of that period having to be gathered through the reading of shorter, or more general histories together with the introductory literature on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, typically supplemented by Charles Rosen's The Classical Style.
It is worth pondering why the Classical period has not been covered. Perhaps the very specialist, often inward-looking scholarly work on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the last 40 years has engendered a feeling of respectful hesitancy, if not trepidation, among potential authors. Is it possible for one person to be equally authoritative on all the major figures? Equally necessary, does the same writer have the will to cut through the entrenched traditions of composer scholarship that have given each composer his own historiography: biography and reliable musical editions for Haydn, a mixture of positivism and continued mythologizing in the case of Mozart, and compositional method in Beethoven? Neither Bukofzer nor Einstein in their allotted periods was bothered by equivalent considerations, the former writing equally convincingly on Handel and Bach, and the latter willing to explore the familiar dichotomies of the nineteenth century, public and private, Classic and Romantic, Verdi and Wagner, Liszt and Brahms, and so on.
A second discouraging factor may have been the tradition, particularly notable in the Renaissance and Baroque volumes, of …