The Story-Lives of Great Composers

Do you know what’s evil? And by evil I mean tempting like evil but without the collateral damage to the human spirit?

Book sales where hardcovers are selling for 33 cents a pop. Because I’m on a pauper budget and these are pauper prices. So, I feel like economic law demands that I walk away with  precipitous stacks of books, some of which I only like for the campy pictures, or grandma-y smell.


That is how I have come to possess a certain young adult page-turner (in the sense that the pages turn if you have the will to move them) called Story-Lives of Great Composers by Katherine Little Bakeless.

I don’t know what drew me in first–the portraits of mustachioed men with long, symphonic-hair, the bombastic “GREAT COMPOSERS” stamped in maroon capitals across the cover, or the fact that the author’s name includes two sad words: “little” and “bakeless.” Whatever it was, I slammed down my 33 cents and have since been working my way through vignettes about the (western) musical geniuses of the last couple of centuries.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Sergei Rachmaninoff:


“Sergei, who was an unusually bright and cheerful boy, was his grandmother’s favorite. How she spoiled him! No matter how mischievous he was, she was delighted with him….Piano was so easy for him that he shirked his practising…he played without worrying. What he liked to do was all together different and surprising. He went to the skating-rink as often as he could. He became a very fine skater, an even better skater than he was a piano player.”


“When he did something wrong and needed punishment, he was put under the piano. This wounded him deeply, for the other children were only put into a corner!”

I also learned that Sergei’s older sister Helena could bend a silver coin “with the fingers of one hand.” And that in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, he and his family had to cross the Russian border into Sweden by sleigh “while a blizzard raged.”

While I find all of these facts useful for boring the person beside me at my next Rachmaninoff concert, my problem is that the book is babyish–written for young adultish children as it were.

What I was really hoping for was DRAMA. The lost loves, depression, fury, grief and page-long accounts of Rachy’s sleigh escape from Russia, and that time Tolstoy told him his music sucked, and all of those other things that rattled his life to such a pounding tonal storm that it came out as this Prelude Op 32, No 1 in C.


But I think I’ll keep reading. It looks like there’s a semi-interesting passage in the next chapter about Richard Strauss in which we learn that he was “above middle height, with fair complexion, sandy hair and very pale blue eyes.”

Apparently he had “a very high, prominent forehead,” but THEN, “the sandy hair grew white and the high forehead became even higher as the white hair receded.”

I hadn’t known that about Strauss.