There have been many books published over the years on music appreciation. Most of these tend to be dry and dull (texts for classroom use) or perky and witty (popularly written intros trying to be hip). From most of these, it’s evident that appreciation of classical music can’t be conveyed easily through books.

Robert Finn, the highly respected former music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (a post he held for 28 years until retiring in 1992), has recently published Exploring Classical Music, ostensibly as a guide for someone with a beginning interest in classical music (as stated in his introduction). With its essay format and loose structure, it will appeal more to those already familiar with classical music than to the rank beginner.

That said, I find this one of the most thought-provoking, insightful and affirming books on classical music I have ever read. Finn draws on his vast experience and acquired wisdom to offer salient commentary on twenty-one composers and on seven subject areas, such as choral music and the original instruments movement. Finn’s writing is positive and all encompassing. His advice is refreshingly straightforward, and his overviews are full of sage observations. He does have firm opinions (he doesn’t approve of supertitles in opera, he thinks recordings limit one’s response to variety in interpretations), but these are always put forth rationally, without rancor or undue obsessiveness. A small sampling of Finn’s comments will give a flavor of his range and sensible stances.

In his chapter on Tchaikovsky, he laments that the composer’s popularity makes critics look down their noses at many of his works. Finn says, “…it takes a certain amount of courage to swim against the critical tide and admit a genuine liking for Tchaikovsky, but the swim is invigorating and more people ought to try it.” About Schubert, Finn writes, “His music is full of tunes that, once heard, twine themselves around brain and memory forever…. Schubert’s melodies often have a sense of inevitability about them, as though they had dropped down from Heaven….” Finn opines that Bartók’s string quartets “are not perhaps ‘easy listening’ for traditional ears, but they are intensely dramatic and emotionally truthful pieces by a man who had important things to say in sound and was not about to compromise his musical language.”

Finn advocates having the majority of one’s classical musical experience in the concert hall, even though so much is available on CD now. He feels that if you listen to classical music while eating, reading or preparing tax returns, you are not giving the music the full attention it deserves. The great advantage of the concert hall is “It is at least a little harder to daydream or sleep [there], where strangers (or acquaintances!) can take due notice.”

Finn also has a lot to say about musical criticism. He thinks the best critics “try to be guides and teachers and not law givers. They try to enlighten their audience, not issue commands to it…. They break lances for obscure or unpopular causes. They shine their spotlight on worthy but little-known corners of concert life….”

Whether explaining how we hear Beethoven’s music differently than his own audiences did, or the difference between Mahler’s questioning doubt and Bruckner’s shining faith, or why we need classical music to validate our status as civilized human beings, Finn’s warm and sincere prose makes the reader stop time and again, either to ponder a point the reader has not thought about before or to nod in vigorous agreement with a point well taken.

Unfortunately, this small press publication probably will not be found sitting on a bookstore shelf. However, it should be sought out by anyone concerned with the state of classical music today. It is indeed a most “pleasant journey.”