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24 books about Composers [sort by author]      

African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Randy Weston
Duke University Press, 2010

The pianist, composer, and bandleader Randy Weston is one of the world’s most influential jazz musicians and a remarkable storyteller whose career has spanned five continents and more than six decades. Packed with fascinating anecdotes, African Rhythms is Weston’s life story, as told by him to the music journalist Willard Jenkins. It encompasses Weston’s childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood—where his parents and other members of their generation imbued him with pride in his African heritage—and his introduction to jazz and early years as a musician in the artistic ferment of mid-twentieth-century New York. His music has taken him around the world: he has performed in eighteen African countries, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, in the Canterbury Cathedral, and at the grand opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The New Library of Alexandria. Africa is at the core of Weston’s music and spirituality. He has traversed the continent on a continuous quest to learn about its musical traditions, produced its first major jazz festival, and lived for years in Morocco, where he opened a popular jazz club, the African Rhythms Club, in Tangier.

Weston’s narrative is replete with tales of the people he has met and befriended, and with whom he has worked. He describes his unique partnerships with Langston Hughes, the musician and arranger Melba Liston, and the jazz scholar Marshall Stearns, as well as his friendships and collaborations with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the novelist Paul Bowles, the Cuban percussionist Candido Camero, the Ghanaian jazz artist Kofi Ghanaba, the Gnawa musicians of Morocco, and many others. With African Rhythms, an international jazz virtuoso continues to create cultural history.

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An Artist's Journey: Lettres d'un bachelier es musique, 1835-1841
Franz Liszt
University of Chicago Press, 1989

In these eloquent and intensely personal writings, Franz Liszt sketches the cities, people, and scenes of his travels in the 1830s and explores ideas about art and its ideal place in the world. During six years of wandering through Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria, and Germany (four of them together with Countess Marie d'Agoult), the composer saw the greatest art and most fabulous landscapes of Europe and crossed paths with celebrated singers and artists, renowned intellectuals, infamous socialites, and both reigning and deposed aristocracy. The article/essays that emerged from this period are both public and private: though written for the Paris press, they are the closest that Liszt came to autobiography. Some of these writings are travel articles; some are essentially reports of a music correspondent; still others are personal and confessional; and some are really essays on the nature of art. All offer precious insight into the musical, social, and intellectual life in the major European capitals seen through the eyes of one of the most well-read and influential musical personalities of the period.
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Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage
Kenneth Silverman
Northwestern University Press, 2012

A man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents—musician, inventor, composer, poet, and even amateur mycologist—John Cage became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. Silverman begins with Cage’s childhood in interwar Los Angeles and his stay in Paris from 1930 to 1931, where immersion in the burgeoning new musical and artistic movements triggered an explosion of his creativity. Cage continued his studies in the United States with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg, and he soon began the experiments with sound and percussion instruments that would develop into his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. Cage’s unorthodox methods still influence artists in a wide range of genres and media. Silverman concurrently follows Cage’s rich personal life, from his early marriage to his lifelong personal and professional partnership with choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as his friendships over the years with other composers, artists, philosophers, and writers. 

Drawing on interviews with Cage’s contemporaries and friends and on the enormous archive of his letters and writings, and including photographs, facsimiles of musical scores, and Web links to illustrative sections of his compositions, Silverman gives us a biography of major significance: a revelatory portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century.

 

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Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism
Jacques Barzun
University of Chicago Press, 1982

In this abridgment of his monumental study, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, Jacques Barzun recounts the events and extraordinary achievements of the great composer's life against the background of the romantic era. As the author eloquently demonstrates, Berloiz was an archetype whose destiny was the story of an age, the incarnation of an artistic style and a historical spirit. "In order to understand the nineteenth century, it is essential to understand Berlioz," notes W. H. Auden, "and in order to understand Berlioz, it is essential to read Professor Barzun."
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Composing Japanese Musical Modernity
Bonnie C. Wade
University of Chicago Press, 2013

When we think of composers, we usually envision an isolated artist separate from the orchestra—someone alone in a study, surround by staff paper—and in Europe and America this image generally has been accurate. For most of Japan’s musical history, however, no such role existed—composition and performance were deeply intertwined.  Only when Japan began to embrace Western culture in the late nineteenth century did the role of the composer emerge. In Composing Japanese Musical Modernity, Bonnie Wade uses an investigation of this new musical role to offer new insights not just into Japanese music but Japanese modernity at large and global cosmopolitan culture.
            
Wade examines the short history of the composer in Japanese society, looking at the creative and economic opportunities that have sprung up around them—or that they forged—during Japan’s astonishingly fast modernization. She shows that modernist Japanese composers have not bought into the high modernist concept of the autonomous artist, instead remaining connected to the people. Articulating Japanese modernism in this way, Wade tells a larger story of international musical life, of the spaces in which tradition and modernity are able to meet and, ultimately, where modernity itself has been made. 
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Dameronia: The Life and Music of Tadd Dameron
Paul Combs
University of Michigan Press, 2012

Dameronia is the first authoritative biography of Tadd Dameron, an important and widely influential figure in jazz history and one of the most significant composers and arrangers of jazz, swing, bebop, and big band. This book sets out to clarify Dameron’s place in the development of jazz in the post–World War II era, as he arranged for names like Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, and Dizzy Gillespie and played with Bull Moose Jackson and Benny Golson It also attempts to shed light on the tragedy of his retreat from the center of jazz activity in the 1950s. By tracing Dameron’s career, one finds that until 1958, when he was incarcerated for drug related offenses, he was at the forefront of developments in jazz, sometimes anticipating trends that would not develop fully for several years. Dameron was a very private man, and while some aspects of his story will probably remain an enigma, this book manages to give an intimate portrait of his life and work.

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Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin
Susan Curtis
University of Missouri Press, 2004

By using Scott Joplin's life as a window onto American social and cultural development at the turn of the century, this biography dramatizes the role of one brilliant African American musician in defining the culture of a still-young nation.

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A Day for Dancing: The Life and Music of Lloyd Pfautsch
Kenneth W. Hart
University of North Texas Press, 2014

Erik Satie
Mary E. Davis
Reaktion Books, 2007

A composer who dabbled in the Dada movement, a Bohemian “gymnopédiste” of fin-de-siècle Montmartre, and a legendary dresser known as “The Velvet Gentleman,” Erik Satie cut a unique figure among early twentieth-century European composers. Yet his legacy has largely languished in the shadows of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel. Mary E. Davis now brings Satie to life in this fascinating new biography.

Satie redefined the composer’s art, devising new methods of artistic expression that melded ordinary and rarified elements of words, visual art, and music. Davis argues that Satie’s modernist aesthetic was grounded in the contradictions of his life—such as enrolling in the conservative Schola Cantorum after working as a cabaret performer—and is reflected in his irreverent essays, drawn art, and music.  Erik Satie explores how the composer was embraced by avant-garde artists and fashionable Parisian elite, and how his experiences inspired him to create the musical style of Neoclassicism. Satie also employed the power of the image through his infamous fashion statements, Davis contends, and became part of a nascent celebrity culture.

A cogent and informative portrait, Erik Satie upends the accepted history of modernist music and restores the composer to his rightful pioneering status.

 

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Forgetfulness: A Novel
Michael Mejia
University of Alabama Press, 2005

The first part of Forgetfulness is a fictional monograph on the life of the Austrian modernist composer Anton von Webern (1883-1945).The collage-work monograph unfolds in a Webernian sequence of events and silences combining quotes from Webern, his friends and associates, and various historical and literary figures with short scenes, monologues, dialogues, newspaper articles, and theater and film scripts. The result is a lyrical panorama of early twentieth century Vienna.

The second part of the book takes place in Vienna on May 1st, 1986, shortly before the election of Kurt Waldheim as President of the Austrian Republic and shortly after the Chernobyl disaster. The three simultaneous, intertwining monologues of an archivist, a retired opera singer, and the author of the monograph, revisit the themes and events of the first part, commenting on postwar conceptions, analyses, and revisions of the period during which Webern lived, while continuously haunted by the specters of Waldheim and Chernobyl, the persistence of crimes that are immanent, unpaid for, or only dimly, disingenuously recalled.
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Gustav Mahler--Richard Strauss: Correspondence 1888-1911
Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss
University of Chicago Press, 1984

Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss came to know one another as young conductors in Leipzig in 1887. From then until Mahler's death in 1911—the year of the first performance of Der Rosenkavalier—they kept in touch. Mahler himself described their relationship as that of two miners tunneling from opposite directions with the hope of eventually meeting.

This first publication of their correspondence, which includes twenty-five previously unknown Strauss letters, offers a portrait of two men who were as antithetical in their musical means and goals as in their temperaments and personalities, but who exercised a strong fascination for one another. These sixty-three letters show both composers advancing in their careers as they battled against adverse conditions in the musical world at the turn of the century. They present Mahler's energetic support of Strauss's Symphonia Domestica, which Mahler conducted in 1904 and, in turn, Strauss's championing of Mahler's music, especially the Second and Third Symphonies.

The correspondence is fully annotated and is supplemented with a major essay by Herta Blaukopf.

"Unfailingly absorbing. . . . An indispensable addition to the literature on these composers."—Norman Del Mar, Times Literary Supplement
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The higher jazz
Edmund Wilson
University of Iowa Press, 1998

Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992
Tim Lawrence
Duke University Press, 2009

Hold On to Your Dreams is the first biography of the musician and composer Arthur Russell, one of the most important but least known contributors to New York’s downtown music scene during the 1970s and 1980s. With the exception of a few dance recordings, including “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Go Bang! #5,” Russell’s pioneering music was largely forgotten until 2004, when the posthumous release of two albums brought new attention to the artist. This revival of interest gained momentum with the issue of additional albums and the documentary film Wild Combination. Based on interviews with more than seventy of his collaborators, family members, and friends, Hold On to Your Dreams provides vital new information about this singular, eccentric musician and his role in the boundary-breaking downtown music scene.

Tim Lawrence traces Russell’s odyssey from his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, to countercultural San Francisco, and eventually to New York, where he lived from 1973 until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Resisting definition while dreaming of commercial success, Russell wrote and performed new wave and disco as well as quirky rock, twisted folk, voice-cello dub, and hip-hop-inflected pop. “He was way ahead of other people in understanding that the walls between concert music and popular music and avant-garde music were illusory,” comments the composer Philip Glass. “He lived in a world in which those walls weren’t there.” Lawrence follows Russell across musical genres and through such vital downtown music spaces as the Kitchen, the Loft, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Along the way, he captures Russell’s openness to sound, his commitment to collaboration, and his uncompromising idealism.

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Hugo Wolf: Letters To Melanie Kochert
Hugo Wolf
University of Wisconsin Press, 2003

This is a love story. It tells of an extraordinary epistolary relationship between Hugo Wolf, one of the greatest masters of the German art song, whose dedication to the poetic spirit of his music was equaled only by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, and Melanie Köchert, the wife of a prominent Viennese jeweler with whom Wolf shared a lifelong emotional, spiritual, and artistic bond.

Wolf’s letters to Köchert—he wrote 245 between 1887 and 1899—were composed during a period of almost unprecedented cultural upheaval in Europe, in the shadow of Vienna during the era of Freud, Mahler, and Klimt. They reveal Wolf at his most optimistic, celebrating his concert successes and the solitude he believed was so precious to his ability to compose. They follow Wolf through times of overwhelming despair, when his musical failures left him profoundly alienated, overcome, as he revealed to Köchert, "by a feeling of unspeakable emptiness and desolation." And they follow Wolf as he struggled to compose the 250 astounding art songs that are his creative legacy, and his almost simultaneous descent into madness.

Hugo Wolf: Letters to Melanie Köchert, sensitively translated by Wolf scholar and interpreter Louise McClelland Urban, is a literary and musical even of the highest order
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John Cage
Rob Haskins
Reaktion Books, 2012

American writer, composer, artist, and philosopher John Cage (1912–92) is best known for his experimental composition 4’33,” a musical score in which the performer does not play an instrument during the duration of the piece. The purpose, Cage said, was for the audience to listen to the sounds of the environment around them while the piece was performed. Groundbreaking pieces such as 4’33”, as well as Sonatas and Interludes not only established Cage as a leading figure in the postwar avant-garde movement, but also cemented the enduring controversy surrounding his work.

In this new biography, Rob Haskins explores Cage’s radical approach to art and aesthetics and his belief that everyday life and art are one and the same. Scrutinizing Cage’s emphasis on chance over intention, which rejected traditional artistic methods and caused an uproar among his peers, Haskins elucidates the ideas that lay behind these pillars of Cage’s work. Haskins also demystifies the influence of Eastern cultures, particularly Zen Buddhism, on Cage, including his use of the Chinese text I Ching as his standard composition tool in all his work after 1951. Adding to our understanding of the art, music, and ideas of the twentieth century, this book provides an engaging look at a man who continues to challenge and inspire artists worldwide.
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Music of Another World
Szymon Laks
Northwestern University Press, 2000

Compassionate yet detached, ironic yet pitilessly honest, Szymon Laks, the kapellmeister of the Auschwitz orchestra, presents a disturbing description of a phenomenon seldom mentioned in the literature of the Holocaust: the presence of music among the crematoria. His story is a testament to the human spirit and to music itself, the beauty of which Laks and others honored even as the lives of so many were destroyed.
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Orpheus in the Marketplace
Tim Carter
Harvard University Press, 2013

The Florentine musician Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) is known as the composer of the first operas--they include the earliest to survive complete, Euridice (1600), in which Peri sang the role of Orpheus. The recent discovery of a large number of private account books belonging to him and his family allows for a greater exploration of Peri's professional and personal life. Richard Goldthwaite, an economic historian, and Tim Carter, a musicologist, have done more, however, than write a biography: their investigation exposes the value of such financial documents as a primary source for an entire period. This record of Peri's wide-ranging investments and activities in the marketplace enables the first detailed account of the Florentine economy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and opens a new perspective on one of Europe's principal centers of capitalism. His economic circumstances reflect continuities and transformations in Florentine society, and the strategies for negotiating them, under the Medici grand dukes. They also allow a reevaluation of Peri the singer and composer that elucidates the cultural life of a major artistic center even in changing times, providing a quite different view of what it meant to be a musician in late Renaissance Italy.
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Paul Bowles: A Life
Virginia Spencer Carr
Northwestern University Press, 2008

Paul Bowles, best known for his classic 1949 novel, The Sheltering Sky, is one of the most compelling yet elusive figures of twentieth-century American counterculture. In this definitive biography, Virginia Spencer Carr has captured Bowles in his many guises: gifted composer, expatriate novelist, and gay icon, to name only a few.
 
Born in New York in 1910, Bowles' brilliance was evident from early childhood. His first artistic interest was music, which he studied with the composer Aaron Copland. Bowles wrote scores for films and countless plays, including pieces by Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles. Over the course of his life, his intellectual pursuits led him around the world. He cultivated a circle of artistic friends that included Gertrude Stein, W.H. Auden, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Stephen Spender, and Carson McCullers.
 
Just as fascinating for his flamboyant personality as for his literary success, Bowles' leftist politics and experimentation with drugs make him an ever-controversial character. Carr delves into Bowles' unconventional marriage to Jane Auer and his self-exile in Morocco. Close friends with him before his death in 1999, Carr's first-hand knowledge of Bowles is undeniable. This book encompasses her personal experiences plus ten years of research and interviews with some two hundred of Bowles' acquaintances.
 
Virginia Spencer Carr has written a riveting biography that tells not only the story of Paul Bowles' literary genius, but also of a crucial period of redefinition in American culture. Carr is simultaneously entertaining and precise, delivering a wealth of information on one of the most mythologized figures of mid-century literature.
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Richard Wagner: A Life in Music
Martin Geck
University of Chicago Press, 2013

Best known for the challenging four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner (1813–83) was a conductor, librettist, theater director, and essayist, in addition to being the composer of some of the most enduring operatic works in history, such as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Tristan and Isolde. Though his influence on the development of European music is indisputable, Wagner was also quite outspoken on the politics and culture of his time. His ideas traveled beyond musical circles into philosophy, literature, theater staging, and the visual arts. To befit such a dynamic figure, acclaimed biographer Martin Geck offers here a Wagner biography unlike any other, one that strikes a unique balance between the technical musical aspects of Wagner’s compositions and his overarching understanding of aesthetics.

Wagner has always inspired passionate admirers as well as numerous detractors, with the result that he has achieved a mythical stature nearly equal to that of the Valkyries and Viking heroes he popularized. There are few, if any, scholars today who know more about Wagner and his legacy than Geck, who builds upon his extensive research and considerable knowledge as one of the editors of the Complete Works to offer a distinctive appraisal of the composer and the operas. Using a wide range of sources, from contemporary scholars to the composer’s own words, Geck explores key ideas in Wagner’s life and works, while always keeping the music in the foreground. Geck discusses not only all the major operas, but also several unfinished operas and even the composer’s early attempts at quasi-Shakespearean drama.

Richard Wagner: A Life in Music is a landmark study of one of music’s most important figures, offering something new to opera enthusiasts, Wagnerians, and anti-Wagnerians alike.

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Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer
Martin Geck
University of Chicago Press, 2012

Robert Schumann (1810–56) is one of the most important and representative composers of the Romantic era. Born in Zwickau, Germany, Schumann began piano instruction at age seven and immediately developed a passion for music. When a permanent injury to his hand prevented him from pursuing a career as a touring concert pianist, he turned his energies and talents to composing, writing hundreds of works for piano and voice, as well as four symphonies and an opera. Here acclaimed biographer Martin Geck tells the fascinating story of this multifaceted genius, set in the context of the political and social revolutions of his time.
 
The image of Schumann the man and the artist that emerges in Geck’s book is complex. Geck shows Schumann to be not only a major composer and music critic—he cofounded and wrote articles for the controversial Neue Zeitschrift für Musik­­—but also a political activist, the father of eight children, and an addict of mind-altering drugs. Through hard work and determination bordering on the obsessive, Schumann was able to control his demons and channel the tensions that seethed within him into music that mixes the popular and esoteric, resulting in compositions that require the creative engagement of reader and listener.
 
The more we know about a composer, the more we hear his personality in his music, even if it is above all on the strength of his work that we love and admire him. Martin Geck’s book on Schumann is not just another rehashing of Schumann’s life and works, but an intelligent, personal interpretation of the composer as a musical, literary, and cultural personality.
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The Verdi-Boito Correspondence
Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito
University of Chicago Press, 1994

These 301 letters between Giuseppe Verdi and his last, most gifted librettist, Arrigo Boito, document an extraordinary chapter in musical history. Now available for the first time in English, this correspondence records both a unique friendship and its creative legacy.

This new edition of the landmark Carteggio Verdi/Boito is at once a valuable resource for all students, teachers, and scholars of opera and a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of European art and artists during the fertile last decades of the 19th century.

Embarking on a 20-year collaboration, Verdi and Boito produced a successful revision of Simon Boccanegra, and two new operas, Otello and Falstaff. They created what many consider to be Verdi's greatest operas, thanks both to Boito's poetry and to his handling of the composer. Here are the day-to-day tasks of creation: poet and composer debating problems of dramatic structure, words, phrases, and meters; altering dialogue as, at the same time, they converse about the wider worlds of art and music. The give and take of artistic creation is rendered fascinatingly.

This edition features a new introduction by Marcello Conati, improvements and updatings to the original edition, and an appendix of undated correspondence. William Weaver's translation is characteristically pitch-perfect; he also provides a short closing sketch of Boito's life after the death of his beloved maestro. Explanatory "linking texts" between the letters create a narrative.
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Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque
H. C. Robbins Landon
University of Chicago Press, 1996

Vivaldi boasted that he could compose a concerto faster than a scribe could copy one. Despite his prolificacy, The Four Seasons, and the majority of his already published work had fallen into obscurity by the time of his death in poverty in 1741. Most of his music-concertos, sonatas, operas, and sacral music-has been published only recently.

Very little has been written on Vivaldi for the nonspecialist, especially in English. Landon rediscovers the composer in this accessible and musically informed biography while presenting documentation of the musician's life discovered after the Baroque revival in the 1930s. This book includes illustrations of eighteenth-century Venice and several newly translated letters, thoroughly evoking the style of the time and revealing some of the more personal aspects of Vivaldi's life.

"Belongs on the shelf of every serious music student."—Kirkus

"Gives a good feel for Vivaldi's life and times . . . and describes particularly well how Vivaldi has been revived."—Booklist

"Robbins Landon is marvelously entertaining, extravagantly learned."—The Independent




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W. C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
David Robertson
University of Alabama Press, 2011

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David Robertson charts W. C. Handy’s rise from a rural-Alabama childhood in the last decades of the nineteenth century to his emergence as one of the most celebrated songwriters of the twentieth century. The child of former slaves, Handy was first inspired by spirituals and folk songs, and his passion for music pushed him to leave home as a teenager, despite opposition from his preacher father. Handy soon found his way to St. Louis, where he spent a winter sleeping on cobblestone docks before lucking into a job with an Indiana brass band. It was in a minstrel show, playing to racially mixed audiences across the country, that he got his first real exposure as a professional musician, but it was in Memphis, where he settled in 1905, that he hit his full stride as a composer. At once a testament to the power of song and a chronicle of race and black music in America, W. C. Handy’s life story is in many ways the story of the birth of our country’s indigenous culture—and a riveting must read for anyone interested in the history of American music.
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography
Piero Melograni
University of Chicago Press, 2006

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most enduringly popular and celebrated composers to have ever lived. His substantial oeuvre contains works that are considered to be among the most exquisite pieces of symphonic, chamber, and choral music ever written. His operas too cast a long shadow over those staged in their wake. And since his untimely death in 1791, he remains an enigmatic figure—the subject of fascination for aficionados and novices alike. 

Piero Melograni here offers a wholly readable account of Mozart’s remarkable life and times. This masterful biography proceeds from the young Mozart’s earliest years as a Wunderkind—the child prodigy who traveled with his family to perform concerts throughout Europe—to his formative years in Vienna, where he fully absorbed the artistic and intellectual spirit of the Enlightenment, to his deathbed, his unfinished Requiem, and the mystery that still surrounds his burial. Melograni’s deft use of Mozart’s letters throughout confers authority and vitality to his recounting, and his expertise brings Mozart’s eighteenth-century milieu evocatively to life. Written with a gifted historian’s flair for narrative and unencumbered by specialized analyses of Mozart’s music, Melograni’s is the most vivid and enjoyable biography available.

At a time when music lovers around the world are paying honor to Mozart and his legacy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will be welcomed by his enthusiasts—or anyone wishing to peer into the mind of one of the greatest composers ever known. 

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