If It Ain't Baroque: More Music History as It Ought to Be Taught


145 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 0-920151-15-9
DDC 780'.207





Illustrations by Dave Donald
Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is a librarian at the J.W. Tate Library, Laurentian


David Barber has carved a niche for himself writing humorous musical
history in a style reminiscent of Victor Borge’s My Favorite

Barber’s latest book is a facetious history of musical style. It
examines the development of sacred choral forms such as the cantata,
chant, mass, motet, oratorio, passion, and requiem. Secular vocal forms
such as the aria and madrigal are also reviewed. Ballet, concert music,
early instruments, keyboard music, and the symphony round out the

Along the way, Barber unearths some interesting anecdotes. We learn
that “The Armed Man,” a popular song used in Masses by renaissance
composers, was also used by the Beatles in their album Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band. French ballet composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who
started as a busboy in the kitchen of Louis XIV, died from gangrene
after bashing his foot with the staff he used to beat time. Playwright
and music critic George Bernard Shaw said Johannes Brahms was “rather
tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and
making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” The FBI thought Leonard
Bernstein’s Mass was subversive, and President Richard Nixon decided
not to attend the premiere.

But musical style does not lend itself easily to satirical treatment.
This is Barber’s fourth book, and the humor is predictable, labored,
and occasionally catty. There are the usual jabs at the scholarly debate
over how musical forms evolved. Organists are unlikely to appreciate the
comment that “[n]owadays the organ seems a particularly appropriate
instrument to associate with the church, being too big, old-fashioned
and full of hot air.” The extensive use of bracketed material also
impedes the flow of the narrative.

Still, Barber’s skills as a journalist and composer are evident both
in the clarity of the writing and his grasp of the subject matter. His
dissection of the intricacies of sonata form, for example, is admirably
lucid. The reader does come away with a better understanding of how
Western music has evolved, and perhaps it is on this level that the book
should be approached.


Barber, David W., “If It Ain't Baroque: More Music History as It Ought to Be Taught,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/12902.