The Rebels and Revolutionaries: James Rhodes Introduces Classical Music to Teens

Cindy: What I learned about classical music was mostly learned during my high school days playing flute in our small school’s band and later watching the movie Amadeus. I’m not quite serious, but almost. My middle school orchestra students are probably way ahead of me today. It’s not for lack of wanting to know more, it’s for the lack of knowing where to begin or how to approach such a large body of music of which I know so little. If it’s intimidating to me, it surely must be for a teen who may have even less interest in pursuing that interest without some inspiration. And thus, concert pianist James Rhodes to the rescue for many of us. Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound (Candlewick, 2019) is just the ticket. Packaged in the trim size to match an LP cover and stunningly illustrated by Martin O’Neill, this book will attract and convert new classical music fans.

In his introduction, Rhodes admits that classical music has a reputation of belonging to old people and about as interesting to read about as algebra. He makes a good case for why that just isn’t so. And, he also explains why this book focuses on the dead white males and makes some suggestions for composers to explore outside the “established ‘classics.'”

The book then opens with a Spotify playlist Rhodes created asking the reader to access it and listen along throughout the book. This is genius! From there we start in with each composer. When you see the double-page spread of “Bach: The Godfather,” him in short sleeves with double sleeve tattoos sporting the quote, “If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it,” you know this isn’t your grandfather’s classical music book! O’Neill’s collage work (with a zine-like feel) is stunning throughout, and will attract young artists in addition to musicians!

For instance, Rhodes answers the question, “Where to even begin with Mozart…”

You can buy the complete compositions of
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart on CD.
Or, to be precise, on 180 CDs.
ONE. HUNDRED. AND EIGHTY.

He says, “Imagine Rihanna or Coldplay releasing SIX albums a year. Every year. For thirty years. It’s ridiculous.”

Each composer gets a double-page spread called “The Facts of Life” that includes basic bio, quotes about or by the artist, musical output, tracks of contemporary artists including rock and rap that have referenced or sampled the composer’s music, and soundtracks of movies, tv, and streaming series that have used that composer’s music. The facing page is a short essay that uses humor and adoration to convey the highlights of his life and career. The following two double-page spreads each explores a composition as an introduction to a piece of music (so, two per artist) with a reminder to listen to those tracks in the playlist. Listening to the track before, during, and after reading those essays was very helpful to not only understanding the particular piece and its composer better, but it gives the non-music student some help in how to listen to all music, classical or not. I recommend this for all secondary school libraries (and music classrooms), public library collections (adult departments, too), and as a gift book for that young person beginning their own musical instrument.

Lynn: I grew up with music as part of my family life. My father loved music, especially classical and jazz and he played music every evening. Being a college professor, he was always ready to teach on any subject that interested him and my sister and I absorbed a lot of music history over the years – sometimes more than we wanted at the time! I came to this book, interested but not expecting to get much more than a refresher look at some of the important composers. Boy was I wrong! Oh the facts are there, wonderfully chosen to appeal to teens and humanize the historical figures—and yes, show them as revolutionaries of music. The introduction to famous pieces is there and information about why each composer stands out. But what completely captivated me was Rhodes’ intensely infectious love for classical music, his spellbinding passion to share that, and his ability to convey that passion to a skeptical teen. It is clear in every syllable that James Rhodes champions classical music and the shining highlight of this impressive book is his ability to make current teens give it a chance. I already love the music and I found his words so compelling that I listened to every note of the playlist with a new sense of wonder. I am so hooked and I think teens will be too.

I admire so much about the writing here but one of my absolute favorite of the repeating sections is where Rhodes describes the musical selections on the playlist. Sometimes he tells about what was happening at the time or he imagines what the composer might have been feeling. Often he describes the way the music makes him feel. Here is his quote about Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It will give you a good feel for the wonderful tone of this book:

“…as the piano begins, I can see a beautiful bird floating miles above the earth, then soaring down toward the ground and landing on my shoulder. It picks me up and flies me away from all the madness and confusion of the world, up to a place where nothing seems to matter. At least this is what I imagine. I’m sure you will have your own story–it is such a moving piece of music.”

I dare you to read that and resist the urge to immediately listen to the music!

Rhodes also includes a short informational page on a symphony orchestra and a really helpful Timeline of Western Classical Music and the back matter includes a glossary of musical terms.