Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners by Ron David

Opera is one of the great art forms, blending theater and music into a powerful emotional experience.  But it also has a stereotype of being incomprehensible melodrama that boring rich people drag their unwilling spouses to.  And many of the books about opera are written by scholars who got their Doctor of Musicology degrees in the subject and expect you to follow along.

The History of Opera for Beginners

This volume is by an interested layman who presumes that you have very little knowledge on the subject and want a good place to start.   It begins with the roots of opera in older forms of musical theater, then moves on to Italy in the Sixteenth Century, where the opera as such was invented.  It covers the spread of opera across Europe and the major composers that created the most popular or influential pieces.

Then there’s a section on the part of opera that’s most accessible to the casual fan, the singers.  It talks about what castrati were, and the historical performers we know about because the audience wrote about them.  There’s rather more material about singers who have been recorded, starting with Enrico Caruso (who should probably replace Columbus as the official Italian-American holiday celebration.)

This is followed by a selection of the “best” operas with plot descriptions (most fit in a single page as opera tends to very thin plotlines.)

The book winds up with the author’s thoughts on where to proceed if you’re interested in more scholarly approaches to opera, a bibliography, and a guide to his favorite Youtube clips.

The general tone is snarky humor, enhanced by comedic art from Sara Woolley.

Recommended primarily for casual music fans, bright teenagers who want to know more about opera, and as a gag gift for opera lovers.

Speaking of Youtube, let’s all enjoy Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”).

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)



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