The very best Christmas gifts for classic music musicians and fans

Last-minute gift ideas for that very special classical musician, or classic music fan, en on your list. Photo: Art Linkletter promo/Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, December 22, 2013 – Christmas gift opening can be an awkward and even painful time for professional musicians. Forced smiles and careful diplomacy are needed to pretend that those fuzzy tuba socks are really appreciated, while one must remember that your new Kenny G album or Andre Rieu concert tickets are a well-intentioned gesture rather than a declaration of aesthetic war. 

In an effort to prevent severe disappointment and potential eggnog assault, we asked hundreds of musicians: “What was the best music-themed Christmas gift you ever received?” Their answers, combined with some standard critical favorites, might be of assistance to you during your last-minute shopping blitz as you aim to show that special musician in your life that you really care.


“The Lexicon of Musical Invective:  Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time,” by Nicolas Slonimsky
A witty and hilarious collection of some of the most interesting and often ill-worded (not to mention ill-intentioned) written criticisms of what would become standard and beloved works in the western canon. Nothing can lift the spirits of a musician who’s having a tough day like a reminder that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was savaged by some critics upon first hearing.

“Bach, Beethoven and the Boys: Music History As It Ought To Be Taught,” by David Barber
Recommended by a music history professor, this highly irreverent collection of strange information and quirky anecdotes casts new light on the lives of some the luminaries of western musical history, while also acting as a great review of basic music history as well. (Warning: While tasteful, certain thematic materials and content makes this a more suitable gift for the adults on your list).
“The Lives of the Great Composers,” by Harold C. Schonberg is an absolute gem of a book that should occupy a proud place on the shelves of every music library. Schonberg provides fascinating biographical sketches of most of the greatest figures in composition since the Baroque era, in the process creating a riveting read for amateur music lovers and professionals alike. 

“The Rest is Noise,” by Alex Ross
Perhaps the finest accessible book on the subject, Alex Ross’s now standard tome covers modern music history in a way that reads like a novel and yet packs the informational punch of a high quality textbook. Here the flesh-and-blood realities behind many of the most important musical stories of our times are presented, with Ross somehow managing to fleet-footedly walk the line between musicology and journalism. While Ross’s politics are a bit thinly veiled at times, and while he certainly glories in the private immoralities of certain composers while ignoring the spiritual inspirations of some of today’s most influential composers, the detailed information residing in this book is second to none.


The Bernstein Harvard Lectures – For your brainier musician friends, Leonard Bernstein’s famous Harvard Lectures are now available on DVD. This fascinating series of talks examines the origins, properties, and meaning of music from the erudite perspective of one of America’s greatest musical sons. 

Mater Eucharistiae – In the 1990s the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos achieved a surprising Billboard success with their now world-famous recordings of Gregorian Chant. This year’s entry into the rarified realm of such surprising spiritual successes would definitely be the CD “Mater Eucharistiae” by the Dominican Sister of Mary Mother of the Eucharist. Comprised of both traditional works and new pieces, these Dominican sisters sing with the flair of belief and devotion, presenting their rich, shared musical life to the outside world. The result is a luminous effort brimming with authenticity, sure to satisfy even the most discerning tastes.

Subscription to Naxos online – For the recording junkie in your life, what could be better than instantaneous access to almost 100,000 recordings? It is now possible to access the entire library of Naxos recordings – including seemingly countless classic re-issues – through the Naxos online library.  Subscription packages at Naxos run between 20 and 300 dollars.

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Further ideas

A cellist friend wrote to gush about her remembered joy at having once received an engraved wooden music stand. While such a gift might seem trite to some, it would certainly be appreciated by those who stare at such a stand for many hours a day. A more quirky option might be to opt for the always-humorous music instrument lamp. Carl’s Pro (and always honest) Band in Normal, Illinois regularly recycles unusable instruments into sources of much needed light.

While it can be difficult to satisfy the aesthetic tastes of your classical music-loving friends, a generally safe bet is to purchase tickets to the symphony. Give the local box office a call (not Ticketmaster), explain your general cluelessness and eagerness to please, and ask for a safe selection. You might even be able to purchase a symphony gift certificate for the added benefit of choice.

An article such as this one would not be complete without a quick public service announcement regarding gifts for the children of musicians.  

Remember that musicians live in a constant world of sound, and that the toddler heavy metal drum set you are considering will likely only be cute for a few minutes. Furthermore, many toy instruments are notoriously out of tune, being instant torture devices to developed adult ears while also a source of concern for parents who want to carefully guide the development of their precious little future virtuoso’s auditory perceptions. 

In other words, unless you have something very special in mind, it might be better to stay away from sound-making presents for children.

Finally, there is that always-wise option of gift certificates. The musician in your life may have been putting off buying that complete Bernstein set of Mahler symphonies in favor of paying his or her electric bill. For reasons like this, you might just give your musician friends or relative the perfect excuse to finally splurge for something they really want with a music-targeted gift certificate.

SEE RELATED: Concert Review: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Certain major symphonies have wonderful shops attached to their performance venues (or web sites), such as the Chicago Symphony Store, which is packed with countless recordings, films, books, decorations, toys, and musically themed gift ideas. These are a great place to start.

Even after all this persuasive evidence, if you still think that gift certificates are impersonal, a brief comparison to those fuzzy tuba socks you were thinking about should quickly allay your concerns.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a beautifully musical night.

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Mark Nowakowski


Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

Contact Mark Nowakowski


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