Wendy Thompson's The Illustrated Book of Great Composers

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Wendy Thompson's 'The Illustrated Book of Great Composers' introduces readers to classical music with illustrated biographies of the 100 most important composers in history, from the medieval period to the present.

A Classical Introduction

Finding a gateway into classical music can be intimidating to a newcomer. There are hundreds of years of history to learn, all of those different styles, and all of those composers with funny-sounding names: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc.

It was to fight this intimidation factor that Wendy Thompson published The Illustrated Book of Great Composers. Also known as The Great Composers: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Lives and Works of the World's Best-Loved Composers, the book was first published in 2001 and has become a standard reference guide for classical music fans as well as a great introduction for newbies.


Wendy Thompson is a British musician and musicologist. She studied piano and violin at the Royal College of Music in London and musicology and French Baroque opera at Kings College, London. She also produces classical music programs for the BBC and has published other books on individual composers. Her books and radio programs are generally aimed at the newcomer or casual fan of classical music in an attempt to make it more accessible to a wider audience.


As already mentioned, Thompson aims her work at newcomers to classical music as opposed to serious connoisseurs and musicians. This can be seen in The Illustrated Book of Great Composers, which provides a basic introduction to 100 great composers.

The book is arranged chronologically, starting with Medieval era composers and continuing through the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modernist eras. Each composer gets one to four-pages of biography which is illustrated with portraits, photographs of performances, and pictures of manuscript copies of their compositions.

Breakout fact boxes also give the most important biographical information and major works in bullet-point form. It also includes background information on the musical eras including the historical and artistic events that shaped each composer's work. While she focuses primarily on the individual composers, Thompson also highlights the stylistic differences between eras, such as the increasingly emotional style of the nineteenth-century Romantic composers and the introduction of atonality by modernist composers such as Richard Strauss.


Ludwig van Beethoven

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