The Music We Love and the Silence We Need

Do we enhance our appreciation of music by listening to more of it?

The need for silence goes back in time. Man evolved in a world of natural sound and soundlessness. Big cities and machines brought the screech of the elevated train against metal tracks, the rumble from underground subways, and the shout required to be heard above both.

When the conductor Simon Rattle was new to the compositions of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Rattle’s mentor Berthold Goldschmidt said to him, “Will you please remember what the phrase “ohne hast” (without haste) means in a time when there were no automobiles.Nor the sounds from such motor cars, he might have added.

Amplified sound became like floor-to-ceiling audio wallpaper over the course of the twentieth century. Civilization capitulated to its growth.

At first, Western society sought realistic prerecorded melodies. Who among us realized we would pay for this miracle, not just in money spent on phonographs, discs, and streaming services?

Convenience and ubiquity leached away some of the thrills of performances created in our presence. The novel sense of a special occasion diminished. The sonorities we loved became routine.

For music to produce its intended effect, the airborne notes must grow out of silence.

Carlo Maria Giulini, another maestro who mentored Simon Rattle, compared his musical conception to perspective in visual art. This artist wanted “air and space” around the sound to set it in relief from other sounds, just as a painter renders foreground against a background. The painter’s or musician’s hand can produce a third dimension’s magic.

Music now enters us through tired and overused ears. To create impact, performers are tempted to make it louder than in quieter times. More people brought bigger halls. The volume of sound enlarged.

One can speculate about a time-transported Beethoven’s reaction to the intrusion of machinery. Think of the brook he tried to evoke in the second movement of his “Pastoral Symphony.Of course, we can still find streams in the countryside, but we can’t guarantee a chainsaw won’t intrude on the birdsong taking place nearby.

The listener of today is jaded. Television, movies, elevator music, and computers outflank him. Nor does he want to be free of them. Some of us remember the quality of everyday life before stereo recordings. Later, an electronic hum from residential gadgets joined us within moments of relative stillness. Home appliances “speak” to us now.

How often would a music lover 100 years ago have heard a Mozart Concerto in a modest-sized hall? Now we can listen to the same creation more in a week or two than was possible in a lifetime. One needn’t even leave the car or public transportation he takes to work.

I admit music has given me much joy. I’m a veteran concert-goer and recording collector. Yet, I also understand something has been lost.

International concerts in 2021 would have included the tail-end of a world-wide observance of the 250 anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. A wise and necessary idea?

Long before a pandemic aborted the plans to laud the birthday boy, the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer thought otherwise. Musical America published an interview with him in 1927 in commemoration of the composer’s death 100 years before:

If you ask me the best way to celebrate his centenary, I will tell you it is not to play him for a year. He is played too much. Everyone plays Beethoven and no one wishes to hear the (people) who write today. Beethoven has become a business for the box office.

Well, Klemperer got his wish and then some, albeit a little late. Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.


The first image includes a selection of silhouettes of Gustav Mahler created by Otto Bohler (1847-1913) in 1899.  The photograph of Carlo Maria Giulini is from the cover of Thomas Saler’s superb biography of the conductor, Serving Genius. Finally, a photo of Otto Klemperer, part of the collection of The Library of Congress.

What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off


We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.


Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

Our Musical Future? “Live” Performances and the “Second Machine Age”

robot violinist-800

I love attending concerts, but musicians may think my upcoming words are heresy. I hope technology doesn’t reduce the need for live performers, but the technological future includes many possibilities — more than anyone can imagine. Prepare yourself.

We must start by revisiting the Hartford Wagner Festival, the enterprise of Charles M. Goldstein. He expected to begin a cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung in Connecticut this month. The details leading to its postponement until 2015 can be read on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog, A Ring Without Musicians, or the New York Times.

Mr. Goldstein knew a performance of Wagner’s four opera event would be too costly to stage with a conventional orchestra. According to the New York Times, his monumental effort to create a substitute began in 2005. He started to enter every note of music for the 15 hour epic into musical software, having purchased “access to the Vienna Symphonic Library, a collection of sampled sounds of orchestra instruments (played by real players).” The idea was to create a computerized version of the orchestra out of the orchestral bits. “Singers from the Metropolitan Opera were engaged for the major roles, along with young artists for smaller parts.” Mr. Goldstein collaborated with the musicians to establish tempos. The plan was “to set up 24 speakers to mimic the positions of instruments in (a genuine orchestra) pit.”

Publicity produced a backlash. Singers’ careers were threatened. The inflexibility and sterility of computerized music was attacked and words like “absurd” and “travesty” were written. The Hartford Wagner Festival’s website now lists a 2015 start date.

Is the battle over or is it only beginning? The truth is, the conflict began much earlier. The New York Times covered the story in 2003. Local 802 of the Musician’s Union picketed Broadway shows in response to the threat of fully electronic delivery of what was previously the instrumentalists’ in person artistry. Anthony Tommasini, the critic who described the conflict, thought their argument had some holes. Orchestral and choral amplification with electronic support, synthesized instruments, and body microphones of principal singers were already a staple of the stage, he argued. The Union won, but technology has advanced in the last 11 years.

The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) is a tool intended to allow the creation of a good, albeit recorded, orchestral performance for the purpose of the user. In the case of Mr. Goldstein’s planned public presentation, input from the singers expected to be on stage, as well as the “conductor,” would determine the interpretation of the composition. Thus, the VSL holds the possibility of something greater than getting actors to lip-sync. Nonetheless, critics believe it does not permit the nuance, spontaneity, and sound of a real orchestra. Moreover, some say, unexpected mishaps on stage during an opera (an early or late entrance by a singer, for example) would be difficult for the conductor to adjust to.

I consulted a couple of musicians familiar with the VSL and its use. How much time might it take to “assemble” a fully realized rendition of a major symphonic work like Debussy’s La Mer? As Mr. Goldstein’s example suggests, they thought the time involved would be far too long to compete with today’s marvelous live instrumentalists (even for a talented, computer savvy conductor familiar with the VSL and musical notation software). You can listen to Andrew Blaney’s version of the second movement of La Mer on the VSL website and judge the quality for yourself. A first-class orchestra typically accomplishes its own magic in a few rehearsals using traditional printed scores. Wouldn’t live musicians therefore be safe?

Not so fast. Once the notes and instruments are “in the machine,” another conductor could come along and tweak the performance to his or her satisfaction. Still, for now at least, a computer-experienced maestro would have to learn how to use the VSL. The time involved in preparing his interpretation would be large even after that.

Does the situation change when we look only at opera and its audience? Might some music lovers be willing to attend an opera of live singers and a digitized orchestra if the price were cheap enough? Perhaps some who live in the provinces would.

Imagine a generous donor purchasing loudspeakers, the computer, musical notation software, and the VSL (one time expenses) for a small community with a decent auditorium, thus enabling staged operas. There exists a plethora of talented young singers and competent conductors of high school, college ensembles, and community orchestras. We are not talking James Levine or Riccardo Muti here, of course.

A digital orchestra reduces costs after the original outlay by our hypothetical donor. Goldstein’s long effort to enter the notes into the software for his “Ring cycle,” once done, needn’t be done again. Of course, he would have to be willing to sell his work product for an affordable price or simply give it away. Alternatively, several small communities could band together to pay whatever price Mr. Goldstein would set, or hire someone to do the job of entering the notes for an agreed upon opera. From that point, it could be widely and cheaply shared among them, as digital music commonly is today.

The cost of such an arrangement would be far less than hiring an orchestra and paying a major conductor tens of thousands of dollars per performance. Still, the result would be both poorer and different, at least until robots and androids are far more developed than they are now; replacements, that is, for some or all of the musicians!

Did I say robots and androids? The latter are robots designed to resemble humans. I’ll get to androids in a moment. Nonetheless, we are already in the world of the “second machine age.” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, elaborate in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Even Goldstein’s idea of a digital orchestra puts us well beyond the era of steam engines, a prime contributor to the first machine age.

Would an enterprise such as Mr. Goldstein’s have an effect on major opera houses? Much depends upon the audience’s perception of the product. If most opera lovers believe the human beings at the Lyric Opera or the Met are worth the ticket price, as I hope they do, their orchestras have no worries. If, however, a sizeable number of patrons don’t, downward pressure on prices would follow (or at least the portion of the admission fee attributable to the orchestra). Instrumentalists and their salaries may be more vulnerable to the technological changes because they are in the pit, unseen by much of the audience. The human contact between the listeners and the players is more easily realized by the singers and the chorus in an opera house, unlike a concert hall where the ensemble and the podium focus our attention. Nonetheless, I don’t expect the technology we have now puts a superb opera orchestra in danger.

Ah, but the future — a different question altogether. Scientists speculate about something called “the singularity.” The singularity represents the point at which a fully conscious machine with greater than human intelligence is achieved. Coupled with the advanced android capabilities of that time, many of today’s jobs might vanish, perhaps even those of violinists and tuba players. The MIT professors cite evidence of the exponential growth of technology in recent years, predicting acceleration as we go forward. Self-driving cars already exist, as do computers that can beat the best Jeopardy or chess players. Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, made a 2005 prediction placing the singularity somewhere around 2045. Kurzweil is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, won MIT-Lemelson’s half-million dollar prize for innovation, and received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

If one lets the imagination go wild, the possibility of android orchestras, conductors, or singers is conceivable, regardless of the year they turn up. I didn’t say preferable, particularly since the friendliness of such machines to humans is also an open question. Nor is it clear whether they would be interested in music, in the artistic history of the human race, or in presenting concerts of the works of humans in the formal way it has been done until now.

Assuming they are well disposed to Homo sapiens, however, it might become possible to pour all the recorded performances of the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, into a capable machine and generate imagined interpretations of pieces for which we have no evidence of his work. A Furtwängler performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis comes to mind. Does this violate Furtwängler’s memory? Were Mahler and Elgar violated, respectively, by completed performing versions of Mahler’s sketches for his Symphony #10 or Anthony Payne’s elaboration of Elgar’s unfinished Symphony #3? And could an android “inspire” human or robotic musicians in the hypnotic fashion of some of the greatest conductors? Would inspiration even be required? Live long enough and perhaps you’ll find out.

IBM is already working on a machine to do something similar for physicians minus the inspiration “to better diagnose what’s wrong with their patients. Instead of volumes and volumes of general knowledge, the supercomputer is being trained to sit on top of all of the world’s high-quality published medical information; match it against patients’ symptoms, medical histories, and test results; and formulate both a diagnosis and a treatment plan. … IBM estimates that it would take a human doctor 160 hours of reading each week just to keep up with relevant new literature,” according to The Second Machine Age authors.

Today we have opera supertitles and a giant in-concert video screen display of the Chicago Symphony in the Ravinia music shed, its summer home. We have digital music at our fingertips and in our earbuds. Robots guided by surgeons work on delicate human body parts. Some operas and orchestras simulcast their work around the world.

Once men thought Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was silliness.

The MIT authors remind us, never say never.

The Greatest Music Ever Written


For someone who really didn’t like music very much until age 16, I am a particularly good example of how people can change. Of course, I’d heard the popular music of the time. It couldn’t be escaped. That included Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and so forth. “Surf City,” as sung by Jan and Dean, was especially appealing.

The idea of “two girls for every boy” (mentioned in that song) gave me hope there were places where my odds of dating success might improve. I was then as misguided in approaching women as was Don Quixote in attacking windmills. “The Impossible Dream” for sure.

Early in high school we were told the really great music was “classical” and were forced to listen to it for a year in Music Appreciation class. In the second semester of that year, our marginally stable teacher thought it would be a good idea to subject us to a complete cycle of four operas by the 19th century German composer Richard (pronounced Rick-card) Wagner (pronounced Vagh-ner). If you didn’t pronounce it properly, the teacher began to foam at the mouth, so I proved to be a pretty fast learner.

The “Ring Cycle” (not the Lord of the Rings) was an ordeal, however you pronounced Wagner’s name. It lasts about 15 hours, give or take. Making 14-year-olds listen to this is akin to Chinese water torture, only worse. My opinion on this point hasn’t changed much. Suffice to say that nothing about the experience inclined me toward a positive view of classical music.

In the working class neighborhood of my youth, the few boys who carried violins were thought to be effeminate or snobs. They were bullied and humiliated. They weren’t the kids you wanted on your softball team. Playing a string instrument made you a kind of pariah, with the danger of some local tough guy deciding to see how you’d react if he broke your violin over your head. While I didn’t personally assault any of these “sissies,” I certainly didn’t respect them.

Age 16 was a turning point. My friend “Rock” somehow persuaded his parents to permit him to buy a subscription to the Saturday night concerts of the Chicago Symphony, no less than 15 individual events. He’d listened to classical music on a few radio stations, decided he liked it, and heard ads for the concerts on the same FM frequencies. His poorly educated parents listened to his plans, wondered if the Martians had taken control of their son and substituted an alien, but let him go anyway. Maybe they thought he’d actually use the money to return to Mars.

Before long Rock was playing some of this music when I visited his parents’ apartment and I started to like it. But, did I really enjoy it? I wondered about this a lot. Perhaps, I thought, I really didn’t like the music, but fancied the idea of having this in common with one of my best friends. But even if this weren’t true, I reasoned, maybe I just wanted to be associated with something “high brow” to put me in a different class than those around me, elevate me into the realm of the most sophisticated and intelligent adults.

Within a few months the question was answered. I really did like it, spent money from my after-school job on classical records, and began going to Chicago Symphony concerts. I read the backs of LPs (the long gone, vinyl, long playing records — hence the acronym LP) and books on the lives of the composers. I subscribed to record review magazines. I was hooked.


But what is classical music and is it really any better than the music of the day, aka popular music?

One definition on the web says classical music is:

  • Serious or conventional music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.
  • (more specifically) Music written in the European tradition (developed) during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized.
Or how about this, from Martin Davidson’s The New Musical Dictionary:

An egocentric superiority-complex name for the area of music that stretches from Bach to Bartok and beyond. Since this area of music is, in general, by far the most popular area of music worth listening to (Davidson’s italics), maybe it should be called Popular Music. All the Popular Music not worth listening to (including much of the stuff between Bach and Bartok and beyond) could then be called Popular Muzak (or Money Music since the financial aspect would appear to be its over-riding motive).

A strong opinion, for sure. And one that suggests the formality and elitism that puts off some people about the musical classics. And indeed, there are no mosh pits, no head-banging, no pogoing; only the expectation of quiet and the problem of knowing when to applaud and what to wear. But let me suggest some other obvious differences between classical and popular music.


Almost all of the most common music that is called popular involves the human voice, mostly in songs. While so-called classical music includes songs, it also comprises choral works, opera, and many pieces that are purely instrumental and can last for more than 1.5 hours; much longer than any song. But, it should be mentioned, I am talking about Western traditions in both cases, since (for example) Indian music includes a form called the Raga, which is instrumental and can go on for a very long time.

For me, both the instrumental nature of much of this music and its length makes a lot of difference. I am more drawn to non-vocal music than song, choral, or operatic works, with some exceptions. And, for much of classical instrumental music, there is a complexity that is greater than that found in songs. Moreover, the length of many of these pieces (Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, for example, are not less than 25 minutes each and most are much longer), allows the composer to create a cumulative emotional impact that is harder to do with shorter forms.

Think of the difference between a blog post and a full length novel. As composer Gustav Mahler put it, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Not surprisingly, he used big orchestras and took his time, usually over an hour per symphony.

Some people mistake soft, dreamy music for classical music. You know, the kind of music that might be playing in the background when you get a massage; or what used to be called “elevator music.” But anyone who has heard Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” knows that the notion of classical music being relaxing can be way off base.

Sir Georg Solti, Conductor

Sir Georg Solti, Conductor in Rehearsal

You might be asking whether I like anything but the classics. Well, I’ve been known to favor Judy Collins and even Johnny Cash, as well as a couple of other songs that touch me very deeply like “September Song.” Mostly I listen to classical instrumental and orchestral music. I’m not a fan of most operas, even though my younger daughter makes a living in the field. And, I used to be a classical music snob.

Once I got into the classics I tended to look down on those who weren’t. My problem, not theirs. For a long time I thought one needed only exposure to the classics and you would inevitably come to enjoy them. Now, I suspect, it has more to do with how your brain is wired; and, it is also a matter of taste. But, as they say, if you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what you are missing. And, it took me both the year of exposure to the classics I had in the Music Appreciation curriculum I endured, plus the passage of a couple of years; and then even more exposure through my friend Rock and listening to classical radio before I was finally won over.

As I have written elsewhere, liking classical music doesn’t make you a better person. Some of the musicians are every bit as miserable human beings as you will find anywhere: unfaithful, greedy egomaniacs. In that respect, there is little difference between popular and classical music.

Examples? Richard Wagner stole the wife of one of his friends (who was also a champion of his music) and wrote anti-Semitic tracts in his spare time. Beethoven was a horribly disagreeable and rude person who routinely ran afoul of his landlords and was forever moving from one apartment to another. Hitler and Stalin both listened to the classics for pleasure. The slow movement of Bruckner’s Symphony #7 was broadcast in Germany immediately after the announcement of Hitler’s death.

Then comes the question you have been waiting for: what is the greatest music ever written? No two people will agree on this and since I am not a musicologist, I cannot give you technical reasons, only a very personal list. But, as Gustav Mahler said, “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes.”


I first encountered this question when the Chicago Sun Times music critic Robert C. Marsh wrote an article detailing his choice of the 10 greatest symphonies. I don’t recall whether he ranked them, but memory tells me these were the 10 winners:

  • Beethoven Symphonies 3, 7, and 9
  • Mozart Symphonies 39 and 40
  • Brahms Symphony 4
  • Haydn Symphony 104
  • Tchaikovsky Symphony 6
  • Prokofiev Symphony 5
  • Schubert Symphony 9 in C (sometimes given the number 8). Not to be confused with the “Unfinished” Symphony.

It might have been that article that prompted a few of us in German class, including my friend Rock, to approach our learned teacher with the question: “What do you think is the greatest piece of music ever written?” We all assumed his answer would be Beethoven’s 9th, whose “Ode to Joy” finale was well-known even back then. It was certainly a piece we all loved.

Jack Willis, the teacher, surprised us. He said that his choice was Beethoven’s Quartet in c#, Op. 131. (The “Op.” stands for Opus, meaning that it is thought to be the 131st composition Beethoven ever wrote). That statement sent me to the record shop to listen to this difficult piece. It took a long time to get into it, but Jack Willis’s high opinion of the quartet was certainly vindicated in its perfection of form and lofty emotional content.

If I were to make up a list of favorites, I’d include a few that aren’t symphonies. And, after much thought (but subject to revision), here is my list of 12 compositions, in no particular order:

  • Mahler’s song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). It is a piece of heart-breaking poignancy that I cannot listen to without tears.
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You,” music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Irving Kahal. This 1938 song took on new meaning when the USA entered World War II in 1941 and love letters were exchanged across the ocean. The lyrics are worth quoting:

I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through.

In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.

I’ll be seeing you
In every lovely summer’s day;
In every thing that’s light and gay.
I’ll always think of you that way.

I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.

(The last two stanzas are then repeated).

  • Brahms Symphony 4
  • Beethoven Symphonies 3 and 9
  • Mozart Symphony 39
  • Mahler Symphonies 3 and  9
  • Brahms Piano Quintet
  • Beethoven Quartet 14, Op. 131
  • Schubert Sonata in B Flat, D. 960
  • J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concertos (I’m cheating a bit here. These are six different pieces, but often performed together).

Well, it is pretty clear that I lean very heavily toward the classics. For me, music is one of the greatest joys of life. I’m pretty good with words, but even the most eloquent person finds that there are limits. As Mahler said, “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.”

The first photo is Kathie Lynn Campbell playing with C’mon Casa in Montreal on January 27, 2006. Photo by Gates of Ale. Second comes an undated musical manuscript exhibited at Igreja de Sao Francisco, Evora, Portugal by Ceinturion. The  Mosh Pit was photographed by Daniel Lin. All these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Music Would You Take to a Desert Island?

Toward the end of Woody Allen’s wonderful movie Manhattan, the character he plays asks himself “Why is life worth living?”

His answer?

Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.

Like what?

For me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… Willie Mays and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony (by Mozart) and Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues… Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s… Tracy’s face…

Humor then, followed by the art of a gifted baseball player, music, movies, a work of fiction, visual art, food, and the young woman he realizes he loves, almost too late.

Your list would be different, mine would too. But isn’t it interesting how prominent music is on lists such as this, how often people find that an interest in music binds them to lovers, friends, and the joy of living?

A popular radio program on the BBC since 1942 has been asking what music you’d take with you if you were a castaway. It is called Desert Island Discs and it has hosted interviews of nearly 3000 prominent people in that time, trying to find out what tunes would be essential if they were marooned on the proverbial desert island.

On their website Desert Island Discs you can hear a number of these programs and discover the musical choices of folks like Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Tim Robbins, Emma Thompson, Jerry Springer, Barry Manilow, Whoopi Goldberg, J K Rowling, Stephen King, Simon Cowell, Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others from the world of science, philosophy, literature, and government.

Back to Woody Allen’s question, what makes life worthwhile for me?

My wife and children, my friends and my brothers… Brahms’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s Symphony #3, Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and I’ll Be Seeing You… Judy Collins… Alfred Stieglitz’s photo The Steerage and Van Gogh… The Lives of Others, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lost Horizon, and The Prizoner of Zenda (the last two movies with Ronald Coleman)… getting to know (really know) people…

Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving… baseball and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund… Shakespeare… Chocolate… Dim Sum, Superdawg (a Chicago area hot dog drive-in), and almost anything cooked by my wife Aleta… Precious and Peanut (family dogs)… listening to and telling stories… the satisfaction of doing something difficult and well… a good cup of coffee and the singing of the birds on a spring morning.

File:The Steerage 1907 Stieglitz.jpg

And if you asked me what would I want in any heaven worth the name?

All that plus my father in middle-age and my mother before life defeated her.

Put another way, I guess I am living in something pretty close to heaven on earth.

Not bad at all.

Since, for most of us, food is one of the joys of living, you might want to take a look at an interesting and recently initiated blog on that subject: Adventures in Food.

The top photo is Brown sisters Melody, Deondra, and Desirae performing on a Steinway grand piano at CBC Radio Studios in Ottawa, Canada as part of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on September 12, 2006. Photo by Mike (Binary Rhyme) Heffernan. The bottom photo is The Steerage taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

September Song

I was talking to an unmarried friend recently, not a young man, who presented me with a dilemma that was troubling him. It seemed that an attractive and intelligent woman, much younger than he, was showing an interest in him.

Friendship? Romance? Business advantage or advice?

All yet to be determined.

But he wondered whether to pursue the relationship, particularly if it might become romantic, sexual.

Now my friend is extremely bright, a thinker all his life. Indeed, this is how he makes his living — thinking, evaluating, considering, pondering, weighing, judging; and then conveying the result of those calculations to others, who pay him well for his service.

He sees lots of potential problems, although he doesn’t know the woman well at all — yet. Might she be interested in him only for his ability to assist her professionally? Wouldn’t others looks askance at the two of them together, a woman of 30 and a man of 55?

Or could one of the things that now attracts her to him — his capacity as a mentor or guide, someone who has much more experience of some very interesting things — eventually be seen as a problem when she tires of the “student” role and begins to resent the “teacher?” Wouldn’t the generation gap, the memories and formative influences that they don’t have in common, eventually separate them?

Now all these, and more, are not unreasonable thoughts. The problems that he sees could very well occur.

But other men might see it differently. They would welcome the attention of a young and attractive female, the energy, the sexual tension, the admiration, the possibility of what still might be. Indeed, some men of any age could well believe that they’d won some sort of dating lottery in just this situation.

But then, my friend lives in his head a lot, a thinker, as I said. And thinkers think. Not because it always works, not because they have to, but because it is almost as natural and automatic as breathing. Simply because they’ve always done it.

Most of us, past a certain age, just keep doing what we’ve done and getting what we’ve got. Not that what we’ve got has always been that great, but the unknown future seems fraught with danger and only the safety of the well-trod path appears to offer any security. Better the mediocre “known” than the dangerous, but perhaps promising “unknown.”

And so, the man who has always worn only Brooks Brothers suits for fear of others criticizing his wardrobe choices will still wear those suits; and the adult who had little money while growing up will continue to under-tip the waiter and sit in the “cheap seats” in the theater despite the fact that he has a million dollars in the bank and a secure pension on top of it; and the orchestra musician too long beyond his prime will play the violin still, not because he so loves it, but because he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time if he quit the thing to which he has devoted his entire life.

One is trapped by social expectations and insecurity, another held tight by the dead hand of the past, a third lacking the imagination or courage to reinvent himself. All are like sail boats becalmed, in a still-state of living without life.

But the days grow short as you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

My advice to my friend? See what happens. You aren’t young any more. Life is short. Who knows what it may yet have in store?

Before long spring will be in the air again. Even if it is not the spring of your youth, the earth’s spring might yet enliven you.

And listen to Walter Huston’s recording of September Song, music by Kurt Weill, words by Maxwell Anderson.

His rendition remains the best ever, even if barely sung, because of a sensibility that knew very well that of which he sang — the September of life and the hope of romance to heal the lonely heart.

The photo above is a Picture of Pin Oak leaves turning color c/o: Rmccrea, Wikimedia Commons.

The quotation is from September Song.

What I Learned About Therapy From Frankie Avalon

Now, you might not think about Frankie Avalon in connection with psychotherapy. But, in a peculiar way, he taught me a bit about treatment many years ago.

Frankie Avalon was performing in Chicago and appeared on a late night local program on Chicago’s ABC affiliate TV station; as did I and two other mental health professionals. Avalon was talking about his career as a singer and one-time pop-idol of the 1960s. The rest of us were speaking about hypnosis. Frankie Avalon was to appear on the first half of the program, while the mental health section was scheduled second.

The program was taped on Thursday for broadcast the next day. And, as things worked out, both the legendary singer and the shrinks all spent a few minutes together in “the Green Room” before the taping began. Avalon asked us a bit about ourselves.  When he discovered that we would be talking about hypnosis, he posed the following question: “Hey, can you guys stop me from smoking?”

One of my fellow-therapists responded, “Do you want to stop?”

“No,” Avalon replied.

We all laughed, but in truth, the singer had demonstrated something very important about therapy. To wit, not everyone who comes to therapy wants to change. Or, at least, they might not want to change the particular thing about themselves that is causing their unhappiness, or suffer the pain of making that change, or explore the unsettling emotions that sometimes surface in treatment.

This often happens in marital therapy too, when one member of the couple doesn’t think he or she is doing anything that bad, and so has no reason to adjust.

Therapists often can help those who recognize that their problems are severe enough to require “whatever it takes” to change. But, we are not much good when working with someone who, like Frankie Avalon, really doesn’t want to do anything different.

Those adults who are forced into therapy, pressured into treatment, or who go because they think that they ought to, are usually setting themselves up for failure. A wise therapist will usually identify this quickly and ask those individuals if they really want to be there — or point out that they don’t seem ready, and that premature therapy would be a waste of their time and money.

As the old joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?”

One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The above image is an Electric Light Bulb From Neolux in Studio by KMJ, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.