The Greatest Music Ever Written

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Mahler

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?

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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.

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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.