Classical Music
Copernique Marshall


These essays originally appeared between the 8th of April and the 6th of May 2013 editions of Le Castor™.

Classical Music - Part One of Three

Before we drop into that conundrum which is "What is classical music", let me give you a definition about which, I hope, we shall all agree :

Go into a sizeable and well stocked record shop, look around and go towards a sign that says "Musique classique" or "Classical Music". - It is about the CD's you'll find there that I want to talk about. Nothing else and nothing less.

Fair enough ?

Don't tell me that John Cage shouldn't be there or that certain recordings made by the Modern Jazz Quartet should be.- Tell that to every record shop owners that you know. - Might start a trend.

My father gave me another definition the other day, a definition dating back to some fifty years ago :

He said that when he started collecting 33 RPM records ("Long playing records" they were called back then), they're were two kinds : the 3,29$ variety and the 3,99$ variety. The first was for run-of-the-mill stuff and the second was for high-brow stuff, namelly "classical music". "Problem was, he added, that they use to put both of them in the 99 cents bins when they didn't sell... But by then you had already made up your mind..." - Guess he missed the 11,99$ version I recently paid for Malher's fifth and the scandalous 19,99$ latest Céline Dion CD that is cheaper to manufacture and distribute than 33's... - But that's another problem.

Let me add to this :

In my so-far-short life time, I did see something wonderful when it comes to record shops :

From folkore-blue grass-honky-tonk-jazz-and-other shelves (when you went to a record shop, you never knew where to find him), Scott Joplin was, several years ago, moved permanently into the classical section where he belonged in the first place. When will James Scott get the same honor ? Who knows ?

Classical buffs are a strange group. Take Bach, for example. Totally ignored outside a small circle and practically unpublished during his lifetime, it wasn't until Mendelssohn gave a performance of his St. Matthew passion in 1829, 79 years after his death that he was finally "rediscovered" to the delight of countless amateurs who started to appreciate his work that finally began to circulate in the later half of the 19th century. - It took him nearly 200 years before becoming a super star. Took the Beatles about a year to achieve the same goal.

Looking into the Music and Musicians' Bible (*), I'm always astonished to read about literaly thousands of composers who were Gods in their heydays and who are now totally unknown. So, when one starts writing about "classical" music (whatever it can be), one is bound to forget a whole lot of music and musicians ; and if you're thinking (not even writing) about a "ten best list", hope to be, if not accurate, just conscious of what you're about to do...


(*) The International Cyclopedia [sic] of Music and Musicians by Ocar Thomson, Dodd Mead an Company - 9th edition - 2,476 pages.


Classical Music - Part Two of Three

Now that we have established and, I hope, agreed upon what is classical music (see my previous column), let's start talking about what is good classical music. You probably have your own definition. It might consist in a list of composers, a list of your favorite pieces or even a series of chords or sections of certain sonatas or symphonies. It doesn't matter. The reality is that when we all sit down to discuss what we like or dislike, conversations become so personal that they are on the fringe of subjectivity.

I'll tell you what I like and you be the judge.

For me, good music must have two qualities - three if you add that I like cleverness (and that cleverness applies to novels, plays, paintings, anything connected to creativity) - :

1 - It's got to be interesting both intellectually and emotionally. Chopin's Étude révolutionnaire (Op. 10, no. 12) fits this bill and so does Scriabin's Étude (Op. 8, no. 12) as well as Rachmaninov's Prélude (Op. 23, no. 5) or, to give another example, the fourth movement (not the first) of Beethoven's fifth symphony.

Samples (excerpts only) click on the note :

Chopin's Étude révolutionnaire (Op. 10, no. 12) - Louis Lortie

Scriabin's Étude (Op. 8, no. 12) - Vladimir Horowitz


Rachmaninov's Prélude (Op. 23, no. 5) - Vladimir Horowitz

Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 - Fourth movement - Carlos Kleiber

Scriabin's Étude (Op. 8, no. 12) - Vladimir Horowitz


Rachmaninov's Prélude (Op. 23, no. 5) - Vladimir Horowitz

Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 - Fourth movement - Carlos Kleiber

2 - It's got to remain interesting for years, perhaps throughout an entire life. An example : Beethoven's string quartets in which one can continuously find new aspects years after years ; which is precisely why I have a tendency to dislike Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Haydn' symphonies.

Like, try this for size :

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 7 - Movement no. 1 (beginning) - Budapest String Quartet

To that definition, I could add that, for some composers or bodies of work, it is difficult to find something that will touch your heart in everything they did. You might like Mozart's Don Giovanni, his Le nozze di Figaro, The Abduction from the Seaglio and even Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), for example, but how many times have you listened or even heard about his other operas (he wrote 22 musical dramas in a variety of genre) : The Goose of Cairo, The Clemency of Titus, Scipio's Dream or Idomeneo, King of Crete (to name a few) ? (Tell you what : don't bother,)

And then, one might like chamber music more than operas, symphonies more than piano or violin concerti... - I know somebody whose ears are so sensitive, she can't stand brass instruments, particularly Maurice André (trumpet) and Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute) who seem to have cornered their respective répertoires.

So, as a general rule, all "best" lists, be it for a simple question of not being able to listen to everything in one life's time, have to remain subjective. (It takes a minimum of 35 hours to listen to one version of Haydn's symphonies ; add to that his sonatas, string quartets and other works... and Haydn wasn't a particularly prolific composer : try Schubert who probably composed six or seven lieder every morning, before breakfast - 600+, at the last count - or Telemann whose entire body of work is greater than that of anybody else : he's in the Guinness Book of Records.)

Be that as it may, let me list, today the composers I particularly like. Next time, I'll elaborate a bit more and give you what my all-timMélisande

I hate operas... well, most operas (see no. 10) but, when I'm alone in my office, I'll listen, in the background, to any by Monteverdi and that written by Debussy, one after the other, finishing with the latter. They're 400 years apart but somehow, I keep thinkling they were composed at the same time.

But see number 10.

6. - Chopin

Well, Obviously, not everything. Some of his préludes, some of his sonatas, some of his nocturnes (although, as a whole, I prefer those of John Fields).

His Barcarolle, one of the things he composed and I must have heard a hundred times, is beginning to jump on my nerves but I would recommend it, as an introduction to his body of works, to anyone.

7. - Wagner

What scrap he wrote ! - But his Ring ? - Grandiose ! - I'd love to see it in before I die. - The whole 23 hours of it in four long sessions.

So far, I've only been able to listen to it by Furtzwangler, Boulez, Levine and, the greatest of them all, Solti.

8. - Mozart

Again, not everything he wrote. Particularly his operas. - I'll repeat again : I dislike most operas which is why you'll never hear me mention the likes of them. (See no. 10 again.)

I do like his Requiem, some of his quartets, a couple of his symphonies, but one thing I would bring on a desert island, is his concerto for clarinet and orchestra.

9. - Scott Joplin (and James Scott)

I mentioned both in my pevious columns. Wouldn't go as far as saying that Scott Joplin was a genius (particularly after having listened to his Tremonisha) but his rags are something to be heard.

... and now comes the hard part :

10. - What else ? - Bits, here and there :

Bach's first non-accompanied cello sonata ; his Chritsmas Oratorio and the beginning of his Mass in C minor ; Albenitz' tango, of course (guitar) ; Beethoven's fifth symphony (last movement by Eric Kleiber) ; Bruckner's symphonies (all first movements) ; Gluck's Orphée and Euridice (told you I didn't like operas !) ; Ravel and Debussy's string quartets ; Scarlatti's sonatas played by Wanda Landowska, Schuman's piano works played by Claudio Auro...

To that, let me add Hugo Wolf's lieder, some of the stuff written by Scriabin, Beethoven's sixth (but only by Bruno Walter) and a recording made of La Folia... and what else ? - Can't forget Litsz, can I ?

But I will, intentionnally forget to mention Verdi, Puccini and their likes, because, for the third or fourth time, I don't like operas, particularly those where, whatever is happening on stage, has to stop to let the tenor, the soprano or whoever sing an aria. On their own some of them (arias) are quite interesting but that's about all.

Which reminds me of a joke - invented by Alphonse Allais, I think : "Why, in opera houses, do they allow the people occupying the first 10 or 15 rows show up with musical instruments ?"



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