My favourite composers

I had promised myself I’d never do another of those stupid lists again. You know the kind – your Top Ten Novels, your Top Ten Symphonies, your Top Ten Hammer Horror Films … No, hang on, that’s quite a good one actually … But then I see posts here, and here, that encourage us to compile our list of Top Ten Composers.

Well, now I am doing it. Since I want to use the blog to write about what I love; and since I love music dearly; it makes sense for me to try to write something about music – at least once in a while. The problem is that I have not received a proper education in music, and can therefore write no more about it than a few subjective impressions. But at least a list gives me a good excuse to mention what I like, so that’s fair enough. I hope.

At any rate, my rather pathetic excuse for compiling his list is that it was New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is making me do it. So here goes.

But first, the usual disclaimers. One can’t really list the ten greatest composers, since music is not a competitive sport any more than football is. (Football – that’s “soccer” for our translatlantic readers – did, admittedly, use to be a competitive sport until the richer teams got even richer and closed the door on the possibility of any smaller team ever winning anything. Not that I am bitter about it, you understand. But I digress.) If one were to list the Greatest Composers, then one would, I imagine, list music’s Holy Trinity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in some order, and then think of seven others. And even the choice of this top table of music may not be unanimous: ever since BBC’s radio 3 decided to put on a Mozartfest a few weeks ago, I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read telling us Mozart wasn’t that good, really. But leaving aside such people (who appear frankly to have their taste where the sun doesn’t shine), it is quite conceivable for a knowledgeable and cultured music lover nominating for the top table, say, Lassus, Handel and Stravinsky. Or, perhaps, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Wagner. Or something.

What follows is necessarily a subjective choice. These are the composers whose music I, personally, could least do without.

First, for me, is Mozart. The music I could least do without are those three operas he composed to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte – to my mind the finest works for the stage between Shakespeare and Ibsen. And there is also Die Zauberflöte, which seems to me great despite rather than because of the libretto. Of course, the libretto has been defended, but I don’t get it: I really have no idea what it is in that libretto that inspired Mozart, but inspire him it did.

Moving away from opera, is there any medium Mozart didn’t master? Arguably, his string quartets were not quite of the standard of those by Haydn or Beethoven, but they’re masterpieces all the same; and his string quintets, his clarinet quintet, and that wonderful Divertimento for String Trio K563, can surely stand comparison with the greatest chamber works by anyone. His last four symphonies (the last three of which were all composed, apparently, in the course of a mere six weeks) are breathtaking: Beethoven may have extended the scale and the expressive range of the symphony, but even Beethoven never surpassed these works for perfection of form, or for depth of expression. Or take those astonishing piano concertos – at least a dozen of which are masterpieces of the highest order. Or that sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. Or the late clarinet concerto – or the unfinished C Minor mass (or, for that matter, that unfinished Requiem Mass) … Or those wind serenades (did anyone ever compose better for winds?) … It is all too easy merely to reel off these works, but less easy to specify what it is about them that make them, for me, so indispensable.  Perhaps the quality I find in Mozart above that of any other composer is the ability to express so many different things at the same time. As an example, listen to that final movement of the D minor piano concerto, K466. It starts off with a theme of barely contained, surging passion, but by the final bars, we are in the world of pure comedy. Where and how did this transformation take place? God knows how many times I have heard it over the years, but I never could work it out. And I think it’s because there is no transformation:  those same themes have in them the potential both for the darkest tragedy and the most genialcomedy, and Mozart could bring out whichever aspect he wanted at will.

This ability of his to encompass extremes at the same time serves him well in opera, where he frequently depicts the endless complexities of the human heart. In Cosi fan Tutte, characters could simulate and yet be passionately sincere at the same time. In Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira can be an absurd comic figure who fails to learn from experience, and who falls for Don Giovanni repeatedly; and yet, at the same time, even while being absurdly comic, she has also a generous heart with an aspetto nobile and a dolce maestà; she is a figure of immense tragic dignity. The two perspectives co-exist, with neither blotting out the other. Similarly, Leporello can find the gulling of Donna Elvira funny, and yet, at the same time, feel for her genuine pity. Human emotions are too complex, too slippery, too elusive ever to be pinned down: all their complexity and contradictions must be shown simultaneously. It is tempting to say only music could do this, but that’s not quite accurate: only Mozart’s music could do this. I generally find it impossible to describe accurately the mood of any Mozart piece: they seem to encompass everything. And all the time, they all seem lit with some strange and ineffably beautiful other-worldly light.

Next up for me is Beethoven. (Yes, I know, these aren’t terribly original choices, but I don’t claim originality.) Beethoven projects the image (much of it carefully cultivated and promoted by himself) of the heaven-stormer, the man who defiantly shook his fists at the gods. Yes, of course there are elements of that, and yes, I continue to find it thrilling. But there are other aspects also – a great many other aspects. Beethoven could summon up courtly grace and elegance and well as could Mozart; his music contains as much wit and humour as does the music of Haydn’s – although, admittedly, Beethoven’s style of humour is often of a sledgehammer variety; and his music also projected a sense of lyrical exaltation, as in the violin concerto, or in the 6th symphony, where, like his exact contemporary Wordsworth (they were born in the same year), Beethoven found in nature “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”.

And of course, there is the Late Beethoven. Perhaps no other composer had quite so identifiable a “late period” as did Beethoven, although, given that Beethoven was only in his 50s when he died, it is unlikely that he recognised the works of his later years as specifically “late works”. But they are as visionary and as other-worldly as we could possibly expect Late Works to be – although it does seem to me that even at his most other-worldly, there remains a strong sense of the earthy – e.g. in the scherzi of the op. 109 and Op. 110 piano sonatas, or in several of the Diabelli variations.

The other member of Western music’s Holy Trinity is Bach, but I must admit that while much of Bach’s music is precious to me (and, I guess, to anyone who cares at all for music), a great deal of his music I find rather intimidating. And since this post is about the music that means most to me personally, let us keep Bach for later, and skip to Brahms, a composer who, I’m sure, would have felt deeply embarrassed to have found himself placed above Bach even in a list such as this. But there is something about the combination of raw passion and deep autumnal melancholy in his music that I frequently find chiming with my own mood. Those four symphonies of his I find have become almost something of an obsession: certainly, I have more different recordings of them than is entirely sensible, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my spare time listening to them. And those concertos! I remember still when, as a teenager, I was discovering this music, I fell in love particularly with that 2nd piano concerto – which really is more a symphony for orchestra and piano rather than the concerto it claims to be. There is one moment especially in the scherzo that particularly delighted me: I used to play that movement over and over again, and every time that moment approached, I could feel my excitement rising. It comes as the opening section moves into the middle section. Now, normally, when a movement is in ABA format, the section A is allowed politely to come to a decorous end before section B starts: sometimes, there is even a pause to signal the transition. But here, as we approach the end of section A, the music rises in waves of seemingly uncontrollable passion. The piano feels after a while that it can no longer keep pace with the mad rush, and drops out. And then, just as the orchestra reaches the mighty climactic point of this passage, at this very moment, we move abruptly into the middle section – straight into a Handelian theme in double counterpoint. The effect, even on repeated listenings (and how repeatedly have I listened to this!) is exhilarating.

Let us move now to the death-haunted world of Schubert. It is not a world devoid of sunny grace or eloquence – indeed, I find it hard to think of anything of a happier disposition than the Trout quintet – but the general mood I find in much of Schubert’s work is that of a haunting sadness and of melancholy; a sense of the tragic that moves at times into the realms of sheer terror; and a deep, deep sense of loss and of longing. All these elements are found in the song cycle Winterresse – about as bleak a work of art as ever was conceived – but, perhaps even more, I find them in the last collection of Schubert’s lieder, which was published after his death under the collective title Schwanengesang. Strictly speaking, this is not a “song cycle”, but these songs seem so unified in mood, that they are often treated as such. Almost unbearably moving are the six songs in the collection that set to music poems by Heine: there is one song especially – “Am Meer” – that tells of a parting by the sea, and is so haunting that I swear I have heard it even in my sleep.

Those last three piano sonatas, the last three string quartets, and that glorious string quintet of his seem to me to be, like Winterreise, on the edge of sanity. The G major string quartet epecially – a great favourite of mine – seems to take us towards the uncompromising emotional world of Bartók. And Bartók is, indeed, my next choice.  I remember still when I heard all six string quartets of Bartók plyed on a single mad day by the Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall. I am not sure how they kept their concentration, for, even though I was only listening, and even though the concerts were well spread out through the day, by the time that almost unbearably sad 6th quartet came around, my concentration, I’m afraid, had gone. But I’m glad I attended those concerts: each of those six quartets, written at different times of Bartók’s life, is different; each opens up new worlds of sound, of sonority; and yet, each is unmistakably the product of the same astounding creative genius.

It was a recording of the 2nd violin concerto that first alerted me to this strange musical mind – those plucked notes on the harp, followed by that almost ghostly theme on the violin … I had heard nothing like that before, and nothing since. Indeed, there is much in Bartók that may be described as “ghostly”: the slow movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was famously used in The Shining, Kubrick’s attempt at a horror film; but perhaps even more eerie and frightening for me is the middle movement of the Divertimento for Strings. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many Hammer horror films, but I can’t listen to that music without picturing the coach with the lonely traveller driving through the Borgo Pass, and on towards Castle Dracula.

Virtually everything Bartók ever composed is a masterpiece – those string quartets, the sonata for two pianos and percussion, the one act gothic opera Bluebeard’s Castle – right up to that sonata for solo violin, and that late, mellow 3rd piano concerto. But throughout it all, there seems to me a tremendous passion. I find it impossible to remain detached during a performance of any work by Bartók: each work demands total immersion

I have already picked five composers, and am conscious that I have yet to pick Bach. But old Johann Sebastian will have to wait just a bit longer, for the next on my list is his perhaps equally great contemporary, Handel. The comparison between the two composers is fascinating, but it’s difficult articulating it, since to describe the works of such towering geniuses in generalised terms is inevitably to simplify. But on the whole, I find Handel a more theatrical composer than Bach; and, perhaps for that reason alone, I find myself listening to more of Handel’s music.

I actually came to Handel’s music rather late. For a long time, I had imagined him as little more than a purveyor of ceremonial pomp and grandeur. It was only when I heard some of those exquisite arias from Giulio Cesare that I realised how far removed my picture of Handel was from the reality. And so, over the hast few years, I have found myself exploring more of this composer’s music, and moving well beyond Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. And I can barely begin to describe the riches I have found – from the pastoral freshness of Acis and Galatea to the high drama of Saul; from the sumptuous grandeur of Solomon to the melting tenderness of Rodelinda; from the nobility of Belshazzar to the sheer radiance of Theodora. One could go on and on. And throughout, there is a melodic inspiration that is perhaps matched only by Schubert (who was, however, very different temperamentally).

Bach is my next choice (“and not before time”, I hear you say). On the whole, I find him a more introverted composer than Handel. Instead of the great monumental public statements of Handel, Bach gives us – even in large scale works such as St Matthew Passion, or the Mass in B Minor – music of a quiet intensity and inwardness, almost as if the act of making music were a means of speaking privately to one’s God. Much of Bach, as I say, does intimidate me: I have no doubt that his various preludes and fugues, A Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, etc., are amongst the peaks of human achievement: but all too often, I feel myself distanced from it. But what I experience when I do get Bach I don’t think I could even begin to describe.

Only last month, I was at the Wigmore Hall to hear Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, ending the concert with the D minor partita, with that passionate powerhouse that is the concluding chaconne. Have I ever heard anything quite like that? No, I hadn’t. It was unlike anything else. One doubts whether Brahms would have composed that passionate passacaglia that concludes his 4th symphony if Bach’s chaconne had not existed. It is emotionally exhausting merely to listen to it. But Bach could relax as well: and he could exult – listen, for instance, to the outer movements of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, with its stratospherically high trumpet. Indeed, the sheer range and variety of moods in these six Brandenburg Concertos are such that it seems at times that they contain everything anyone could possibly want from music.

Before I move on to my last three choices, let me briefly mention a few composers I wish I could have included amongst my favourites. I am afraid I had to leave out Janáček, whose increasingly unorthodox operas (as well as the mad Glagolitic Mass, and the two string quartets) I love deeply. I am equally sorry to leave out Mussorgsky, who would certainly have made this list had he remained sober enough to have composed more. But even as it is, Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (Mussorgsky didn’t get round even to orchestrating the latter: we usually hear it in the superb orchestration by Shostakovich) are possibly my favourite operas since Mozart; and I am sorry also to omit Mahler, a composer I have been coming round to recently after years of bemusement and incomprehension. As for Wagner, yes, I have frequently found myself spellbound by his music: I have found myself so immersed that I have lost all sense of the outside world, of time passing. But whether I actually enjoy being in this state is another question. I do like Wagner, but I’m not sure that I like liking him, if you see what I mean; and while I can understand why some people would choose Wagner as their Number One, I am frankly quite happy to leave him out. There are many other very great composers I have had to leave out, of course, but this post is long enough as it is, so let us move on.

Modest Mussorgsky (Have you seen anyone looking quite so pissed?)

Puccini is out of the top ten too, I’m sorry to say – although I’m sure that in other moods, I’d decide that I couldn’t do without La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. But Verdi is certainly in, and is my next choice. I don’t think any other composer had quite so powerful a sense of the theatre. People often complain about the silliness of many of his plots, but that does seem to me to be missing the point: the plots matter less than what Verdi made of them. I dare anyone to read the synopsis of something like Rigoletto, say, and not laugh at the absurdity of it: but the finished product is heartbreaking. It is not what happens that interests Verdi: his interests lay deeper. Rigoletto, for instance, is a man who is despised and mocked, and the only way he can live with this is to despise and mock those despise and mock him. He becomes a part of the evil and the corruption that so oppress him. But his soul must find some respite from this endless cycle of inhumanity, and he finds this respite in his love for his daughter. But the evil around him – and of which he is himself is an agent – cannot be be held back, and he unwittingly helps destroy the very thing that he has tried with all his soul to protect. The plot –  mere mechanism whereby all this happens – may be absurd, but the very real human emotions are overwhelming. In most tragedies, the protagonist dies: but Rigoletto’s tragedy is that he must go on living, even when the earth holds nothing that is worth living for.

In masterpiece after masterpiece, Verdi depicted and explored human passions. In his very old age, he produced what some think are his greatest works. But I’m not so sure. Of course, his Requiem Mass, and his two late Shakespearean operas – Otello and Falstaff – are beyond compare, but I really don’t know that, despite the superior libretti of these last two operas, they are superior to the likes of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida, etc. It was Stravinsky who said that he loved these works beyond the point where criticism made any difference. And this brings me round neatly to my next choice. 

Stravinsky remains a towering figure. His earlier ballets – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – have all entered the mainstream repertoire now, but the quality of his output, despite a very long creative life never declined. His restless creativity was constantly seeking out new styles, new modes of expression. And whatever mode, whatever style he worked in, it’s almost as if he couldn’t help but create masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine that the composer of a score as richly melodic and as Romantic as The Firebird could compose so bleak and desolate a work as Oedipus Rex; or that the composer of the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms could go on to compose Agon and Thereni. In the 1950s, with the emergence of the postwar avant-garde, Stravinsky may have appeared a bit of a dinosaur: he soon saw to that by taking on the avant-garde at their own game, and composing serialist works. And what works they are!

There is much in Stravinsky’s immense output that I confess I haven’t quite come to terms with yet: Stravinsky seems a composer whose works one may spend an entire lifetime exploring.

My final choice is a safe and standard middle-of-the-road Classic FM choice, but I don’t care: I love the music of Tchaikovsky, so there. Yes, I know, he did compose the 1812 Overture, but it’s Tchaikovsky’s bad luck that this piece has become so well-known, just as it’s Beethoven’s good luck that Wellington’s Victory hasn’t. And I could live without Tchaikovsky’s concerti as well: at best, they are merely decorative. Neither am I entirely convinced by Tchaikovsky the opera composer: there are some fine things in Eugene Onegin and in The Queen of Spades, but neither counts among my favourites. No – it’s those last three symphonies and those three ballet scores (not just the suites – the full scores of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) that I’d find very difficult to do without. Britten, I gather, used to keep the score of Sleeping Beauty near him when he composed, to inspire him whenever he encountered problems with orchestration.

Of course, it is true that I am a sucker for a good tune, and Tchaikovsky wrote some of the very best – but that’s not, I think, the primary reason for my love of Tchaikovsky: Dvořák was at least as fine a melodist, but his music tends to leave me (for whatever reason) indifferent. It’s the kind of melody Tchaikovsky wrote that sends up the spine those shivers that cannot be explained away. I love the grace and elegance of so much of his balletic music (both in his ballet scores, and in his symphonies); and I love the sheer, unadulterated passion. In Western culture, unrestrained expression of raw passion is sometimes looked down upon as being in bad taste: but I probably retain enough of a non-Western sensibility to find myself responding to it. There are many great tragic symphonies, of course – the 4th symphony of Brahms, the 6th of Mahler, the 4th of Sibelius, the 4th and the 6th of Vaughan Williams (something about those numbers 4 and 6!) etc. But none is quite so devastating – for me, at least – as is the 6th symphony of Tchaikovsky – a real slash-your-wrists symphony if ever there was one. There is nothing in all music that leaves me as utterly overwhelmed as that final adagio, which, after its titanic climactic moment, fades away into nothingness.

And yet, not long before Tchaikovsky composed that symphony, he gave us The Nutcracker, a score of magical childlike wonder. I like to think of these two works as his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Here’s Simon Rattle, for long a Tchaikovsky-sceptic who has recently undergone a conversion, speaking of The Nutcracker:

One of the great miracles in music …extraordinary touches of orchestration, ideas that sound as though they were written 20 years later… the fountain of melodic adventure [that] almost beggars belief.

Well, those are the ten I would choose today. As with any list, it leaves out too much: but while there are other composers I’d have loved to have included, there’s none there, I think, that I’d be happy taking out.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for including Handel, who I feel sometimes gets unfairly overlooked because of Bach’s huge statue. I am a recent convert to Handel: the elderly author who I work for on Mondays is a huge Handel fan and his interest piqued my own. Brahms featured heavily in my teens when I played a lot of his clarinet music (for exams). I am rediscovering his piano music at the moment.

    These lists are always highly subjective and personal, but it’s endlessly fascinating to see what others think constitutes a “top ten” and always cheering when one’s own choices concur, largely, with someone else’s!

    Reply

    • Of the composers I have listed, Handel is my most recent discovery. I do feel he is unfairly overshadowed by Bach, but many may equally say that Haydn is unfairly overshadowed by Mozart! Handel’s music has a far greater variety than I had thought, and I do like his flamboyance and theatricality, and his sense of himself as a showman. I did feel a sense of awe walking through Handel’s house, and knowing that this was the very spot where those masterpieces had been composed.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Kirsty on February 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I have rather narrow taste, mainly classical and early romantics.
    Here’s my top 5:
    1)Mozart
    He’s my favourite, he wrote the most profound, humane and beautiful music. It’s obviously subjective, I think it’s down to one’s temperament. But I also have an “objective” argument for putting him on the top spot. Let’s say I pit the big three against each other in the following categories:

    Symphony: Beethoven
    Chamber music: A draw between Mozart and Beethoven
    Concertos: Mozart
    Choral music: A draw between Bach and Mozart
    Opera: Mozart hands down
    Piano solo music: Beethoven
    Overall: Mozart

    I think there’s only one area where Mozart was a bit “weak”, piano solo pieces.

    2)Schubert. I especially like his piano work: moment musicale, piano sonata D959 etc. I think he’s kinda like Mozart, very good at writing for the human voice. Melodic, has a lot of grace and beauty in his music. Capable of creating profound emotions without melodrama or showmanship.
    3)Beethoven. When I’m in the mood, love him. Other times, his more laboured works tire me.
    4)Bach. yeah he’s kinda intimidating. His church music has the image of Yahweh, as opposed to Mozart’s choral work which sounds like written for Ave Maria. Nonetheless I enjoy most of his work, he’s very melodic and pleasant to the ears.
    5)Haydn

    btw, just curious, could you give me the links of those articles written by people who live in places where the sun doesn’t shine?

    Reply

    • Hello Kirsty,

      I think most people who love classical music would choose one of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven as their favourite – which is, no doubt, rather unfair to Handel & Haydn.

      It strikes me that if we can think of artists as being “other-worldly” or “this-worldly”, then Bach, given the deep religious fervour of so much of his music, would fall into the other-worldly camp, whereas Mozart, like so many of the artists whom I personally tend to value most (e.g. Shakespeare, Tolstoy) found more than enough in this world to exercise their imaginations. Possibly (and I’m guessing here) this is why Mozart wrote so little religious choral music (comparatively speaking, that is): he only really composed two large scale choral pieces (the C minor mass and the Requiem), and they are both unfinished. Of course, the Requiem is unfinished because of his untimely death, but I believe the reason for his failure to finish the C minor mass remains a mystery. I suppose, though, we should be thankful for what we have: both these unfinished torsos are magnificent. But Bach’s temperament (not to mention his extraordinary genius) made him ideally suited for religious choral music, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone who declares Bach’s passions or his B minor mass to be the greatest works of choral music. Or, indeed, any music.

      But yes, in operas and in concertos, Mozart was in a class of his own. Those are the works I could least do without.

      I agree with you about Schubert’s piano works as well. In fact, I am at the Royal Festival Hall next week to hear Pollini play the last three Schubert sonatas. It promises to be a long and tiring concert, but if he can play ’em, I can hear ’em! 🙂

      (As for the Mozart detractors, I was actually thinking of various messageboards I have browsed through, but let’s not embarrass the posters by supplying links!)

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Kirsty on February 8, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Hi Himadri

    Indeed, Bach’s sacred choral music is miraculous. I feel a bit guilty giving it to Mozart in the choral music department in my previous post:P (I was having “vocal” music in mind though, including lieder and concert arias). But no doubt, Bach’s body of choral work is unrivalled.

    I once read it somewhere that part of Mozart’s genius is his ease in reconciling the divine and humanity. I think that’s similar to what you said about “other worldly”. With Mozart, you have a little less peace and glory than Bach, instead you have a little more human tragedy and vulnerability, it makes the music less distant and more accessible. But being Mozart, the very definition of perfection, grace and moderation, it’s as close to divinity as Bach is.

    I’ve only listened to Pollini’s Chopin live. Would love hear his Schubert, Schubert is definitely not played in public often enough.

    Reply

  4. Excellent post, Himadri – not merely a superficial list by any means (and furthermore, you don’t need to protest your lack of a musical education – your understanding of the music is quite evident). I find it fascinating to discover why people feel the way they do about different composers, or any creative artists. And as a list of ten, I don’t think there’s anything to quibble with, though obviously personal tastes differ. I’d be quite happy to be locked away with the music of only the composers you have chosen. If there is a difference of temperament between my list and yours, it may be that mine sways a little more towards style and away from substance (not that Ravel, Prokofiev, Poulenc et al. don’t have substance – or that Bartok and Verdi don’t have great style – but I find it hard to resist flamboyance and surface brilliance, which may be a childish attitude – being dazzled by shiny things and so on – but is at any rate a genuine one).

    I can see I will have to listen to the Brahms second concerto again, with a score to hand! I went to a tremendous performance of the first a week and a bit ago, and am still buzzing when I think about it. You write about that astonishing chaconne that ends the fourth symphony. There are any number of models in Bach he might have worked from – the D minor Partita, the monumental Passacaglia and Fugue for organ – but I think it’s widely believed that his main inspiration was the final chorus from the cantata ‘Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’, which I sang once in my teens. It still makes me shiver to listen to it.

    Despite liking bits of Bach when I first heard them as I was growing up, it wasn’t until I played Bach on the piano that I really grew to love him – deconstructing the D major prelude and fugue from the first book of the 48 was an exciting experience. And there are few composers I love playing as much, for all that he wasn’t a piano composer as such. I remember reading an interview with some pianist – Andras Schiff, probably, or Angela Hewitt – who said they began every day by playing Bach. It might easily have been any number of pianists, though. One can easily understand the appeal of the perfect cleanliness of his counterpoint.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the link. I had read that Brahms had adapted the theme for his passacaglia from this Bach cantata, but had never heard this cantata before.

      I think I do find French music a bit difficult to take – and French literature as well, come to that. I get the impression that the French sensibility is one in which a certain detachment, a certain decorous distance, is highly valued. There is a certain coolness about it all: very rarely is intensity of passion communicated directly. (It is the same in French literature.) The surface is always beautifully constructed. That’s not to say, of course, that the surface is all there is to it: there is obviously great depth in the works of a Debussy or a Ravel or a Messiaen. But there seems to me to be a very strong emphasis on form for its own sake. I can see the attraction of this kind of aesthetic: there are even times when I can find myself responding to it (as with Debussy’s two books of Preludes, say, or, in literature, with the novels of Flaubert); but on the whole, I do like my music and my literature to grab me by the throat. In short, I like the sort of thing that may be considered crude & vulgar by French standards! I’m happy to forgo perfection of form for a bit of Verdian passion, or a bit of Tchaikovskian breast-beating …

      But yes, like yourself, I do find it fascinating trying to delve into why we like or dislike certain things. But there’s little point settling into a comfortable “I know what I like & I like what I know” frame of mind – so tonight, I think I’ll listen to Pierre Monteux’ recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Erika W. on February 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    I realize that my top 10 greatest and top 10 favorite lists are not the same. For the greatest list I should probably exclude Schubert, but if he had lived longer…I replace him with Mahler. Which leads me to the thought I have often had about Alma Mahler. If ever there was a living incarnation of a Greek muse it was her; Mahler, Gropius, Werfel, she must have been an enthralling person don’t you think?

    Reply

  6. Posted by Erika W. on February 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    A lighter note: If you don’t know this turn to Youtube and listen to Tom Lehrer’s song “Alma”. It is charming.

    Reply

    • I just listened to Tom Lehrer’s Alma song – there are some wonderful rhymes in there, aren’t there? And yes, that Alma sure did get around!

      After many years of not quite getting it, I am certainly coming round to Mahler. The process of conversion started some time back when I heard Pierre Boulez in Edinburgh conduct the LSO in an absolutely stunning performance of the 6th symphony. There are still some Mahler works that leave me puzzled the 7th & 8th symphonies expecially) but I’m happy to concede that it’s I who need to work harder at it.

      Schubert, though, is up there with the very best. And there’s an awful lot of Schubert in Mahler as well, I think – all those lilting dance tunes, that aching sense of longing, and those outbursts of sheer terror … And they were both great songwriters as well. But the great thing is, of course, that apart from compiling silly lists, one doesn’t need to choose!

      Well, I’m off to listen to a bit of music before bedtime now.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  7. Posted by alan on February 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Great post. From the evidence of the portraits you’ve chosen I doubt that many of them would succeed in today’s celebrity culture.
    I know nothing about music, but from my pop classical standpoint I’d put Bach first – the best hangover cure that I’ve ever experienced – I can almost feel my brain being ordered into shape…

    Reply

  8. Posted by Neil Shepherd on February 11, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Hi Himadri, I’ve been waiting for something like this on your blog and am glad not to be disappointed. Normal Top Ten “music” lists are something like this:

    1. 50 cent cuz its got loads of swearing in
    2. Britney she’s cool innit
    3. Them birds off X Factor dunno why really, yeah

    OK that’s enough, innit.

    I have to take you up on two points, though. Not on the list itself – you’ve got the Holy Trinity in there and as you say, the rest is basically a matter of opinion. I’d have Wagner in there at No 3 (even though he’s my favourite, I’ll concede Wolfi and Ludi’s superiority) and I’d probably find a place for Korngold, whose “second rate” music I love more than that of many esteemed composers (e.g. Handel). But with so much wonderful music available, perhaps a Top 40 would be more fitting?

    OK, point No 1. You claimed that you weren’t really educated or qualified enough to write about music. I never really believed this, and as Gareth rightly points out, your knowledge shines through. I like to think I know my classical music as well or better than most, but when I read your stuff I realise how pathetic my attempts to write on the subject are. This isn’t false modesty – read my Amazon reviews (under my real name) of classical music and you’ll see what I mean. The way you write, with erudition tempered by well-timed humour, should be an object lesson to all music critics except Edward Greenfield and Michael Kennedy. So don’t do yourself down!

    Point No 2. Your reference to specific pieces reminded me how many of them I haven’t listened to for a long time. So I have started to rectify this, starting tonight with Aida. I agree 100% with you that although most of Verdi’s opera plots are daft, the music ensures that it doesn’t matter. So as I write I’m still reeling from the wonderful EMI Domingo/Caballe/Muti recording. My beef here is that you’ve reminded me of so many pieces I must listen to, I’m likely to have the phone off for weeks and will probably lose what few friends I still have left…

    But seriously, a great piece and please write a review of the ENO Parsifal once you’ve been.

    I would like to post a link to this site from my own (it’s a cryptic crossword site, Free Crosswords Online). If you’re OK with that please give me the nod and I’ll do it forthwith and posthaste.

    I’ve gone on too long again. haven’t I!

    Reply

    • Hello Neil,

      First of all, there’s no problem at all with your posting a link here to your site. I love cryptic crossowords, and there was a time not so long ago when I used to do the Guardian cryptic crossword daily (for, whatever one may think of the paper, their crosswords are certainly the best!) I have a friend who sets cryptic crosswords, and, on the net, goes by the name Zoetrope.

      Secondly, I would love to read your Amazon reviews, but couldn’t work out how to search for the reviews of any particular reviewer on the amazon site. Could you possibly give me a link to one of your reviews, or tell me of something you have reviewed so I could look it up?

      That recording of Aida conducted by Muti is just fabulous, isn’t it? There are certain points – such as the closing passage of Aida’s aris “O patria mia”, where Montserrat Caballe sings those final phrases all in one breath and floats up that last high note ever so softly but with absolutely perfect, unwavering intonation – where one can do no more than sit back and wonder how it can be possible for anyone to sing like that.

      Verdi’s plots often were a bit silly, but he really saw the plot, I think, as no more than a vehicle to communicate what he considered more important matters. As for Erich Korngold, I believe Mahler declared him a genius when he was but a ten year-old lad. I’m afraid I don’t know any of his work except for his Hollywood scores.

      As for Parsifal at the ENO, I’m afraid I changed my mind and bought instead tickets for a couple of the Pollini concerts at the Royal Festival Hall (the all-Scubert concert in a ouple of weeks’ time, and the Chopin-Debussy-Boulez concert), and felt that Parsifal tickets on top of all that might be a bit tough on the old bank balance. I did, however, see this Lenhoff production at the ENO some 10 or so years ago, with Gwynne Howell, Jonathan Summers, Kathryn Harries and Kim Begley as, respectively, Guernemanz, Amfortas, Kundry and Parsifal (Mark Elder conducted). The music was magnificent, but the drama in this production, whatever one thinks of it, was Lenhoff’s, not Wagner’s. Here, Kundry goes on living at the end; and Parsifal, instead of officiating over the celebration of the Grail, walks away into the horizon, reminding me of nothing so much as the final scene of Shane. This is so contrary to what Wagner had explicitly specified, that I do not see how this can be regarded as Wagner’s drama. Now, I do not object to unorthodox productions, and I do accept that overly reverent productions can make the works appear like museum exhibits. But I do object to unintelligent productions. And I object to poductions where the director substitutes his or her own dramaturgy for the composer’s own.

      A few examples may suffice. In the ENO Valkyrie of 2004, director Phyllida Lloyd had Wotan’s henchmen forcibly hold down Brunnhilde while he injects her with something presumably to put her to sleep. Ms Lloyd only needed to read the libretto to find that Brunnhilde actually accepts her punishment; and one need only hear the music to be aware of the deep love and tenderness Wotan and Brunnhilde have for each other. Could she not read? Could she not hear? It’s not that I am objecting to her interpretation of Wagner: I am objecting to her not having interpreted Wagner at all.

      And then, there was the Callixto Bieito Don Giovanni, which reduced this darkest and most teriifying of all operas to a bunch of lads and laddettes getting pissed on a Friday night and screwing around a bit. Now, I realise that great works are capable of being interpreted in many different ways, but, once again, this was not an interpretation: it was a flat contradiction of what the music and the libretto unambiguously tell us; and, whatever drama there may have been in that production, that drama was not Mozart’s or da Ponte’s.

      But thankfully, not all opera productions are of this nature. About three years or so ago, we had a mad evenng out at Covent Garden: we – that is, the entire family: myself, my wife, and our two teenage children – went to the Royal Opera to see Charles Mackerras conduct Le Nozze di Figaro. David McVicar’s production was excellent. It brought to life the hustle and bustle of a big estate, with its countless servants and its various hierarchies. And, for the first time, something became clear to me that I had previously missed: Figaro himself is a man who wields considerable power. Figaro is, after all, the Count’s personal valet, and this puts him on a very high footing amongst the staff. So, just as the Count could dismiss Figaro with a wave of his hand, Figaro could similarly dismiss servants a few rungs below him with a wave of his hand. In a work which is about (amongst other things) our common humanity transcending, if only for one moment, all those bounds that separate us, this seemed to me an important point. This is what good direction is about – not deliberately contradicting what the composer had specifically instructed, but to find new aspects, new ways of illuminating what is already there. This is what mean: I don’t object to unorthodox productions – merely to unintelligent ones.

      As you see, you needn’t worry about going on too long: one can’t talk about things one cares about in mere soundbites!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. Posted by Neil Shepherd on February 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Hi Himadri

    Link done – I hope it brings some traffic but my site serves a minority interest too so I don’t see any servers going into meltdown just yet…

    If you do want to read my Amazon stuff, the last thing I reviewed was Cosi fan tutte with Marriner (Philips), so you can go from there.

    Your comments about Verdi link neatly with those you make about “producer opera”. My belief – not one shared by all, clearly – is that in almost all opera the music comes first. Yes, the drama is an integral and important part, but not an equal one. I illustrate this in two ways: take a much-loved opera like Tosca, which is a masterpiece by any standard. Do we really have any sympathy for the characters in this opera? Tosca is a silly girl at heart, Cavaradossi is selfish and Scarpia is as much of a cardboard cut-out villain as you can get. So no, we don’t, but the music is so great we don’t care. Perhaps another example is Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Hofmannsthal’s story is (to me, anyway) incomprehensible, yet many would argue, including me – that this is Strauss’s finest opera.

    The other way I look at it is to take Wagner as an example. Wagner was probably the strongest advocate of opera as equal parts drama and music. Yet we can happily listen to recordings of his operas, whereas imagine going to a performance of the Ring where there was no music and the words were spoken! There is a possible exception for some late 20th century opera, where the music doesn’t make much sense on its own, but that’s all.
    A good story is obviously a bonus, such as the da Ponte Mozart operas, La Boheme and Verdi’s Shakespeare operas, but not, I believe, essential for an opera to succeed.

    As far as productions go, I think there is a trend among producers to uglify everything (Bieito springs to mind). I believe it was the producer David Alden who said, after producing a travesty of Tannhauser in Munich, that his production was a success if he’s managed to upset the subscribers in the comfortable seats (that’s close but not verbatim). Doesn’t this arrogant little man realise that the subscribers are the ones who pay most of his fee?

    I prefer traditional productions (loved the Otto Schenk Met Ring) but can accept that there is sometimes a place for intelligent modernising (ENO Rigoletto, Jonathan Miller) or minimalism, the latter especially for opera companies on tight budgets. Where I see red is when producers add things which are irrelevant to, and worse, detract from, the plot. For a long time ENO seemed to have an obsession with characters moving chairs about and climbing up ladders. Why? Worse still is extra characters on stage – Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth Ring had people in tuxedos bringing TV sets on stage at the end of the Immolation, for example.

    Even though I maintain that I regard opera as a primarily musical art form, I obviously want to watch what’s going on when I go and see it, and such perversities generally add nothing and more likely distract from the event. Sometimes one can feel the sense of unrest among the audience when the production is particularly – as you rightly put it – unintelligent and so concentration is broke.

    I’ll end with this observation: In the early 80’s, I went with a like-minded Wagner nerd to the Ring at the Covent Garden Proms. We whiled away the day’s wait by putting together the most perverse updated production of the Ring we could think of. Valhalla as a spaceship, the dragon as a computer, that sort of thing. Well, 30 years later I have seen pretty much all of our ideas put into practice. Perhaps we should have copyrighted them!

    Take care

    Neil

    Reply

    • Hello Neil, I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep this particular reply short: I’ve had a long day at work, it’s quite late now, and I’m rather tired, I’m afraid.

      But first of all, thanks for putting up the link to this site on your website, and for all the very flattering things you say about it. I had a look round your site this lunchtime, and, if you have no objections, would like to put a link to it on my “blogroll” here.

      You make some interesting points here about opera and drama which I would like to address. But now right now, I’m afraid – my brain isn’t quite working right now; and, furthermore, to write anything that won’t look too embarrassing in a few days’ time, I need to think this over first. But I hope, in a few days’ time, to put up a post here on opera as drama. As I love both music and drama, this subject is particularly close to my heart.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  10. Posted by Neil Shepherd on February 14, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Hi Himadri, a link would be very welcome, thanks. I look forward to your comments on opera/drama with interest.

    Reply

  11. Even though I love this list, the fact that Chopin wasn’t on it makes me quiver a bit in shock and horror. But I guess, it depends on the list writer *swoons*. Since I play piano, he’s quite close to my heart as his music is especially solemn and beautiful to the ears.

    But otherwise, great list, it has some awesome composers on it.

    Reply

    • Hello there,

      Yes, this list is entirely subjective. I must confess that I have a bit of a blind spot with Romantic piano music, but that, of course, is a comment on myself, and not on the music. I have no doubt that Chopin is among the very greatest of composers: this is because there are vast numbes of people whose tastes and discernment I respect and value who think so. But the interesting thing is that one’s tastes and perceptions change over time – that one comes to love and admire things that one previously hadn’t. Since writing the above post, for instance, I have discoveed the music of Richard Strauss: till now, i have felt only lukewarm about his music, but now, all of a sudden, I can’t stop myself listening to Ein Heldenleben or Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos… So – who knows! – maybe one day the music of Chopin (and of Schumann, and of Liszt) will hit me, and I’ll be asking myself why i hadn’t loved this music efore. I certainly hope so, becaue do realise that I am currently missing out on something quite wonderful!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

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