Posts Tagged ‘tchaikovsky’

“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

“Spontaneous overflow”

About a year or so ago, after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a gallery crammed to the brim with masterpieces – I found myself writing, despite my lack of anything resembling qualification or expertise on the matter, on Manet’s L’Olympia. The post turned out to be quite a jokey one. There was another post I wanted to write on another of the masterpieces in that gallery, but, after the first few drafts, I gave up on it: the nature of this painting is such that it demands from the viewer, and from the commentator, a serious engagement with the deepest and the most unvarnished of human emotions, and I felt I wasn’t up to it. Jokey posts are fairly easy to write, but serious writing on intense, naked emotions I find far more difficult: when I read over my early drafts, they appeared to me merely mawkish, and insincere. However, a year later, I thought it was time for another attempt. So if this post too, dear reader, appears mawkish or insincere, do please put it down to my lack of skill as a writer, and to nothing else.

The painting in question is Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille, on her deathbed. It was painted in 1879, when he was 39, and his dying wife merely 32. Monet painted it even as his beloved wife lay there, breathing her last. Many years later, Monet himself had wondered how he could have done it. How could he have been so callous? How could he have focussed on colours, on light, on composition, on brush-strokes, on all those things that artists concern themselves with, when his beloved wife was dying right in front of him?


“Camille Monet on her deathbed”, by Claude Monet, 1879, courtesy Musée d’Orsay in Paris

And yet he wasn’t callous. For people like me, lacking all artistic talent, it is impossible to know just what goes on in those minds possessed not merely of talent, but of genius. But I would hazard a guess that Monet painted his dying wife because he had to. It is merely the dilettante who first feels, and then sets out to give expression to what they had felt: for someone like Monet, I’d conjecture that the distance between the feeling and the expression of that feeling is much shorter: possibly, it doesn’t exist at all.

There are other examples of this sort of thing – the sort of thing that to the rest of us may well appear callous and unfeeling. Bach, I gather, composed the aria “Schlummert Ein” (from the cantata Ich Habe Genug) while the corpse of his son was lying cold in the next room. Janáček, who has claims to being the finest composer of operas of the 20th century, was fascinated by speech patterns and intonations, and had developed his own means of notating these; and, when his beloved daughter was dying, he found himself at her bedside, notating her groans and her cries of pain. All these examples sound callous, but I wonder whether they are. I have heard it said, for instance, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been tearing his hair out when he composed his emotionally distraught 6th symphony, as he wouldn’t be able to work out the harmonies and the counterpoint while tearing his hair out; but maybe, just maybe, working out these harmonies and counterpoint was his way of tearing his hair out. And so, Bach’s aria, Janáček’s notations, Monet’s painting, are not, for these artists, expressions of their grief so much as the thing itself: this is how these people tore their hair out.

All this is, I appreciate, conjecture. I will never be privileged enough to know what it is exactly that goes on in the mind of a genius.

Monet’s painting of his dying wife, even if we did not know the circumstances in which it was painted, is heart-rending. It is a painting of a parting, a final parting. The face, now seemingly unaware even of the presence of the viewer, seems already beyond human reach, disappearing fast into an ever-thickening, impenetrable mist. “Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous,” Flaubert had written in L’Education Sentimentale (“There comes a moment in parting when the person we love is no longer with us”). Monet has captured here this very moment. The face is becoming at this moment a mere lifeless object, like the pillow upon which her head rests, and which Monet has painted as if it were a snow-covered hill.

This is certainly not the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” of Wordsworth’s formulation. It is, however, worth considering these well-known words in their proper context:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…

  • William Wordsworth, from the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth is clearly not suggesting that poetry should be created while in a state of tranquillity: quite the contrary – he says that it should be created when the poet in an emotional state similar to (“kindred to”) the emotions being depicted. The point of recollecting “in tranquillity” is to produce again in the poet’s mind emotions similar to those the poet is setting out to depict.  For only then can the overflow of powerful feelings, which Wordsworth contends is the very essence of poetry, be spontaneous. So if Tchaikovsky, say, is depicting emotional states of mind that are tormented and turbulent, he must, even while composing it, even while working out the harmonies and the counterpoint, be feeling something that is at least kindred to that torment and that turbulence. Otherwise, how can that overflow of powerful feelings be spontaneous?

Wordsworth does, however, qualify his formulation with the word “generally”: “In this mood successful composition generally begins…” (my italics). And I wonder, in view of Bach’s aria, in view of Monet’s painting, whether, in some cases, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings can occur not as a consequence of recollecting afterwards in tranquillity emotions previously felt, but even at the very moment the artist is feeling these emotions for the first time.

I don’t know. These are merely conjectures on my part, as the workings of creative minds remain a mystery to me. But, given that Monet himself had wondered how he could have painted his dying wife even as she lay dying, it could be that these things are mysteries to artists also.

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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.