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Anne says, “There must be a word in German for it.” There probably is, but I don’t know it. 

But it is something I have begun feeling, often, now that I am three-quarters of a century old — or in another way of looking at it, at a point where the fraction of life I’ve lived has a numerator quickly rising to equal the denominator. 

I frequently go out my front door to watch the treetops wave in the breeze, to see the birds wheel in a sky filled with brilliant white cumulus clouds, bees and butterflies dip from flower to flower, the palette of multiple greens in the garden leaves leave almost a taste in my mouth, and I think it is all beautiful. Unutterably beautiful. I feel in love with the things of this world.

But I know, as my body tells me every morning, that I am coming to my own end, that even if I live a long life, there is still only the tail end of it remaining, and I feel a confusing sense both that I will miss all this so dearly when I am gone, and that when I’m gone, I won’t be around to miss anything. 

And so, I am having a kind of premature sense of loss for what I have not yet lost, but know I will lose — and yet, know I will not miss it when I do, because I will be annihilated and will not exist to miss what I already know I must miss. 

Do you get the paradox of all this? And this is what there must be some German compound-word for: the sadness of loss you know you would suffer if you could, but know you will not be able to. As Keats has it, “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu.” 

Perhaps Vorausschauendsehnsucht is the word I’m looking for. It is long, impressive and German. Whether it is or not, and whether it even exists outside my construction of it from parts, the emotion is very real for me. 

It is said that humans are distinct from other animals in that they know they will die. And this awareness must make everything in our lives seem both fleeting and dear. For me, the closer I get to the great blackening halt, the dearer it all gets, and the faster it flies. 

And so, I walk out the front door with no other purpose than to watch the treetops wave in the breeze, to see the birds wheel in a sky filled with brilliant white cumulus clouds, bees and butterflies dip from flower to flower, and enjoy the palette of multiple greens in the garden that leave almost a taste in my mouth. And I think it is all unutterably beautiful.

When piano sonatas first became popular, in the 18th century, they were primarily written for home use, for talented amateurs to play for evenings with the family. Some sonatas were obviously more difficult than others, and a few by Haydn or Mozart, required a professional level of ability, and indeed, were written for the composers themselves to show off their performing abilities. But most were written to be sold as sheet music, and that’s how their composers made their livings. 

At the time, there were no public piano recitals to attend. There were private performances given for the aristocracy. Public concerts tended to feature concertos and concert arias, with maybe a little symphony or two thrown in. But no one bought tickets to hear a piano sonata — why? when you could play them yourself at home after dinner.

Then came Beethoven. 

Piano sonatas also used to run from perhaps 10 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. Mozart’s C-major sonata (K. 545) comes in three movements. The first runs a tad over two minutes; the second just under four minutes; and the finale about a minute and a half. The bigger sonatas, such as his Sonata in A (K. 331) with the famous Ronda a la Turca, comes in at about 14 minutes, as played by pianist Mikhail Pletnev. 

Then came Beethoven, the revolutionary pounder of the keyboard, who shocked his contemporary listeners with the power, difficulty and length of his piano sonatas. The Appassionata Sonata of 1805 is devilishly difficult and a bit over 21 minutes. 

Then there’s the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, which is twice as long (Barenboim’s most recent recording takes 50 minutes) and 10 times more difficult, ending with a giant double fugue that confused his first listeners. What the heck is going on? It’s the original knucklebuster. Just look at that pile of notes:

Things changed after Beethoven. The 19th century saw fewer piano sonatas, but much bigger and more difficult specimens. You could say that Beethoven seems to have presented a challenge to all those who came after him: how to live up to his example. 

And the example he gave was for a longer, more complicated sonata — a kind not to be played by prosperous daughters of the middle class after dinner, but by traveling virtuosi giving piano recitals to a paying public. Franz Liszt began the practice, but the long, knucklebusting piano sonata was established. 

There were less ambitious works written, and the standard for most of the 19th century was the character piece, not the sonata. These were short catchy pieces sometimes singly and sometimes strung together in a suite, such as Schumann’s Carnivale or Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons

This was the heyday of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of Brahms’ intermezzi and capriccios. 

And when there were sonatas, they went big. They became symphonies for the keyboard. 

I’ve chosen six of these knucklebusters as exemplars. There were more, but they haven’t joined the repertoire of regular performances. But these six as regulars of the recital hall. 

I’ve also appended a list of my favorite recordings of these sonatas. Notice, I did not say “best.” There are too many CDs out there and I haven’t listened to them all (although I have come close with the Hammerklavier — I once owned 21 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and another five sets of the late sonatas by themselves, so I’ve heard quite a few). I’ve only listed recordings I have listened to. 

Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, opus 106, “Hammerklavier”

Beethoven was at the height of his fame after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, but the years that followed were thin ones for the composer. He was tied up in endless legal difficulties over his nephew, Karl, and was suffering from endless bouts of gastritis. He produced little between 1813 and 1818. But then came the final flourishing of late quartets, late piano sonatas and, of course, the Ninth. 

The first big explosion was the “Hammerklavier” sonata, that giant monstrosity of pianistic torture. It begins with a grand military fanfare, makes fun of the same in the teensy second movement, reaches the heart of things in a 20-minute adagio and concludes with a monumental fugue which demonstrates every trick in the book of fugue writing —- play the tune upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, slow it down upside down, speed it up backwards and end it all with an explosion of hiccups and trills. 

It was the longest piano sonata written to that point and still one of the most challenging. 

It is the adagio that holds the key and the emotional power of the sonata. It has been called a “mausoleum of collective sorrow,” and “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” It is that rare sort of music that you inhabit rather than simply listen to. 

My favorite recording, since I first heard it 50 years ago is also the first recording made, in 1935, by Artur Schnabel. It has been in print since it was first made and despite being in rusty sonics, comes across clearly as music of the most profound sort. 

If you want more modern sound, I recommend the 1970 recording by Rudolf Serkin. In completely modern sound, I love — especially the adagio — by Daniel Barenboim in his 2012 release of the complete sonatas. 

Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, op. posthumus, D. 960

When Franz Schubert reached the age when Mozart had died, he’d been dead for four years already. Mozart died at age 35 and mourned as a genius who died too soon. Schubert died at 31 and we can only mourn the lost of what he could have written in those missing four years, to say nothing of what we could have had if he had lived a normal life span. 

As it was, in the last year or so of Schubert’s life — when he knew he was dying — he produced a stunning series of works of such profound depth and beauty, it can only be called a miracle. There were the final three string quartets, the C-major Quintet, and the final three piano sonatas. If all we had from Schubert were these works, he would be given a first-class ticket at the front of the bus with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. 

The final sonata, in B-flat, is one of the longest written by that time, rivaling Ludwig’s “Hammerklavier.” It, too, has a central slow movement of intense emotion. Arthur Rubinstein, who played the sonata as well as anyone ever has, said of the adagio, “This movement is like death. There is nothing else as close as this music that shows us what death feels like.”

Rubinstein recorded it twice, only a few years apart, but it is his first, from 1965, that I think is the best ever. There is a gracefulness and a humanity in the playing that is uniquely Rubinstein’s. 

There are tons of other performances, from everyone from Horowitz (a bit clangy) to Alfred Brendel (a bit stodgy). But I also recommend the versions by Radu Lupu and by Mitsuko Uchida. 

 

 Liszt Sonata in B-minor

Franz Liszt is the guy who invented the piano recital: people paying good money to hear a pianist on stage all by himself, amazing them with his showmanship and technical brilliance. Liszt was the equivalent of a rock star in his day. Oh the women! Oh the humanity!

A lot of what Liszt wrote is surely just showboating — “Look what I can do!” But he wanted to establish his bona fides, also, as a great composer, and among those things he wrote of more serious intent is his gigantic Piano Sonata in B-minor. 

Written in 1853, it divided the listening audience in two, half hating, half loving it. Brahms fell asleep while hearing it. The critic Eduard Hanslick said “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Another German critic, Otto Gumprecht, referred to it as “an invitation to hissing and stomping.” 

Liszt sent Clara Schumann a copy of the sonata. In her diary she described the sonata as “a blind noise … and yet I must thank him for it. … It really is too awful.” 

Yet, the more avant-garde audiences found it thrilling, adventurous and exciting. Richard Wagner loved it. And today, it is a staple of the concert repertoire. I have heard two great live performances of it, first by Emil Gilels and more recently by Andre Watts — both overwhelming experiences.

My favorite performance is by Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Too many upstanding and earnest pianists have attempted to overcome the showmanship and flash in Liszt to, supposedly, “find the music.” But Liszt without the dash and flash isn’t really Liszt. The exhibitionism is built into the score, and Lisitsa’s Liszt (not just in the sonata) is the perfect presentation of what Liszt is supposed to be. It’s louder, faster, more dazzling. (Hence, Lisitsa is sometimes pooh-poohed by the snobbier critics).

If you don’t mind a slightly older audio sound, you also can’t go wrong with Vladimir Horowitz, who also knows what this music is about. Finally, I treasure the CD of Watts playing the sonata, with panache and taste, which reminds me of hearing him do it live. 

Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F#-minor, op. 5

We think of Brahms as the old man with the beard spattered with cigar ash, but he was young once, full of piss and vinegar, and at the start of his career he wrote three monumental piano sonatas, opuses 1, 2, and 5. Each busting knuckles with the best of them. They are big, even by the standards of the time. 

The third is the one that caught on. He wrote it in 1853, the same years as Liszt wrote his sonata, and when he was just 20. It is vast, passionate, and gawky. It’s aggressive opening uses the whole length of the keyboard from booming bass to tintinnabulating treble. The second movement is tender andante inspired by a poem about pale moonlight and love. A rumbling scherzo follows and then an extra movement thrown in — a “recollection” or “remembrance” (“Rückblick”) that recalls the sweet andante with sweet nostalgia. (Did I mention that through all five movements, there is also a subtle recollection of the Dah-dah-dah-Dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — a ghost in the mechanism). Finally, an agitated rondo finale. The contrast between the more assertive segments and the more quiet, thoughtful parts give this sonata a sense of encompassing the range of human thought and emotion. 

No one plays Brahms better than Arthur Rubinstein. Period. Brahms is his mother tongue and compared with him, every other pianist, no matter how good, is speaking a second language in Brahms idiosyncratic keyboard style — the opposite of the natural pianism of, say, Chopin. But Rubinstein makes it flow and sing. 

He recorded it twice. The more recent, from 1959, is in better sound, so it is my first choice, but I have to put the 1949 version in as my second choice. There are many other good recordings of the sonata, but the only one which comes close to Rubinstein (that I have heard) is by Helene Grimaud. 

Ives Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860” 

England has a centuries-long tradition of eccentrics, but America, in contrast, has its crackpots. Charles Ives was one of them. 

He began writing his second piano sonata in 1904, but didn’t finish it until 1915. I use the word “finished” provisionally, because after it was published, in 1920, Ives continued fiddling with it, rewriting it and republishing it in 1947. It was not performed, in full, before a paying public until 1939. And each performance after was slightly different, partly because there are ad lib sections of the score, and partly because Ives kept jiggering with it. He said it was never meant to be finished, but always to be a work in progress. 

Oh, and it comes with a 120-page preface, called Essays Before a Sonata, in which he discusses not just the music, but the whole of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 19th century. 

Ives wrote the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”

The first movement, “Emerson,” is quite craggy, but there is humor in the following “Hawthorne,” and quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth, played after dinner on a parlor piano, in “Alcotts,” and finally a quiet, moody reflection of Nature, with a capital “N” in “Thoreau.” 

I got to hear Jeremy Denk play the Concord Sonata at Zankel Hall in New York, in a program that also included the “Hammerklavier.” Back to back in the same recital was more than impressive: It was like watching someone run a marathon in the morning and after lunch complete an iron man competition. It was exhausting. For a recording of the sonata, Denk is my man. 

But I also have a soft spot for a recording I have cherished for almost 50 years, first on vinyl and now on CD — Nina Deutsch in a Vox Box with a host of other Ives piano music. She brings a slightly softer edge to the Ives. And there is the original recording, made in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, who first championed the piece. 

 

Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, op. 83

Schubert had his final three sonatas; Brahms had his first three. Knucklebusters seem to like coming in threes. Serge Prokofiev wrote his group of three during World War II, and are hence often grouped as his “War Sonatas.” Each is a job-and-a-half to tackle, and any of them could be chosen to represent Prokofiev as a knucklebuster. But the one that has become popular is the Seventh, in the middle of the trio. 

The sonata is usually seen as a reflection on the war, but, like so much Soviet music of the time, it holds an unspoken reference to the terror under Stalin. Prokofiev was friends and working colleague with theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the NKVD in 1939. Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was stabbed 27 times in her apartment after Meyerhold’s arrest, also by the NKVD. Prokofiev (like Shostakovich) constantly feared they might come for him, also. He wrote a panegyric cantata “To the Glory of Stalin” for the dictator’s 60th birthday, in hopes to be left alone, but also wrote this piano sonata, in a more personal style, to maintain his self-respect. 

The first movement is a rough and tumble Allegro Inquieto. The second movement, Andante Caloroso, quotes a song by Robert Schumann, with lyrics that read, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well … everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song.” It is one of the most beautiful moments Prokofiev ever wrote.

That is all followed by the toccata-like finale, Precipitato, which explodes and doesn’t relent until the final pounding chords. It is an angry, propulsive moto perpetuo, with an obsessive repetition in the left hand of a figure in the odd time signature of ⅞. It beats and crashes over and over till audience and pianist are exhausted. 

I heard Maurizio Pollini play the Prokofiev Seventh in Los Angeles many years ago in another monumental program (which also included all the Chopin Preludes and ended with Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka). Pollini was great. 

But my first choice remains a dark horse: Barbara Nissman, on a disc with all three of the War Sonatas. Nissman makes the music less brutal, more musical, and I have loved this disc since I first got it in 1989. Nissman was the first pianist to record all the Prokofiev sonatas on CD. The first recording of the Seventh Sonata, by itself, was by Vladimir Horowitz, and it is still a show-off piece. And there is also a great recording by Pollini. 

Not on the list

These six pieces hardly exhaust the 19th century’s love of the big and difficult piano piece. I stuck with sonatas. I could have included Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, which could be considered a sonata. I could have included Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue, which could also pass as a sonata incognito. Or either of Serge Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas, which are clearly knucklebusters — but not so firmly established in the repertoire as the pieces I have chosen. Some will complain I didn’t include Alkan, but his music will probably never be generally popular. 

You may have your own candidates, either for compositions or performances. These are mine. 

I was watching TV tonight and had a momentous realization: It is not possible to go slumming anymore. 

When I was a younger man, it was possible to enjoy various lowbrow entertainments. Professional wrestling was fun, in small doses. There was Haystack Calhoun and Wahoo McDaniels. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, and you could watch them on the television between commercials for safety razors and beer. 

Or, as in college, an afternoon between classes could be spent with Ryan’s Hope or All My Children. There was no guilt attached to watching what we knew — what pretty much everyone knew — was empty and meaningless. But fun, in a mindless kind of way. 

You could sometimes go to the movies to watch junk, and enjoy it for its junkosity. You could read Sidney Sheldon at the beach or have a blast with the Monster Mash

To go slumming was not to look down on those involved. Far from it. In that part of American cultural history, before it all went meta, there was an acknowledgment of the differences between highbrow, lowbrow and even middlebrow, and people would gravitate to their respective level and there was no shame in that — not everyone needed to be the same, and it was just fine if you were a plumber, just as it was fine if you taught physics at Columbia (I had friends whose fathers did both). Society needed both. 

My own parents were solidly middlebrow (my mother read every Sidney Sheldon book as it came out) and I gravitated to a brow a few grades more rarified. That was my natural “specific gravity” and I sought it as naturally as a hatched sea turtle waddles to the ocean. 

It was a stratified culture, and aside from the haughty censure of a few snobs, that fact seemed both acceptable and, in fact, normal to most of us. 

But, as I was watching tonight, I recognized promos for TV shows that reveled in what one old-timer used to call “meatball culture” — that is, adolescent testosterone-inebriated arrested development stupidity. And I realized that all the brows had been swirled together into one agglomerated goo of meatballery. 

We’ve even added a drunken frat boy to the Supreme Court. 

I think I first noticed this change with the advent of Beavis and Butt-Head in 1993. Since then, the number of shows, cartoon and live-action, in which all the characters are slovenly and imbecilic has metastasized. 

If you compare it with The Simpsons, you can see the difference. The Simpsons is a well-populated series, with all levels of intelligence and aspiration accounted for. Homer may be a dunce (but good hearted), but Marge is solidly middle-class, Lisa is highbrow, Bart is lowbrow. Each has a place in the well-greased family dynamic. 

But, look at Bob’s Burgers now, where everyone is a marginal cretin. 

The Simpsons also was consistently witty, with sharp writing, social observation, character-driven gags. It was written by a gang of really smart people and meant to appeal to every level of society and education. 

Now, the general pitch level is for Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. How else do you explain the multi-season broadcasts of Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, The Masked Singer, Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, Drunk History, The Batchelor and Batchelorette, Love Island, The Kardashians, Cops, Pawn Stars, Judge Judy, Toddlers and Tiaras, Sister Wives, The Apprentice — You can continue the list. I haven’t the heart. 

To say nothing of so-called “Trash TV,” and the fist-fight, chair-throwing, bleep-rhythmed shows like those with Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, Geraldo. And all the other faux courts and dating shows. Low culture is now all culture.  

Quiz shows used to ask substantive questions (Jeopardy was the last to give in to pop-culture references, although it still asks many hard questions), but when we get to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, we get questions more akin to “What color dress did Adele wear to the 2020 Emmy awards?” 

And I shouldn’t have to mention that a professional wrestler has had his turn as governor of Minnesota, or that a reality TV star has occupied the White House. 

Our culture now sees no difference between Jackass and Jackson Pollock. Even academics now consider Duck Dynasty worthy of a Ph.D. thesis, while at the same time castigating Rilke as dreadfully elitist.

Film has become an endless assembly line of multiverse superheroes. I cannot begin to count the number of different Batman actors have put on the suit. Michael Bay sells tickets. Blow stuff up real good. 

Even classical music has been taken over by the so-called “historical performance practice” people, whose claim to be inspired by the way music used to be played when originally composed (which nobody really knows — it was centuries ago, before recordings), but to be honest, that is mere self-delusion. It is really the propulsive rhythmic drive of rock and roll that makes them rip through the classics. Beethoven à la speed metal. 

I believe that the rise of a universal meta has come to us partly because of this meatball culture. Brains come in various capacities, and just as some people are taller than others, some more athletic, some more talented, some people are more intelligent than others. We’ve made a horrible mistake in the past by ranking intelligence with value. Taller people are not “better” than short people. Brown eyes are not better than green. And we shouldn’t think that intelligence makes anyone better than anyone else. 

There have been some pretty horrible people in the world with tremendous IQs. 

But neither should we think that we are all the same, that one size fits all. Smarter people and those better educated (different from simple intelligence — plenty of really bright people never went to college) get more easily bored by simple entertainments. It is why highbrow culture exists — it is really just more complex material that keeps an intelligence engaged. 

And so, with the level of culture in general aiming lowbrow, the intelligent mind, on the edge of boredom without more nuanced material, looks for some way to occupy itself and spins wheels with invented complexity: theory, deconstruction, post-structuralism — all ways to make the simple seem more complicated, more rigorous and more worth our time and thought. 

And so, here come the graduate classes in “post-dynamic power relations in multiracial subtext in 21st century television comedy.” Not that something like that isn’t worth investigating, but rather that bored minds will go to great lengths to occupy their capacities. Great poetry, dance, symphonies, literature all used to do that. Now there is only Hillbilly Handfishin’ to feed on. 

Which brings me back to my original thought. It is now pretty close to impossible to merely sit back and enjoy a guilty pleasure. Slumming has become ironic. 

Anyone following this blog will recognize that I have begun a series of entries that I am calling my “alphabestiary.” I thought I might explain what I am doing. 

I am currently researching and writing the seventh entry in the series, a piece about Galileo Galilei. Such a thing takes a lot of time and effort — more than you might imagine. I am about two-thirds of the way through and trying to work out a knotty problem: how to explain his trial and confinement without getting boggled up in the minutiae of 17th century Roman Catholic doctrine and Vatican law. It’s daunting. 

And so, while I am working on the research and the de-clogging of that, I thought I might explain what brought all this on. 

Since I was given this blog on my retirement from The Arizona Republic in 2012 — given to me by my colleagues on my leaving — I have written nearly 700 entries, which means I have written almost as much in retirement as I did when working. (As I have often said, writers never really retire, they just stop getting paid for it.) It’s an addiction. If you are a writer, you write just in the same way as how you breathe. You can’t stop or you die. 

And it’s not that I have run out of subjects to write about, but after 688 blog essays (this is No. 689), I sometimes have to program a plan for coming up with new pieces if one doesn’t present itself automatically. And so, I have started the occasional alphabestiary piece. 

The idea came to me after reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a hefty book from 2007 in which James writes about historical and literary figures and arranges the biographies in alphabetical order. He covers 106 figures in the 876-page book, which is subtitled: “Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.” 

James, for anyone who is unfamiliar, was an Australian-born London-based essayist, poet, TV-presenter and critic who was a ubiquitous public intellectual in England until his death in 2019. His style was distinct, breezy, witty and with many a clever turn of phrase (“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,” he wrote about writing). 

The essays in Cultural Amnesia each come in two parts: The first is fairly straight-forward potted biography, then, separated by a quote from the first part, comes an essay by James about something suggested by the biography. It might be only tangentially related, but writing about whichever person has tickled his imagination to find a buried connection. 

I liked this plan a lot. I’ve read great wads of James, his TV criticism (which first brought him fame), his poetry (which is surprisingly good, even if most of it rhymes), his critical and political essays, and even when I might disagree with him, he is always an absolute pleasure to read. 

And so, I stole a bit of his idea and modified it. If I have a momentary lapse in inspiration for the blog, I move to a new letter of the alphabet and find myself a subject. Inspiration, after all, doesn’t come from angels tapping you on the noggin with a magic wand — it comes from typing. Get started and the daimon swoops in unnoticed to guide your fingers on the keyboard. Inspiration is the doing, not the waiting. 

In my version, I planned a single subject per alphabet letter, not the multiples that James has in his book. And I thought, to make it just a bit more interesting for me, let’s only choose names where the first and surnames begin with the same letter. AA, BB, CC, etc. 

And so, I began with Ansel Adams, followed with Betty Boop, Caryl Chessman, 

Denis Diderot, Edward Elgar and Federico Fellini. And I am now hard at work on Galileo Galilei. It should pop out sometime in the next week. 

And so, chug, chug, the old writer keeps on moving forward, unable to stop. 

As a kind of footnote, I thought I should append a list, to show just how variable the alphabet is in spitting up potential subjects. Some letters are filthy with choice, others are deserts. And while you might guess that finding an “X” could be somewhat rare, it still surprised me, making up my list of potentials, that while there are many, many “M” names, there are surprisingly few “N” possibles. 

I made my list from a passel of sources. No one place online had all I needed. I searched “alliterative names” and found some, but I must have waded through a dozen sites to compile my list, which, to be honest, includes quite a few names I had never heard of — and you probably haven’t either. 

I thought you might find the list entertaining, in that way lists can be. And if you can help me out by adding some I’ve missed, by all means, add them in the comment section. You may save me from having to write an essay about Qozidavlat Qoimdodov (yes, he’s real). 

And so, here is my listilicious roster of names. Help me add to them. 

Ansel Adams, Amy Adams, Abigail Adams, Andre Agassi, Alan Alda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Aziz Ansari, Adam Ant, Alan Arkin, Arthur Ashe, Amedeo Avogadro 

B

Barbi Benton, Barry Bonds, Betty Boop, Brian Blessed, Backstreet Boys, Bilbo Baggins, Brigitte Bardot, Bob Barker, Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, Ben Bernanke, Bernardo Bertolucci, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Bixby, Ben Bradlee, Bill Bradley, Benjamin Bratt, Bugs Bunny, Billy Burke, Barbara Bush  

C

Caryl Chessman, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chan, Christopher Columbus, Calvin Coolidge, Carlos Castaneda, Coco Chanel, Carol Channing, Cesar Chavez, Chris Christie, Charlotte Church, Cassius Clay, Chelsea Clinton, Claudette Colbert, Charles Colson, Courteney Cox, Cindy Crawford  

D

Denis Diderot, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day, Dana Delany, Don DeLillo, Drea De Matteo, Dorothea Dix, Dr. Demento, Don Draper, David Duchovny, Daisy Duke 

E

Edward Elgar, Emilio Estevez, Eddie Edwards, Eddie the Eagle, Erik Estrada

F

Federico Fellini, Francisco Franco, Faith Ford, Farrah Fawcett, Freddy Fender, Fionnula Flanagan, Fannie Flagg, Frances Farmer, Felix Frankfurter, Fyvush Finkel, Fannie Farmer, Frankie Frisch 

G

Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Grace Gummer, Galileo Galilei, George Gershwin, Gal Gadot, George Gallup, Gabrielle Giffords, Gilbert Gottfried, Graham Greene, Germaine Greer, George Gobel 

H

Harry Houdini, Humbert Humbert, Helen Hayes, Harriet Hosmer, Howard Hawks, Hugh Hefner, Henry Heimlich, Henry Hudson, Heinrich Himmler, Hulk Hogan, Hal Holbrook, Herbert Hoover, Howard Hughes, Hubert Humphrey, Holly Hunter, Helen Hunt, Heinrich Heine

I

Itziar Ituño, Ivan Illich, Ilya Ivanov, Ilya Ivashka, Ivan Ilyin 

J

Jim Jarmusch, James Joyce, Janis Joplin, Janet Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Jesse James, John Jay, Jasper Johns, James Earl Jones, January Jones, Jennifer Jones, Jim Jones 

K

Kim Kardashian, King Kong, Kevin Kline, Killer Kowalski, Kato Kaelin, Khloe Kardashian, Ken Kesey, Klaus Kinski, Kunta Kinte, Keira Knightley, Kris Kringle, Kublai Khan 

L

Lois Lane, Linda Lovelace, Louis L’Amour, Lucy Lawless, Lucille Le Seuer, Lee Liberace, Laura Linney, Lucy Liu, Lara Logan, Lindsay Lohan, Lyle Lovett, Lucky Luciano, Louis Lumiere, Loretta Lynn, Loretta Lynch 

M

Marilyn Monroe, Mercedes McCambridge, Malcolm McDowell, Mad Max, Mary Magdalene, Moses Maimonides, Marilyn Manson, Mickey Mantle, Meghan Markle, Marky Mark, Mary Martin, Melissa McCarthy, Matthew McConaughey, Mitch McConnell, Mark McGwire, Margaret Mead, Mickey Mouse, Martin Milner, Mini-Me, Margaret Mitchell, Maria Montessori, Mandy Moore, Marianne Moore, Mary Tyler Moor, Michael Moore, Marion Morrison, Mike Myers, Michelangelo Merisi

N

Nick Nolte, Nichelle Nichols, Natalya Neidhart, Nigel Ng, Niecy Nash, Natti Natasha, Nazriya Nazim, Nicephore Niepce, Nell Newman 

O

Ozzy Osbourne, Olive Oyl, Oona O’Neill, Olive Oatman, Olusegun Obasanjo, Olivia O’Brien, Özge Özpirinçci, Olivia Olson, Oliver Onions, Olivia Ong, Olga Ostroumova  

P

Pablo Picasso, Parker Posey, Pete Postlethwaite, Pauley Perrette, Peter Parker, Pawel Pawlikowski, Peter Pan, Pink Panther, Pol Pot, Pope Pius IX, Paula Poundstone, Prince Philip, Punxsutawney Phil  

Q

Qin Qin, Qu Qiubai, Qi Qi, Qozidavilat Qoimdodov 

R

Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers, Ricky Ricardo, Robert Redford, Ralph Reed, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Rice, Robert Ripley, Richard Rodgers, Robert Rodriguez, Ray Romano, Rebecca Romijn, Ruby Rose, Rosie Ruiz, Rene Russo 

S

Steven Spielberg, Susan Sarandon, Simone Signoret, Sissy Spacek, Sylvester Stallone, Sam Shepard, Sheryl Sandberg, Stephanie Seymour, Sidney Sheldon, Sarah Silverman, Shel Silverstein, Sirhan Sirhan, Severus Snape, Steven Soderbergh, Suzanne Somers, Stephen Sondheim, Sonia Sotomayor, Sam Spade, Splendid Splinter, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sri Srinivasan, Saint Sebastian, Sharon Stone, Sutan of Swat  

T

Tina Turner, Ted Turner, Tiny Tim, Terry Thomas, Tim Tebow, Tiffany Trump  

U

Umit Ulgen, Usha Uthup, Udo Ulfkotte, Ugyen Ugyen  

V

Vince Vaughn, Vivian Vance, Vincent Van Gogh, Vidya Vox, Victor Valdes, Val Valentino, Virginia Vallejo, Ville Valo, Victoria Vetri, Victor Vasarely, Violetta Villas, Vito Volterra, Violette Verdy, Via Vallen, Vanessa Vadim 

W

William Wyler, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Wilson, William Wallace, Wil Wheaton, Walter White, Wicked Witch of the West, Wendy Williams, William Carlos Williams, Willy Wonka  

X

Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl, Xuxa, Xu Xin, Xie Xinfang, Xia Xuanze 

Y

Yo-Yo Ma, Yoo Yeon-seok, Yukio Yamaji, Yelena Yemchuk, Yu Yamada, Yakov Yurovsky, Yang Yang, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Yeo Yann Yann, Yohji Yamamoto, Yordan Yovkov, Yan Yuan 

Z

Zhang Ziyi, Zinedine Zidane 

— So, there you have it: Homo Ludens playing with names to keep the brain sharp and engaged. 

Translation is a funky thing. You can try to be literal and lose all the flavor, or you can try to find equivalent idiomatic expressions, or you can recast the whole thing, as if you were writing an original from a similar inspiration — your own words for a similar thought. 

And unless you are brought up bilingual so that you are completely comfortable in both languages, you will always be working from a disadvantage. You can work from crib notes, or take a literal translation and recast it. Many writers these days do something of the sort. Ezra Pound did not read Chinese, but that didn’t stop him from translating Chinese poetry. Scholars may quibble with the results (or laugh outright), but the versions Pound printed are good poetry, whether or not they are good translations. 

Would I rather read a poet’s regeneration or a scholar’s word-for-word? The answer is both. When it comes to poetry in languages I do not read, I’d rather have multiple versions to absorb and take in all the angles to arrive at something triangulated. 

There are languages I have some familiarity with and so, I can usually read Pablo Neruda straight from the trough. And in French or German, I have some dealings with the originals, although I do not speak the languages with anything like fluency. I can read a French newspaper, but cannot always make out the spoken version. (Luckily, when in France, I have learned you don’t really need the fineries of grammar. You can speak French pretty usefully even with no verbs at all. You go to the patisserie and when it is your turn, you just say, “Deux croissants, s’il vous plait,” and you get what you want. No one before you on line has used a verb, either.)

And so, I have come to translate some poetry for myself, from German, from French or Spanish (even an occasional Latin poem), and mostly in self-defense. 

I say “self-defense” because most of the translations I’ve been subjected to sound like musty old Victorian twaddle. The translators seem to love archaic word forms and odd word orders — as if written by Yoda they were. 

Such things offend my ear. 

It’s not that I want them to be prose, but the secret of poetry is in the metaphor and the clever turn of phrase, not in the conventional language of old poetry forms. Take the first two lines of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s Rundgesang. In German:

O Mensch! Gib acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?

Which could be translated, word for word, as:

“O men! Give attention! What says the deep midnight?”

Traditional translations usually go something like:

“O Man! Take heed! What saith deep midnight’s voice indeed?”

or:

“O Man! Attend! What does deep midnight’s voice contend?”

There is the problem with the original. “O Man!” is poetic cliche. It has to go. I suppose you could turn it into idiomatic English as “Hey, y’all, listen up,” but that would be a crime in a different direction. 

If I were to translate this bit, I would just leave off the unnecessary parts and rewrite it as: “It calls to us in the dark. It is deep midnight and the hour speaks:” This sets up a light/dark dichotomy that pays off later in the piece. 

Too many translations, especially of classic Greek or Latin literature are written in this fusty, worn out poeticized and conventional twaddle. It’s amazing anyone waded through the Iliad in the 19th century. Homer’s actual style was immediate and direct. 

Imagine if Robert Frost had written: “Two paths in twain divided were; traverse we may but one.” Who would now bother with it? It is Circe turning men into pigs. 

In other words, I have no issue with completely recasting the originals to make modern, idiomatic sense in a language that I hope remains poetic but without the equipage of outworn convention. 

A stunning example of this approach is Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, beautiful translations of several bits from The Metamorphoses. In Hughes’ style the stories move quickly and smartly and you turn the pages as in a best-seller. One only wishes Hughes had completed the whole thing, instead of mere sniglets. 

In this way, I have translated (or rewritten, if you hesitate) a good bit of German lieder. So much of it is hyperventilated Romantic sludge, which speaks to the early 19th Century of a generation that was weaned on Young Werther, and undoubtedly expressed the genuine feelings of those who lived through it, but now seem unrealistic and kitschy. 

Yet, there are real things being said and expressed in the poetry of Müller, Hölderlein or Eichendorff. It comes through like a buzz saw in the music of Schubert or Schumann, where the music has an authenticity that the verse sometimes lacks. 

I have tackled whole swaths of lieder verse, including a translation of all of the Winterreise. I found I could be a bit more faithful near the beginning of the cycle, but the deeper in, the more I had to rethink the verse. 

Take the first song, Gute Nacht. The text takes care of itself. A simple translation of the first stanza would be:

But, 24 songs later, the text of Der Leiermann, about a hurdy-gurdy man, is too bland without the devastating music Schubert provides (one of the most desolate and despairing bits of music ever penned), and so I’ve written my variation on it, to stand without the music:

Just this week, I started another project, translating four of the texts that Gustav Mahler set. I have arranged them into a set that belongs together, in four “movements,” rather like a symphony, meant to be taken as a single whole. 

I am offering them here as my apology for the type of translation I most appreciate — at least when others my better do it. 

The main benefit of doing such work (since I have no plans or hope ever to publish my translations — they are simply for the pleasure and knowledge I get from them — is that they force me to pay attention to the poetry and to the words. 

We can read through poetry much as we may distractedly hum a favorite tune. But good poetry offers much more, and forcing yourself to go through it word by word, can help you uncover much more. Translating forces concentration. 

And so, I read the German for its sound, parse individual words for their various meanings (for no word in any language has but one simple meaning), read various translations to compare how others have understood the words, reassemble them in my own English and then revise, over and over, until I get something that sounds good to me and — more importantly — makes sense. 

I have to admit that I generally like my own translations better than the ones packaged with the CD as the libretti or lyrics. But that is likely because they match my own particular esthetic — they are tailor made for my ear. Your ear may resonate to a different frequency. 

And so, the first “movement” of my Mahler word-symphony comes from the second of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, words originally written by the composer himself. The main melody of the song became the first theme of his Symphony No. 1. 

The second movement is Mahler’s own crib of Zarathustra’s Rundgesang, or “Zarathustra’s Midnight Song,” as the composer has it. All four of the texts I have translated focus on the twin but opposite facts that life is suffering but also it is joy. 

Third, there is heartbreaking and rueful song by Friedrich Rückert, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, set by Mahler first for voice and piano, but later orchestrated and part of his Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (“Seven songs of Latter Days”). It is surely one of his greatest songs, and can hardly be heard or sung without feeling it was written directly with you in mind. 

Finally, there is Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“Songs of the Earth”). In it, Mahler has pieced together two Chinese poems of dubious provenance (themselves translated or rewritten, or perhaps invented in French and German) purportedly by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with three lines added at the end, written by Mahler himself. Der Abschied is Mahler’s summa, and at 30 minutes, is as long as the previous five movements combined. And it ends with the quiet reiteration, over and over, in dying voice, “Ewig… ewig…” (“forever… forever…”) finally so in performance you can never quite tell when it ends, the final “Ewig” as quiet as the silence that follows. 

In the end, I recommend to everyone that they attempt to translate a poem from a different language. Take a Baudelaire, for instance, or a Neruda (avoid Rilke like the plague, unless you wish to end in an asylum), and parse it through, word by word. Read it out loud in the original language to hear the music of it (yes, your French may not be as liquid as the original) and read various translations to see how differently the words are construed. Then arrange a version of your own.

In the end, you will have internalized the poetry and it will never again be a stranger to you. 

It’s completely meaningless to rate art. Is Picasso greater than Rembrandt? Beethoven than Mozart? Is Beethoven’s Fifth better than Beethoven’s Eroica? Pointless.

But there is a different question: faves. It’s possible to have favorites without making claims to supremacy. We all have them. Yes, they shift over the years: The older me appreciates different art and appreciates it in different ways than the young me did. But even day-to-day the favorites may change. Often my favorite symphony is the one I’m listening to at the moment. 

Still, Top Ten lists will be made. Or Top Five, or Top 100. There’s no hope for it. It’s instinctive, built into our DNA. And so, I’ve put together my list of my Top Dozen  favorite works of art — a baker’s dozen. Your mileage may vary. (For the ultimate list of lists, link here). 

And so, here are my favorites, listed by genre. I’ve tried to narrow my choices to art I have experienced in person — paintings I have actually seen, dances I have attended, books I have read. Book reproductions or sound recordings don’t count. I have a lifetime of art-going and concert-attending, and so I may have access to more than the average bear. But I am well aware that there’s a whole lot more that I haven’t seen. 

And by favorite, I don’t just mean something I like, but rather, something that has wormed into my very being and become a part of who I am, so that encountering it can explain to others a bit of who I am. It has been grafted into my personality. 

This list is entirely personal, flexible and apologetically incomplete. Ask me again tomorrow and this could be a very different list. 

Painting: None of these choices changes more often than painting. today’s favorite fades with tomorrow’s. I’ve simply come to love too many paintings to have a single choice. But today, I will go with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. It was a painting I had wanted to see for years, and then got my chance when the Museum of Modern Art held a Pollock retrospective in 1998 and the elusive work was borrowed back from Australia, where it had sat for decades, out of the reach of us Northern Hemisphere shut-ins. Its appeal came from its elusiveness, for sure, but also for its unique place in Pollock’s catalog — more than just paint squiggles, it had the structure of the bars across its surface. I loved it in reproduction, but it bowled me over in person. 

Alternate takes: Picasso’s Guernica; John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark

Sculpture: I grew up visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as often as I could. I loved the place — and I mean loved. And deep in its bowels resided the giant Olmec head, chiseled from basalt (actually, the one in New York is a plaster copy, but I didn’t know that when I was 10 years old and rapt in wonder). In the darkened hall of the museum, the head seemed immense and the original weighs 20 tons. It impressed me no end and to this day, it is my favorite sculpture. No doubt there is other, more important sculpture elsewhere, but I have not been to Rome or Egypt to see them. I have spent considerable time in the Louvre in Paris and have several faves there, such as the Three Graces or the Winged Victory, but none has stuck in my psyche with quite the force of the Olmec head. 

Alternate takes: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais; Louvre’s Three Graces

Architecture: As architecture critic for The Arizona Republic, I got to visit a lot of buildings, including most of the Frank Lloyd Wright sites in the U.S. (Wright was a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Ariz.) I was blown away by Taliesin in Wisconsin and his studio in Oak Park, Ill. But the building that struck me as most beautiful was Falling Water in Pennsylvania. Everything you have ever heard about it is true — about its siting in the woods over the waterfall; about how its interior is micromanaged by Wright’s designs; and (I’m one of the few who have been given access to this) the pathetic orphan of a bathroom hidden in the basement. Wright really didn’t like having to deal with kitchens or bathrooms. 

Alternate takes: Chartres cathedral; George Washington Bridge

Orchestral music: this is the hardest category for me because I have so much music bottled up in the ol’ storage batteries, and faves change not only day to day, but hour to hour. But I studied Mozart’s Symphony in G-minor, K. 550, score in hand, for most of an entire semester in college and it is drilled into my memory so that I can hear the whole thing in my head, from beginning to end, even without the score. If ever a piece of music felt like home to me, it is Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Dissecting it has given me an approach to all other classical music. 

Alternate takes: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Choral music: I’m not a religious man, and neither was Johannes Brahms, so his German Requiem can console my most grief-stricken moments in a way more devout music cannot. More than any other music, I go to the Deutsches Requiem for consolation and peace. Each year, on the anniversary of the death of my wife, I drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, find a quiet forest road and park and listen to my Brahms and weep for my loss and for the loss all humankind must suffer. 

Alternate takes: Haydn’s Creation; Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil

Chamber music: I want so much to claim Schubert’s C-major String Quintet, for it is the deepest, most emotionally moving piece of chamber music in the repertoire. Yet, I cannot, as long as there is Schubert’s competing “Trout” Quintet, which must be the most ebullient, life-affirming piece of music ever written. One cannot come away from it not feeling — despite all the sorrows of the world — that life is pure joy. It is no end of astonishment for me that Schubert wrote both. 

Alternate takes: Brahms Clarinet Quintet; Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 

Opera: Mozart’s most subversive opera wasn’t The Marriage of Figaro, which was often banned for making fun of the aristocracy, but rather Don Giovanni, with its lusty chorus of “Viva la libertad” and its turning topsy-turvy the villain-hero model. The Don is the life force embodied, for good and bad, and when he is threatened with hell, he laughs and refuses to recant, choosing damnation over hypocrisy. Its first act is the most completely flawless in all of opera history and despite the phony ending usually tacked-on to the second act, a model of moral complexity. 

Alternate takes: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier 

Dance: Of all the artforms, dance moves me the most. And I was extremely lucky, because when I became dance critic, Ballet Arizona was taken over by Ib Andersen, former star dancer for George Balanchine and brilliant choreographer himself. He staged many Balanchine ballets and I was hooked. I have now seen Balanchine’s Apollo four times, once by the New York City Ballet in Paris, and I cannot watch it now without welling up with emotion. I love dance and Apollo stands in for all of it. 

Alternate takes: Ib Andersen’s choreography for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Frances Smith Cohen’s choreography for Center Dance Ensemble’s Rite of Spring

Theater: Bad theater, or worse, mediocre theater can give the impression that live drama is hopelessly, well, theatrical. You know: dinner theater. But when it is done well, there is nothing that can match it, a lesson I learned by seeing the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’ve now seen it — both parts together — four times and it destroys me every time. In great theater, you soon forget all the artifice and everything becomes immediate and real. Movies are great, but they can’t match the breathing now-ness of live theater. 

Alternate takes: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus

Film: There are films that are exciting, films that are visually beautiful, that are clever, that are cultural barometers, and there are films that are wise. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu has informed my own life more than any other film I’ve seen. How can you beat Octave’s observation: “The terrible thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” I will watch Rules of the Game over and over for the rest of my life. It is cinematic comfort food. 

Alternative takes: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev; Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal

Novel: Most books, you read once. If it’s a mystery, you have the killer caught; if it’s a Victorian saga, you get the heroine married. But some books you can read over and over and get intense pleasure from the language used and the perspective offered. For me, that book is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I don’t always read the whole thing from beginning to end, but I bet I’ve read the first chapter, at least, a hundred times. Melville’s language has seeped into my own writing more than any other (for good or ill). 

Alternative takes: James Joyce’s Ulysses; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

Poetry: I read a lot of poetry, mostly modern and contemporary, but the poem I go back to over and over, read out loud for the sound the words make in my mouth, proselytize to others and keep in my heart is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Trouthe. The antique language isn’t so hard, once you get used to it — sort of like listening to a working class Mancunian accent, or a Yorkshireman gabble — and once you’ve caught the knack of it, it’s like any other English. God, I love that poem. “The wrastling for the worlde axeth a fal.” 

Alternative takes: Eliot’s Four Quartets; Pablo Neruda’s Odas Elementales

And the Number One, hors compétition and sans genre, is: 

The north rose window, Chartres cathedral. As I have written many times, the north rose window is the single most beautiful human-made object I have ever seen. I am in awe of it. Reproduction cannot give you a sense of its glowing color and implied motion — it virtually spins (and I mean virtually literally). I can sit in its presence for an hour at a time. 

Again, I am not making the claim that these are all the greatest works, although they may be, but that they, more than their compeers, have buried their way into my innermost being, where they reside as a permanent part of my unconscious. They are who I am. 

Federico Fellini is unquestionably one of the greatest of all filmmakers. He is on everyone’s list. He won five Oscars, was nominated for a total of 17 of them. Heck, he was nominated twice before he even made his first film (as screenwriter for two Rossellini films). He made two of the movies on my own 10-Best list.

His 1954 film, La Strada, changed my idea of what movies could be. When I was growing up, the movies I saw, mostly on TV, were filled with car chases and gunfights. Movies were an entertainment. But, in my college film series, I saw La Strada and realized, for the first time, that film could be about real things, and that they could leave me weeping. The final scene with the brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn) on the beach, wailing for what he knew he had lost, left me drained. 

And La Strada isn’t even one of the two Fellini films on my 10-Best. 

There are only a few film directors who have words added to the dictionary defining their style, but we all know what “Fellini-esque” means: an almost surreal grotesquerie tied to a very personal sense of human psychology. There are other great filmmakers, but there is no “Scorsese-esque,” no “Renoir-esque,” although these directors, too, had a personal style. Only two directors have joined the dictionary, with “Fellini-esque” and “Bergmanesque.” The two directors couldn’t be more different, but their styles are each identifiable, even when another filmmaker uses them. 

So, Fellini’s is a distinct and individual voice. Yet, the arc of his career is also distinct, and not toward ever greater or more profound films. It is a career with an upward start, a middle as high as it gets, and then a slacking as he declined. What is interesting is that it is that the cause for both up and down is the same: Fellini being Fellini. 

Federico Domenico Marcello Fellini was born in 1920, two years before Mussolini’s rise to power, in the Adriatic city of Rimini. His father was a salesman and hoped his son would rise to be a lawyer. And although he enrolled in law school, Fellini’s biographers says that “there is no record of his ever having attended a class.” Instead, he dropped out to become a cartoonist and caricaturist, and he wrote for several satirical magazines. 

He expanded to writing gags for radio shows and managed to avoid the Italian draft during the early years of World War II. He also met his wife and muse, radio actor Giulietta Masina (they remained married from 1943 to his death in 1993). 

His work in radio brought him to the attention of Neo-Realist film pioneer Roberto Rossellini, who hired him to work on the script of Rome, Open City (1945) and later, Paisan (1946). Both efforts won him Academy Award nominations. 

In 1950, he got to direct his first film, Variety Lights, followed the next year with The White Sheik, two low-budget comedies of middling success and reputation. But then, in 1952, he got to make the first genuine Fellini movie, I Vitelloni (“The Young Bulls”, or, idiomatically, “The Layabouts”), an autobiographical Neo-Realist film about his own teen years in Rimini, which won him a fourth Oscar nomination for screenplay. (The film wasn’t released in America until after the success of La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, — both Oscar winners for Best Foreign Language Film — hence, the later nomination.)

These three early masterpieces — I Vitelloni, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria — all have their roots in Italian Neo-Realism, although with Fellini’s particular stamp of both humor and grotesquerie. There is no confusing them with films by Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. While each of Fellini’s first great films concern themselves with social conditions, poverty and the Post-War problems, they are really more concerned with individuals. Fellini was never overtly political. 

Fellini had, by 1957, been nominated for six Academy Awards and won two. But they could not have foretold what came next. Arguably his greatest film, La Dolce Vita, was also his greatest box office success. 

The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us nine days and eight nights in the life of tabloid celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums.

“Rarely, if ever, has a picture reflected decadence, immorality and sophistication with such depth,” Box Office magazine said when the film was released. Rather than a plot, the film is a collection of episodes as our hero recognizes the emptiness of his life, decides to do something about it, and ultimately, cannot. The final scene with Mastroianni on the beach, shrugging at the girl across the way as a sign of giving up, is one of the most heartbreaking ever shot on film. 

Fellini structured the film in a series of climactic nights each followed by a dissolving dawn. In each of the nighttime episodes, Marcello faces one of his demons — although he doesn’t recognize them as such. Each night rises to a crux, a point that might waken Marcello to the aimlessness of his life, and at each sunrise, there comes not a culmination, but a dissipation of the situation — all its air is let out.

La Dolce Vita occupies a pivotal point in the career of Fellini, between the early Neo-Realist films, such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, and his later, sometimes visionary films. In La Dolce Vita, there is a balance between the sense of external reality — Italy’s boom economy in the decade after World War II, and its forgotten underclass — and the purely subjective sense of individual psychological crisis. 

In his next film, the crisis becomes personal: Otto e Mezzo or “8½” is about a filmmaker who can’t figure out what to do next. It begins with one of Fellini’s most visionary scenes: The filmmaker (again played by Mastroianni) is stuck in his car and imagines being trapped, then floats away above the car, held only by a kite-string attached to his ankle. As an opening scene, it would be hard to match, let alone beat. Through the rest of the film, he attempts to avoid his responsibility, to his producer, to his wife, to his mistress, to his crew, to his financial backers, to his fans. He imagines committing suicide, and in the end, in one of the most enigmatic and memorable scenes ever, joins a dance to the circus music of Nino Rota. As a concluding scene, it would be hard to match, let alone beat. 

What does that scene mean? We all have our own solutions. I tend to see it as the same message that Krishna gave to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, that the end or the meaning isn’t the point. The doing is. Joining in life is the point of life. Or as writer Joseph Campbell once phrased it, “the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” 

Whatever you decide about the ending, it is clear that these two films, together, are among the highest points of film art, at the same time, clever, funny, moving, heartbreaking, hugely cinematic and visual, and ultimately, wise. 

There are grotesque scenes in La Dolce Vita and Otto e Mezzo, but they are just part of the mix. In some of his later films, such as Roma or Fellini Satyricon, the grotesque predominates. But at the midpoint of his career, in his two best films, he balances the real and the freakish like a saint balancing heaven and hell.

Then, Fellini discovered Carl Jung, read the psychiatrist’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, began visiting a psychoanalyst, experimented with LSD, and became fascinated with dreams, archetypes, spirits and the unconscious. He famously defined a movie as “a dream we dreamt with our eyes open.” Jung is a dangerous thing put in the hands of an artist with no governor on his engine. 

Fellini made Juliet of the Spirits in 1963, about a repressed housewife (Masina) entering a world of debauchery, visions, memories, and mysticism to find herself. It was Fellini’s first full-length color film, and uses what one critic called “caricatural types and dream situations to represent a psychic landscape.”

As critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie is generally considered to mark the beginning of Fellini’s decline.” 

And three of the next four of Fellini’s major films are given over to grotesquerie, hallucination and oneiric excess: Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini’s Roma (1972), and Fellini’s Casanova (1976). The fact that the director’s name is attached to these three titles should tell you something. There is nothing historical or documentary about them: They are exudations of the filmmaker’s fevered brain.

Satyricon is the best of the three films, and actually captures rather accurately the spirit of Petronius’ First Century tale of Nero’s Rome. Although Fellini invented most of the episodes, they capture the tone of the picaresque original pretty well. 

Satyricon, Roma and Casanova all prominently feature parades of caricatural grotesques, people buried under exaggerated make up and hairdos, rather like some of the more peculiar drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. 

Even if they don’t succeed as whole works of art, each is stuffed like a cannolo with brilliant imagery, unforgettable moments. It is as if he was more concerned with the moment-by-moment, than the story coherence — the way a dream moves. “Don’t tell me what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t want to know.” 

If La Dolce Vita and were satires on modern mores, the later films pass beyond satire to a rather personal misanthropy dredged up from his unconscious. 

There was one very bright and beautiful exception, though, a final grace note to his career — the 1973 film, Amarcord, which is a comic, forgiving and joyful reminiscence of Fellini’s childhood in Rimini. In 1953, his I Vitelloni explained why the young Fellini desperately wanted to escape his provincial hometown; twenty years later, he felt the need to show what he had lost by leaving. Everything that he was bitterly satirical about in his earlier films becomes the very human qualities of his dramatis personae in Amarcord. It is a gentle, affectionate, humane account of human folly, and the easiest of all of Fellini’s films to love. 

He made a handful of films after that, but none catches fire. There was Ginger and Fred (1986) and, more dubiously, City of Women (1980) in which Fellini, as his frequent alter ego Marcello Mastroianni, attempts to deal with his fear of, and lack of understanding of — women. 

Fellini made his last film, The Voice of the Moon, in 1990, and died of a heart attack in 1993, a day after his 50th wedding anniversary, and just a few months after receiving his Oscar for lifetime achievement. 

As is so often the case, Fellini’s best and worst were manifestations of the same thing — his ability and his need to put himself into his films. As he once said, “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.” It gave him the secret of breaking out of the Neo-Realist mold and find his own way, but it also let him wander off into a sometimes almost solipsistic dream world of images and obsessions. When focused, as in La Dolce Vita and , he was one of the three or four greatest filmmakers of all, and even when he was noodling in fevered Fellini-Land, still provided indelible visions and emotions. There was no one like Federico Fellini.

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We are not in control of our memories. 

One doesn’t own one’s memories. 

One is owned by them.

—Federico Fellini

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I used to have long discussions with friend and colleague Sal Caputo, who was pop music critic for the newspaper I worked for. Sal — or Salvatore — was as Italian in ancestry as I was Norwegian. And it played out in our conversations. Sal was always intense and expressive, and sometimes prone to anger and moods. He took things personally when I didn’t — I always remembered the line from Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game: “The terrible thing about life is that everyone has their reasons.” I.e., it isn’t personal. 

Searching the Internet for Sal, I could only find a couple of mug shots

Anyway, we once had a talk about movies and our varying takes on Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. It wasn’t about which was the better filmmaker, but about how we internalized the films. We both appreciated both directors. But there was a difference.

The difference was almost comic. Consider the ways each director portrayed clowns. In , they play Nino Rota’s music and point the way to salvation for our lost Marcello; in Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, well, you get the picture.

 I loved Fellini’s films and could appreciate both the filmmaking craft that went into them, and also the humanistic concerns of the director. Fellini rates very high on my list of movie directors. Top three or four. But somehow, I always feel as if I’m watching him from the outside. In contrast, when I see a Bergman film, it is in the blood — I know this world from the bones out. It is a world I didn’t just see, but lived. 

And for Sal, it was quite the opposite: Fellini felt to him like home, like everything he knew and felt in the fibers of his nervous system. 

In Bergman, all the action is internal; his characters are all suffering midnights of the soul. Their torture is self-imposed.

While Fellini’s people have trouble with other people, with society, with Catholicism, with Fascism, with their wives.

Bergman’s people sit silently, brooding. Fellini has hardly a photo of himself without his hands waving in the air, expostulating. 

This sense of recognition in the films, different for Sal and for me, has always made me wonder if there is something genetic about national difference. All the Squareheads I know feel Bergmanesque and all the Italians seem to feel Fellini-esque. This may just as easily have grown out of cultural familiarity as from DNA, and I’m not sure its origin makes a difference. 

I’m cheating a little with these images — not all German painting is so dour, or Italian so extravagant — but only to make a point. But there are national and regional styles, psychologies, approaches and techniques that show up across the arts. German painting is instantly told apart from Italian painting. French music from Viennese. Russians have their novels; Italians their opera; Iberians their fado and zarzuealas.

You can hear six bars of Elgar, Holst or Vaughn Williams and you know they are English. 

This has been recognized for centuries. In Baroque music, national styles were standard descriptions, as Bach’s French Suites or his Italian Concerto, or his Overture in the French Style. And you could never confuse Telemann’s music for Vivaldi’s or either for Couperin’s. 

(In deliberately oversimplified terms, German music emphasizes harmony and counterpoint; Italian music emphasizes melody and singing; French music emphasizes timbre and ornament.) 

And there does seem to be a generalized North-South axis. If you compare the Gothic cathedrals of northern France with those of Italy, you see a spare austere style, even with all the statuary, and in Italy or Spain, a kind of Plateresque extravagance. 

In the European south, expression seems to be extrovert and unrepressed; in the north, introvert and brooded over. It would be wrong to say that Italians are more emotional than Scandinavians. But in the north, the emotions are directed at themselves, whereas in the south, they are almost theatrical. 

So far, I’m using European examples, but this national or folk identity is global. Chinese art is instantly identifiable. And except for those examples of conscious imitation, Japanese art is very different. Hindu sculpture on the Indian subcontinent is easily told from Buddhist sculpture in Southeast Asia. 

Nor, in Africa, could you confuse a Benin bronze with a Fang mask or a Kota reliquary figure. 

These differences are not merely stylistic, but grow from very different world views and historical experience. There is a world of difference between the Tlingit of the rainy Northwest Coast of North America and the Navajo of the desert Southwest. 

Many years ago, I was first made aware of this kind of difference when I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina and discovered a culture radically alien to the one I was brought up in. It was agrarian rather than suburban; it held a tremendous grudge from the previous century that had not made a twinkle of a dent in my Northern psyche. It had a sense of history tied to the land, whereas I grew up in a world of second- and third-generation immigrants. These kinds of cultural differences make their way into the art, whether it is the difference between Hemingway and Faulkner, or between Fellini and Bergman.

It may be only a metaphorical expression, but it is profound: It is in the blood. 

I got a call from Stuart last night. We don’t see each other in person as much as we used to, partly because of the virus, but mostly because we are old and long drives or flights are really hard on the knees. 

“I read your piece on threes,” he said (link here), “and I had a realization. In the past, you’ve written a lot about how we are all really two people — the public person, who is just one of seven billion others and of no real significance in the big scheme of things; and the interior person, who is the hero of our own story, and therefore central in existence.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And so, that is one more binary system, like hot and cold, or tall and short, or inside and outside. Our brains seem to like to divide things into pairs of opposites. Even though, as you say, hot and cold or tall and short  are really just the same thing, relative to each other.”

“Yes, that old, who is the shortest giant or the tallest dwarf. The sunspot is a cold spot on the sun, but it is still thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.”

“I think what you said was there’s the burning end of a cigar, and the cold end, but there’s really only one cigar.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged that I once said something of the sort — my gloss on the Tao. 

“But, I realized the experience of being alive can equally be seen as  made up of three parts,” Stuart said. “The experience, I say — the way we experience our lives.

“In the old days,” he continued, “we would call those three things ‘Man,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Soul,’ but those terms are freighted with religion and gender bias. I don’t like them. So, instead, I call them ‘humankind,’ ‘the universe,’ and  ‘the psyche.’ These three elements encompass our experience.”

“And ‘Nature’ conjures up too much flowers and trees and birds and bees,” I said. “It’s a term too cuddly for what you mean here, right?”

“Absolutely. I mean something closer to what Werner Herzog says about nature — the indifferent violence and coldness of the cosmos. 

“Let me take them one at a time,” Stuart said. “What I’m labeling as ‘Humankind’ is the societal and political mix, the way we fit into the ordering of the welter of human population. It includes such things as relationships — father and son, husband and wife, pastor and congregation, lord and serf, American and foreigner, really all of them you can name. It is what is between people. 

“This is essentially the same as your ‘just one of seven billion’ and is the public part of our existence. We are taxpayers, we are Catholics (or atheists), we are Tarheels or Mainers, we are children or senior citizens, Tory or Labor — “

“You’re getting kind of binary on me,” I said. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. But these are all those interpersonal roles we have to play out daily and throughout our lives. 

“And none of any of this does the universe care a fig about. The universe is vast and operates on its own schedule and according to its own rules, none of which consider our human needs or desires. It is the universe that throws the dice as to whether we are born male or female; it is the universe that makes us work in the day and sleep at night; the universe that ends our life when it will. We think we have so much control, but in reality, we are able to nudge the universe only infinitesimally this way or that. In the last degree, the universe will do whatever it does. We don’t count.”

“It is the universe that took my Carole away from me five years ago. I had no choice.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said. “It’s something we just have to live with. The universe is an essential part of our experience of being alive and we accommodate to it. It makes no accommodation to us. 

“Then, there is the inner life we lead, as important as the other two, perhaps more important. It is not only the sense of ourselves as ourselves, but also, all the unconscious trash that we have to deal with that’s buried in the braincase, like superstition, hard-wired evolutionary neuronal structuring, the forgotten traumas of childhood that govern our choices in ways we’ll never know about, even that drive to see the world in patterns, patterns which may or may not actually be there.”

“Like constellations in the night sky,” I said. 

“Our brains force us to find patterns, it’s all part of the psyche.”

“But isn’t there some overlap in your system?” I asked. “You say, for instance, that family relationships are part of the ‘humankind’ portion of experience, but isn’t family also an archetype, a part of the built-in wiring of the psyche?” 

“In the terms I’m speaking of, I’m considering these as two separate things: the public understanding of family as a civic unit on one side; and the archetype of family as a mythic unit on the other. They may share a name, but they are very different things. There are quite a few examples of ideas that are seen differently through one of these three different lenses. There are even those who believe ‘family’ is a universal truth, although we know historically, families are constituted differently at different times in different cultures. 

“I expect you could look at most things through one of these different lenses and find quite different results. Even the ‘individual’ has a political significance that is different from its psychic significance. To say nothing of its insignificance in the wider universe.”

“But there is a significance to the universal individual,” I said. “It is the ancient problem of the one and the many. The universe may be infinite, but it is still made up of individual parts, be they people, planets, muons or quarks. Each may be observed separated from the matrix.” 

“I’m seeing it all through the psychic lens,” Stuart said. “And not through the objective lens of science. I’m talking about our experience of being alive. And looking up at the starry night sky can be understood through each of these lenses. As a societal matter, you are an astronomer in your social role, or you are a dreamer wasting time. Through the universal lens, you are an utterly insignificant speck of organic dust …”

“Or, you are the universe looking at itself.”

“Perhaps. But through the psychic lens, you are the center of the universe, and it all revolves around you, certainly out of your reach, but the psychic center of the universe is yourself — each of us his or her own center.”

“And you are knocked out of your ego-centered reverie, when you get a jury summons, throwing you back into the social web,” I said. “Or getting a traffic ticket, or punching in at work.”

“And getting knocked from that reverie when the universe sends you the message that arthritis is chaining up your knuckles, or that your once-new car is rusting out in its undercarriage.

“None of these three lenses is sufficient. We need them all out in our full selfhood, but they are each there, nonetheless, and can be teased out and thought about separately. I think a healthy personality keeps them all in balance. A juggling act.”

We talked about many other things, we usually do. It went on for about an hour. But this was the gist of the phone call, what I thought might be interesting to share. I miss Stuart and Genevieve in person. We had such good times. Isolation is not good. A curse on the universe for making us get old and for giving us viruses. 

In 2003, idiosyncratic filmmaker Guy Maddin released his most popular film (these things are relative), starring Isabella Rossellini and titled The Saddest Music in the World, about a contest held in Winnipeg, Canada, to find the most depressing music in the world. Each country sent its representative to win the $25,000 prize put up by beer baroness Helen Port-Huntley (played by Rossellini with artificial glass legs filled with beer). The middle portion of the film features performances by many of the contestants. But the film misses the serious winner in its hijinx of weirdness. 

Because the truly saddest music in the world is, hands down, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, music that can only rip your heart out and leave you prostrate with Weltschmerz. For it is not simple personal grief that Elgar wrote into the music, but the sense of the core sadness of life and the failure, of the world he knew, to survive the First World War.

Elgar was born in 1857, a decade before the deaths of Rossini and Berlioz, and became widely regarded as the first great English composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He lived to see the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany — a long life full of incident and occasion. 

But until the age of about 40, he was primarily a choral composer and a maker of musical trifles — salon music such as the ever-popular Salut d’Amour that is still an occasional encore piece. Still, that music gave him the reputation as the most important composer in England, second only to  Sir Arthur Sullivan. He became an itinerant musician, sometimes teacher, and, at 29, married his student, Caroline Alice Roberts, whom he remained married to for 31 years. Because Elgar was Roman Catholic and from a working-class background, Alice’s upper-class parents disapproved and disinherited her. But their marriage was successful and productive. After her death in 1920, Elgar wrote no more music of significance. He died in 1934. (Despite his Catholicism, he told his doctor at the end that he had no belief in an afterlife. “I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion.”) 

Elgar always wanted to write more significant music and then, in 1899, at the age of 42, he made his bid for musical importance with a set of variations for orchestra. The “Enigma” Variations remain his most popular and most performed composition, a brilliant set of 14 variations, each of which was meant as a portrait of one of his friends. 

The following year, he premiered his masterpiece oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, setting the poetry of Alfred Cardinal Newman, in a rich, late-Romantic orchestration rivaling the style of Richard Strauss. Its Catholic doctrine (a soul’s journey to Purgatory) may have prevented it becoming as popular as it might, but it is lush and gorgeous. 

In the years up to the First World War, Elgar wrote the bulk of what he is now famous for. His Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and Orchestra (1904); First Symphony (1908); Violin Concerto (1910); Second Symphony (1911); Falstaff (1913). He was knighted in 1904 and a shower of awards and honors fell upon him after that. 

He is usually thought of as an Edwardian composer, and identified with those years of English jingoism and colonialism. And it is hard to shake that notion when you hear, once again, his Pomp and Circumstance marches. But he really was no Colonel Blimp. And the Great War defeated him, knocked him down and left him deflated. The world order he grew up in was ripped apart and left in tatters. As British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked in 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe and I do not think we will see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

All the optimism and faith in progress that marked late Victorianism and the early years of the century were gone. It can be hard for us to imagine now, after the even-worse cataclysm of WWII and gulags and the Cultural Revolution, just how monumental and devastating the Great War was. It was to those who lived through it, as if the world were ending. Twenty million deaths, the overturning of governments, the shift of world power from the Old World to the New. 

All this, Elgar felt. The concerto was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar’s cottage in Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery at night rumbling across the Channel from France. And at the end of the war, he summed up his despair in the Cello Concerto in E-minor, his last great orchestral work. After it, he could never work up the enthusiasm to write more. 

The work is intensely beautiful, but also profoundly sad. All the sense of loss is bound up in it. And while Elgar’s music had been regularly applauded wildly on premiere, sometimes encored twice. The Cello Concerto was a failure when it was first played at Queen’s Hall, London, in 1919, partly to being under-rehearsed and badly played, but, mostly because of its somber tone. 

In fact, it languished, rarely programed until a 1965 recording by 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony — a recording that has never been out of print since its first release. Du Pré’s performance was so emotionally present and direct, so attuned to the music, that it has been the benchmark performance ever since. And it reawakened interest in the concerto, so that now almost any cellist worth his or her salt, has it in their repertoire. 

After the concerto, Elgar wrote three great pieces of chamber music: his Violin Sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet, all written by 1920. After that, only trifles — reworkings of old music and orchestrations of the music of other composers. He found an interest in the new technology of recording and made a groundbreaking series of discs of his own music, recordings still available, now on CD. 

But the war and Alice’s death seem to have taken the drive out of him. Elgar died Feb. 23, 1934 at the age of 76 and was buried next to his wife at St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern, in the English Midlands.

Elgar was without doubt a great composer, but, as critic David Hurwitz has said, “a great composer but not a necessary one.” Elgar himself knew he was a bit of an anachronism, a late-Romantic composer in a century headed toward Modernism. By the time of his Cello Concerto, Stravinsky had already written his Sacre du Printemps and Schoenberg his Pierrot Lunaire. Some of the loss and longing of Elgar’s concerto is surely his sense of being adrift in the Luft von anderem Planeten — the air from another planet, that Schoenberg announced. 

The history of music would not have been any different if Elgar had never written — something that cannot be said of Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Yet, you cannot listen to Elgar’s best music — the two concertos, Gerontius or the “Enigma” Variations — and not sense in him a power and emotional sweep that lifts him to the first rank. In that sense, his music is indeed necessary. 

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“There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.”

—Edward Elgar, 1896

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There are certain pieces of music that everyone knows, whether they know it or not. They are simply in the air. They are heard not just in concert halls, but in film, TV commercials, pop songs — and at every high school graduation ceremony in the English-speaking world. Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is the graduation music — or at least the “trio” portion of it. 

It is the portion of the march that was re-written, by Elgar himself, as the popular British patriotic song, Land of Hope and Glory, now sung by the home crowd with soccer victories, and as the audience stands and sings along at the final Proms concert of the season in London. And as the new high school graduates line up to receive their diplomas in school auditoriums everywhere. 

The practice began at Yale University in 1905 when Elgar was awarded an honorary degree for which the composer traveled to the U.S. It was decided to surprise him by playing his own music for the event, and they played Pomp and Circumstance. The practice caught on elsewhere, and is now ubiquitous as “The Graduation March.” 

And so, generations of Americans know the music well, without knowing, necessarily, what the music is they are hearing. It’s just “the Graduation March” of unknown provenance, as if it had just always existed. 

There are other such tunes, well known but genericized. There is Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin — “Here comes the bride, all dressed in white…” — probably not recognized as from an opera. Or Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn has ceased to own it: It is truly public domain. 

For many Americans, our first exposure to classical music came from Warner Brothers cartoons, and Bugs Bunny conducting Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a parody of Leopold Stokowski. Or Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit. Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries

That Hungarian Rhapsody got heavy use from animated films. Not only Bugs conducting, but Bugs playing the piano, and others, from Tom and Jerry to Woody the Woodpecker also took their turns with Liszt. 

Or maybe watching the Lone Ranger on TV and hearing the William Tell Overture. Or television reruns of the old Buster Crabbe serials of Flash Gordon, with Liszt’s Les Preludes as its persistent soundtrack. 

Some scores have been used scores of times in movies. Samuel Barber’s heartbreaking Adagio for Strings has shown up in at least 32 films and TV shows, including: The Elephant Man (1980); El Norte (1983); Platoon (1986); Lorenzo’s Oil (1991); The Scarlet Letter (1995); Amelie (2001); S1mOne (2002); and three episodes of The Simpsons

Popular songs have stolen classical tunes. The Minuet in G from Bach’s “Anna Magdelena Bach Notebook” became The Lover’s Concerto, recorded in 1965 by the Detroit girl group, The Toys. The Big Tune from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto became Full Moon and Empty Arms, sung by Frank Sinatra in 1945. Tony Martin turned Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto into Tonight We Love. I’m Always Chasing Rainbows was originally Chopin. The Negro Spiritual Goin’ Home was actually taken from Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Stranger in Paradise is one of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances, and so is Baubles, Bangles and Beads

The list goes on: Tin Pan Alley was full of burglars. Hot Diggity, Dog Ziggity was based on Chabrier’s España; Catch a Falling Star (and Put it in Your Pocket) was the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms; Love of My Life, by Dave Matthews and Carlos Santana is from Brahms’ Third Symphony. You can find hundreds of these “steals” on Wikipedia.  

I asked my brother, Craig, for any examples he might think of, and he sent back this barrage:

“So, what’s Classical? It’s probably a close cousin to porn — I know it when I hear it.

“There are Classical music quotes all over TV and movies, and my Classical education was jump-started by Bugs Bunny and his friends, and a little later by Fantasia and Silly Symphonies. A really surprising amount of music got introduced to me in cartoons.

“But that is a different thing from pieces of music being a part of our lives, like ‘Here comes the bride,’ and ‘Pomp and circumcision’ at every graduation ever. WW2’s theme song was Beethoven’s 5th. The military loves them some Sousa marches. Everybody knows the more popular Ave Maria. Everyone knows some snippet of Figaro. In fact there are a ton of little pieces of operas than we are all a little familiar with, even if we can’t name the opera or composer. If we played “Name that Carmen” most people would say, oh, yeah, I know that, but couldn’t name the source. There are a whole poop load of snippets we’ve all heard without knowing where the came from. (Thanks, Bugs.)

“Toccata and Fugue, a passel of Puccini, Bolero, (Thanks, Bo Derek), The Blue Danube, the Saber Dance (Thanks Bugs?), the Ritual Fire Dance (Thanks Ed Sullivan and the plate spinners), Für Elise, Chopsticks (Thanks, Tom Hanks), the Ode to Joy, the thoroughly quotable Swan Lake, Ride of the Valkyries (Thanks Robert Duvall), Voices of Spring, O Fortuna from Carmina Burana (Thanks Madison Avenue), Funeral March of the Marionettes, (Thanks, Hitch), Adagio for Strings, The Skater’s Waltz, Minuet in G, the Olympics theme, “Moonlight” Sonata, anything from the Nutcracker, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Thanks, Uncle Walt). 

“This is a pretty pointless list, because it is kind of endless. And I might well be making a baseless assumption about American’s familiarity with these things, just like I am thinking that American’s familiarity with these pieces of music is inversely proportional with the number of guns they own.

“Pachelbel’s Canon in D (which is much more memorable than his Canons A through C), Flight of the Bumblebee (the theme music for The Green Hornet, which is I’m sure too obscure a reference to be very useful), the 1812 Overture (Thanks, Boston Pops and Quaker Puffed Rice), A Clockwork Orange made the point pretty directly about Classical music being embedded in the culture, with street thug Alex loving Beethoven deeply.  Strauss’ Zarathustra in 2001 (Thanks, Stanley), Flash Gordon used Liszt’s Les Preludes (which I have had playing nonstop in my head since I thought of it). Lugosi’s Dracula used Swan Lake (which always strikes me as a real cheapskate move to do).

The Lone Ranger music isn’t even a decent trivia question anymore because everyone knows the musical source.

“So I’m just throwing up blunderbuss answers to ‘what’s embedded in our culture.’ So I’m gonna stop here. I hope there’s something you can use.”

And I’m sure, you, dear reader, can think of many more.

Everyone has at least one minority taste — a love of some obscure discipline that the vast majority of the public find uninteresting or unimportant. It could be stamp collecting or motocross racing. The majority watch popular shows on TV, listen to Top-40 music and read best-sellers. But pick any individual from such an audience, and you’ll find at least one out-of-the-way obsession. Surfing, perhaps, or Civil War re-enacting. 

For those lucky or persistent enough, this may turn out to be a vocation: Universities are full of those who have turned their love of Medieval linguistics or non-Newtonian physics into a meal ticket. In fact, this is where we expect to find these eccentrics. It is their niche. 

But there are a few of us, a benighted few, whose lives are made up entirely out of the odder corners of life, who have almost no popular tastes and have not turned our weird fascinations into a job. We are the outcasts who love all those things that normal people find irrelevant, and we bury ourselves in the obscure, arcane, esoteric, hermetic or recondite. 

I cannot speak for others of our brotherhood (and sisterhood), but I’m afraid I was born that way. It was not a reaction to anything — no childhood traumas drove me away from things popular; no deprivations led me to seek fulfillment in those oddments of culture I find so absorbing. 

From as long back as I  can remember, my interests were not those of my peers. I heard classmates complain about school, having to learn things they didn’t feel they would ever need to know in life. And I admit, it is very seldom I have ever needed to calculate the area of a circle. But I loved school from first grade on. 

In the early grades, I adored diagraming sentences. I spent free moments between classes in the school library. I never found sports persuasive. I was in dire peril of losing myself in something as abstruse as lepidoptery or studying the history of bottle making. In third grade, I could tell you anything you wished to know about the Mesozoic Era — rather more than you would wish to know, really. 

I grew up just outside New York City, and spent many fine hours at the American Museum of Natural History, in its darker recesses, and at the Hayden Planetarium. 

As a teenager, when everyone else was listening to Paul Anka or Chubby Checker. I was listening to Leonard Bernstein. My Four Seasons was Antonio Vivaldi, not Frankie Valli. My make-out music was Stravinsky.  Honestly; I’m not making that up. 

I am not claiming special merit for my tastes. There is great value in the best pop music, and some of our classic authors were best-sellers in their own time. So I’m not making a case for being high-brow, but rather confessing my own weirdness, my own unfitness for human society. 

Not all my minority tastes are so high-falutin’ as Orlando di Lassus. I have in my bones more specialized knowledge of 1930s B Westerns than should block up any segment of a person’s long-term memory bank. Do you know the difference between Ken Maynard and his brother, Kermit? Can you name even one of the cast line-up of the ever-changing Three Mesquiteers? I can. The same for science-fiction movies from the 1950s. They are all there, clogging my brain-case. 

As I take inventory of what is boxed up in my brain-attic, I find any number of things most people don’t care about. In fact, what most people don’t care about pretty well defines who I am. 

When visiting France, I never went to the Eiffel Tower, but did drive through all of the north, visiting Gothic cathedrals. I’ve been to Chartres three times, and in Paris, Notre Dame was practically a second home. I cannot remember how many visits to it. So, yes, my tastes are not the normal tastes. 

On weekends, I watch C-Span’s “Book TV.” I search YouTube for college lectures. I have a huge collection of Great Courses DVDs. 

When it comes to movies, I love them slow and arty, preferably with subtitles. I have all of Tarkovsky on DVD, all of Almodovar, and all that are available of Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. And tons of Bergman and Herzog and Renoir. I would have a bunch of Marcel Pagnol, but there isn’t a bunch. Nor is there much of Guy Maddin available, but if you ever needed bona fides as a weirdo, a confessed love of Maddin’s films is proof. 

Then, there’s classical music. If I had to lose a sense, I would ask for sight to go before hearing. I need music. Nothing else so precisely both describes and evokes the most profound human emotions. My insides swell up when I listen to the greatest music. Pop music does an excellent  job of pumping up energy and cheerleading for the happiest emotions. But classical music is needed to speak for grief, transcendence, fear, anxiety, love, power — and even more, the interplay between all these feelings. The virtue of popular music is its simplicity and directness; that of classical music is its complexity and depth. 

But even amidst the classical repertoire, I find myself drawn to the outskirts. Yes, I love my Beethoven and Brahms, but I also love my Schoenberg, my Morton Subotnick, my Colin McPhee. And even when dealing with Beethoven, I’m more likely to pull up the Grosse Fuge than the Appassionata. 

Then, there’s my reading. The authors I most often re-read are Homer and Ovid. I collect Loeb Library editions. I have seven translations of the Iliad on my shelves behind my writing desk. Five Odysseys. 

And not just Greek or Roman lit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been over Beowulf. There’s the poetry of Rumi and Basho. I’ve read two different translations of the Indian Mahabharata. I am currently reading two very different translations of Gilgamesh, one is a line-by-line literal translation of the extant fragments, the other is a re-telling from all the varied bits of the epic that have survived, into a single version. Comparing the two gives me a better handle on Mesopotamian thought and literature. These current two now join the two earlier translations that I had previously read. 

I have often wondered why I am so out of step with my fellow beings. Any one of them might well enjoy any one of the things I’ve mentioned, but the concatenation of them defines me. You can see the wide range of things I write about in this blog. 

My late wife used to say I’m “the man who can’t have fun,” and laugh at me because I cannot bear musical theater, don’t dance, don’t listen to pop music, don’t read popular novels, and lord save me from theme parks. I shudder. But I respond that I have lots of fun with my oddments. I get tremendous pleasure from string quartets or visiting art galleries or reading multiple translations of German poetry. 

If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, see and listen to. It all goes into us and feeds us, body and soul, and fashions who we have become. For better or worse.