Happiness is the most innocuous of emotions; it is plain and uninflected. Compared with its brawny cousins, such as hatred, passion, grief or joy, it is rather simple and nondescript. It is to those as water is to wine.
Happiness is what you see on the faces of children playing outdoors. It is for them, who don’t yet have the burdens of adulthood or the cares of life. They can innocently play with happy abandon. Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Yet, in those cares of life, who doesn’t wish for a few seconds freedom to experience once again the simple happiness of when we were young and didn’t know any better.
Most of our art and music concerns the bigger things. The emotions you get from Mahler are big, complex emotions, piled Pelion on Ossa, building overpowering climaxes that leave us hollowed and purged.
Think about Bach’s B-minor mass, Wagner’s Tristan, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and you find the complexity of life threaded around itself. Of the big emotions, none is uninflected, but includes a tincture of its opposite. “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught.”
Happiness, as I’m using the term here, is unalloyed. And while most of the greater emotions are felt as “happening” to yourself, happiness takes you out of yourself. You are unaware of your self when experiencing it. It is a grace.
In that sense, there is ego invested in the transcendence of Mahler or the Ode to Joy of Beethoven, but when you are happy, you barely exist: Only the happiness exists. You are only really aware of it when you wake from it and realize what you have been gifted.
Of course, such a state can only last a comparatively short time. When the philosopher asks if you have had a happy life, the only accurate answer is that life is not happy, but only moments are.
Art can rouse in us a huge range of emotions, and classical music is designed to explore the subtleties of them, and we are overwhelmed by the passions in Mahler, the transcendence in Bruckner, the joy in Beethoven’s Ninth, the angst in Berg’s violin concerto. All huge, complex emotions.
But surely, there must be some music completely devoid of such cares, and can arouse in us those feelings of abandon and freedom we had as little children. Is there music that is simply happy? This is music I put in the CD player when I just want to rock back and enjoy the simple tunes and unfettered sounds of being happy. Bouncy, tune-filled, catchy feel-good music.
The place to start, where most of the habits of classical music start, is Joseph Haydn. He seems to have invented everything: the symphony, the string quartet, the sonata form — they all descend from Haydn. And Haydn was perhaps the sanest person ever to write music, burdened by no metaphysical agonies. But even his music expresses a variety of thoughts and emotions, movement by movement, from the depth of the Seven Last Words of Christ to the finale of Symphony No. 88, which bounces with unfettered happiness. (Link here).
That kind of ebullience is hard to sustain, but here are five examples from classical music that bounce from beginning to end, along with some suggestions for recordings. (Not “the best” for I have not heard all of the recordings, but these are my favorites).
Franz Schubert Piano Quintet in A “The Trout”
The Trout Quintet is unusual in that it includes a double bass, which provides a solid bottom for the music, which allows the tunes to float along like rafters down a river. It is a sunny quintet, with hardly the whisper of a shadow in its five bright movements. Even the minor-key variation in the fourth movement is dispelled with a major chord — “I was just playing,” its composer seems to be saying.
It was written in 1819, when Schubert was 22, for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass. Through most of his best music — the late piano sonatas, late quartets and the great C-major string quintet — there is a strain of despair that is heartbreaking. Even in his short piano pieces, beloved of amateurs for a century and a half, there runs a vein of deep melancholy that shades even his happiest moments.
But none of this in the Trout. It spreads sunshine from beginning to end.
Almost any performance of The Trout will leave you giddy, but the one essential element of any recording is that you can hear — even feel — the string bass at the bottom. It is the foundation for the edifice.
I’ve always loved two performances. The first is Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin on piano, Michael Tree on viola, David Soyer on cello and the indomitable Julius Levine on bass. It was on the Vanguard label. And Peter’s father, Rudolf Serkin anchors the Marlboro Festival musicians on Sony (then, Columbia). With Serkin is Jaime Laredo on fiddle, Philipp Naegele on viola, Leslie Parnas on cello and Levine, again, on bass. A classic performance, much loved by many, features Clifford Curzon on piano, with musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic. Originally on Decca (classical music labels are in constant flux, as mega-corporations gobble up older established labels; you never know where a classic performance will show up. Just check Amazon and you’ll find it.)
YouTube video at this link
Gioacchino Rossini String Sonata No. 1 in G
It shouldn’t be surprising that most of the music that expresses mere happiness should have been written by very young composers. The six sonatas for strings were written by Rossini when he was 12 years old, arranged for four string parts: two violin parts, one for cello and one for double bass — again providing that delightful solid bottom for the tunes.
The bass is there because Rossini wrote them while visiting the home of bass player Agostini Triossi in Ravenna, Italy, in 1804, and tossed all six sonatas out in the space of three days to be played by members of the household, with Rossini himself on second violin.
Although written for a quartet of players, they are usually performed by a full ensemble. Versions have been adapted for normal string quartet and for wind band, but the string ensemble has that fresh appeal that matches the music.
I could have chosen any of the six sonatas. They are each in three movements, fast-slow-fast, and in major keys. But I mention the first because I particularly love its jaunty finale, with a tune I can’t get out of my head.
I’ve never heard a bad performance on disc, but mostly I listen to the Naxos recording of the Rossini Ensemble, Budapest. They almost always come in a pack of all six sonatas, so you are likely to love them all. Neville Marriner has a smooth set with the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Field, and Brilliant Classics has the version with four solo players.
YouTube video at this link
Georges Bizet Symphony in C
Another prodigy, Bizet wrote his symphony when he was 17 years old and a student at the Paris Conservatoire. It was never performed in the composer’s lifetime and indeed was lost and forgotten until 1933, when it was found in the composer’s papers, and was given a first performance by Felix Weingartner in 1935. Since then, its infectious tunes and untroubled elan have found it a place in the repertoire.
I have always thought of it as a 19th century version of a Haydn symphony — perfectly proportioned, tuneful, and with no dead spots. Others may have stormed the heavens with Wagnerian thunder and Blitzen, but this symphony contents itself with pleasing its listener with melody, rhythm and smooth harmony.
It has also been lucky on disc, when three of the most lively conductors have taken it on. Leonard Bernstein with the NY Phil, and Leopold Stokowski with the National Philharmonic (a pickup orchestra), and Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic. You can’t go wrong.
YouTube video at this link
Serge Prokofiev Classical Symphony in D major, Op. 25
Another student work, in 1917 Serge Prokofiev wrote his first symphony in a kind of parodistic style of Haydn or Mozart, but with modern piquant dissonances — what has been derisively called “wrong-note romanticism.”
But the four-movement symphony has proved enormously popular. It bounces from first to last, with memorable tunes and sharp wit.
The composer Boris Asafyev, according to Prokofiev, “put into my mind an idea he was developing, that there is no true joyfulness to be found in Russian music. Thinking about this, I composed a new finale, lively and blithe enough for there to be a complete absence of minor triads in the whole movement, only major ones.”
The energy in this music is propulsive. If anyone is feeling down, with the feeling of systematically knocking the hats off anyone you meet on the streets, a listen to the Classical Symphony will cure you and leave you with a goofy grin on your face.
Many have recorded the symphony. The only failures are when the conductor takes the music too seriously or lacks any sense of humor. There are several dry versions. But I have three that I have loved. Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil have all the elan and vigor you could ask for, if the ensemble is a tad scruffy. Eugene Ormandy and Philadelphia cannot be topped. It is a perfect recording of the music, bright and witty with gorgeous string playing. And I remember an old Odyssey LP I once owned with Max Goberman and the Vienna New Symphony. Perhaps one day a CD version will be offered.
YouTube video at this link
Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Op. 58
Imagine you are in a Brazilian dance hall and the crowd, sloppy with drink and dance, are bouncing to the music of an exuberant band — not all of whom are playing the the same key. And you cannot help but tap your toe, then jiggle your leg, and then get up and dance and sweat with the crowd. That is Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit (“The Bull on the Roof”).
It is a string of mostly Brazilian tunes, some borrowed, some invented by Milhaud, all of which are infectious and life-affirming. It is the most single-mindedly happy music I have ever encountered, completely unselfconscious and joyful. Milhaud himself called it, “15 minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.”
You can get a recording of Milhaud himself conducting the Orchestre du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées from 1958, perhaps a bit ragged, but with all the spirit. A standard for decades has been Louis de Froment and the Orchestra of Radio Luxumbourg. But for me the perfect embodiment of this happy music is the Orchestra National de France under Leonard Bernstein; he is the perfect vehicle for the life-spirit of this music.
YouTube video at this link
Those are my five suggestions. There are others: Benjamin Britten’s 1834 Simple Symphony, made up of tunes he wrote when he was 10 years old; or perhaps Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances from 1920, which he wrote between the ages of 14 and 16 — before the specter of Joseph Stalin darkened his art. Perhaps you have other suggestions to leave in the comments.