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It has been now perhaps 30 years since what was once called the “original instrument” movement in classical music took solid hold. Now usually referred to as the “historically-informed performance practice” movement (what a bureaucratic sounding phrase; I loathe it; there must be something better to call it), it has permeated not only the small bands of re-enactors (like Civil War re-enactors, really), but the mainstream classical music culture as a whole. Even when playing on modern instruments, performances are likely to be inflected by the historical re-enactor crowd. 

And so, you get bouncy Beethoven and manic Mozart, often played with two or three fiddles to a part. It all sound anemic to me. 

But I’ve been listening to the perfect antidote. I recommend you listen to the 1968 recording of The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, played by the combined brass sections of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago orchestras. It is absolutely glorious and I cannot imagine anyone coming away from listening to these choirs and not thinking “Wow!” and wishing they instead had heard the music on wheezing sackbutts and cornetts. (Sample here). 

Or Glenn Gould in his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a disc that can still shock a listener with its energy and life. The re-enactors insist Johann Sebastian should only be played on a harpsichord, but there is no keyboard more prone to monotony of tone and expression than the clangy jangly ear-assault of a harpsichord. Give me Bach on a piano any day, whether Gould or Rosalyn Tureck or Daniel Barenboim or Jeremy Denk. (Sample Gould here).

Just listen to Hélène Grimaud play the Busoni transcription of the chaconne from the Bach second violin partita, listen to it build to a glorious climax, with such brilliant pianism. This is music. (Link here). 

Now, before you go away thinking I am a cranky old codger refusing to move with the times, I assure you I recognize the benefit to humankind wrought by the young whippersnappers. As far back as 1978, I got on board when I purchased an LP set of Handel’s Op. 6 concerti grossi led by Franzjosef Maier with the Collegium Aureum. It was bright, energetic, forceful and clean. For me, it was a revelation, compared with those soggy older recordings I had on Nonesuch or Turnabout. Handel was freed from the concrete shoes he had been wearing since the 19th century. It was liberation.

Many a composer has benefited from the historically-informed performance practice and many of the old works have been rediscovered. Vivaldi, Telemann, Geminiani and others have been reborn with new interest in their works. Beyond the Four Seasons, we now have scores of recordings of Vivaldi’s operas and vocal works. And a host of French work by Lully, Couperin, Rameau. 

It wasn’t all peaches and roses, however. Under the mistaken idea that “original instruments” would refresh just about anything, I bought another LP, this time of Handel’s Water Music played by La Grande Ecurie and La Chambre du Roy under Jean-Claude Malgoire. What a horrible sound they made, scratchy, whiny, out of tune and struggling with the notes. The horns in the minuet, about 20 minutes in, is enough to make your eyes water. It didn’t just put me off original instruments, it put me off my soup. (Sample the opening of the Royal Fireworks Music here).  

Of course, in those prehistoric-instrument days, string players were way ahead of wind players, who had not yet quite figured out how to play the old hautbois and chalumeaux. Things have improved greatly since then and many old-music specialists have become quite virtuosic. Nowadays, you can buy a CD of some obscure Baroque composer and feel sure you’re getting the real goods. 

But, of course, while the re-enactors have gotten better, there has been a down side, also. When you find a new plaything, you want to daub it everywhere, and so, we even now have “historically informed” Berlioz, Wagner, even Bruckner. Like mustard on watermelon.

The tenets of the historically informed have become a kind of dogma and doctrine, and it gets applied to everything. A recent recording of a Beethoven symphony had four first and second violins, two violas, two cellos and a single bass. That might work well for Vivaldi, but for Beethoven it is a travesty. When he had the opportunity, Beethoven himself preferred 20 first and second violins. Brahms, who is now offered with chamber orchestras (because he once did that at Meiningen), actually much preferred the Vienna orchestra with 68 string players. 

A recent recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was released, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, according to “historical” practice. All the rules were followed. A reviewer lauded the performance, writing, “Thanks to Roth’s fleet interpretation — he seems intent on freeing Mahler from excess romantic baggage — we hear details usually buried under bulbous bellows and portamento-laden strings.” I had a good laugh: Mahler went to great lengths to put that romantic baggage into the work.

I wonder if next we can expect an edition of Mark Twain with all the excess humor taken out, or perhaps a Picasso run through a computer program to rearrange those Cubist faces back into something more like a passport photo. The portamentos are written into the score, after all. 

As far as it being performed according to historical principles, well, one has to wonder what principles these might be. Roth could, for instance, have checked with the recordings of at least three conductors who actually knew Mahler, and two who actually conducted with him. Perhaps they might have some insight in the way the Fourth Symphony is supposed to sound and what true historical performance practice was. Check with Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, or Willem Mengelberg (who performed the Fourth for Mahler and got his direct approval and appreciation — and there is a recording to check.) Note: They all play with vibrato. Roth’s twin vices of arrogance and ignorance are astonishing.

But, of course, Roth isn’t really interested in the composer’s intent. The movement has given up all pretense that they are recreating the music the way it was first heard. (“We’re trying to show what the symphony would have sounded like when Beethoven first heard it.” “But Beethoven was deaf.”) Because the actual driving force behind the movement isn’t historical accuracy, but rock and roll, popular music, which privileges — as do the HIPP performers — rhythm, beat, and energy over harmony and melody. “Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar.” 

Younger musicians have grown up with rock music, with heavy metal, with the drive of rhythm guitars (i.e., the continuo), and the pounding beat of drums. And as with rock music, there creeps into HIPP performances a kind of sameness — the mustard on the melon. 

And so, Roth, like the other re-enactors, is interested in making the music sound like all the other HIPP performances — whether Handel, Berlioz or Bruckner. Thin strings, clipped rhythms, rushed tempi. 

Modern conductors now too often have ideas where their ears are supposed to be. And so, instead of a performance of music, you get a lecture on how the music is “supposed” to be played. 

It reminds me of film director Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95  film movement and its “vow of cinematic chastity,” where a filmmaker was required to  adhere to a series of “dogmas:” required to shoot on location, not on a constructed set; to avoid using music unless it was being played onscreen as part of the story; to use no artificial lighting; to make no film not set in the present time, no costumes but what the actors bring with them … and a host of other rules restricting the “artifice” of moviemaking. It was a set of rules so puritanical that even von Trier had to give them up eventually. 

The period re-enactors of classical music have their own manifesto: To avoid vibrato; to observe strictly the composers’ metronome markings (even when Beethoven specifically tells them not do to so); to phrase in short, often two- and three-note groups; to hit the rhythms by barline with a sledgehammer; to use small instrumental groups; to employ countertenors when possible (given castrati are no longer available); to employ valveless trumpets and horns; to use old instruments or recreations of old instruments, with fewer keys, and wooden flutes, or recorders. And please, no pianos allowed; harpsichords or vintage fortepianos only. 

The result, too often, is music in a strait-jacket. We know that Beethoven complained harshly about the restrictions of instruments available in his day, and that future instruments would be better able to express his intentions. In essence, some of the peculiarities of Beethoven’s orchestration are because of the limitations of instruments in his time. 

As Donald Francis Tovey once observed, “Scholarship itself is not obliged to insist on the restoration of conditions that ought never to have existed.”

Which brings me back to Gabrieli and the great brass players of the big American orchestras. This is music as a glory, as joyous, as sheer pleasure. Is it what Gabrieli would have heard in Venice in 1597? No, but I’m sure he would have loved it. It was meant to be music, not a treatise. 

The current dogma forgets one important fact: The music doesn’t belong to Gabrieli; it belongs to us. The same with Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, or Mozart. They are dead and the music survives. And it is we who now own it. The sheet music is an artifact that needs musicianship to bring it to the ear and musicianship is now and always has been more important than scholarship. 

Imagine if we insisted that Shakespeare be performed only outdoors, with boys dressed up in the women’s parts, and all declaiming their lines loudly enough to be heard in the back rows, and no breaks into acts and scenes. Interesting as an experiment, to understand the theater of Shakespeare’s day, but hardly an ideal way to do Hamlet. Could we now take seriously Romeo making love to a Juliet in drag? 

You can now find Mozart, for instance, played by John Eliot Gardiner or Roy Goodman or Frans Brüggen and it zips along almost like a mechanical clock, fleet, crisp and rhythmic. All the notes are there, and the instructions in the score are obeyed. But something vital is missing. Something human. 

And so, I turn to hear Mozart played with humanity and and emphasis on songfulness, not metronome markings and I hear Bruno Walter’s Mozart, or Pablo Casals’. 

I used to have the complete Mozart symphonies played by Charles Mackerras, in period style, but I gave them away and got Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic. Böhm understood the style, the music, and what the music meant. There is nothing really wrong with Mackerras — he was a wonderful conductor — but his Mozart imitates the period-re-enactor esthetic and turns what should be warm melody into a patter-song. I have given up on historically-informed Mozart.

(I make a slight exception for the early symphonies performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but then Harnoncourt, aka “the Wild Man of Borneo” was sui generis — not really original instruments as much as the original Harnon-world. He was never afraid of bringing his Harnon-personality to the performance. Harnoncourt is always full of personality, albeit, sometimes you scratch your head.)

One of the seeming goals of period-re-enactors is to erase the musician from the music. They complain, for instance, that Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart is more Bernstein than Mozart. Well, of course — it is meant to be Mozart filtered through the sensibility of a performer. The notes on the page are neutral. The performance should not be. The musician puts the blood back into the notes. The score is only a skeleton. 

I’m not making a case here particularly for Bernstein’s Mozart; he was never as trenchant in Mozart as he was, say in Haydn, where he was magnificent. But rather making a case for interpretation. The re-enactors say they don’t want their music “interpreted,” but merely played. 

Someone once said that reading a cookbook doesn’t make you a good cook. Period-re-enactors want us to enjoy the raw ingredients — the mise en place — without the actual cooking. Really, more like eating a cookbook. 

I don’t wish to proscribe historically-informed performance practice. After all, it revitalized Baroque and earlier music. But I should point out that we can’t actually know what the music sounded like back then. It is guesswork. The sources for period performance practice are not in agreement. Some 18th century writers tell string players not to use vibrato; others instruct the opposite. Which pedagogue do you believe (obviously, the one that makes your music sound more like rock and roll). 

Further, the fact that some of the old teachers instruct their students not to use vibrato is actually evidence that they were bucking the system, that, in fact, most fiddlers back then really were using it and needed to be told to give it up. 

Even if re-enactors can re-animate the forgotten Baroque composers, and make us understand Handel and Vivaldi in a newer, brighter way, musicianship is still more important than scholarship. I cannot stand the revisionism applied to Bach. The two- and three-note phrasing makes hash of Bach’s long line, and ignores the intricate play of harmonies in order to emphasize the forward drive — the relentless bang-bang-bang. 

But most of all, I miss the personality of the performer in the re-enactors. When I listen to Bach by Gould or Tureck or Martha Argerich, I hear the music as the melded expression of both composer and performer — someone making sense of the notes. And that sense changes over time and place. It cannot be fixed in an imaginary historical moment. It is ours to parse out. Mozart has no say in it, and obviously, cannot. 

And so, if we get Walter’s Mozart on one night, we get Harnoncourt’s on another. Or the warmth and humanity of Pablo Casals. (Bruno Walter’s Mozart Symphony No. 39 here). Each version is valid, but the music is waiting there for yet another. Of course, HIPP is an interpretation, too. John Eliot Gardiner  brings his personality to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Unfortunately, it is the personality of an accountant.

Yesterday, I accidentally came across a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which is one of the composer’s bounciest, most ebullient movements, and therefore one of the bounciest, most ebullient in all music. And I was transfixed: After a tiny initial tempo beat with the baton, the conductor dropped his arms and stood there, letting the orchestra play the entire movement, indicating directions entirely with facial expressions. (Link here). 

He was conducting with his face. It was brilliant. Every fleeting emotion played across his face, as if he were the music. And each expression came a half-second before the orchestra reacted, so Bernstein wasn’t following the music, but leading it. Extraordinary. It was one of the best performances of that finale I’ve ever heard, with a naturalness and clarity, but more important, a joy and spontaneity. 

I go back a long way with Lenny. When I was a mere bairn, I watched him on the Young People’s Concerts and I remember his explanation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Omnibus TV show. I was just six years old in 1954, so I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember the set, with the score of the symphony on the floor, so he could position his players on their staffs to show what they were doing. I was fascinated. 

Since then, Lenny has been a part of my life. Sometimes a small part, in the background, sometimes I spent extra money to buy one of his recordings over a cheaper Turnabout or Vox recording, with the trust that I would be rewarded by something special. I usually was. 

I heard Lenny conduct at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall — it changes as much as the names on ballparks). I remember a rousing version of Debussy’s La Mer with the New York Phil. But mostly, I heard Lenny via recordings, first LP and then CD. There were also videos and TV presentations. 

I don’t deny that Lenny talking could be hard to take, with that resonant basso voice that he seemed to be in love with, and sometimes a ham actor’s thesbianicity. But if you can get past that surface, what he says is almost always revelatory, precise, and true. I listen to his Harvard lectures over and over, and despite some tedious Chomskian linguistic folderol, really insightful. (He drops the Chomsky in the latter lectures, thank god). 

But it is the music that really counts. For many, Bernstein was the great podium presence of the second half of the 20th century. The singer Christa Ludwig, who performed with Lenny often, once said she worked with three truly great conductors: Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Bernstein, but the difference was, she said, “Bernstein was a genius.” 

Others have commented that when he conducted, he “became” the music. A member of the Vienna Philharmonic told my old friend, the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “Name one other conductor who, just by standing in front of the orchestra, could make them play better than they thought they could.” Bernstein seemed to have a special relationship with the Vienna Phil, and many of his later recordings were with them.

Lenny had his detractors, who thought he was showing off in front of the audience and orchestra, or that he exaggerated details, or — especially later in his career — dragged tempos. But, as critic David Hurwitz has said many times, “Every time I think Bernstein has distorted something, I look in the score and see that it is exactly what the composer had notated. He was truer to the score than almost any other conductor I know.” 

It is true that for Lenny, as for Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” But the best recordings have something to give that few others can match: commitment, power, emotion, persuasiveness. 

I have chosen 10 of Lenny’s recordings that for me summarize his best. There are many others. He was especially great with Haydn, with Beethoven, with Mahler, with Stravinsky, with Shostakovich. And Modern music — if it was tonal or polytonal, like Milhaud — he made it all just bounce. 

We’ll start with Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, that is symphonies Nos. 82-87, including “The Hen” and “The Bear.” It is pretty well consensus that Bernstein’s Paris Symphonies are the reference recordings. Sprightly, bright, witty, energetic and beautifully played. Bernstein was always good in Haydn, and I would have listed his Creation here, or his Nelson Mass or Tempore Belli Mass. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein and Haydn. In comparison, almost everyone else just feels soggy. 

In roughly chronological order, we come to one of his most controversial recordings ever: the live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for Schiller’s “Freude” (“joy”) in the finale, caught up in the moment’s exhilaration over the fall of East Berlin and Communism. Actually, he only does it once, and later reverts back to the original. But it is jarring when you hear the baritone intone it at the start of the finale. Yet, I am listening to it now as I write this and it is an absolutely thrilling version of the Beethoven’s greatest symphony. Members of six different orchestras came together and meld perfectly under Lenny’s baton. It is my go-to version of the symphony. It is a symphony played so often (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it live) that it has lost some of its magic as occasion, but here, it magnifies that sense of occasion. Despite the mutilation of the “Freiheit,” but because of the intensity and emotional engagement of the 20-minute Adagio — more like a prayer than anything else. (Roger Norrington takes it in 10 minutes of throw-away carelessness.) 

Then, there’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts, or Requiem. There are few decent recordings, and most fail for exactly the same reason: They attempt to make sense of the thing, toning it down into something “normal.” That is the issue with Colin Davis’ version. But Lenny lets it all hang out. What is fevered and hysterical, comes across as fevered and hysterical, just as Berlioz wrote it. 

If there is any symphony from the 19th century more Haydnesque than Bizet’s Symphony in C, I have yet to discover it. It is fresh, bright, tuneful and unendingly happy. The composer wrote it in 1855, when he was 17, and it remained unplayed until 1935 and I feel pity for all those audiences who, for 80 years could have been enjoying it, but never had the chance. Lenny was the perfect conductor for its joie de vivre and rhythmic snap. It is as if Bizet wrote it with Bernstein in mind. 

Lenny recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony at least twice, once with the New York Philharmonic, in 1964 for Columbia, and then again in 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon, with the same orchestra. What a difference. The first — an excellent version — takes about the usual 45 minutes. The second comes in at just a chip under an hour. Most of that extra time comes in the finale, which in the second recording is wrenching and heartbreaking. One critic wrote that it “devastates the emotions. … At the end of the last movement, the despair is complete.” Of course, the performance has its detractors, with some finding it distended and, as one always hears the complaint against Lenny, “is more about the conductor than the composer.” Poppycock. This is Tchaikovsky titrated and distilled into pure essence. 

Lenny recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring many times, also, but there is no quibbling about the one to go to. It is his first, from 1958 with the New York Phil. When the composer first heard the recording, his only response was “Wow!” Lots of conductors have the measure of the Rite, but there is a rhythmic vitality, a violence and explosiveness to the 1958 recording that has never been matched, even by Lenny. 

Just seven years after Stravinsky’s blast, came Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which he says he wrote as “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.” It is a piling up of Brazilian tunes, in several keys at once, and is as bright and toe-tappy as anything. Indeed, it becomes an ear-worm and you will be hearing its tunes over and over in your head for the rest of the day. The Bernstein recording also features La Création du Monde from 1923, which is a fully realized jazz composition for a ballet about an African creation story. This is Lenny in his element. You can just see him dancing on the podium with happiness and joy. 

Then, there is another highly controversial recording — his DG performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lenny, playing the piano part himself, plays it not as a jazz riff, but as if it were, from bottom-to-top, a classical piano concerto, rather like Ravel’s Concerto in G. Critics miss the easy jazzy element of famous performances by Earl Wilde or Oscar Levant, but Bernstein’s version seems to those who adore it (as I do) as a perfectly genuine alternate view. And it is gorgeous. Did I mention that? Absolutely gorgeous. 

Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his massive Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” during the German siege of that city in 1942. It is a piece that defeats many orchestras and conductors; it is very difficult to keep it from diffusing into long, undigested sections. Lenny keeps it going as a single directional line from beginning to glorious end, and the Chicago Symphony has the cojones to perform what is asked of them. Almost everyone agrees, this is the Leningrad Symphony to hear. 

Finally, I’ve kept last (and out of order), Mahler, which sometimes seems like Bernstein’s personal property. It isn’t, of course, but he brings something special to his Mahler performances, and none more so than with the Ninth, which he recorded at least six times (1965 NY Phil; 1971 Vienna Phil; 1979 Berlin Phil; 1979 Boston Symphony; 1985 Concertgebouw; 1985 Israel Phil). It is perhaps the Mahler symphony Bernstein felt closest to. Only four of these are genuine releases, not bootlegs, and among them it is hard to choose, but I suppose I migrate to the late Concertgebouw recording. Berlin has the intensity, but there is a major cock-up in the finale when the trombone section failed to play in the climax (apparently an audience member had died of a heart attack directly behind the brass section and there was some commotion that distracted the players). But listening to any one of them seems as if the music becomes more than music; it is a direct communication from one soul or heart to another. There are other great performances of the Ninth — it seems to draw out the best in most conductors — but there is something extra in the Bernstein versions, something more immediate, more direct. 

That is a list of 10 (or more), but I feel I’ve left out so much. There’s his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; there’s two complete surveys of Beethoven symphonies; there’s his Copland, his Ives, his Schumann, his Sibelius. And so much more. But I believe the 10 I’ve chosen are not just great, but peculiar to Lenny — and I choose the word carefully. He was an idiosyncratic conductor, but all the personality that went in to his performances meant they are often memorable in a way more straightforward ones are not. 

Many moons ago, when I was a snotty college kid, I went through a period of disdaining Lenny. I bought the canard that he was shallow, heart-on-sleeve and bombastic. I wuz a idjit. One should never let the opinions of others block your ears. There is a world of difference between words and sounds, and the sounds are always more meaningful. I am older now, have experienced a great deal more of living, discovered depths in myself I hadn’t understood, and now Lenny’s insistence on finding the marrow is what I value. My ears are opened to what is gifted to me. 

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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. 

As I continue to contemplate the possibility of perhaps, maybe, decluttering my trove of Classical music CDs, I come to the 20th century. I have to admit, that I listen to music from that period more than any other. It was my century. And so, I have a ton of discs from composers who wrote, beginning in the 19th, but extending their careers into the 20th, and now, music from the 21st century. 

Sometimes, we forget that such lush music as that of Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss continued to be written: Strauss’ Four Last Songs, perhaps the most high-calorie confection ever put to paper, was premiered in 1949, four years after the end of World War II, and 36 years after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “There’s still plenty of good music to be written in C-major,” said Arnold Schoenberg.

So now, as I did last time, I am going to sort through the violent century and salvage what I think needs to be saved, making a pile of recordings and regretfully saying goodbye to too much great music, but, you know — I’m 73 years old and I’m not going to be able to listen to all of the thousands of CDs that currently clog my shelves. 

I’ve set the goal of picking a single work (or set of works) by significant composers to throw on the pile. I’m going by chronological order, according to birth dates. And we start by remembering that Edward Elgar was a 20th century composer. Yes. He was. 

Edward Elgar 1857-1934 — Initially I thought the work I could not do without was the doleful Cello Concerto, from 1919. The First World War speaks directly through that music. But, no, I have to go with the Violin Concerto of 1910, which is one of the few noble concertos that can stand with those of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Berg and Shostakovich — not merely tuneful, but an expression of the highest thoughts and emotions that humans are capable of. 

But, I’m in luck. Because I can save the Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman on a disc package that includes the Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pre, with the Enigma Variations thrown in.  A perfect summing up of the best of Elgar.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 — Choosing is too hard. I have double-decker shelves devoted to Mahler, the composer who moves me above all others. How can I clear it out? How can I consider any of it as “clutter?” I thought originally I would have to save Das Lied von der Erde, and I don’t know how I can say goodbye to it. But Mahler said famously, the symphony must contain the world, and the piece that does that more than any other is the Third Symphony, and so, I’m putting that on the pile.

I just counted, and I currently have 14 recordings of the Third (with another on the way from Amazon). The one I keep is Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Not only is it a great performance, but the 2-discs are magnificently engineered. The sound is stunning.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918 — While I love Debussy’s piano music (especially played by Paul Jacobs), the keeper is La Mer. I have not counted the versions on my shelf, but there are not a few. 

Pierre Boulez recorded it twice. The second is OK, but nothing special, but his first go-round, on Sony, is cut by diamond and the most exciting one I know. It may not be a sea-spray evocative as some, but it makes a compelling case for it as belonging to the 20th century. It comes in a package with a pile of other Debussy.

Richard Strauss 1864-1949 — Strauss can sometimes seem a bit reptilian. How much is show-biz with his show-off orchestration. But there is no doubt to the sincerity of his Four Last Songs. They are the most profoundly moving orchestral songs I know, outside Mahler’s Der Abschied

I wanted to save Jessye Norman’s version, with Kurt Masur, but I have to admit, my heart has always belonged to Leontyne Price in these songs, accompanied by Erich Leinsdorf. Both versions are gorgeous, but Price is now packaged with Fritz Reiner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. On the pile. 

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 — As tightly argued as Mahler is spacious, Sibelius packs a great deal into a well-cinched frame. Of his seven symphonies, the one that speaks to me loudest is the final one, which makes me feel in my bones the vast icy spaces of Scandanavia. 

Leonard Bernstein recorded it twice, once for Columbia (now Sony) and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The first is tighter, but the second comes with the Fifth Symphony, giving me the chance to save two symphonies for the price of one. Bernstein slowed his tempos as he got older, and some people don’t like the broadened Fifth, but I have no problem with it. And the Seventh takes me to other places. 

Serge Rachmaninoff 1873-1943 — My dearest friend, Alexander, refuses to listen to Rachmaninoff, saying he is too gooey and Romantic. But I have been trying to get him to recognize that his music — especially his later music — is oozing with Modernist irony. What is more sly than the Paganini Rhapsody? Yes, there’s the “big tune,” but even that is undermined by what surrounds it. But if I have to save just one piece, that would be the Symphonic Dances. I love them to death. 

But, like so many other things in this list, I can have cake and eat it at the same time, with the recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, bundled with the gooey, Romantic Second Symphony under Mariss Jansons, and the tornado of the Third Piano Concerto, played by Leif Ove Andsness. 

Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951 — Now we’re entering territory fully recognizable as Modernist. I wish I could save Pierrot Lunaire, but I have only one slot available, and it has to go to Verklaerte Nacht. While I admire Pierrot, I love Transfigured Night

Of the versions I have, both in its orchestral form and its original sextet form, I am surprised at how good the version is that was recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It goes onto the pile, and gives me the bonus of the Orchestral Variations

Charles Ives 1874-1954 — I have three or four versions of the Concord Sonata, and heard it live played by Jeremy Denk. It should be saved. But I am going, instead, with the Fourth Symphony, which is pure Ives, with all his usual tricks. Friends think I’m joshing when I claim that Ives’ music is beautiful. But it is. You just have to get used to the idiom. 

The best version (I have four of these, too) is the first recording, led by Leopold Stokowski. One word for it: Transcendental. 

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937 — Stravinsky dismissed him as a “Swiss watchmaker,” but I think that was only professional jealousy. Yes, we’re all tired of Bolero. But I want to save the Concerto for Left Hand, which is jazzy in parts, terrifying in parts, and always makes you wonder that anyone can play two-hand piano with only one hand. 

But there is also that ethereal slow movement of the G-major Piano Concerto. The disc with Martha Argerich playing the G-major and Michel Beroff playing the Left-Hander, with Claudio Abbado and the LSO, also gives us the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. What a luscious disc. 

Bela Bartok 1881-1945 — There’s a lot to save with Bartok, also. But I can’t have the Contrasts, the piano concertos, the six quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra. No. One disc. And the piece I want to keep most is the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Luckily, one of the greatest performances of that music, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, also features one of the greatest performances of the Concerto for Orchestra. It is essential listening for any music lover.

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971 — Much music, many styles. Part of me wants to save the Requiem Canticles and the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, just to tweak those who hate 12-tone music. But since the entire 20th century seems launched by The Rite of Spring, just as the 19th was launched by the Eroica, I have to save it.

There are lots of great performances, but none as feral and primal as the first of them recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil. Even Stravinsky, who hated “interpretation” in performance agreed that it was like no other. The disc also includes Petrushka, so, what’s not to love?

Anton Webern 1883-1945 — Do we have to? I’m afraid so. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. No one can make blips and blurps like Webern. He was the godfather of all subsequent serial music, disconnected, alienated and difficult. Yet, he makes such interesting sounds. And few pieces last more than a few minutes, even seconds. Take at least one bit of the broccoli: Try a little Webern. 

Karajan put out a tight, condensed disc with the Passacaglia, the 5 Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5, the 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, and the Symphony, Op. 21. This is a fair sampling, really well played. And the entire symphony lasts only 10 minutes. 

Alban Berg 1885-1935 — The third wheel of the Second Vienna School is the easiest to love and enjoy. He is the most emotional, and found a way to cheat on his 12-tones, to suggest key areas. His Violin Concerto is the most powerful fiddle concerto of the whole century, the most personal, the most emotional, and the most beautiful. 

No one plays it who doesn’t give it his or her most serious efforts. It cannot be just tossed off. My favorite is by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Chicago Symphony and James Levine. It also includes Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant, which, I’m afraid, I find utterly forgettable. I’m saving the disc, anyway, for Mutter and Berg and all the pain of loss in the world condensed to music. 

Serge Prokofiev 1891-1953 — Shouldn’t I save the Seventh Piano Sonata? Or the Third Piano Concerto? Or the Fifth or First symphonies? Yes, I should, but I’m going to save the full ballet score of Romeo and Juliet, which, I believe, is the greatest ballet score of all time. The whole thing, not just the suite. I might be swayed by having seen it danced many times, in some of the best productions ever. But the music stands on its own. 

There are three possibilities: Previn, Maazel and Gergiev. I’m going with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. It just noses out the others. 

Paul Hindemith 1895-1963 — Hindemith used to be the third part of the triad of Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith as the top Modernists in music. But he has fallen on hard times. Stravinsky and Bartok have better tunes. But when Hindemith borrows tunes from Carl Maria von Weber, he is as good as any. I love a lot of Hindemith, but I admit, he is not overtly lovable. But the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber is jaunty, catchy and a ton of fun. 

A really good performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch also gives us two of Hindemith’s best other scores, the Mathis der Maler symphony and Nobilissima Visione. This is Hindemith you could actually learn to love. 

Duke Ellington 1899-1974 — Yes, in my book, this is classical music. Ellington does for his group of instruments nothing less than what Ravel can do for the standard symphony orchestra, with all the colors and surprises. And harmonically, Ellington is ages ahead of many more traditional composers. I have about 50 discs of Ellington’s music, and I love him in each of his decades. But the height of his creativity and originality was with the band he had in the 1941-42, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, named for bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax, Ben Webster. It’s a misnomer, because you can’t forget all the other luminaries in the band, from Harry Carney to Cootie Williams to Johnny Hodges. 

There is a three-disc release that has most of the work the band did in those two years, including Ko-Ko, Cotton Tail, Harlem Air Shaft, Take the A Train, Blue Serge, Sophisticated Lady, Perdido and the C-Jam Blues. Each a miniature tone-poem. This is music to take seriously. Seriously. 

Aaron Copland 1900-1990 — There are two Coplands, the earlier, knottier Modernist of the Piano Variations, and the later, popular composer of Rodeo, El Salon Mexico and Billy the Kid. But to my mind, his very best is Appalachian Spring, a ballet score he wrote for Martha Graham. It is usually heard as a truncated suite and enlarged for full orchestra.

But the version I love best, and the one going on my pile, is the original full-length chamber version. Copland recorded it himself, along with the suite from Billy the Kid. Unfortunately, you have to put up with the tedious and tendentious Lincoln Portrait, here narrated by Henry Fonda. 

Harry Partch 1901-1974 — England has its eccentrics, but America has its crackpots, and Partch is Exhibit A. Having decided that the tempered musical scale is a “mutilation” of true music, he invented and built a whole orchestra of new instruments, such as the chromelodion, the quadrangularis reversum, the zymo-xyl, the gourd tree and cloud-chamber bowls, in order to play music in his 43-note octave. I saw an exhibit of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s. They were stunningly beautiful to look at. Hearing them, is something different. 

Partch wrote a lot of music for his instruments, some enchanting, like his songs on Hobo graffiti, Barstow. I am saving his full-length Delusions of the Fury, which is based on a Japanese Noh play and an African legend and a codification of Partch’s own delusions. Hooray for him. 

Dimitri Shostakovich 1906-1975 — Surely the major composer of the middle of the 20th century, Shostakovich labored hard under the yoke of Stalinism, and his music expresses his deep humanity (except when he is buckling under the pressure of the commissars and pumping out party-hack material; but we can ignore all that). His symphonies 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15 are among the greatest works of the century. But I’m saving his first Violin Concerto. It is, I believe, his ultimate masterwork. 

Its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, recorded it with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the the New York Philharmonic and anyone who cares about classical music should know this performance. It is coupled with Rostropovich playing the first Cello Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. Together this is a powerful pair. 

Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992 — Harry Partch wasn’t alone. French composer Olivier Messiaen had his own ideas about harmony and rhythm, and created an idiosyncratic body of music that is built on bird song and Eastern mysticism, combined with fervent Christianity. 

He wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prisoner camp and played it for the first time for its inmates and guards. His most popular work (if you can call anything so peculiar “popular”) must be the Turangalila Symphony, a rich, spicy, aromatic blend of orchestral colors, and you can get both works together in a set with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille. 

Henryk Gorecki 1933-2010 — Gorecki had the misfortune to have become popular. His Third Symphony topped the pop charts in England in 1992 and sold a million copies world-wide. Officially titled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it speaks of war, love and loss. It is a slow piece, moving only by tiny steps from first to last. Its popularity has led some critics to pooh-pooh its depth and beauty, believing nothing that popular could be any good. They should listen more carefully. 

The version that sold so well was the premiere recording with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta. I have several versions on my shelves, but this first one is still the best. Onto the pile. 

Morton Subotnick 1933- — The California-born composer of electronica had a brief moment of fame in the late 1960s when Nonesuch Records released his Silver Apples of the Moon, and followed it up with The Wild Bull. The first, with its synthesizer squeaks and blips was bright and energetic, the second with its groans and wheezes, was much darker. 

Both deserve to be remembered. They may be a relic of their times, but they really are worth listening to. And they are now both on a single Wergo CD. 

Arvo Pärt 1935- — The Estonian composer’s meditative music is what he calls “tintinnabuli,” and in 2018, Part was the most performed living composer in the world. His music appeals not only to the classical audience, but to the New Age one as well. It is spiritually-aimed music and is both beautiful, well-constructed, and easy to listen to. You can wash in it like a warm bath, or you can listen as intently as you might to Bach or Bartok. 

He has arranged his most popular piece, Fratres, for any number of instruments and combinations (there is even an entire CD of nothing but variations of the piece), and I could save pretty much any one of his discs. But I am going to put Te Deum on the pile, primarily for the Berlin Mass that is on the disc. 

Philip Glass 1937- — Glass is unavoidable, even in popular culture. He must be the most prolific composer since Vivaldi. He began as a strict Minimalist, but loosened up that style to become what can only be called a “Glassian.” At his best, he is hypnotic and powerful. At his worst, he can become tedious. His Einstein on the Beach was epochal and groundbreaking. I have an entire shelf devoted to his releases. His trilogy of movie scores for the Godfrey Reggio abstract-narrative films in the quatsi series are a perfect introduction to Glass. Koyaanisqatsi was the first and best known.

But I am going to save the third, Naqoyqatsi, mainly because it can be heard as an extended cello concerto played by Yo-Yo Ma. 

John Adams 1945- — Almost neck-and-neck with Glass is John Adams, another lapsed Minimalist who has created his own distinct voice. His opera, Nixon in China, is pretty well the only contemporary opera to join the mainstream repertoire. I’ve seen it live, and I’ve seen Adams’ Doctor Atomic live. They are both thrilling as Verdi or Puccini. 

But I’m going to save a particular favorite orchestral work, Harmonielehre, or “Harmony Lesson.” Its opening chords are even more startling than the two E-flat bangs at the start of Beethoven’s Eroica. And the disc I’m saving includes two of Adam’s most popular and gripping overture pieces, The Chairman Dances and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Osvaldo Golijov 1960- — The youngest composer on my pile is now 60. I first heard his music in a live performance of Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw singing the lead. It blew me away. And I was going to put my recording on my pile, but then I heard his Passion of Saint Mark or La Pasión Según San Marco, and fell in love with it. 

It combines Latin and African rhythms and folk music with a huge percussion section and more than 50 singers. When it was premiered, it got a 15-minute standing ovation. It deserves its place on my pile. 

____________________

And so, my fantasy ends. I have now an imaginary pile of music to listen to, to the exclusion of a thousand other CDs. But it is just a fantasy; I could never actually declutter my shelves. I have, in the past, culled recordings to make space for new, but now those I culled are just stuffed into old dressers, cluttering up the drawers in both of them, hidden from view as if I had actually gotten rid of them. But I can’t. And with new recordings coming my way from Amazon, I may have to cull once more, just to make space. And I may need another old dresser in the storage room just to take care of my rejects. Marie Kondo can go jump in a lake. 

We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

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And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.

There is Mahler before Bernstein, and Mahler after him. This is not to say that Lenny is the summum bonum of these nine-plus symphonies, but that before his 1960’s advocacy, Mahler was one of those niche composers that a few people knew about and appreciated, and afterwards, no right-thinking conductor could fail to offer a complete cycle — Mahler joined Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one of those whose works would be recorded by the yard. A Mahler program now draws a paying audience like almost no other. 

But there is Mahler and there is Mahler. When everyone gets into the act, the quality level evens out — It’s hard to find a really bad recording anymore, and it is also hard to stand out with something exceptional. Yet, both ends do still exist. 

I have not heard every release; no one could, not even David Hurwitz, who is as close to nuts as anyone I know of. But I have experienced a whole raft of Mahler recordings and I have my favorites, and a few excrescences that I have to keep as “party records” to share with commiserating friends. 

My bona fides include more than a half-century of listening to classical music, reading scores, and being a retired classical music critic on a major daily newspaper. I have owned at least 15 complete Mahler cycles and uncounted individual CDs and LPs — going back to the 1960s. I did disgorge about two-thirds of my collection of CDs when I retired eight years ago, but even since, I have added more Mahler (among others) and currently sit with 10 full sets and two shelves of individual recordings. Am I as nuts as Hurwitz? I leave that to the jury. (It isn’t only Mahler: I once owned 25 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and 45 recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto). 

Yes, I listen to a boatload of music. I cannot imagine my life without music. 

And I have my Top 10 list of Mahler recordings. Really, a Top 11 — one for each of the nine completed symphonies, and add-ons for the incomplete 10th, for Das Lied von der Erde, and the song cycles, so it’s really like a Top 15 or so. And there are a few bombs I want to include, just for fun. Let’s take them in order. 

Symphony No. 1 in D

The symphony begins with an ethereal A, barely audible and transforms into a cuckoo call, evincing nature, the woods and eternity, but then opens up into the fields and streams borrowed from Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  The first four Mahler symphonies all borrow from his songs. The third movement is a grotesquerie built from a minor-key version of Frere Jacques played first by a solo double bass; it is an ironic funeral march, interrupted by klezmer music and a bit of gypsy wedding. It is one of the most peculiar movement from anyone’s symphonies.

Then it all burst out in a tormented and blazing fourth movement with horns wailing out over all, and comes to an abrupt conclusion with an orchestral hiccup. 

The symphony is qualitatively different from the ones that follow, but it is easier for most first-time listeners to comprehend. It is a great place to start a Mahler journey. 

The greatest version I ever heard live was Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it blew me away. There is a live recording, from the young maestro’s debut concert in LA. It is hard to get the same effect from a recording, but this is my sentimental favorite. But there are some other great ones. 

The consensus (but not universal) favorite is Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1968. It includes the Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen and Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau. 

The version I first learned from, a billion years ago in another galaxy, and on vinyl, was Bruno Walter’s with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Walter knew Mahler and premiered his Ninth Symphony. The sonics are not always great, but there is tremendous authority in Walter’s Mahler. 

Symphony No. 2 in C-minor (“Resurrection”)

Many people hold the “Resurrection Symphony” as their nearest and dearest, with its uplifting finale of rebirth and optimism. But I have always found the end a touch forced and insincere, as if Mahler really, really wanted to believe in a renewed life after death, but couldn’t, and could only mouth the words. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” 

Yet, its music is still magnificent, especially the first movement funeral march, which comes to a climax so disturbing and dissonant, he never matched it until the orphan adagio of his 10th symphony. The inner movements are some of the most beautiful he ever wrote and the alto solo, Urlicht, is transcendental. 

Everyone, it seems, has taken a crack at the “Resurrection”, including businessman Gilbert Kaplan, who learned to conduct only to lead this symphony and never conducted anything else. (OK, he did make a stab at the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth, but that hardly counts.)

My favorite is Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer always makes the music feel as important as it needs to be; he seems to believe in what it says, not merely to play the notes.

Symphony No. 3 in D-minor

There are some music you cannot listen to very often. Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, or the Bach Matthew Passion. They are too big, too meaningful, too overwhelming, that to maintain the sense of occasion, you can only pull them out at special moments. You have to be ready to accept what they have to offer. It is almost a religious experience. 

The Mahler Third last an hour and a half. It is almost an opera without words, except there are singers. It is a full evening by itself. But if you are not in the right frame of mind, it can just seem endless. The first movement alone lasts longer than any Haydn symphony.

Mahler explained his ideas for the symphony, though he later recanted. The words are not what the symphony says, but they give an approximation. The first movement is “Pan awakes; summer marches in,” and pits a relentless and ruthless nature, “red in tooth and claw,” against the riotous optimism of the season of growth, in an overwhelming march of joy and hedonism. 

The second movement is “What the flowers of the meadow tell me.” The third is “What the animals of the forest tell me.” In the fourth, an alto sings “What man tells me,” in a doleful lament that “Die Welt ist tief,” “The world is deep.” Following that comes “What the angels tell me,” with a choir and bells telling of “himmlische Freude” — heavenly joy. 

But all of this, for an hour, is really prolog to the final movement Adagio, “What love tells me.” It is built on a theme taken from Beethoven’s final quartet and its “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be; it must be”).  It is a 22-minute-long meditation, rising to ecstasy. 

When the premiere was given in 1902, Swiss critic William Ritter wrote this finale was “Perhaps the greatest adagio written since Beethoven.” If you can come away without collapsing into a puddle of weeping, you’re a better person than I am. 

The recording that overwhelms me more than any other, not only because of the performance, but because of its engineering and immediacy of sound quality is Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw. 

A nearly equal second, in slightly less perfect sound, is Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic. It is the gold standard for the finale. 

Symphony No. 4 in G

On the opposite end of the emotional scale — and what a relief — comes the Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bells and Kinderhimmel. It is, without doubt, Mahler’s happiest symphony. It is also his shortest. Coincidence? 

But I’ve got a problem picking a best, because there are three performances I cannot do without, each highlighting a different aspect of the work. 

First, there is Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw  Orchestra, recorded in November, 1939. Mengelberg knew Mahler, and we have evidence that Mahler endorsed Mengelberg’s interpretation of the symphony, although that endorsement came for earlier performances. Mahler died in 1912 and this recording is from 27 years later. Still, it is the best evidence we have for the way Mahler probably intended his work to sound. And, compared to the way it is played nowadays, it is ripe with violent tempo changes and swooping portamentos. 

Second, there is Benjamin Zander, with the Philharmonia. In the hour-long discussion disc packaged with the performance, Zander makes the case that Mahler wanted the violin soloist in the second movement to play like a country fiddler, not a trained violinist. A “Geige,” not a “Violine.” He has the violinist retune his fiddle a full tone sharp to play the Totentanz — he is to be Freund Hein, or “Friend Hank,” a nickname for the Grim Reaper. Zander is the only conductor to really take the composer at his word; most recordings, the soloist can’t bring himself to make the ugly sounds Mahler wanted, and smooths the part’s rough edges. It should sound like the Devil’s fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with that edge. 

In all his Mahler recordings, Zander is scrupulous in following the anal retentive storm of written instructions Mahler included in his scores. If this means the long-haul structure of the work is sometimes disrupted for the spotlit detail, well, that’s the nature of Romanticism over Classicism. Those details were put there for a reason; we should hear them. 

The third recording is Bernstein’s first version, with the New York Philharmonic and soprano Reri Grist. Bernstein’s Mahler is always good, but sometimes, it is the best, and this is one of those times. Grist has a fresh voice that is perfect for the innocent text of the finale, which is a child’s vision of what heaven will be like (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes … St. Martha must be the cook.”) 

Symphony No. 5

Wagner has his “bleeding chunks,” and Mahler has his Adagietto. Everyone knows the Adagietto, from movies and TV commercials. But the whole symphony, the first one since the First Symphony not to have voices, is a great rumbustious tussle, from its funeral march start to its manic contrapuntal finale, where he takes five melodic fragments, stated at the outset, and combines and recombines them like a Braumeister. 

The Adagietto fourth movement was, per Mahler, intended as a love letter to his wife, Alma, but is so elegiac that it has become the aural metaphor for loss and grief. Considering Alma’s serial infidelities, perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has morphed in its cultural meaning. (One critic calls Mahler “a composer with a dodgy heart who married a trollop.” “Alma, tell us: All modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.”)

The recording to have is Bernstein’s second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has beautiful playing from one of the world’s best orchestras, and all the energy and commitment that emanates from Lenny’s spiritual leadership. 

Another legendary performance is John Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia. If you think Bernstein’s fever is suspect, then reach for a cold bottle of Sir John.

Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)

Labeling any of Mahler’s symphonies as “Tragic” may seem redundant, but this is clearly his gloomiest, opening with a relentless stomp, stomp, stomp of a marche fatale and leading to the crushing hammer blows of destiny in the finale. 

Nevertheless, it has what I think is an even more persuasive love letter to Alma in the slow movement, which has to be one of the most tender and lovely in all of the canon. 

But Mahler never quite figured out if it should be the second or third movement, so nowadays, you find it both ways in performance, and find angry and assertive essays by critics proving once and for all it simply has to be the way they see it. Me, I like the adagio second to separate the angry first movement from the angry scherzo, which shares its rhythm with the first. Play them back to back before the adagio and it can seem like too much of the same thing. But then, that’s my opinion; you are free to have yours. 

Then, in the finale, Mahler never quite resolved whether there should be three hammer blows or only two. He was a seriously superstitious man and feared that a third hammer blow might prefigure his own death, and took it out of the score. But hammer blows come in threes in life — at least in Mahler’s — and I prefer all three to be there. Nor did he ever quite specify what he meant by hammer blows; they are written into the score, but how should they be produced? Each orchestra is left to come up with its own solution. Some have used hammer and anvil, others have built large resonant wooden boxes hit with great wooden mallets. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. 

Ben Zander comes to the rescue: His recording includes both the duple and triple hammer blows. You get to choose which finale you want to hear. As usual, Zander is perfect for following Mahler’s precise instructions in the score: a sforzando here, a ritardando there, a subito piano or a purposeful mix-mash of rhythms there. Now make the clarinet sound like a dying cat, now let the violins swoop with a portamento. Zander obeys where most other conductors smooth it all out to make pretty. This should not be a pretty symphony. 

Symphony No. 7

Guess what? Whether two or three hammer blows, Mahler didn’t die after the Sixth Symphony, which may explain why the Seventh is so giddy. All the other symphonies are programmatic in some way, with funeral marches, or heroic deaths, but the Seventh is just music. Mahlerian music, which means fantastic orchestrations and effects. But no overt meaning. 

It has five movements. The inner three are a scherzo sandwiched between two nostalgic sweetnesses he called “Nachtmusik,” or “night music.” In them, he uses rustic cowbells to symbolize — cowbells — and adds a mandolin and guitar. They couldn’t be lovelier. Between them is a vicious scherzo. 

But then, there’s the finale, which really makes no sense at all. It’s a complete hodge-podge, starting with a manic tympani solo and rushing off like a Turkish Pasha into what sounds like Ottoman grandiosity. But you have to remember the advice of the Talking Heads: “Stop Making Sense.” Just enjoy the effervescent joy of it all, up to the penultimate C-augmented horn chord before the final tonic C. One of the oddest endings before Sibelius’s Fifth. 

 The Third and the Ninth are certainly deeper and more profoundly moving, but the Seventh is my favorite for when I just want to hear Mahler without having to weep and sob and contemplate the Weltschmerz of it all. 

My go-to recording is a sleeper. Daniel Barenboim is not known as a great Mahler conductor, but his recent Mahler Seventh, with Staatskapelle Berlin on Warner Classics is brilliant and one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard, so you get not only a perfect performance, but a recording that sounds more like an orchestra playing live in your room than any other. He hits the crazed finale with the perfect get-on-the-roller-coaster attitude. 

I’ve been choosing great performances to recommend, but really bad ones can be fun, too. There is a Mahler Seven that is so unbelievably bad, you just have to hear it. Otto Klemperer is — let’s be honest — a really great Mahler conductor. Many of his recordings rank at the top of the list. But his Seventh is a real dog. What was he thinking? Barenboim comes in at 74 minutes. Klemp’s Seventh goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. Cheez Louise. It’s like Glenn Gould’s Appassionata, playing it like they were sight-reading it for the first time. 

Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)

I’m afraid I have never warmed up to the Eight Symphony. Its first movement is outright hysterical — I don’t mean it’s funny, but rather the manic half of a bipolar cycle; and its second movement is an opera manque built on Goethe’s Faust that just seems to wander without getting anywhere. Maybe I just need to listen to it another 20 times or so to get it into my head. It was Mahler’s biggest popular success during his life, but it has not worn well with me. 

It is a choral symphony with an alleged 1000 performers taking part, including eight solo voices, two different choruses and an organ, which blares at the beginning when it all explodes open in a “Veni creator spiritus” — “Come, Creator Spirit” — like one of those tweets typed in all caps. 

It has its fans. I am happy for them. George Solti and the Chicago Symphony is a consensus recommendation and zips through it all in under 80 minutes, which is shorter than almost all other performances, and therefore qualifies it as the greatest.

Symphony No. 9

Mahler had a congenital heart defect and he put its irregular rhythm into the beginning of his Ninth Symphony, an off-kilter beat that is the first thing we hear as the orchestra begins. Over that we hear the harp and muted trumpet. Added to that comes a little shiver in the strings followed by a two-note descending theme. These layers form the basis of the entire symphony, the way dot-dot-dot-dash forms the genesis of Beethoven’s Fifth. 

There follows an earthy Ländler as a second movement and a scurrilous Rondo Burlesque for the third. The final adagio is a kind of culmination of Mahler’s death music. Instead of a funeral march or a heroic death, the music dwindles to a quiet and inevitable cessation of its heartbeat. It trails off in a morendo so still and hushed that in a good performance, you can never quite tell when the orchestra stops playing. It just dies away. The effect can be overwhelming. In some famous performances, the audience refrains from applauding for as long as five whole minutes before exhaling in bravos and cheers. It is music that strikes deep. 

Bernstein made a meal of this symphony and recorded it four times, not counting a few live performances caught on tape outside the Bernstein canon. In the only time he ever performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, he recorded the Mahler Ninth. It is held in reverence by many, despite a glaring lapse by the trombone section in the finale (reputedly, an audience member sitting behind the section had a heart attack and died and the trombonists were understandably distracted). Even so, it is a powerfully emotional recording. But then, all of Lenny’s Ninths carry that wallop. 

If you wish to escape the Bernstein reality distortion field, there are other tremendous Ninths. Barbirolli’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1964, is a clear and unsentimental, but still emotional performance. Bruno Walter premiered the work in 1912, a year after Mahler’s death, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony exactly 50 years later; that recording is a benchmark for many. 

It has been recorded by almost every conductor out there, up to Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw just last year. 

The version I learned on was a surprisingly good version by Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony, from 1960, on the old Everest label. I still enjoy his Ländler above most.   

Symphony No. 10

Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony, but left it in tantalizing form as piano short score. He did orchestrate the opening adagio, and until recently, the adagio was performed as a stand-alone. That piano sketch has been orchestrated since, essentially by committee, and there are now many full recordings out there. 

I have never been convinced by the attempted realizations of the whole, but the adagio is absolutely scarifying. It slowly builds up to a climax that is so frightening that in a good performance, your fight-or-flight hormones should get nightmares, the hair on the back of your neck should prickle and you should feel as if the gates of hell have opened and disgorged its contents. It is a scream of pain, an Edvard Munch level scream: “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (“I felt the great scream in nature.”)

Mahler had found out about Alma’s infidelity and he scribbled in his score several pained comments about it. He was devastated and the music shows it. At one point, nearly all twelve chromatic notes are played in a single harrowing dissonance, distributed across the orchestra in a way to make a musical chord rather than simply noise, and then a screaming trumpet breaks through the din to make things even more unbearable. After that moment, things go quiet and the movement continues to its distressed end. 

If you want to hear all five movements, there are many good performances, including Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But I will cling to the adagio alone and the first version I knew — Bernstein’s first with the New York Philharmonic. Any time the emotion is more to the point than the music, Bernstein conducts the emotion. This is Mahler at his most Mahlerian, and Lenny at his most Bernsteinian. 

Das Lied von der Erde

After all that, if I were forced to accept having only a single work of Gustav Mahler, it would be Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a six-song cycle-symphony. Mahler had planned to publish it as his ninth symphony, but, superstitious about ninth symphonies (the final symphonies of so many composers), he refused to give it the title. When he then came to publish his next, he could name it the Ninth, knowing that fate would understand it was really his tenth.

But aside from that biographical titbit, Das Lied is an overwhelming and emotional work, even among an oeuvre that practically set the parameters for overwhelming and emotional. 

Mahler’s output falls into three large groups. The first four symphonies are called his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, because they make use of his settings of songs from a book of poetry called Des knaben Wunderhorn (“A Boy’s Magic Horn”). The second group are his purely orchestral symphonies, numbers 4 through 7. The Eighth is sui generis and doesn’t count (see above). But the final three works, the Ninth Symphony, the trunk of the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are profoundly inward. You get the feeling that Mahler didn’t write them so much for audiences, but as a way to question his own existence. 

The songs of this symphony are taken from a book of Chinese poetry, translated into German (or invented) called “The Chinese Flute.” The texts investigate beauty, isolation, nature and death, and where all these intersect. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” 

The sixth and final song — Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) — lasts as long as the first five and features some of the most ethereal orchestral writing Mahler ever penned, and a text that Mahler supplemented with several lines of his own. 

“I seek peace for my lonely heart,” the contralto sings. And ends, “The dear Earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew./ Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon./ Forever … Forever.” 

That last word — “ewig” in German — repeats and repeats ever more silent, until it completely evaporates. It is impossible to hear it without sobbing. 

The symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and Walter recorded it at least three times, in 1936, 1952 and 1960, the last in stereo. Either of the last two can be considered the one to have: Each has its champions and both are magnificent and echt Mahler. 

But the one you cannot do without is by Otto Klemperer, released in 1967, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. It has better sound than any of the Walters and magnificent singing. This is music right in Klemp’s wheelhouse. 

Complete sets

Warning at the outset: No single set of complete recordings is great in all of the symphonies. But having a complete set gives you a consistent vision of what the work is all about. 

Bernstein recorded them all three times. The first for Columbia (now Sony), mostly with the New York Philharmonic. The second for Deutsche Grammophon, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, a video set, on DVD, for Unitel, mostly with the Vienna Phil. The first two are canonic, and while each cycle has its proponents, you really should have both. 

Pierre Boulez is kind of the anti-Bernstein, cool and analytical, precise and controlled. For Boulez, Mahler is a 20th century composer — or at least a prefiguring, and the source of the Second Viennese School. You can hear every instrument with clarity

But is Mahler Mahler without going over the top emotionally? Klaus Tennstedt has many devotees, and falls more into the Bernsteinian camp. He recorded them with the London Philharmonic. It is a great set. I gave mine away, not because I didn’t like them, but because I gave them to my best friend; he deserved them. 

A sleeper among sets is David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. It is the best engineered set I have heard and with beautiful playing by the orchestra. 

There have been sets that mixed and matched conductors and orchestras. Both DG and Warners have great sets. Another, called the “People’s Edition” had a promotional vote to choose which recordings to include. The fact that each set chooses from their proprietary recordings means that there is no agreement on what are the best recordings. Everyone, after all, has their opinion. In Mahler-World, opinions are strong. 

Other conductors have less-than-complete boxes out there. Klemperer only recorded Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. His No. 2 and Das Lied are consensus choices for best ever. The Seventh is just awful, but you should hear it anyway. 

Hermann Scherchen has a box with all but the Fourth and no Das Lied. He recorded with second-rate orchestras, for the most part, and is often so wayward his interpretations have been called “Variations on Themes by Mahler.” The sound engineering is highly variable. This one is for specialists only. 

In the BB list (“Before Bernstein”), you get to hear all nine symphonies with Ernest Ansermet and the Utah Symphony and hear what they sound like before the current Mahler Tradition was assembled (largely by Lenny). They are surprisingly good, and you get a different slant on the music (less peculiar than Scherchen’s). 

Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia has not yet recorded the Seventh or Eighth, but the rest are among my favorites and I listen to them often. More than any other conductor, Zander follows Mahler printed directions accurately, and brings out expressive details glossed over in other recordings. There are those who disparage Zander for this detail orientation, but for me, it is the heart of a Romantic interpretation. This is the way they were played under Mahler, I am convinced. I love them all. And each comes with an hour-long lecture, explaining many of the details. He is a great speaker as well as conductor. 

There are others: Chailly, Bertini, Gielen, Sinopoli, Rattle. And all have their merits. 

The sets just keep coming. Everyone gets into the act. I have not been anywhere near complete. 

But these are the ones I have come to love. And, of course, there are many individual recordings, not part of sets. And many of these are among the greatest. 

And I have not even mentioned the other song cycles. Maybe another time.


Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

Click any image to enlarge

The Swannanoa River runs in western North Carolina from the town of Black Mountain to Asheville. It is where I live now, and it is spring. 

As I drive through the valley, with the Swannanoa Mountains directly to the south and, further north, in the distance, the lofty Black Mountains — the highest east of the Mississippi — the lower slopes of the Swannanoas are green, the bright green of early spring. The mid slopes are what Robert Frost wrote about: “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” And the tops of the peaks are still the dusky grey-black of winter. You can see spring climbing up the mountains. The green-line moves fast; a few days ago, it was all grey. Tomorrow, the line will be hundreds of feet higher up the slope, chewing up the grey, until it is all consumed in green. In their half-world, the hills look almost iridescent, the way draped satin will pick up the highlights and shimmer.

And all the while, I have Mahler’s Third playing and — I didn’t plan this; it’s just what was in the CD player — the first movement culminates in a great joyous march that is meant to describe the triumphant return of spring; all the animals and plants, all the hills and rivers are marching in procession like Mummers. It was overwhelming. I almost had to pull over and stop. Luckily, I hit a traffic light. I could steal a look to the left and soak in the iridescence and the utter, unutterable beauty of it all. De Welt is schoen.

I will be heartbroken to leave it when my time comes.

It used to be that January turned to February and February turned to March — and so on. Then, as I got older, it was January-July-January-July. Now, it is January-January-January. I don’t know why time speeds us so in senescence. I think, May is so far off, I don’t have to decide anything yet, then, all of a sudden, it is May again. The earth spins around the sun like a propeller.

It never stops; it only speeds up. Existence is not a thing but a process: nature is a verb, not a noun. It is never the same river; it is always the same flow. The green climbs up the hillside; my years shrink in front of me. I have now seen countless leaves sprout, green, shrivel and fall, and countless lives. The loss builds up and each spring slightly more wistful, more sad and the joyful march of plants and animals, hills and rivers deeper and more grief-laden. All rolled up into a single procession, full to bursting. 

Die Welt ist tief; tief ist ihr Weh. 

Tallulah Rose

Tallulah Rose

I have an interesting “contest” going on with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose. She is 16 and immersed in music, taking guitar, piano and banjo lessons; she has some genuine talent. When I chauffeur her around on those occasions when I am called on, and am playing some Bach or Beethoven on the car CD, she is apt to say something like, “Classical music is so boring; it all sounds the same.” And, of course, when I hear her listening to pop music on her iPad, my reaction is the mirror: Pop music is so boring; it all sounds the same. So, I scratch my head and wonder.

How can something sound so monotonous to me and not bore her to tears? How can something so varied and glorious as classical music possible sound to her as if it is all the same gluey mush? It is more than a question of taste; we are clearly hearing different things.

Most people are likely to think of this as merely a matter of taste — “I like indie rock, but she likes country,” —  and it is, to some degree — but while someone who likes Taylor Swift may say they don’t like Justin Bieber, they recognize it as merely a different genre of pop, and they wedge into their corner of sound comfort. Is there anything more insular than heavy metal?

But classical music doesn’t seem to function to Tallulah Rose as just one more Billboard magazine chart category, like soul or country-Western or hip hop. Those are all options out there for popular consumption and one chooses the category one feels most simpatico with.

But classical seems to be a different species altogether. It isn’t, for its serious listeners, just one more entertainment option. Its goals are elsewhere.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Tallulah Rose and I thought we might explore this question. She suggested an exchange. She would choose 10 pieces of pop music for me to listen to and I would choose 10 pieces of classical music for her. Tallulah Rose isn’t one of your ordinary junk-music fans: She has high standards for her music and would consider the bands she has chosen for me to be “art,” or at very least music that no one of any musical sophistication would be embarrassed to be heard listening to. She has excellent taste in her music. She picked for me music by Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, among others. I was to listen to her music and write about it, and she was to do the same for my choices.

What T-Rose chose for me:

1. Jesus, Etc. by Wilco
2. Australia by The Shins
3. Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
4. Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes
5. Wake Up by Arcade Fire
6. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John
7. Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys
8. This Charming Man by The Smiths
9. Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse
10. Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Sound System
Bonus track: Title and Registration by Death Cab for Cutie

In choosing music for her, I felt it only fair that I not bury her under the Bruckner Fifth or the Mahler Third, but try to find pieces of reasonable length, and I chose several movements instead of whole concertos or symphonies. Her music for me tends to run between 3 and 5 minutes. Here is my list for her (She snuck in an extra for me, so I added one extra Mahler track for her):

1. Gabrieli — Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass choirs
2. Bach — Prelude and Fugue in c-minor from WTC Book 1
3. Mozart — First movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in d-minor
4. Beethoven — Third movement from the “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, no. 2
5. Chopin — Mazurka Op. 30, no. 4
6. Brahms — Finale of the Fourth Symphony
7. Mahler — Two songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld from Songs of a Wayfarer
8. Rachmaninoff — Finale from Piano Concerto No. 3
9. Villa Lobos — First movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
10. Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man

I have listened four times through to all of T-Rose’s music and I can say that none of them is musically unsophisticated, but neither can I say, outside the LCD Sound System’s Dance yrslf Clean, which actually does something with the music,  that they engage my deepest sympathies. Again, I am convinced that my music and hers simply are not attempting the same thing.

For a start, her music’s appeal depends greatly on the lyrics. Even when I read rock criticism in, say Rolling Stone, the criticism is less about the music qua music, and more about the quality of the words. The sentiment expressed is expressed verbally, not musically. (More on lyrics later).

Second, the parts of music that seem most treasured by the rock and pop listener is a consistent beat, often aggressively propulsive. Following that, it is a melody — although in contemporary pop music, melody sounds more like chant than tune — prosody is so slipshod that the same melodic note can sustain a single syllable or three or four, if that is what the words demand.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For my classically oriented ear, the unrelenting rhythm is monotonous; I keep hoping it will lead to something, but it doesn’t. For my ear, harmony is paramount. I am always aware of it, shifting from major to minor, or to a Phrygian mode or the endless unresolved but constantly yearning dissonances of atonal or serial music. I am always aware — more than the melody at the top of the orchestral heap — of the bass line. I remember Brahms saying when he got a new piece of music to look at, he’d cover up the top staves and look at the bass line. That way, he said, he could tell if the music was good or not. When I listen to popular music, the bass line is generally undistinguished, often repetitive, and rather more in the way of a continuo — a second reinforcement of the beat slammed out by the drums and cymbals.

When I say her music and mine are not doing the same thing, I mean, in part, that the music part of her music is meant to be a place to drop her head into for a few minutes, to grok on a pulse, while the verbal part is there to express, often elliptically, the concerns of a young mind. At worst, in the kind of pop music T-Rose wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, those concerns are numbingly conventional, but even the more sophisticated lyrics speak to the exaggerated optimism or cynicism of adolescence, the need to be appreciated as wise and knowing, even when those of us who have been through it already, now recognize those attitudes as pose.

angry young men

Slight digression: The question of pose is most obvious in the many band photos used for PR or for CD covers. The musicians look so serious and world-wise: You can’t put anything over on them. But you can run through hundreds of photos and they all seem to be the same people: surly faces, collars drawn up, hands in their pockets standing in a warehouse district street to prove their working-class origins. One can’t help recognize the same memes from the Angry Young Men of England in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s as if every band has seen photos of John Osborne and wants to be Richard Burton from Look Back in Anger or Tom Courtney from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The straight-jacket of the meme is limiting.

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Back to the main issue: The music of rock and pop seems meant to create a pervasive mood throughout the length of a song — and except for a few experiments, all this music falls into the 3 to 5 minute song form.

Classical music, on the other hand, revels in contrast: The tempos keep changing, vigorous first themes alternate with quiet second themes. An established key center is disrupted by a series of wrenching modulations only to be reaffirmed. Instead of a single simple emotion, there is a constant development of emotions. When I find T-Rose’s music boring, what I mean is it doesn’t grow — but then, it’s not meant to. And one of the things she finds boring in my music is that it never settles down into something she can depend on, to give her that one single, clear emotion she wants from her tune.

Another thing: For her music, as I said, the words are paramount. The music behind the words seems to function more like the music in a film: to underline the sentiment, but not to express it directly. Something interesting to hear while the “real” action is happening in the words. For my music — at least for the big 19th century pieces that make up the bulk of the repertoire — the music attempts to make an argument from start to finish, like the slow shift from c-minor to C major in Beethoven’s Fifth, or the chapters of Mahler’s Third, “What the fields tell me,” “What the birds tell me,” “What love tells me.” It works like an opera, telling a story — musically — from start to finish. To hear its meaning, you have to be aurally sensitive to changes in harmony, in orchestration, in dynamics, in the ways the themes change and grow. The way you hear the E-flat arpeggiated tune at the beginning of the Eroica changes from a closed-off, harmony-denying drop to its D-flat in the third bar to that bright, victorious arpeggio in the recap and coda, where the same tune ends on the upper B-flat dominant that seems to rise above all the violence and disaster of the previously heard music. Classical music is about development; pop music seems to be about stasis.

Arcade Fire: yet again -- hands in pockets

Arcade Fire: yet again — hands in pockets

I write as if I think classical music is superior to pop music — and I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to that prejudice — but that is not what I’m writing about here. Rather than argue that one music is superior, I’m saying their goals are so different, so at odds, that it is almost silly to compare them at all. One might as well compare apples to double-entry bookkeeping.

But I wanted to note something interesting about the words in the music T-Rose gave me.

The conventions of prosody have shifted dramatically. In the “old days” — as recently as the Beatles — words were written as poetry and scanned with regular meter, and carefully crafted to fit the tunes. In this, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were no different from Oscar Hammerstein II. Think of such lyrics as, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Every accented word drops on every accented note, with the weaker beats hitting off-beats in the tune. A comfortable fit. The same with “Some enchanted evening,” or “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” or “You should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good lookin’ she looks like a man.”

Even the Rolling Stones followed the conventions: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until the darkness goes.”

This is what Robert Frost would call playing tennis with a net.

Playing with the net can bring delightful surprise and pleasure. Think of, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”

Words and music: Hand in glove.

But listen to the songs T-Rose gave me, and something different is happening: First, the words don’t scan; they are more like snippets of prose. Some words have a strong beat, others fit in the space between, no matter how many or how few syllables. They just cram into whatever space is left for them.

Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

The song is designed around a short, repeated pattern of notes that are memorable, or are meant to be memorable. The words fill in the interstices and the music is a mortar between the word-bricks. (This method would seem to derive from the blues, with its statement and licks, but they no longer follow the 12-bar harmonic pattern of the blues).

“You’ll be damned to pining through the windowpanes,/ You know you’d trade your life for any ordinary Joe’s,/ Well do it now or grow old,/ Your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold.”

There’s no regular rhythm to the words. But over and over in these songs, I do hear a pattern, and it is a surprising “revenant” from the past: It is the pattern of Medieval English verse — the four-beat line split in half with a caesura, or pause. Like The Seafarer or Piers Ploughman, the lines come with heavy stresses counted, but unstressed syllables come willy-nilly, and always that pause in the middle.

“I looked on my left side (pause) as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman (pause) worthily clothed.”

Think of the line by Pope: To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Then try these lines from Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes:

“Come down from the mountain (pause) you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us (pause) follow my ornate song.”

If Norwegian Wood had been written by Wilco, no doubt its words would be something like: “I got a girl (pause) She had me.”

(I doubt this is in any way a conscious or even unconscious DNA reappearing in pop music from the distant past, but rather that there is something meaningful in such a line that means it can reappear like convergent evolution that makes a marsupial Dingo look like a canine. Anyway, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing that habit.)

The pattern occurs in song after song that T-Rose gave me. With this one variation. In some songs, the two-beat (pause) two-beat is followed by a closing three-beat line. The Black Keys’ Little Black Submarine:

“I should’ve seen it glow (pause) But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind” (three beats).

(In conventional prosody, “I should’ve seen it glow” would scan at three beats — “I SHOULD have SEEN it GLOW” — but with the music under it, it has only two beats: “I SHOULD’ve seen it GLOW.”)

It’s a whole different prosody; a whole nother esthetic.

I have listened yet again to the songs on T-Rose’s list, and I can hear many interesting bits in them. I even came to think very highly of the music in Dance yrself Clean — it actually goes somewhere. But overall, I’m stuck where I began: Popular and rock music — even indie music — is too simple musically, too repetitive, too harnessed in its beat, and written with lyrics created under an esthetic that I am simply too old to be simpatico with. I can respect it, but I cannot enjoy it.

I think the same for Tallulah Rose: I believe, on her part, she has already given up on Bach and Copland. I have not heard anything from her about it.

conductor ecstasy

“It doesn’t matter how badly they played,” said my old mentor, Dimitri, “if the symphony ends with a lot of loud, rousing brass, it will get a standing ovation.”

It is the end of a symphony, more than anything that has gone before, that leaves the most vivid impression on its audience. And I don’t mean the coda of the finale, but those last repeated chords that hammer home the end, those tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant tuttis that were so viciously lampooned by Eric Satie in his Embryons Deséchés.

Satie embryons deseches 1

Sometimes they never seem to be willing to give up and let you go home. Beethoven’s Fifth is the poster child for this cliche (not that it was a cliche when the composer first did it).

But ever since, the bringing home the tonic key and signing off a 45-minute symphony has been left to block chords pounding our ears.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are many examples of composers doing something interesting, surprising and creative with those end notes.

Here are my top five symphony conclusions:

Brahms symphony 2 with arrows

Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 73 — This is the symphony that Dimitri meant when he talked about rousing brass. No symphony comes close to the exciting, fresh, explosive yelling-it-out in ecstasy rah-rah that winds up this monument. It’s already loud and compelling when the trumpets, horns and winds sing out a quadruple-repeated and harmonized Nachschlag (turn) and do it again a third higher (first yellow arrow in the score). The audience is going “whoopee” and then the trombones and bass trombone hit and hold a D-major chord (which Brahms particularly marks fortissimo) over the staccato final chords of the rest of the orchestra, and finally resting on a tutti D. Wow. You always want to stand up and cheer at the end — which audiences habitually do.

Haydn Farewell Symphony

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp, “Farewell” — Modern instruments can negotiate most keys fairly well, but in Haydn’s day, F-sharp was a pretty out-there key, which made this symphony strange sounding to begin with. There was an extra bite of instruments that could not quite play easily in key. This is the only symphony Haydn wrote in this orphan key. It is a “Sturm und Drang” symphony, full of sound and fury, accentuated by the odd key choice, but the finale ends in a whimper, not a bang. It is the opposite of the Brahms. In fact, Haydn has the instruments stop playing, one by one, and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end playing a simple A-sharp below an F-sharp, as the concertmaster blows out the candle that would have illuminated his sheet music. A visually dramatic end, and a musically audacious feat.

Sibelius symphony 5 piano score

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, op. 82 — Silence is the astonishing surprise at the end of Sibelius’s Fifth, also, but loaded in between otherwise standard cadential chords. It was a really audacious thing to do — bring the symphony to a rousing climax and then stop everything for five beats, then hit another chord and wait again. Over and over at the end, with irregular silences between the bang-chords. If you count them, you can see the rests are oddly spaced, which gives the music a real off-balance feeling, like you cannot know what to expect. If you count out the rests in quarter-note time and the outbursts of tutti, you get: 1-2-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-Bang, 1-2-3-Bang. (When he wrote the first draft of the symphony, those rests were filled in with noodling in the orchestra, the effect was bland, but he left these “black holes” there instead and blew the minds of his audience.)

Mahler symphony 9

Mahler, Symphony No. 9 — The last notes of Mahler’s final symphony, after 80 minutes of angst and rancor, are marked “ersterbend,” “dying.” The last two pages of the symphony take a full six minutes to play, attenuated and stretched to the limit of concentration by player and audience alike. They are orchestral whispers — death-bed speech as the music quietly accepts death. When played with the proper attitude, the audience greets the final silence not with applause, but with hush. In Amsterdam in 1995, when Claudio Abbado played it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Mahler Festival, the audience stayed silent for several literal minutes before any applause, each member gazing into his or her own private abyss before coming back to reality and applauding the performance.

Leningrad children prepare for gas attack

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 in A, op. 141 — This has to be one of the most peculiar symphonies in the repertoire, with its quotation of the Lone Ranger tune from Rossini’s William Tell in the first movement, and turning Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde into a waltz in the finale. But the final moments of the symphony are a complete enigma: Over a hushed pedal point in the violins, which goes on for two minutes, the percussion ding, snap and clang quietly in a mechanical tick-tock over and over, with xylophone, woodblock, castanets, glockenspiel, tympani, snare drum and triangle until a final C-sharp (the third of the tonic A-major chord) dings a final punctus, sounded on glockenspiel and celeste. What was Shostakovich thinking? He never explained. He smiled like the Cheshire cat.

Beethoven symphony 9 strings

One last note — There is one symphony ending that has a surprising finish that you almost never phase 4hear. It is buried under a welter of excited sound. When the chorus sings its final “Götterfunken” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the coda that follows builds up steam quickly and drives home to a final D major chord. It is in the final chords that Beethoven hides an extra fillip: He has his fiddles, which are already racing as fast as they can go, double the number of notes they have to play — dig-ga-dig-ga to diggadada–diggadada — and the tympani doubles its speed, too. This detail is usually buried in the overwhelming drive of the rest of the orchestra, but one recording makes the change clear: a 1967 recording by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony, originally released on a London Phase 4 LP, with singers Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Alexander Young and Donald McIntyre. Its drive is overwhelming.