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Chamber music is naked music.

Unlike the big orchestral showpieces, dressed out in brass and percussion, with a hundred musicians tickling your ears, the small combos playing string quartets or piano trios have only their unadorned music to seduce you with. No tam-tam, no shimmer, no tuttis and tooting trumpets.

Symphonies are public; they are oratory. They are campaign speeches for C-major or B-flat-minor. Quartets are personal; they whisper in your ear. They are composers thinking before they speak.

When you listen to Beethoven’s late quartets, you come to that point where the deepest emotions and the most profound thoughts can no longer be separated. They are the same thing.

At its simplest, chamber music is a variety of classical music in which a small number of musicians play together, one to a part, with no conductor. Chamber music is a matter of numbers. Primarily, the number 1.

With an orchestra, you can have 20 violins playing together, or six horns in unison. In chamber music, you normally have one musician to a part. Each plays a separate line of music.

But it’s much more than that.

It is, for most serious lovers of classical music, the purest form of their love; it is music divested of all the frivolous froufrou — the orchestral effects, the grand textures and timbrel mixtures that are the sleight-of-hand of such composers as Berlioz or Strauss.

As cellist Ellen Bial used to say, “The less noise, the more music.”

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In chamber music, there is nothing but the notes, spread across some few instruments, like the outlines of the music, before it is colored over by paint. No yelling, just a word in your ear.

Arnold Steinhardt of the former Guarneri Quartet once called chamber music a “heart-to-heart talk we just had with an audience of strangers.”

It is, perhaps this sense of music as a conversation that is at the heart of chamber music. The sharing is not only between musician and audience, but among the musicians themselves.

“When you play a trio together, or a quartet, you are bonding with your fellow musicians on a very intense level, you are literally breathing together for 30 minutes, trying to be in tune with each other on a millisecond level,” violinist Gil Shaham says. “There is something very intimate about it.”

Intimate and naked: With little variety in sonority or texture, listeners are forced to concentrate on the musical lines. When you listen to an orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition, you can float back in the warm sudsy water of a saxophone pretending to be an old castle or trombones and tubas pretending to be an oxcart.

But when listening to a string quartet, you pay attention not to the sound of the music, but to its line. A symphony is a painting; a quartet is a drawing.

You follow a tune in the first violin and hear it repeated and varied in the cello, bounced back and forth between the players. The viola comments and the second violin chatters away.

The four lines of a quartet are racing along, and the fiddlers toss the tunes back and forth, like rugby players running to the goal.

You could draw the musical lines on paper, seeing where the lines intersect and where they stand alone. Theoretically, no one player is more important than another.

I so love chamber music, that I want to share it with everyone — no, not share, proselytize. This is real music for the real music lover — the kind of person who cannot live without music. 

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Chamber music was originally music performed in a small room (chambre in French), or with no audience at all, but for the sheer pleasure of the musicians.

In the 18th century, when most of the forms of chamber music we know were developed, its audience was almost always aristocratic and educated. Often, the noblemen played music themselves. Joseph Haydn wrote 175 works for baryton, an obscure instrument, half cello, half sitar, that happened to be played by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy.

Suffice it to say, in an era when music served as the prime entertainment form, audiences were as well-versed in the quartet as young people today are in the intricacies of Guitar Hero. They looked for the best in their quartets and trios.

And many amateurs played instruments themselves. Composers made their living supplying the music that was published for people to play in their homes, where Papa might play the violin, Mama the cello and son and daughter second violin and viola.

In the 19th century, many homes had a piano, and bourgeois daughters played four-hand piano reductions of Beethoven symphonies or the latest ballet score. Publishers had to keep up with the demand for sheet music, the way iTunes keeps up today with new MP3s.

Luigi Boccherini wrote 91 string quartets and 110 cello quintets. Giuseppe Maria Cambini wrote 149 quartets. The demand was inexhaustible.

Even today, chamber music is essential for amateur musicians.

Maryellen Gleason was president of the Phoenix Symphony, but she also is an amateur viola player. Each summer she spends a week in Blue Hill, Maine, at the Adult Chamber Music Institute at Kneisel Hall, where she gets to play her viola in quartets of other amateurs.

“It’s something to balance my life,” she says. “I get to play music of composers that I love, and I learn more about the composers that I didn’t know, and I’m just swept up by the vastness of the chamber-music repertory.

“The biggest lesson I learn there is just how difficult it is to be a musician. It’s a very humbling experience.”

Even among professional musicians, the music often was played for their own enjoyment without any audience.

Symphony musicians play it to recapture their love of music, which, for some of them, has turned from their passion into their job.

And, instead of having a single leader governing how to play the music, you haggle it out with the other members of the group in rehearsal, coming to a consensus about tempo, balance, tone.

“It’s a democracy that actually works,” violinist Ida Kavafian said. “For the most part.”

The Guarneri is famous for its discussions — read “fights” — about the music. You can see this in the 1989 film that was made about the group, High Fidelity, directed by Allan Miller. One wants more vibrato and a romantic phrasing, but another objects, demanding a drier phrasing. Eventually, they come to an understanding, but the tension continues into performance, where they pick up on little things the others do.

“There is a constant give and take,” says violist Nancy Buck, who teaches at Arizona State University and plays with the Phoenix Piano Quartet.

“Being able to pick up on the cues the others give — it could be the way someone breathes, the gesture — these are intimate cues, like looking at body language or eyes when you’re talking to someone.”

It is music as intelligent, engaging conversation.

“When I was in college,” says pianist Walter Cosand, “they told us, ‘You might have to starve to be a musician, but you’ll have a lot of fun playing chamber music.’ “

 

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There is an arithmetic of chamber music, almost a numerology.

Four is best, three almost as good. Above nine, things get crowded.

Chamber music comes in many combinations of instruments. The biggest divider is music with piano and music without. Add a piano to a string quartet and you have a piano quintet. Here’s a list of some of the most familiar, and some famous compositions you might consider to enjoy the ensembles.

Solo — Unless he or she’s playing a piano, you don’t find too many cases of a lone performer onstage. It can be tough to hold an audience for an hour if all you have is a cello, unless, of course, you are Yo-Yo Ma. But there are exceptions. Composers have written works for flute, clarinet, even bassoon. But the acme of all such are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, the ne plus ultra of serious music. As an old teacher of mine once said, “They seem to me to be the only truly serious music ever written.” You can lose yourself in that vibrating string, for instance, the opening allemande from the Partita in d minor.

Or consider Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute.

Duo — Things open up when you have two people to engage in conversation. Most often, this will be a piano accompanying a solo instrument. There are hundreds of such sonatas, for violin, for flute, for tuba. By far, the largest number of such sonatas are for violin and piano, and were written by composers from Bach to Philip Glass. 

Beethoven wrote his “Spring” sonata in 1801. The opening movement is tuneful and vernal. Prokofiev wrote his Sonata No. 2 in 1943. The finale is a blast. 

Trio — The piano trio is second only to the string quartet in frequency in the chamber-music repertoire. Piano, violin and cello is the normal lineup, although there are trios with clarinet or horn instead (Brahms wrote one of each of those). One of the most moving is Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-minor, op. 67. The fourth movement features a Jewish-inflected “Dance of Death. More graceful is the fourth movement of Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio; watch on the YouTube video as the musicians watch each other and pay attention. 

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The string quartet needs a section all its own. 

The quartet is the quintessence of chamber music: Four voices ranged as the human voice — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. First violin, second violin, viola and cello.

Or as the old joke has it: A guy who plays the violin really well; a guy who plays the violin less well; a guy who used to play the violin; and a guy who hates the violin.

The fiddle family is flexible, capable of the same microtonal inflections the voice has, and can be just as expressive. Put four of them together in four-part harmony and you have the rock-solid core of the repertoire, from Joseph Haydn to Philip Glass.

“It combines the highest aspect of performance skills, the soloistic qualities you need but also the ensemble skills, knowing how to blend,” violist and quartet-member Nancy Buck says.

It’s that counterpoise that defines a successful quartet: the individual blending with the group. Always maintaining separateness but making a beautiful sound together.

But it isn’t just the instruments: The quartet literature is the highest and best thoughts of the greatest composers. Many, including Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bartok, used the medium for their most personal music. Their symphonies spoke their public thoughts; their quartets, their private musings.

Often very private: Beethoven asked the question, “Must it be?” — he even wrote it in the score — for the last movement of his final quartet, and answers “It must be;” Bedrich Smetana had the first violin in his First Quartet play a high harmonic “E” midway through the finale that mimicked the whine of the tinnitus that plagued him as he slid into deafness; Alban Berg hid the name of his adulterous lover in the Allegro Misterioso of his Lyric Suite; and Dimitri Shostakovich put his own name into the notes of his Eighth Quartet, an almost nihilistic introspection on the devastation of World War II. This is the second movement. 

These are all just movements in larger works. Here are two of the monuments of the quartet literature complete. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A-minor, op. 132 and Bela Bartok’s Fifth Quartet. 

A quartet doesn’t have to be all strings. There are many written for piano, violin, viola and cello. Mozart did it, Schumann did it. But the best are the three by Johannes Brahms. Try his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 26. Here is the finale. 

The practice of quartet writing continues. Here is the finale of Philip Glass’ Quartet No. 3, which served as the score for Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. 

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Taking up the arithmetic again: 

Quintet — Take a string quartet and add a cello and you have a cello quintet. Add a viola and you have a viola quintet. Mozart wrote six of them. But add Franz Schubert and you have the “Trout” Quintet, the single most perfect, bubbly, tuneful work in the whole chamber-music repertoire. 

On the opposite expressive end, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music in the whole repertoire, if you let Schubert add a second cello, you get the profound Quintet in C. You can hardly get more innigkeit than the second movement adagio

Sextet — The more instruments you add, the further you get from the basic quartet. And with great sextets by Brahms and Dvorak, we’re still recommending Arnold Schoenberg’s powerfully rich and romantic Transfigured Night.

There is also Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34, written for clarinet, string quartet and piano.

Septet — Believe it or not, during Beethoven’s life his most popular composition was not his great Ninth Symphony or his Emperor Concerto, but rather his more modest Septet, for the eclectic group of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and double bass. It’s still fun.

The Septet in E-flat major, Op. 65, for trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass by Camille Saint-Saens — often considered the most major of all the minor composers — is one of his greatest pieces.

Octet — Put two string quartets together and you have an octet. The one Felix Mendelssohn wrote when he was just 16 has never been beat. It is chamber music of the highest order. No greater music was ever written by someone as young. And there is little music less effervescent than its scherzo

But for sheer cleverness, consider Darius Milhaud’s Octet, Op. 291, which isn’t just an octet. It is his quartets number 14 and 15 performed at the same time. Neat trick. 

Igor Stravinsky said (he is notably unreliable) that the idea for his Wind Octet came to him in a dream.

Nonet — Getting to the high end of chamber music — any more and you start to look for a conductor. One of the only nonets to make it into the standard repertoire is the one by Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven. There aren’t very many nonets, but Ludwig Spohr’s is the most frequently performed, as long as you don’t count PDQ Bach’s No-No, Nonette for assorted winds and toys.

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10 — Georges Enescu wrote his Decet for Winds in D, Op. 14, in 1906 for double wind quintet, with two flutes, oboes, horns, clarinets and bassoons; one oboist doubled on English horn.

11 — In 1918, Igor Stravinsky wrote a Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a prime example of “Uncle Igor’s Asymmetry Machine.”

12 — Milton Babbitt wrote 12-tone music, so it is hardly surprising that he wrote one of those ear-busting pieces, 1948’s Composition for 12 Instruments, a duodecet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, celesta, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

13 — One of Mozart’s greatest masterworks is his Serenade No. 10 for 12 Winds and Double Bass, in B-flat major, K. 361, also called the “Gran Partita.” This is one you shouldn’t miss. The third movement adagio is beautifully appreciated by Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus:

“On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

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And beyond — As we climb up the number ladder, the works become more and more orchestral sounding, even if there is one player per part.

Where can it end?

Richard Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo string instruments, but it is as lush as any Strauss orchestral piece.

Clearly, we’re out of the range of chamber music, but still in the “one voice per part” mode. In 1540, Thomas Tallis wrote his famous Spem in Alium (“Hope in any other”), a religious motet for eight choirs of five voices each, for a total of 40 individual solo lines. That may hold the record.

I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

Click on any image to enlarge

 

This comes more than 50 years late, but I need to thank Lauren Goldstein. Laurie was my high school girlfriend and she gave me one of the most important gifts of my life.


Sometimes it takes a while for a gift to become clear. Even to know that it was a gift. Its impact can accumulate over an entire life. I am now 71 and for the past 50 years music has been central to my existence. As Nietzsche once said, “Life without music would be a mistake.” And Laurie gave me the music and my life has not been a mistake. 

There was almost no music in my house when I was growing up. The most we heard was probably watching the Perry Como show on TV. For most of my childhood, there was no phonograph, no guitar, no sheet music. Eventually, there was a Lowery organ and my mother would sometimes play by ear. She was quite talented, but only sat down at the keyboard maybe once a year, maybe once every two years. 

My brother and I took lessons briefly, but we didn’t practice and, frankly, it seemed like homework. The major cultural influence in our house was television. It was that bleak. 

But Laurie changed all that. She was a musician. And not just a girl playing glockenspiel in the marching band: She was a bassoonist taking lessons from one of the world’s great bassoonists. She also played piano with grace and style. 

I, of course, was just a pimply-faced kid, a high school junior when we started dating. For the next year and a half, until we grew apart as we went off to different colleges, it was a graduate course in music for me. 

Loren Glickman

Laurie was studying with Loren Glickman, the bassoonist who plays the high-pitched, incredibly difficult solo on the famous recording of The Rite of Spring conducted by Stravinsky himself. He also plays the beautiful bassoon part in Stravinsky’s recording of his Octet for Winds. Laurie and I went to several concerts to hear him perform. I still remember his Mozart concerto distinctly — he played with more rubato and freedom than is usual. It was a delight. It wasn’t just a collection of tunes, but rather, it had meaning. 

But it wasn’t only Glickman. We went to many concerts together, especially the New School concerts given by violinist Alexander Schneider and his pick-up ensemble. I can still name many of those tremendous musicians who played with him: Leonard Arner, Charlie Russo, Robert Nagel. They all went on to become the core of New York’s Mostly Mozart series. Those New School concert tickets were $3. We could afford them. And on Christmas Eve, we went to Carnegie Hall for Schneider’s annual concert. It was a rich education for the ear. Family complained I wasn’t spending that time with relatives, but I certainly felt closer to the music than I did to the clan. 

Alexander Schneider

Schneider was an especially intense musician, he would sit in his concertmaster’s chair to lead the orchestra and wrap his right leg around the chair leg like a snake on a caduceus, as if to anchor himself as he leaned forcefully into the music. As the twig is bent, they say, so inclines the tree, and this early exposure to the Schneider brand of music has informed my entire subsequent life in listening. There was a take-no-prisoners attitude to Schneider’s playing that told me music was not merely entertainment, but truly serious business. 

He was most famous as a member of the Budapest String Quartet, but I knew him in New York leading concerts and playing his fiddle. He made precious few recordings that are still available, but the best is a series he made with his own group, the Schneider Quartet, of the Haydn quartets. It was supposed to be all of them, but money ran out and they managed to record 53 of the more than 80 quartets Haydn wrote. The set is still a monument, not only to Haydn, but to quartet playing. I would not be without this set, which is still available, nearly 70 years after they were recorded, now on CD. 

Laurie and I would sit on her couch at home and make out, high-school style in that gentler age, with Stravinsky playing on the phonograph, or La Mer or Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata. Once, her uncle Bucky came over and Laurie accompanied him on piano as he played a Beethoven violin sonata on his Geige — admittedly a squeaky and sour version as only a heedlessly self-confident amateur could manage. 

As I thank Laurie for this gift of music, I need to express my gratitude also to her mother, Esther, who nurtured my nascent interest. She seemed to see something in me that no one else did and encouraged me to follow art and culture. She also gave me a huge pile of old 78 rpm records from her own youth. The day of the 78 was quite past, but all record players still had a setting to play them. 

Among those recordings are some that are still the ur-performances for me: Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Frederick Stock; William Kincaid and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Telemann Suite in A-minor for flute and orchestra; Alice Ehlers on harpsichord playing Bach; Rafael Puyana playing the De Falla Harpsichord Concerto. Leo Slezak singing Schubert’s Erlkönig, Ungeduld and Heidenröslein. I played them over and over. There must have been 50 discs. Among them, I first heard Brahms’ Second, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth (the latter with Stokowski and Philadelphia), Bach’s Brandenburgs, and Weinberger’s Schwanda: Polka and Fugue. It was an eclectic mix. 

It was a revelation to see an entire family for whom art, music, literature were not only central, but a vivifying force in life. For whom culture created meaning. 

So, when I went off to college, I may have majored in English, but I minored in music, learned to read scores and harmonically analyze them, studied (rather pathetically) piano and listened to every recording I could get my hands on, spending all my spare cash on Nonesuch, Turnabout, Vox, Seraphim and Crossroads LPs — they were the cheap labels. 

Later in life, many of the concerts I went to were among the most signal events for me, deepening my psyche and opening new worlds of emotional response. Along with that came opera and ballet, theater and film, these were the “lively arts,” and gave me a living. I eventually became a classical music critic for a big-city daily newspaper. 

Laurie Goldstein and me, prom 1965

As for Laurie, when she graduated high school, she went on to study with Bernard Garfield, the long-time first-chair bassoonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She became a respected professional and played for and recorded with composers as widely different as PDQ Bach and Philip Glass. 

If it had not been for Laurie, I don’t know if I would have been introduced to classical music. I’m sure I was bound to enter a life of art and intellect somehow, but for me, music is the heart of it all. I love visual art and literature, but if I had to lose a sense, my hearing would be my last choice. I cannot imagine life without the Beethoven quartets, the symphonies of Haydn, the operas of Mozart. Or the music of Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich or Barber or Glass. Or Ellington or Coltrane, or the Beatles. Music fills my insides and makes me more human. 

Thank you, Laurie. Thank you. 

Yo-Yo Ma is god. I don’t know anyone with an informed opinion who would disagree with the assessment, even atheists. There are some excellent cellists out there today, and who I would give good money to hear, but Yo-Yo is in a class by himself.

But even a god has his gods, and Yo-Yo Ma has now recorded the words of his own god three times; the first in 1983, when he was 28, and said himself at the time that he was too young; the second in 1998, when he was 43; and finally (he says) in a new version released this week, when he is 63. That music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are the words god might speak to you in a still small voice inside your soul. 

I have spent the past four days listening to his performances, and have gone through the newest set three times, and individual pieces more than that. No current cellist has such a personal take on the music as Yo-Yo Ma.

(I’m going to continue with his full name. The Associated Press stylebook says that on second reference, I should just call him “Ma,” but that seems too perfunctory; “Mr. Ma,” as The New York Times would use it, sounds too much like a Bond villain, and “Yo-Yo” is out of the question, being too familiar — would a Christian call Jehovah “Joe?”)

There is something that sometimes happens with a master artist, who has so mastered his craft, that he feels free to take his work into new and personal spaces. Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1980 with the Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan, when she was 17; and again in 2002 with the New York Phil and Kurt Masur, when she was nearly 40. The first is a nearly pitch-perfect mainstream performance — the standard recording for anyone — and has seldom been done as well, not to say bettered. The second is so idiosyncratic that it almost seems like a different concerto. The second is deeply personal.

So, when Yo-Yo Ma made his first attempt at the Bach Unaccompanieds (I don’t mind using the nickname for the music) he seemed to want to make sure he dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees. It is a note-perfect recording that would be a fine set for anyone who only wanted or needed one, but to me, it is oddly unsatisfying. It lacks personality. What can I say? He was young. 

I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play all six live in concert twice, and both times, the concert is deeply remembered as one of the pinnacles of my concert-going career. Live, Yo-Yo Ma earns his godhead. No one I have ever heard has come close to the depth and interiority of his interpretations. The audience sat rapt for two-and-a-half hours hearing the music, not as entertainment, but as their very personal insides brought out to see and hear. 

I have heard him live on other occasions where he would play one of the Bach Suites as an encore. Each time, they brought the house to a reverent stand-still.

Alex Ross — former music critic for The New Yorker — wrote this about a 2017 performance by Yo-Yo Ma of all six Suites at the Hollywood Bowl — a venue not known for the attention spans of its patrons: “Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world … he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue … [The audience] was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark.”

That is the Yo-Yo Ma I know from hearing him in person. 

(An aside: Yo-Yo Ma in person and on recording are very different. This happens sometimes. In the studio, he seems to want to be note-perfect and thought-out. His studio recordings are models of propriety and elegance, but they lack the electric presence and risk-taking of his live performances. I remember hearing him play the Dvorak concerto in Phoenix in the 1990s, and the performance nearly destroyed me, it was so deeply emotional. His studio recording is tremendous, but cannot bring me to the same tears. Yo-Yo Ma is not alone in this. For years I thought of conductor Bernard Haitink as a mere Kappelmeister, plodding along competently. I had only heard recordings. But when I heard him do the Eroica with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he blew me away with the most powerful Eroica I ever heard live. And Kurt Masur had something of the same reputation. On CD, his performances can be competent but routine. But I heard him live with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in the Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Eighth that were soul-searing. Sometimes the recording is a miserable liar.)

But what about this new recording. It is not the one for a beginner: It is too idiosyncratic. But for anyone familiar with the music, the latest version provides almost constant new insight into the music — and not only into the music, but into human existence; into the cosmos. 

One aspect of the recording merits special mention: its engineering. One reviewer said it sounds as if we are hearing the music from inside the cello. There is a presence to the sound that is closer to having the performance in the room, live with you, than any recording I have come across before. You can feel the buzz of the low notes in your very sternum. It is body-feel as well as ear-sound. 

There are details to mention. In the Prelude of the first suite, about two-thirds of the way through, the music climbs the scale up to a fermata — a held note — which is usually played as the top of a crescendo. It is the climax of the movement. Here, Yo-Yo Ma gives us instead a diminuendo, so the final held note is a hush. In the Courente of the second suite, he takes off like a house on fire, twice the speed I’m used to. He brings a sense of spontaneity to his performance that can only come from having played the music since he was four years old (yes, he began, taught by his father, from before he even began school). 

No music I know is more interior than these suites, and the older Yo-Yo Ma gets, the more Innigkeit his performance. 

His second two sets each has a gimmick. In 1989, it was a series of six short videos made in collaboration with six different film directors and various other collaborators. In some, the suites are not even heard in their entirety. (The CD release is complete, however). 

In this new set, Yo-Yo Ma makes the case for understanding the six suites as a single artistic entity, a kind of through-composed drama, over two-and-a-half hours. There’s playfulness in the first suite, grief in the second, celebration in the third, contemplation in the fourth, the weight of the world in the fifth, and in the sixth, written in a higher tessitura (originally for a smaller, five-string instrument) what can only be called transcendence. Over those two-and-a-half hours, we are given not a potpourri or melange, but a psychic and emotional journey. 

The crux of this journey is the Sarabande of the fifth suite. Only 20 bars long, it is the bearer of all the weight, the moment the tenor of the music changes. Cellist Paul Tortelier called it “an extension of silence.” Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. 

After its depths, everything to come is a dawning of light. That Sarabande is a single line of melody, arpeggiated  and coming to rest after every phrase in a note dropped deep into a well of sadness. It is a movement that requires the uttermost from a musician. It is so simple that underplaying it will let all the power out of it, but overplaying it can sound mawkish. Yo-Yo Ma invests it with such mournful simplicity, varying his tempo by minute amounts, hardly measurable, but carrying all the expressivity. I dare you to hear this movement without weighing your life in the balance and weeping. 

His only competition for this is the man who resurrected the suites after finding a copy in a junk shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo Casals made the suites the core of cello repertoire; they had been before that considered mere practice etudes. Casals recorded all six between 1936 and 1939 and set the mark rather high, expressively. For me, they have never been bested, not even by Yo-Yo Ma. They are old, scratchy recordings and allowances have to be made, not only for the engineering shortcomings, but also for Casals’ technique; it was the best, even brilliant for its time, but decades of cellists working out fingerings and bowings have made later performances more natural under the fingers. But for profundity and emotion, Casals has never been bested.

Yo-Yo Ma, live, plays them in such a way that they break any separation between musician and audience. The thoughts expressed in the music are the not so much conveyed to the listener as momently co-experienced by performer and audience. It is something they discover deep in themselves, and for the moment, there is no difference between audience, cellist and Bach himself. They are at one.

When Casals plays, however, it is as if he is playing for God alone. He is alone in the room with the paraclete, discussing the Cosmos. 

Surely no real music lover can live with only one set of performances. I have Casals, all three Yo-Yo Mas, Pierre Fournier, Anner Bylsma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Jaap ter Linden. There are also many performances on YouTube, including a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing all six at the Proms in London in 2015 (link here). 

For those for whom one version is sufficient, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s second set. They are deep but not idiosyncratic. If you want to dive deeper, get Casals (remastered by Ward Marston on Naxos) and Yo-Yo Ma’s newest set. You cannot go wrong with Fournier or Rostropovich. There are almost no bad recordings. 

But excuse me now, I’m going back into my fourth listening to the new set. I don’t think it is possible to get tired of this music. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, to do so would be to tire of life. 

My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.

If you were to name the greatest composers in the Western musical tradition, three or four names would come up uncontested.

Yes, you might have your favorites beyond these, and good arguments can be made, but by consensus, you would have to name Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and …

Bach, because he is the source. He towers above everyone in his emotional power and technical brilliance. Different composers can fill the needs of various moods, but you can listen to Bach in any mood. He is universal.

Mozart, because no one ever had such fluency of expression or more immediate melody. Music seemed to grow from him like peaches from a tree.

Beethoven, because no one ever strove higher or struggled more painfully to find the exact note, the exact emotion, the exact nexus of human and transcendent.

And …

You might nominate Richard Wagner, or Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms or Claude-Achille Debussy. Stravinsky or Schoenberg. All good choices, in their way, but the name that comes up more than any other as worthy of the company of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is Franz Joseph Haydn, yet he is so often overlooked. His name does not spring up with the alacrity of the Big Three, but is almost always mentioned: And yes, there is Haydn.

Why is he given such short shrift? He is one of the Big Four. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet; at least gave them the form we have encountered them ever since. And the wealth of his invention is mind boggling. He wrote 104 symphonies (depending on how you count), with almost as many minuets and yet, not one of those minuets  could be mistaken for any other. How can you create that many third movements and yet make each one emotionally, melodically and rhythmically distinct? And memorable.

His music has never left the repertoire, but is so often played as a warm-up piece to start a quartet recital, or tucked into a symphony program before the Big Piece after the intermission. We pay him lip service, but seldom really listen. Mostly, he is a pleasant bit of music before we have to wake up for the Mahler or Sibelius that will follow.

I believe the reason is that for many of the more popular composers, you don’t actually have to listen: You can let the music wash over you in emotional colors and flavors. You just float downstream with the tunes. (I don’t mean that if you do actively listen, you won’t find a logical argument, but that for most concertgoers, the musical argument is beside the point; Tchaikovsky swells your heart whether you recognize a sonata form or a polonaise).

But Haydn is music meant to be listened to actively, because what he does in his work is to give you a pattern of notes, and then take you on a journey of wit, through the permutations afforded by that pattern of notes. Your ability to follow all the clever things he does is the key to your understanding — and your pleasure. Yes, there are some good tunes, but they are the grist for his art, not the point of it.

Certainly, all good composers do this, but none to quite the degree you find with Haydn, or to quite the point. Through most of his career, he wasn’t writing for the common public, but for a sophisticated audience, who could follow his clever construction and deconstruction of the sonata form, or the variation form. In other words, they listened actively. I.e., they got the joke.

Nikolaus I

His boss through most of his time at the Esterhazy estate was Prince Nikolaus, an avid music lover and himself a performer on the baryton — a now obsolete instrument, a sort of combination cello and guitar. Haydn wrote 126 trios for his employer to play on that instrument.

Because the prince was musically knowledgable, his court followed suit, and it meant that Haydn could inject his music with many a musical in-joke his audience would enjoy. I use the word, “joke,” but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be overtly funny. No, the “joke” was some catch or punchline the audience was meant to pick up on, like an odd key change, or the turning upside-down of a them. Some of them are funny, but the point is the wit — the cleverness.

Wit is a word that meant something different, larger and more important in the 18th century than it does now. We tend to use the word as synonymous with “comedy.” We expect to laugh at wit. A witty saying, a witty remark.

But in the century of Haydn (and before, to some extent), wit was an entire class of thinking. It meant, as Sam Johnson expressed it, “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Or in his other formulation: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

An easy example: his Symphony No. 60 in C, called “Il Distratto,” or the absent minded, or distracted. The first movement is a pile of jokes, from the very first notes: a pompous introductory fanfare that goes absolutely nowhere, followed by a spritely tune. In Haydn’s style, a first theme is usually followed by a second theme in a contrasting key and mood. But here, the second theme also goes nowhere; it consists of just one note and its ornaments, over and over, losing speed and energy until, as if the orchestra has forgotten where it is and what it is doing, suddenly wakes up and charges ahead with renewed energy. (Link here).

The conductor Kenneth Woods describes it as funny and modern. “Possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written”, going on to say that “Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”

And at the very end, the orchestra stops, mid-phrase, and retunes the violins, before getting back to business. Yes, that is musical slapstick, but no one did it any better before PDQ Bach.

Or the finale of his Symphony No. 61, a sprightly prestissimo punctuated throughout by comic oboes playing the same two notes over and over again. Never changing; over and over. Da-dah. (Link here). Da-dah. (Click on the timing listed in the dooblydoo for the last movement).

Or the opening of final movement his quartet, Op. 76, no. 5, which places the kind of cadential chords used to punctuate the end of a movement instead at the very beginning. (Link here). And, of course, the movement ends with the same final chords.

Fugue theme, Symphony No. 70

My favorite is the finale of Symphony No. 70, which begins with a joke: Five repeated notes, quietly played, repeated several times, lulling you into a reverie, then, the same five notes blasted at full volume, waking you up. It does this again, and you figure, this is going to be one of Haydn’s great jests, then, just when you think you have it figured out, a great, furious and very serious fugue breaks out, occupying the center of the movement. Finally, back to the five-note joke, ending with a forte crash of those notes. Light-hearted, or deadly serious — you can’t tell. (Link here). That is yoking heterogeneous ideas together by violence.

But it all depends on an audience with some knowledgable expectation of what is likely to happen, so when it doesn’t, it comes as a delightful surprise. If you don’t have this background, it just becomes pleasant tunes.

The string quartets came with a knowledgable audience built in. They were not meant so much to be heard by an audience, as played by amateur musicians at home, and so the pleasure in them is as much in the playing as in the hearing. And the wit is there for the musicians to enjoy.

When Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn was freed to travel and make his reputation outside the estate. His music became more public, and instead of his symphonies being made up of cleverness piled on cleverness for the delectation of connoisseurs, he made them bigger, louder and gave each one at least one great joke for the middle-class audiences to remember, like the most memorable scene from a movie they could talk about over coffee after it was over. So, there is the tympani bang in the “Surprise” symphony, the Turkish military band in Symphony No. 100, the tick-tock in his “Clock” symphony and the righteous, bumptious fart joke made by the contrabassoon in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 93.

This is not to imply that Haydn was all punchlines and gags. There is great depth of emotion in many of his works. Take for one, the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical piece, originally for orchestra and later turned into a piece for string quartet (the version most often heard today). It is eight great adagios, one after the other, meant to evoke an introduction and the last seven utterances of Jesus on the cross (Link here). It is Haydn’s genius to be able to write them so distinctly that you never have the feeling of one long slow piece, but rather seven great, separate meditations.

Or, the Piano Variations in F-minor, written over the death of his closest female friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger, one of his most sober compositions.

Sometimes Haydn’s wit is funny. Sometimes, it is profound. It is always surprising. It is meant to surprise.

And Haydn’s wit can be found in some of his most serious works. The opening of his oratorio, The Creation, depicts primordial chaos in a disjunctive series of phrases and fragments in disparate tonalities (Link here). And when, after that, the choir sings, very quietly, “And God said, let there be light, and there was …” all heavens break out in trumpets and kettle drums  in a great C-major chord” “LIGHT!!!!” (Link here). It is a simple, even naive effect, but in live performance can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Wit can also render the sublime.

Of all the great composers, Haydn seems the most sane and even-tempered. Bach could bluster to city officials and get into fights. Mozart could squander his money. Beethoven had his heaven-storming bouts of choler. But Haydn found decent happiness on this earth and expressed in his music a satisfying sense of order and sanguinity, if occasionally a touch of mischief. His is the happiest music I know that is not also simple-minded.

I spend this much time on Haydn, because I love him. As I get older, I find that Haydn’s music has a staying power that sustains me. I can confidently turn to any piece and find deep and abiding pleasure.

deep end of the poolThere are two approaches to learning: Some prefer to take small steps and try out the simplest and easiest first; others like to dive headfirst into the deep end of the pool.

When it comes to classical music, the first approach is most common. We don’t want to scare our pupil, so we spoon feed the shorter, easier, more comfortable pieces to them: a Chopin waltz or a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. At its worst, this leads to a belief in the student, that classical music is a warm bath to soak in, a place to let your mind drift, to let soothing images wander through your imagination.

Dickand JaneThe “Dick and Jane” approach, though, can be patronizing. If you have a real hunger for emotional and intellectual depth, the approach trivializes the subject. It pretends that the more difficult music isn’t the real heart of classical music, but some sort of broccoli to be had along with your Satie Gymnopedie or your Carmen Suite. Classical music is meant to be listened to with intensity and focus, as you might read Dostoevsky or a Greek tragedy. If your mind wanders, you have lost the trail.

I recently wrote a blog about sharing my music with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose; she, in turn, shared with me her contemporary indie-pop music (You can find it here: https://richardnilsen.com/2016/03/14/both-sides-now).

The response to this blog entry was overwhelming: More people have clicked on it than any other, and the comments added to it are legion. The piece must have hit a nerve.

Among those comments have been a number of repeated questions, and one of those is a request for further “guidance,” as to what to listen to in order to become more familiar with classical music. There is a hunger out there for something more serious or formal than the 3-minute song.

So, I’m assuming an adventurous listener, perhaps with a collection of Frank Zappa, Nick Cave or Radiohead. That is a listener who does not want to start out on baby food, but wants to dive into the deep end, who wants to drink the hard stuff.

So, here is my preliminary list of deep-end music for those who want to find out what classical music is really all about: It isn’t about style (there is a great deal of so-called classical music that is really just the conventional style of its day and has no particular claim to posterity — one thinks of Ditters von Dittersdorf or Friedrich Kalkbrenner) but about sounding depths, expanding on form, creating sound narratives and searching for meaning. I have written in the past that the essential question of classical music is “How do you write a piece of music that lasts longer than three minutes?”monk stamp And that the idea of classical music needs to be expanded to include the classical musics of other cultures, such as that of India or Japan, and also to include jazz, which is really just another classical music, at least in the hands of its most serious practitioners, such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.

But here, I am going to restrict myself to what is commonly called classical music: the European-American tradition of art music.

So, here’s a first go-round of suggestions for the brave new listener.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge. Originally the final movement of his string quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, it proved to challenging for both the audiences and the performers of his day, so he felt compelled to write a replacement for it and publish the fugue separately as his Op. 133. It might be the toughest nut to crack in all of classical music. In it, Beethoven builds such a huge double fugue (that is, a fugue not on one theme, but on two themes played simultaneously, upping the ante and the difficulty by not doubling, but squaring the complexity), that it breaks the mold of what a fugue can be, as the fiddlers nearly saw their instruments in half. Playing this music is like taming wild tigers. If you survive this, everything else is a piece of cake.

grosse fuge furtwangler

There is one performance that nearly tames this wild animal, and that is a recording from 1954 with conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler leading the Vienna Philharmonic in an orchestral version of the music. It can be found on You Tube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSfcE3HH7dk.

Grosse fuge animation

A version for quartet in more modern sound can be had from an unidentified quartet with an entertaining animation that makes visual the notes at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s0Mp7LFI-k.

polonaise fantaisie horowitz

Frederic Chopin, Polonaise Fantaisie, Op. 61. This must be the hairiest thing Chopin ever wrote, incomprehensible on first listening — it seems to wander and never make up its mind. But after many hearings, it is one of the high points of western music. Give it a chance. Those opening chords are the most desolate in all music, especially the way Vladimir Horowitz plays them. Horowitz owned this piece. Here he is from 1966 in Carnegie Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI38MuQ4YdQ.

bach chaconne heifetz

Johann Sebastian Bach, Chaconne from Partita in D-minor for solo violin. A great teacher of mine said that this is what he called “serious” music, that is, music not meant to paint a picture or tell a story, but music so abstract, so pure as to exist practically in a Platonic realm. On a single fiddle, he has the violinist play variants of the same series of chords over and over, gaining in depth and complexity as it moves along. Here is Jascha Heifetz playing at about the age of 70. It doesn’t get much better than this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q-Zqz7mNjQ.

bach chaconne grimaud

For contrast, the Chaconne has been transcribed several times for piano. Here is Helene Grimaud playing it as opened up by the great pianist Ferruccio Busoni (don’t expect pure Bach; this is a 19th century re-imagining, but it is glorious): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw9DlMNnpPM.

bartok quartet

Bela Bartok, String Quartet No. 5. Written in 1934, Bartok’s next-to-last string quartet is a model of construction, built in an arch-like form, so that it moves fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, with key structures and melodies equally symmetrical. The two slow movements imitate the sounds of night, with chirping and cawing, crickets and crows. The central movement is in a time signature typical of Bulgarian folk music, with beats broken up into nines broken into patterns of 4+2+3 and later into tens, broken into 3+2+2+3. And, in the finale, just before the end, you hear an imitation of a hurdy gurdy. It’s a lot to fit into a tightly argued quartet. Here it is played by the Hungarian String Quartet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMjRjLHbacw

berg violin concerto

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto. This is one of the most emotionally draining pieces of music from the 20th century, written “in memory of an angel,” the angel being Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma

Manon Gropius

Manon Gropius

Mahler and Walter Gropius. Manon died a teenager from Polio in 1934 and Berg, who was exceptionally close to the family, wrote this concerto in elegy. It is composed in the 12-tone technique, but in an accessible style, because the tone-row he built the music around has obvious tonal implications. It is heartfelt and moving, and in the final movement, the last notes of the tone row miraculously turn into the Bach chorale, “Is est Genug,” “It is enough.” If you can hear this and not blubber like a baby, you are more stalwart than me. Anne-Sophie Mutter, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd0dMs0MTg8.