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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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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

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

Then came Beethoven. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Liszt Sonata in B-minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not on the list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternate takes: Chartres cathedral; George Washington Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Edward Elgar, 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in bed, having trouble getting to sleep, and so making mental lists instead of counting sheep. I made a list of the CDs I would keep, if allowed only one per composer, then if allowed 1 boxed set for each of the dozen major composers, then… well, it went on and I still couldn’t fall asleep. I had made probably half a dozen lists when I began a list of the most beautiful human-made things, one visual, one musical, one verbal, etc. 

Filling in the list was surprisingly easy, considering how many nominees should be considered, but I had no trouble finding single primary answers, which surprised me. 

I’ve written numerous times that the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen, visually, is the north rose window at Chartres Cathedral. I’ve been there four times (five if you count multiple visits to the cathedral over a two-day visit to the town), and I never fail to fall spellbound by that tumbling wheel of light. Its beauty is not found in how pretty the colors are, but in something transcendent — the intent of the Gothic idea of architecture, that if God is light, then a building that celebrates light celebrates God. Even as a non-believer, I can appreciate that glimpse of eternity. The north window is singular in its design, with its set of 12 diamonds turning over and over as they circle the center, giving an illusion of motion — as of angels dancing around divinity. 

I love all the rose windows I’ve seen, but the north rose of Chartres is the dance of the cosmos. 

And if I had only one piece of music to listen to, it would be Der Abschied, the final half-hour song that finishes Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Every time I listen to it, I dissolve into a puddle of helpless emotion, filled to the brim with the sense of eternity and the world. I have heard countless versions of Der Abschied — I own more than a dozen recordings — and I have my favorites, but even the least of them leaves me wrung dry. 

Das Lied von der Erde is a set of six songs, supposedly translated from Chinese into German and published, among other poems, in 1907 in a book titled Die chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”), by Hans Bethge. Mahler set his selection of six to orchestral music so rich as to be fattening. The final song, as long as the first five together, tells of the departure of a friend. The poet confronts the beauty of nature around him as he waits for the friend so they may make their farewells. Each stanza is alternated with long orchestral interludes of refined delicacy. 

The music ends — if it can be said to end at all — with lines Mahler wrote himself, perhaps sensing his own imminent death: “Die liebe Erde allüberall/ Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!/ Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!” And then, repeated and repeated, ever more quietly and hesitantly, “Ewig … Ewig … … Ewig” — “Forever … Forever … … Forever” — until at last you can barely hear the word, and the music dies.

“The dear earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew!/ Everywhere and forever blue lightens the horizon!” and “Ewig … Ewig…” 

These choices came to me almost instantly, without having to think. There are other obvious choices that could be made. Other works of art that are profoundly beautiful, other music nearly as affecting. I have stood rapt in front of the Mary Queen of Heaven at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and been knocked silent by the pears and apples of Cezanne. And nearly as gut-slamming as Der Abschied is Richard Strauss’ Im Abendrot, the final of his Four Last Songs. Or a dozen other paintings and musics. 

As I lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, I rifled through my brain trying to remember a poem that moves me the same way, or any piece of literature: words that leave me drained each time. I went through all the major English poets — and there is plenty of poetry that moves me deeply — and even poems in translation. But the one poem that came back and slapped me upside the head isn’t by Yeats or Wordsworth, but by Carole Steele, my late wife. It is the first poem in her book, 42 Poems.

Carole was the genuine article. And that poem brings me to tears every time. Certainly part of my response comes from the 35 years we spent together, and the overwhelming sense of loss at her death five years ago. But I had the same response when she was alive: This is a poem that makes the connection between the inner and outer worlds; it responds to the physicality of the world in words that startle in their aptness, and combines the directness of childhood with a slant acknowledgement of death, and the awareness that others share in the knowledge of beauty. It isn’t the particular example that counts, but the shared awareness of its existence. 

We may all have different ideas of beauty, and you can each make your own list, but what must be common in all of them is the engagement. Beauty does not work as some passive prettiness outside the psyche. Pretty is not Beauty. Pretty is what is conventional. Beauty is the result of engagement and the creation of meaning. It is an awareness between you and the cosmos, each of the other. It is the recognition, sometimes startling in its suddenness, of the wholeness of it all, of its permanence and its evanescence. 

I have thought for more than 70 years about this. The world is many things, and it offers a share of misery, pain and loss, there is war and death, but it also affords moments of epiphany, the breakthrough of beauty, like the red glow in the black ashy cracks of a dying fire. 

This can easily devolve into “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” but I mean something more difficult. Yes, I resonate to warm spring rain and the crisp, dry, cold and sunny October afternoon. These things are beautiful and they can fill up our emotions to bursting, but only if we actually pay attention. Just a plain rainy day spent polishing the silverware, or spending a fall Sunday watching football on TV don’t elicit the response. Paying attention does. 

And when the beauty hits, it is not something external or “out there,” and neither is it something merely subjective or “internal,” but rather it is the identification of them together as a single entity. My awareness of the spring rain brings the rain into my psyche, and my awareness also give the rain its actuality. It makes it real. Yes, the tree falling in the forest makes a sound, but it doesn’t have meaning unless it is heard. The spring rain may fall whether or not anyone notices, but its existence has meaning only when my awareness and its existence become a single thing. 

It has been said that human consciousness is the universe’s means of self-awareness, that our senses are the mirror for the cosmos. It is what Andrew Marvell meant in his poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…”

Beauty is the amour de soi of the cosmos. Our sense of beauty, in the physical world or in art, its mask and mimic, is our sense of identity with the cosmos. “I am he as you are he as you are me/ And we are all together.” This sense is lost when we act like crabs in a bucket, each out for himself and not recognizing our shared humanity, but also when we fail to recognize ourselves as the conscious portion of the universe. Beauty is the breakthrough. 

What we consider pretty is merely a matter of taste, but beauty is a breaking up of our singularity and an identification, however brief, with totality. 

Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, and I have my list of Seven Noble Violin Concertos.

There are two basic varieties of concerto in the Western tradition. In one, the purpose is to be pleasing, either through beautiful and graceful melody or by entertaining the audience with the soloist’s virtuosity. 

But the other path — what I’m calling the “noble concerto” is more symphonic in conception, where an estimable composer uses the concerto form to express some deep or profound feelings and the solo instrument is just a means to do so. 

This is not to disparage the first type of concerto. Two of the greatest and most popular violin concertos fall into this group: the Mendelssohn concerto (certainly one of the most beautiful ever and perhaps the only one that could be called “perfect.”) and the Tchaikovsky, which, although it is difficult for the performer, cannot be said to plumb the emotional depths. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a great concerto, but its emotional qualities tend to be melodramatic rather than profound. 

The concertos of Paganini are tuneful, also, but mainly exist to show off his digital gymnastics. The concertos of Vieuxtemps, Viotti, and Wieniawski are all adequate but shallow works. Don’t get me started on Ludwig Spohr. Even Mozart’s concertos for violin are more pleasing than profound. It’s all they were ever meant to be, and we shouldn’t ask for them to be more. 

Some of these concertos are among my favorites. Beyond the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, I adore the Korngold, the Barber, both Prokofievs and the Stravinsky. I even love both Philip Glass goes at the genre (has he written a third while I wasn’t looking?) I listen to all of them over and over, with great pleasure and satisfaction. So I am not writing them off simply because they don’t make my list of noble concertos. 

The noble concerto doesn’t seek to ingratiate itself. It is not written with the audience in mind, but rather to express the thoughts and emotions common to humanity. They bear a seriousness of purpose. They may seem more austere, less immediately appealing, but in the long run, they reward a lifetime of listening, and in multiple interpretations. You learn about yourself by listening to them. 

I am not including concertos earlier than Beethoven, which means, no Bach, no Vivaldi, Tartini, Locatelli or Corelli. In their day, “noble” simply meant a spot in the social hierarchy, a position of privilege unearned but born into. Beethoven changed that, claiming a place for an earned nobility of purpose and ability.

“Prince,” he told his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, “what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.” Which would sound like boasting, if he didn’t have the walk to back up the talk. 

Nobility of the kind Beethoven meant was defined in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary as, “a scorn of meanness,” or low intention and an embrace of moral and ethical excellence and personal integrity. 

I call these seven concertos “noble,” but that is a word well out of fashion these days, when anything elevated, whether nobility or heroism or honor, is suspect. The facile use of such words by fascists and totalitarians  have made them stink to the mind. Yet, the truths of them are still there, and can be found in words, actions, art and literature. And in these seven concertos. 

It’s not that I want to listen to these seven to the exclusion of the others. They each have their place, their purpose and their virtues. But these seven are just more, what — serious. They make more demands on the listener, and provide greater rewards for the effort. A seriousness of purpose. 

—Let’s take them in historical order, beginning with the obvious first choice, the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, op. 61, from 1806. 

At one time, I owned more than 40 recordings of the Beethoven concerto, which I listened to and studied with the score, and so, I am quite familiar with most of these CDs. I got rid of almost all of them when I moved from Arizona to North Carolina, along with three-quarters of all my classical music collection (now, I’m reduced to little more than 2500 CDs. Weep for me.) 

There have been more than a hundred notable recordings of the Beethoven concerto, from the time of acoustic recording to our streaming present. 

I  count five distinct ages of recorded music. The first from the era of the 78 rpm record, where concertos and symphonies had to be spread out onto many discs, with odd breaks in between. This was an age of giants, of Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, of Bronislaw Huberman, Albert Sammons, Efrem Zimbalist, Adolf Busch, and, crossing over eras, Jascha Heifetz. 

The second era was that of the LP, both mono and stereo. This was the golden age of classical music recordings, where established stars of an earlier age got to show off their stuff in hi-fidelity, and newer star performers made their names. 

This was followed by the digital era, beginning in the 1980s, with the introduction of CDs. A few conductors and orchestras dominated the market — Herbert von Karajan re-recorded everything he had previously done in 78s and on LPs, and not always to the better. 

The new century has been marked by an entire new generation of soloists, better trained and technically more perfectly accomplished than most of the great old names, and they have made some astonishing recordings. What I sometimes suspect is that they lack the understanding and commitment to what the music means, intellectually. Facile and beautiful and technically perfect, but not always as deep. 

And now, we live in an age that overlaps that, of historically informed performance, in which everything is played lighter, faster and punchier — and all the nobility is squeezed out as suspect and as fogeyism. 

From the first era, we have two recordings by Kreisler, from 1926 with Leo Blech conducting and a second from 1936 under the baton of John Barbirolli. You might think the later recording was in better sound, but they are pretty equal in that way. Clearly they are old scratchy recordings, but the brilliance of Kreisler shines through anyway. In many ways, these are my favorite recordings of all. Kreisler has a warmth, a beauty of phrasing and a nobility that is exceptional. 

There is also the Bronislaw Huberman with George Szell from 1934 in surprisingly good sound, and by Jascha Heifetz with Arturo Toscanini from 1940 that some prefer over his later LP one with Charles Munch. 

From the second era, there were many great performances. Four I would never do without are my favorite in good sound, Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler from 1953; the second Heifetz recording, from 1955 with Munch; the one that is a consensus reference recording, Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Eugen Jochum, from 1962; and for utter beauty of tone, Zino Francescatti with Bruno Walter, from 1961. 

Also, later in the LP era, some big names with some big sounds: Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein (1959); Itzhak Perlman with Carlo Maria Giulini (1981); Pinchas Zuckerman with Daniel Barenboim (1977); and Anne-Sophie Mutter with Karajan in her first recording of the work (1979). Any of these is a first rank performance in good sound, and define what the Beethoven Violin Concerto should be.

Among the younger violinists, there is plenty of good playing, but fewer deep dives. You still find the old grandeur with Hilary Hahn and David Zinman; and clean musicianship with Vadim Repin and Riccardo Muti; and Kyung Wha Chung and Simon Rattle; and Leonidas Kavakos conducting and playing. 

All the famous fiddlers of the golden age made multiple recordings of the concerto, the Oistrakhs, the Milsteins, the Sterns, the Perlmans and Grumiauxs and Szeryngs. And mostly, they were consistent across performances, with different orchestras and conductors. But Anne-Sophie Mutter re-recorded the concerto with very different results. In 2002, she played it with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic and gave us a complete re-interpretation of the concerto. Some loved it; some hated it; few were indifferent. I love it. 

It is one of several outliers among interpretations. You can always count on Niklaus Harnoncourt (aka “the Wild Man of Borneo”) to be wayward, and his recording with Gidon Kremer is peculiar by including a piano in the first-movement cadenza. Why? Beethoven didn’t write a cadenza for his violin concerto, but he did write one for his piano transcription of the work, and Kremer used the piano version to reverse-engineer a version for violin, but left in a supporting piano (and tympani part). That still doesn’t answer a “why.” 

Christian Tezlaff recorded a version with Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich that, while on modern instruments, comes highly inflected by the original instrument ethos. It is beautiful in its way, but it is fast and zippy.

I also include a personal favorite with little circulation: A budget-label recording by the Hungarian violinist Miklos Szenthelyi. I saw him live and I’ve never seen anyone with such perfect posture or so fine a tone. I can’t recommend it for everyone (and it probably isn’t available anymore, anyway), but I have a soft spot in my heart for it.

—The next big concerto comes some seven decades later with Brahms Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 from 1878. Brahms was clearly modeling his concerto and its mood on Beethoven’s. He wrote it for his friend, Joseph Joachim, who was also the violinist who popularized Beethoven’s concerto after years of neglect. 

The Brahms concerto is more genial and has always been popular with audiences. There are as many recordings of it as there are of its predecessor, including a version by Fritz Kreisler that is still worth listening to, through the scratches and clicks of a recording made in 1936. 

Of all of them, these are my favorites, that I listen to over and over, and from all the different eras of recording. 

The Heifetz is quick, dead-on, energetic and exciting. He is sometimes thought of as cool and unemotional, but I think instead that it is white-hot. The Szeryng recording is the one I’ve had the longest and listen to the most — it’s my go-to recording, but that may just be that I’m so used to it, it has imprinted on my mind. The polar opposite of Heifetz is Oistrakh, which is rich and warm, with Szell providing the secure setting for the jewel violin. Of more recent recordings, Hilary Hahn is utterly gorgeous. It gives lie to the myth that only “historical” recordings are great.

—Chronologically, the next in line is Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D-minor, op. 47 from 1905. If ever music required the ice of Heifetz, it is Sibelius’ concerto, which sounds like a blast from the Arctic. His recording, from 1959 is riveting. But so is the warmer version with Isaac Stern and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1969. We may forget what a stunning and brilliant violinist Stern was, if we only knew him from his later years, when his intonation went south. In Sibelius, he is one of the great ones.

Of the modern era, Perlman with Andre Previn, from 1979, has all of Perlman’s grand personality and character, with technical perfection. But the one I listen to most, and with total love, is by Anne-Sophie Mutter, also with Previn, from 1995. 

I need to note, somewhere in this rundown, that the list of dependable fiddle stars are just that — dependable. If Mutter is my favorite here, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting the goods from Oistrakh, Vengerov, Hahn, Mullova, Bell, Chang, or Zuckerman. Whether it is Beethoven or Bartok, you will not likely be disappointed. I am here listing just my own favorites. My own taste. 

—And my own taste runs strongly to the Elgar Violin Concerto in B-minor, op. 61 from 1910. This is a testament to my own growth and change. There was a time when I wouldn’t touch Elgar with a 10-foot phonograph stylus. I found him stuffy and boring. But that was because I hadn’t really heard much of his music. Then, I heard Steven Moeckel play it with the Phoenix Symphony and was swept away. I discussed the concerto with Moeckel and he advocated for it with devotion — indeed, it was his insistence that the the Phoenix Symphony tackle it that made the performance happen. (Moeckel also has a CD out with the Elgar violin sonata that makes a case for it, too.)

This is the longest concerto on my list, but also one that I have to listen to with complete attention from beginning to end. It speaks to me with a directness that I recognize. It is rich to overflowing and absolutely tears my heart out. 

My go-to recording is also the oldest, by English violinist Alfred Sammons, made in 1929 with Henry Wood conducting. It has the greatest breadth and depth of any I have heard, in sound that is not as bad as its birth year would imply. A famous early recording was made with Yehudi Menuhin under the baton of the composer, that should show us how the composer meant it to go — if only Elgar were a better conductor. 

The concerto kind of disappeared after that, until the young fiddler Kennedy (he went by only one name back then) came out with a best-selling version in 1984 with Vernon Handley and the London Phil. It is still Kennedy’s best recording (he went pop soon after). 

But my favorite remains Hilary Hahn and the London Symphony with Colin Davis. Rich, warm, and in truly modern sound, it breaks my heart every time. 

—Speaking of broken hearts, there is no more personal utterance than Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto from 1935. Subtitled, “To the memory of an angel,” it commemorates the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. It is also the most listener-friendly piece of 12-tone music ever written, as Berg managed to cross atonality with tonal music in a way so clever that doctoral dissertations are still being written about it. 

In two movements, it is blood-curdling in parts, and soul-soothing in others. Every emotion in it seems authentic, and not conventional. It is one of those piece of music you cannot ever just put on in the background — you have to listen and you have to invest yourself in it completely.

It was commissioned by violinist Louis Krasner and we have a performance by him conducted by Berg’s colleague Anton Webern, from 1936, which should demonstrate the most bona fides, despite the poor sound quality. 

I first learned the piece listening to Arthur Grumiaux and it is still one of my favorites. Yehudi Menuhin played it with Pierre Boulez, who brings his own authority to Second Vienna School music.

But the one I listen to now, over and over, is Mutter, with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. This is serious music for the serious listener.

—At roughly the same time, Bela Bartok wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1938. In three movements, it was commissioned by Zoltan Szekely and first recorded by him with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is a recording of the world premiere and has authority for that reason alone, other than that it’s a great performance, although hampered by horrible sound.

Much better sounding, and one of the great recordings, is by Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Philharmonia, from 1954. It has always been my reference recording. Good sound for the era and great performance. 

Isaac Stern is also great, with Bernstein, and his performance is usually paired with Bartok’s lesser-known and seldom-performed first concerto, which is youthful and unashamedly beautiful. 

And I wouldn’t be without Mutter’s version, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. 

—It would be hard to choose which is Dimitri Shostakovich’s best work, but my vote goes for his Violin Concerto No. 1, in A-minor, op. 99 from 1948, coincidentally, the year I was born. As personal as the Berg concerto, but with a powerful overlay of the political, and written under the oppression of Stalin, this is the most monumental violin concerto, probably, since Beethoven. When well-played (and it is difficult), it drains you of all the psychic energy you can muster. 

It is the bottom line on all seven of these concertos that we are meant to listen to them with the same beginning-to-end concentration that we would spend on poetry or defusing a bomb. They are not “put it on while I do the dishes” music, but life-and-death music. 

And that is what you get with David Oistrakh, who was the originator of the concerto and a friend of Shostakovich. He recorded it multiple times, but the first, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Phil, from 1956 is still the greatest one, the most committed. It is the one I listen to when I want to really dive deeply into what the music means, and come away shattered with the realization of all the horror of the 20th century. 

Performances by Lydia Mordkovitch and Dmitry Sitkovetsky are in modern sound and also brilliant. Hahn is especially well-recorded, with Marek Janowski and the Oslo Philharmonic. 

But the Oistrakh. If the concerto was personal to the composer, it was to the violinist, too. They both had known it all, seen it all, suffered it all. 

And so, these seven concertos — seven sisters — seem a notch above the rest, in terms of seriousness and execution. You should have all of them in performances that express all the humanity that is packed into them. These are my suggestions; you may have your own. 

Click on any image to enlarge

I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making. 

I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike. 

Time has taught some of us otherwise. 

Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.” 

After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.” 

There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders. 

And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor. 

And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters

Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”

To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial  and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am. 

More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll. 

And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur. 

Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying. 

This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes. 

But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear. 

Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes. 

It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed. 

If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself. 

I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. 

One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better. 

No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy. 

Rediscovering him in my old age has been a joy. 

I started to write about philosophy, but realized I really wanted to talk about pears. Crisp, delicious succulent pears, the kind with small brown spots on the skin and a roly-poly bottom. Given a choice between reading Hegel (insert dry cough here) and slicing wedges off a Bartlett pear, the fruit wins hands down every time. 

I have been thinking about this because of philosophy. The intellectual world seems divided irrevocably between art and philosophy — image and word. One side deals with categories of thought, the other side deals with hubcaps, clouds, tight shoes and the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, to say nothing of pastrami sandwiches and corduroy trousers. 

I’m sorry if I value the one vastly over the other. I am a Dichter not a Denker. I have — this is my ideological burden — a congenital mistrust of language, particularly abstract language and language of categories. The world is too multifarious, indeed, infinite, and language by nature and requirement, simplifies and schematizes, ultimately to the point that language and reality split paths and go in separate directions. When one relies too much on  language, one misses the reality. 

The tragedy is, that language is all we have. We are stuck with it. We can try to write better, more clearly, use evocative metaphor when declarative words fail, use imagery rather than abstractions, and do our best — our absolute best — to avoid thinking categorically, and attempt to see freshly, with eye and mind unsullied by the words that have preceded us. It’s hard, but it is essential. To begin with the categories, and to attempt to wedge our experience into them, is to mangle and to mutilate the reality. 

The matter is only made worse by the impenetrable fustian written by so many philosophers — and especially the recent crop of Postmodern and Poststructuralist explainers. 

Take Hegel — please. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1839) is just the kind of philosopher who thinks thoughtful thoughts and writes incomprehensible prose. 

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”

A made adequacy?” That’s from his System of Ethical Life (1803-4). I’m sure if you spent an hour or two going over it again and again, you might be able to parse something out of it. But, jeez. It’s the kind of prose you get from academia all over the place: 

“As histories of excluded bodies, the bodies that made national Englishness possible, this counterpastoral challenged the politics of visibility that made the very modern English models of nature, society, and the individual visible through the invisibility of bodies that did not matter.”

That’s from Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998). She is also the author of The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History

In such writing, individual abstract words are made to stand in as shorthand for long complex ideas, not always adequately explained. And the words are then categories, and the categories allow blanket statements that cover the world like Sherwin-Williams paint. 

The basic problem is that words are always about words. When Plato talks about “the Good,” he is talking about how we define the word, “good.” Plato is about language. The linguistic grammar and language has its own rules, its own logic, and they soon supersede what the philosophers call “the case.” 

There is a book out there now titled Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. And taxonomists now largely agree that what we used to call the class of animals Pisces (fish), are really a bunch of increasingly unrelated classes or clades, in fact at least 12 of them, not counting subclasses. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish. 

But, back in the 18th century, both whales and sea urchins were also classified as “fish.” That we distinguish them separately now has made no difference to either whales or urchins, but only to dictionaries. That a whale is not a fish but a mammal is a shift in language, not biology. Fish still swim in the sea, even if we hesitate to call them fish. 

And in the same way, the parsing of philosophers is mostly a shift of wordplay. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made this the central issue of his later work. 

Meanwhile, as the philosophers mince language in their mental blenders, Gloucester fishermen keep pulling fish out of the oceans. When it comes to trust, I take the fishermen over the philosophers. The world is filled with sensible, seeable, feelable, hearable things. Things that give us pleasure and made the world we find ourselves cast into, like poached salmon. 

Our lives are filled with the things of this world and their shapes, colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. And so is our art, which makes images, poems, dances, music and theater from those shapes, colors, sounds, etc., is a direct connection with the things of this world — the “case” as it were. 

And I think of pears in art — those buttery layers of paint by Paul Cezanne — and the other still life art that singles out this bit or that of the physical presences of the world and shows them to us so we may notice them and appreciate them. 

Most of our art tends to be divided between people and things — “things” being mostly landscapes and still life. In our art, we privilege people over things and that is only fitting. I’m sure squirrels are most interested in other squirrels, too. 

But the non-human and non-living things things are so much a part of our lives, and a certain percentage of our art has been made about things. Like pears. 

I step outside into the sun and I hear distant traffic, the breeze hissing in the tree leaves, and, from several blocks away, the intermittent rattle of a chainsaw. In the morning, there are birds — mockingbirds and chickadees. There is the feel of the air and the sun on my skin. There is the smell of the grass, new mown, or maybe the oily resonance of diesel fumes. I stand and feel the temperature. I live in the welter of the world. 

And so, I am in love with the things of this world. I am mad for them to be in contact with me, to absorb them, to notice and appreciate them. To pay attention. To be alive. 

And I slice a pear. The insides are both pulpy and wet; the skin keeps the flesh from drying out. The stem at the top curves off. The nub at the bottom shows where the white flower had been. 

I take pears instead of apples here, because apples have too many words stuck to them, making them gummy with ideas, from Eve’s fruit of temptation to the computer on which I am writing these words. 

But a pear can be seen with less baggage. It bruises more easily than an apple, yet its pulp is firmer, stiffer, unless overripe, when it can go mushy. Nor is it as sweet as an apple, although we must point out that there are hundreds of different varieties of apple and that a red delicious is sweeter than a granny smith. (Yet the granny smith makes a better pie). 

There are varieties of pear, also, and they are perhaps more distinct than the apples. The lanky brown Bosc, the squat green Anjou, the nearly round Le Conte, the very sweet Seckel. In Japan, there is the ruddy, round Kosui, or russet apple pear. The Comice is great with ripe cheese. Yellow Huffcap for making perry — a cider made from pears. 

I believe the central fact of existence is variety, in infinite forms, which in contrast makes the categories of philosophers seem puerile and simplistic. And dry. Pears have juice. Derrida, none. 

These are smart people. I don’t begrudge them that. And perhaps we need people thinking such thoughts. But if we leave these words to the philosophers, I will have more time for myself with all the plants, rocks, fruit, animals, clouds, stars, cheeses and oceans. 

Ultimately, to experience things is more important — more rewarding — than explaining them. 

When it comes time to leave this planet and join oblivion, in those last moments left to my life, mostly, I will be thinking about the people I have loved and who have loved me. But beyond that, will I be thinking about Hegel or will I be remembering pears? My money is on the palpable. There is love there, too.

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“Manfred on the Jungfrau” John Martin, 1837

From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it. 

The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural. 

“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803

Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible. 

There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts. 

But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing. 

In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos. 

Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime. 

 

“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848

Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.” 

In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it. 

“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803

The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”

Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:

In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps: 

“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”

“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812

And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”

In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps: 

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty. 

Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:

 Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny). 

In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s. 

“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776

Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as

“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786

This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted). 

Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.

The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.

“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823

The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”

And the final words of the novel:

“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs. 

“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859

Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862

Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way. 

“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857

Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”

The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.

In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing. 

 

“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812

It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe. 

There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance. 

“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841

I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited. 

Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem). 

“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826

Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

The Seventh Plague of Egypt:

And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:

And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:

He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:

“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822

And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:

“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837

Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.” 

“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821

In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague). 

 “The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800

In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.  

“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840

The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster. 

“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835

The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited. 

“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842

He also did a snow storm in the Alps. 

“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836

In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.

“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828

Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.

“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866

And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.

“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859

But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt. 

“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858

Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks. 

“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900

These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams. 

“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944

But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them. 

“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958

I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaos as the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803. 

Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae. 

Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass. 

Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain. 

There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies. 

Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” 

But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble. 

Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it. 

It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.  

Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon. 

Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime. 

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