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I recently discovered Glazunov. 

Discoveries are what keeps life interesting. Some are life-changing, like when you first discover the opposite sex, or late in life encounter the music of Bruckner. Others are just a pleasure you hadn’t known the universe afforded, such as chipotle chiles or books by David Sedaris. 

Glazunov is one of the latter. I don’t want to make too big a case for him, but his music is effortless enjoyment. 

Alexander Glazunov was a Russian composer, born in 1865, the same year as Sibelius and five years after Mahler. He grew up in a Russian musical world split between nationalists and internationalists. On one side, you had “the Mighty Handful,” of largely self-taught composers, such as Glinka, Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov (the last distinctly well-trained), all of whom wanted to create a genuinely Russian brand of music. On the other side were Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein and others, who looked to Germany and western Europe for their influence. It was isolationism vs. assimilation. 

Glazunov, born into this world, was a prodigy and he was taken on as a student by Rimsky-Korsakov when little Alexander was still a high school student. “His musical development progressed not by the day, but literally by the hour,” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote. Young Glazunov excelled in counterpoint, harmony, orchestration and large-scale form. It seemed he could do anything. 

His first symphony was performed when he was just 16, and was a huge success — the audience was astonished when the composer came onstage to accept their applause and turned out to be a kid in his school uniform. It was unofficially titled, “The Slavic Symphony,” for its use of Russian and Russian-style melodies, and it would have seemed as if the young composer was going to launch a new generation of nationalist composers. (To put the symphony in context, when it was written, Tchaikovsky had only written four of his six symphonies.) It joins Bizet’s Symphony in C and Shostakovich’s First Symphony as prodigies of teenage composers. 

Glazunov as student, young man, middle aged and old

But Glazunov’s second symphony, written only five years later, was “dedicated to Franz Liszt,” and clearly showed Glazunov gazing westward to more modern musical influences. 

In all, Glazunov wrote eight symphonies and part of a ninth. Every one of them is a joy to hear, full of great tunes, rich harmonies, fresh orchestration. His style is seen now as conservative and old fashioned, but while it is always familiar, it is never clichéd. He finds new ways of using the old composing tools. 

His music also never attempts to move heaven and earth, like Bruckner or later, Mahler, but rather attempts to please, to keep his listeners entertained. For this, he has sometimes been belittled and, as the 20th century progressed, largely forgotten. 

But you need to remember that most of Mozart’s output was simply meant to entertain, also, and it is a worthy goal. Glazunov’s music is a delight. Beethoven may churn our souls, but Glazzy just wanted to show us something of beauty and craftsmanship. 

That doesn’t mean all his music is major-key bouncy and empty. There is plenty of introspective substance, and the occasional disruption to remind us that the world isn’t always placid. But it is all to the end of keeping our ears interested. 

St. Petersburg Conservatory, ca. 1900

As his career developed, he became a respected member of the Russian art establishment, and eventually became head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he trained many younger musicians, most importantly, Dimitri Shostakovich. His tenure was marked by a great improvement in the conservatory’s reputation and the quality of its instruction. Glazunov took his directorship seriously. 

He ran the school from 1905 to 1930, and while the instruction remained rather conservative, built on the principles of 19th century romanticism, its students entered the new century with other ideas. 

“Glazunov was ‘born in the middle,’ so to speak,” wrote critic Leo Eylar.  “He was born a generation later than the initial great Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and was born a generation before the modernist revolutionaries such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.  As such, he was destined to occupy a rather difficult position in Russian music history.”

Glazunov continued writing music into the 1930s, and by then seemed like some musical dinosaur. But it is important to remember that he was 32 before Brahms died. His taste was formed before Modernism was even thought of. 

St. Petersburg

He was born in czarist Russia and lived through the Communist revolution and into the Stalinist era. He held the conservatory together during some tumultuous years, and with considerable integrity. When he was offered honors (and extra pay) by the regime, he replied asking for some firewood instead, so the students could heat their classrooms. During the privations of the Revolution and civil war, many students were near starvation and would have died but that Glazunov ensured they were given scholarships and the food allowance that came with them. 

“This was a period of terrible famine,” said Shostakovich. “The gist of the scholarship was that its possessor was able to receive some groceries. In a word, it was a question of life and death. If you’re on the list, you live. If you’re crossed off, it’s quite possible that you may die.” 

Shostakovich was on the list. 

And when an increasingly anti-Semitic government required he list the names of all the Jewish students, he sent back a message: “We don’t keep track of such things.” 

He listened carefully to his students’ music, even if he was sometimes shocked by it. He attended all of the school’s recitals. If he didn’t like something, he would listen over and over until he understood what was being attempted. This quality made the young Shostakovich love his schoolmaster. 

“After the Revolution, everything around Glazunov changed and he lived in a terrible world that he didn’t understand,” Shostakovich said. “But he thought that if he died, important work would perish. He felt responsible for the lives of hundreds of musicians, so he didn’t die himself.”

Shostakovich describes his perfect pitch, his ability to spot any mistakes in a student’s composition, like hidden “parallel fifths,” and his astounding memory. When Borodin died, leaving his opera, Prince Igor, unfinished, Glazunov reconstructed parts from memory, having heard Borodin play them on the piano years earlier. 

He understood the instruments of the orchestra. He learned to play the violin well so he could write his violin concerto. Once, visiting London, a french horn player complained that a note in the score was “unplayable.” Glazunov picked up the horn and played the note for him. 

“And Glazunov played the piano well,” said Shostakovich. “He didn’t have a real piano technique and he often played without removing his famous cigar from his right hand. Glazunov held the cigar between his third and fourth fingers. I’ve seen it myself. And yet he managed to play every note, absolutely everything, including the most difficult passages. It looked as though Glazunov’s fat fingers were melting in the keys, drowning in them.”  

On the minus side, though, Glazunov was a lifelong alcoholic, who kept a hidden bottle of hooch in his office desk, with a tube running from the desk drawer to his mouth, so he could sip while discussing music with his students. His alcoholism is sometimes blamed for the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, which Glazunov conducted in 1887. The performance was so disastrous that Rachmaninov stopped composing for three years. 

During his life, Glazunov’s music was held in high esteem, especially in Russia. But as the 20th century began, his music was seen as more and more out-of-date. His efforts at the conservatory slowed his musical production, and by the time of his death in 1936, only his violin concerto remained in the active repertoire, helped mainly by the fact that virtuoso Jascha Heifetz played it frequently. 

Glazunov gave up active directorship of the conservatory in 1928 and left Russia. He never expressed any political concern, but it was clear that Stalinism was not going to put up with Glazunov’s independence of spirit, and so the composer moved to France, where he remained until his death. 

In all, Glazunov composed eight symphonies, with a fragment of a ninth. He also wrote several multi-movement orchestral suites, which might as well be counted among his symphonies including From the Middle Ages and The Kremlin. He composed several successful ballets that continue to be staged even in the 21st century, most famously, Raymonda and The Seasons

He was a master of orchestral color and orchestration, and handled the large forms admirably. Especially his inner movements — the slow movements and the scherzi — are memorable and moving. He was fond of unequal phrase lengths, which kept the melodies from being predictable or monotonous (a problem that often beset Robert Schumann, who too often fell into 8- or 16-bar patterns). 

Glazunov wrote a handful of concertos, among them the popular violin concerto and, as his last major composition, a concerto for alto saxophone, which is quite forward-looking for the old master. There are a pair of piano concertos and some concertante works for cello. 

But for me, his real masterpieces are his quartets. He wrote seven numbered quartets, a Suite for string quartet, and his Five Novelettes, a full-length Elegy, and a Quintet for strings. These works highlight what Glazunov was best at.  

Quartet writing after Beethoven became a problem for many subsequent composers. The importance and depth of Beethoven’s quartets, especially the dense late quartets, tended to lead later composers to approach the form with such utter seriousness that they become clogged with polyphony (ahem: Reger) and the need to keep each string player occupied all the time. There are exceptions, like the quartets of Dvorak, but even Brahms gummed up his string quartets with thickness. 

Glazunov, however, could write counterpoint with clarity and grace. Many of his quartets start with a fugal introduction, but you never get the feeling that he is writing an obligatory chunk of polyphony to prove his seriousness. Rather, his fugues flow like real music, charming and direct. 

The quartets have almost orchestral color, as Glazunov alternates timbre with changes in register, double stops, muting, harmonics, and pizzicati. You never tire of the string tone, it is always varied. 

He splits the melodic material among his players so that everyone gets a turn with the big tunes. Glazunov wrote his quartets primarily for his friends to play among themselves, and I think they must have been a joy to perform, even more than to listen to. It’s a mystery to me why they don’t show up more often on recital programs. Audiences would love them.

For his symphonies and concertos, there is an inexpensive box set on Warner Classics, conducted by Jose Serebrier that is, I think, the best currently available set. There are other versions with Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio, in somewhat lesser sound engineering; and Naxos has its series of Glazunov’s music, with the symphonies conducted by Alexander Anissimov and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Serebrier beats them all with sound, performance and price. 

As for the quartets, there is a complete set box with the Utrecht String Quartet that is beautifully played and recorded, on MDG. You can get them individually played by the St. Petersburg String Quartet and several by the Shostakovich Quartet. 

And, since everything — and I mean everything — is available on YouTube, you can find multiple versions of almost everything Glazunov wrote, often with the musical scores to read as the music plays. 

I am not making the case that Glazunov should be seen as some forgotten Brahms or Dvorak. His music lacks the emotional and philosophical ambition to take on the deepest meanings you find in Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler, but none of the big names can claim supremacy in terms of technical proficiency or tunefulness. Glazunov wrote music, and seen in purely musical terms, he was a great master. 

Much art and music from before the First World War fell out of favor with the rise of Modernism. Glazunov fell with them. But now that Modernism is old-fashioned, we can reappraise a good deal of work that was denigrated in the 20th century. Rachmaninov no longer has noses turned up at his music. Even academic painting from the second half of the 19th century is finding new audiences. Glazunov deserves to be among the rediscovered.

Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.

Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials. 

And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life. 

I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one. 

If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so. 

Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile. 

Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.

Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs. 

For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion. 

(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)

George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore. 

I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile. 

Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing. 

Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement. 

I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft. 

There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast! 

Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against. 

I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.

Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something. 

Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also. 

Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano. 

There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me. 

Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos. 

I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.

Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.” 

And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough. 

Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch. 

There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz. 

Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.

The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists. 

Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me. 

But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.

And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner. 

Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it. 

The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first. 

Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all. 

Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning. 

Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.

Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?” 

The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen. 

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf. 

There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta. 


This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.

jumping for joyIn Shelley’s Ode to a Nightingale, he reminds us that “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” And in classical music, our greatest symphonies, quartets, sonatas and trios all give us a complex emotional universe — and the greater the music, the more likely it will contain heavy, dark, profound and difficult emotions. When it’s doing its job, a symphony is not background music.

You can go through it all: Even music that is ostensibly about joy tends to be about a kind of manic fervor or about the transcendence of the pains of mortal life — not simple happiness. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” for instance, is so over the top, that sometimes you just want to say, “Boy, get a grip.”

Happiness would seem to be the province of the popular song — Feelin’ Groovy, or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies (you should hear Duke Ellington’s take on that one in Blues No End). What you feel coming out of a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony is something different — rung out, depleted yet renewed, taken through the paces of all of life. Happiness is irrelevant. Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’ First, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, Mozart’s Jupiter — They are all large, complex and attempts at metaphor for the joys and pains of being alive.

“Our sincerest laughter/ With some pain is fraught.”

But mere happiness? You can look long and wide to find anything that simple in classical music. And yet …

And yet, as I was driving to the store the other day, with Brahms’ First Serenade in the CD player, I felt a swelling of pure happiness as I listened. The music flew by with a genuine joie de vivre, a thought you rarely think when Brahms comes along. Johannes is all gravitas, Weltschmerz, longing — it used to be joked of Brahms that when he is happy, he sings, “The grave is my joy.”

But here he is, without a thought in his head, spinning out tunes of unreflexive pleasure. The horns and clarinets seem to dance their way through the six movements, with no angst over whether the G-major of this theme leads to the e-minor of that one, or whether the rising fourth here is balanced by a descending fifth in the finale. None of it, just tunes. Bouncy, happy tunes. Who knew Brahms had it in him.

And I began to consider other pieces in the standard repertoire that might share something of this simplicity, this sheer pleasure in the notes —  that feeling of walking along on a sunny day with some spare change in your pocket, knowing you will see your sweetie in the evening and whistling a happy chune. Happy couple

Could I list at least 10 such compositions: It was a challenge I set myself.

First up, of course, come Schubert’s “Trout” quintet. No one has ever written so many hummable tunes in a single piece of music, from beginning to end, pure forward-moving bouncy, danceable melody. It is the counterweight to that other quintet, the string quintet that seems to bind up in its aching arms all the sorrow and pain of the world. In the “Trout,” there is none of that, only hope and pleasure and everything that a major key can shout.

Did Beethoven ever write anything so worry-free? Beethoven had bigger fish to fry. He was busy creating a new century. And yet …

Buried in that treasure hoard of piano sonatas — the so-called “New Testament” of piano literature — there is one tiny sonata in G-major, op. 78 — alla Tedesca — that has nothing but bounce and verve. It is short, clever, witty and fun. Not your usual Beethoven adjectives.

Haydn, of course, is the fountain here. You can pick almost any of his works and find acres of wit, bounce, pleasure and fun. There are his more profound moments, but pick any symphony in the 60s or 70s and you can run from start to finish with a smile in your heart. When I want to feel good, I snap in a Haydn symphony to listen to.

For instance, the Symphony No. 73 in D, “La Chasse,” which ends with a fox hunt, a rousing ride through the countryside with horn and hounds.

Or the Symphony No. 60 in C, “il Distratto,” which has a joke larded into it every 11 bars — you never have to wait long for another one, like a New York City bus. There’s the place where he stops and has the orchestra retune, right in the middle of the finale; there’s the second theme in the first movement, that just stops in its tracks harmonically and seems to fall asleep. But it isn’t the jokes, per se, that I am touting here, but the sheer joy of the music, unalloyed with anything like “the saddest thought.”

If you want to find the same music, but in a 19th century idiom, you have it in Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was a mere stripling of 17. It begins with joie and ends with enthusiasm and in between it is stuffed with buoyancy and energy. You cannot listen to it without it putting a bounce in your step.

I had the pleasure of seeing the New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine’s Symphony in C at the Palais Garnier in Paris, and I couldn’t tell which thrilled me more, the choreography or the music. It is one of the high points of my esthetic life and kept me smiling for days, even weeks.

You get something of the same confident buoyancy in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, written as a virtuoso piece for orchestra, and everyone gets to join in the party. No shadow hangs over the music — it is all joy.

The 20th century is a sorry one, filled from end to end with war, murder, oppression and genocide. But there are points of light in the music. Prokofiev may have the three great “War Sonatas,” with all the weight of the world on them, but he started out with his Classical Symphony, which is a nod back to the music of Haydn, but with all the hot sauce of Modern dissonance tossed in for spice. The music bounces its way from the get-go. You can’t have a heavy thought while listening to it.

And Paul Hindemith — who used to count as one of the big three of Modern music with Stravinsky and Schoenberg (how the mighty have fallen) — joins my list with his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. He is helped out, of course, with the jaunty tunes that he culled from Weber, but he costumes those tunes with the happiest, bounciest orchestrations and developments.

And finally, to round out my self-assigned Ten, there is the verve and sass of Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, which is 15 minutes of toe-tapping polytonality based on dance tunes from Brazil and named after a cabaret in Paris where the avant-garde met and drank and did their best to show off to each other. Listen to the music once and you will not be able to get it out of your head for days — or out of you hips, knees and feet. Not a care in the world.

The cares of the day will come back, as they always do, and even such happiness as embedded in this music can wear out its welcome, joyful, but a bit thin compared to the Big-Boy cousins in the concert hall, but for a moment, like that happiness you feel skipping down the street on a good day, it seems like all the world needs.

Here’s my list. Please add to it or make your own:

–Symphony No. 60 in C “il Distratto” by Joseph Haydn

–Symphony No. 73 in D “la Chasse” by Joseph Haydn

–Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, op. 79 “alla Tedesca” by Ludwig van Beethoven

–Piano Quintet in A, op. 114, D. 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert

–Symphony No. 1 in C major by Georges Bizet

–Serenade No. 1 in D, op. 11 by Johannes Brahms

–Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

–Symphony No. 1 in D, op. 25 “Classical Symphony” by Serge Prokofiev

–Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith

–Le Boeuf sur le Toit, op. 58 by Darius Milhaud