My ten best lists   


Copernique Marshall  

Classical music

This column was originally published in three parts between 
the 8th of April and the 6th of May 2013 editions of Le Castor™.

Part One

Before we drop into that conundrum which is "What is classical music ?", let me give you a definition about which, I hope, we shall all agree :

Go into a sizeable and well stocked record shop, look around and go towards a sign that says "Musique classique" or "Classical Music". - It is about the CD's you'll find there that I want to talk about. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fair enough ?

Don't tell me that John Cage shouldn't be there or that certain recordings made by the Modern Jazz Quartet should be.- Tell that to every record shop owners that you know. - It might start a trend. In the meantime...

My father gave me another definition the other day, a definition dating back to some fifty years ago :

He said that when he started collecting 33 RPM records ("Long playing records" they were called back then), they're were two kinds : the 3,29$ variety and the 3,99$ variety. The first was for run-of-the-mill stuff and the second was for high-brow stuff, namelly "classical music". "Problem was, he added, that they use to put both of them in the 99 cents bins when they didn't sell... But by then we had already made up our mind as to which belonged where." - Guess he missed the 11,99$ version I recently paid for Malher's fifth and the scandalous 19,99$ latest Céline Dion CD that is cheaper to manufacture and distribute than 33's... - But that's another problem.

Let me add to this :

In my so-far-short life time, I did see something wonderful when it comes to record shops :

From folkore-blue grass-honky-tonk-jazz-and-other shelves (when you went to a record shop, you never knew where to find him), Scott Joplin was, several years ago, moved permanently into the classical section where he belonged in the first place. When will James Scott get the same honor ? Who knows ?

Classical music enthousiasts are, anyway, a strange group. Take Bach, for example. Totally ignored outside a small circle and practically unpublished during his lifetime. It wasn't until Mendelssohn gave a performance of his St. Matthew passion in 1829 or so, 79 years after his death that he was finally "rediscovered" by more and more listeners and  started to be widely known in the later half of the 19th century. - Nearly 200 years it took him to become a super star. Took the Beatles about a year to achieve the same goal bu that's another story.

Looking into the Music and Musicians' Bible (*), I'm always astonished to read about literaly thousands of composers who were Gods in their heydays and who are now totally unknown. So, when I started writing about "classical" music (whatever I thought it was), I was sure I was bound to forget a whole lot of music and composers.

Which I will.



(*) The International Cyclopedia [sic] of Music and Musicians by Ocar Thomson, Dodd Mead an Company - 9th edition - 2,476 pages.


Part Two

Now that we have established and, I hope, agreed upon what is classical music (see my previous column), let's start talking about what is good classical music. You probably have your own definition. It might consist of a list of composers, a list of your favorite pieces or even a series of chords or sections of certain sonatas or symphonies. It doesn't matter. What is important is that when we all sit down to discuss what we like or dislike, conversations become so personal that we have to think that it all boils down to subjectivity although some people wouldn't know good music if it hit them with a baseball bat.

I'll tell you what I like and you be the judge.

For me, good music must have two qualities ; three if you add cleverness (and that cleverness applies as well to novels, plays, paintings, anything connected to creativity).

1 - It's got to be interesting both intellectually and emotionally. Chopin's Étude révolutionnaire (Op. 10, no. 12) fits this bill and so does Scriabin's Étude (Op. 8, no. 12) as well as Rachmaninov's Prélude (Op. 23, no. 5) or, to give another example, the fourth movement (menuet) of Bach's Suite française no.  3 :

Here are samples of these "outstanding" (note the quotes) compositions :

  Chopin's Étude - Op. 10, no. 12 


  Scriabin's Étude - Op. 8, no. 12


  Rachmaninov's Prélude - Op. 23, no. 5


  Bach's menuet - Suite Française no. 3

I suppose that, by now,  you have noticed that I do like piano music. I like it because t's the only music you can't bluff. «You got to pay cash when you compose or play it» said, I believe, Francis Poulenc.

The players above ? Louis Lortie (Chopin), Horowitz (Scriabin and Rachmaninov) and Adreas Schiff (Bach). - All picked up on YouTube.

2 - It's got to remain interesting for years, perhaps throughout an entire life. An example : Beethoven's string quartets in which one can continuously find new aspects even having listened to all of them a hundred times. Which is precisely why I have a tendency to dislike Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Haydn' symphonies. But then I'd recommend Chopin's Barcarolle to anyone who hasn't  heard it although I can't hear it anymore : I know it too well.

But I never got tired with this :

The 1st movement of Beethoven's 16th quartet by the Budapest String Quartet (first recording - 


To that definition, I could add that, for some composers or bodies of work, it is difficult to find something that will touch your heart in everything they did. You might like Mozart's Don Giovanni, his Le nozze di Figaro, The Abduction from the Seaglio and even Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), for example, but how many times have you listened or even heard about his other operas (he wrote 22 musical dramas in a variety of genre) : The Goose of Cairo, The Clemency of Titus, Scipio's Dream or Idomeneo, King of Crete (to name a few) ? (Tell you what : don't bother,)

And then, one might like chamber music more than operas, symphonies more than piano or violin concerti... - I know somebody whose ears are so sensitive, she can't stand brass instruments, particularly Maurice André (trumpet) and Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute) who seem to have cornered their respective répertoires.

So, as a general rule, all "best" lists, be it for a simple question of not being able to listen to everything in one life's time, have to remain subjective. (It takes a minimum of 35 hours to listen to one version of Haydn's symphonies ; add to that his sonatas, string quartets and other works... and Haydn wasn't a particularly prolific composer : try Schubert who probably composed six or seven lieder every morning, before breakfast - 600+, at the last count - or Telemann whose entire body of work is greater than that of anybody else : he's in the Guinness Book of Records.)

Be that as it may, let me list, today the composers I particularly like. Next time, I'll elaborate a bit more and give you what my all-time Mélisande

First, seven names (alphabetical order) : Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mahler, Monteverdi and Schubert.

Mozart is missing but I must admit I have a certain "penchant" for certain of his works, one in particular. And, having mentioned him earlier, I must add Bruckner to that list and, well I really like the sonatas of Scarlatti played by Wanda Wlandowska.

I also find Scott Joplin and James Scott quite fascinating.

And let me finish by mentioning John Fields, Scriabin, Schumann and, brace yourself : Wagner.

Note that I haven't mentioned Bach in the aforementioned lists. - I'll tell you why next week - nor anybody whose works were mainly composed in the twentieth century except Debussy but if I had to, I would mention John Cage and Lutoslawski.





Part Three

I hate operas... well, most operas (see no. 10) but, when I'm alone in my office, I'll listen, in the background, to any by Monteverdi and that written by Debussy, one after the other, finishing with the latter. They're 400 years apart but somehow, I keep thinking they were composed at the same time.

But see number 10.



What's classical music ? - Done - See part one of three.

What sort of classical music I like ? - Done. - See part two of three.

Now, as promised, here are my favorite classical pieces in, this time, proper order :

1. Beethoven's string quartets

In my lifetime, I don't think I will ever hear anything that will, not necessarily surpass, but even remotely be comparable to the 16 quartets that Beethoven wrote between 1799 and 1826. I bought their partitions years ago to follow what he wrote and, to this day, there are still sections or segments, some of them very short, that I cannot decipher. Of all the musical masterpieces I admire, this has got to be the one.

My favorite version (I have seven) : that of the Budapest String Quartet recorded between 1940 and 1962.

2. Schubert's lieder.

By, of course, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore.

Sometimes, I listen to Dietrich's voice, sometimes to Moore's accompaniment.

My favorites are within the Die Wintereise cycle, but I bought the whole lot (about 600 lieder) years ago.

Thank God, they have all been translated.

3. - Mahler's fifth and sixth symphony.

One problem :

As much as I like listening to Mahler, the dynamics of his music is a killer. Can't listen to it in my car (on long trips) because I have to touch the volume dial continously. - Oh, I've tried adjusting (mormalizing the sound) but the result was terrible. - The only way one can listen to Mahler is in a live performance but, living in Napierville, one is lucky to have a Mahler symphony played in or about the region every four, five years and, usually, none of the above.

Couldn't stand though the use of fourth movement of his fith in that movie made by Luchino Visconti, Death in Venice. The kid, in the movie, however, was very good looking. Still active, I heard.

4.- Brahms' symphonies and his two string sextets

I'd like to say all of Brahms symphonies but I can't. It has something to do with the weather or the season, I guess. Some days I like his fourth opening, others, his third movement of his second symphony but I'd listen to his strings sextets anytime.

5. - Anything by Claudio Monteverdi and Debussy's Pelleas and Mélisande

I hate operas... well, most operas (see no. 10) but, when I'm alone in my office, I'll listen, in the background, to any Monteverdi's and that written by Debussy, one after the other, finishing with the latter. They're 400 years apart but somehow, I keep thinkling they were composed at the same time.

But see number 10.


6. - Chopin

Well, Obviously, not everything. Some of his préludes, some of his sonatas, some of his nocturnes (although, as a whole, I prefer those of John Fields).

His Barcarolle, one of the things he composed and I must have heard a hundred times, is beginning to jump on my nerves but I would recommend it, as an introduction to his body of works, to anyone.

7. - Wagner

What scrap he wrote ! - But his Ring ? - Grandiose ! - I'd love to see it in before I die. - The whole 23 hours of it in four long sessions.

So far, I've only been able to listen to it by Furtzwangler, Boulez, Levine and, the greatest of them all, Solti.

8. - Mozart

Again, not everything he wrote. Particularly his operas. - I'll repeat again : I dislike most operas which is why you'll never hear me mention the likes of them. (See no. 10 again.)

I do like his Requiem, some of his quartets, a couple of his symphonies, but one thing I would bring on a desert island, is his concerto for clarinet and orchestra.

9. - Scott Joplin (and James Scott)

I mentioned both in my pevious columns. Wouldn't go as far as saying that Scott Joplin was a genius (particularly after having listened to his Tremonisha) but his rags are something to be heard.


... and now comes the hard part :

10. - What else ? - Bits, here and there :

Bach's first non-accompanied cello sonata ; his Chritsmas Oratorio and the beginning of his Mass in C minor ; Albenitz' tango, of course (guitar) ; Beethoven's fifth symphony (last movement by Eric Kleiber) ; Bruckner's symphonies (all first movements) ; Gluck's Orphée and Euridice (told you I didn't like operas !) ; Ravel and Debussy's string quartets ; Scarlatti's sonatas played by Wanda Landowska, Schuman's piano works played by Claudio Auro...

To that, let me add Hugo Wolf's lieder, some of the stuff written by Scriabin, Beethoven's sixth (but only by Bruno Walter) and a recording made of La Folia... and what else ? - Can't forget Litsz, can I ?

But I will, intentionnally forget to mention Verdi, Puccini and their likes, because, for the third or fourth time, I don't like operas, particularly those where, whatever is happening on stage, has to stop to let the tenor, the soprano or whoever sing an aria. On their own some of them (arias) are quite interesting but that's about all.

Which reminds me of a joke - invented by Alphonse Allais, I think : "Why, in opera houses, do they allow the people occupying the first 10 or 15 rows show up with musical instruments ?"


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