The music I can’t live without

By June 4, 2021ABC, History, Music, Society

This essay is late because I’ve been in hospital again, for a third kidney stone removal and the second with complications afterwards. I’ve been in and out of hospitals for a week and that meant I listened to a lot of good music. It also meant that I was badgered almost every music break ‘to vote now’. Voting meant saying what was the one piece of music I couldn’t live without, and it is a reprise of Classic FM’s first countdown twenty years ago. I’ve only taken part in one of the twenty Countdowns, and stuffed my entry up because the powers that be wouldn’t accept a tie. Voting is about to close, thank goodness, so the badgering will soon stop. Then, on the June long weekend, will come the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the results!!!

I won’t be part of that, though some attention will be unavoidable, because Classic FM is the station my radio is tuned to. I’m sure the ABC presenters will be relieved that they don’t have to do their breathless-this-is-so-exciting voice any more. My interest lies in why the ABC persists in this parody of a contest. More, how could anyone sensibly find ten pieces of music they couldn’t live without?

Okay, ‘can’t live without’ is a steal from pop music lyrics, and is not meant to be taken literally (at least I hope it is not meant to be taken that way). Even in its modified form, I would say that there is no individual piece of music that I would place number one in my list of favourites. There are just too many contenders. But for what it’s worth, here is a list of mine, grouped in categories.

 Symphonies: #3, #7 and #9 of Beethoven, the last three of Mozart, the London symphonies of Haydn, #5, #6 and #9 of Schubert, all of Mendelssohn and of Schumann, all four of Brahms, #7, #8 and #9 of Dvorak, the one of Cesar Franck, #4, #5 and #6 of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Debussy’s La Mer, Mahler’s first (they become increasingly hysterical after #1), Rachmaninoff’s #2, Sibelius #2, #5 and #7, Shostakovich’s #4, #5 and #7, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ross Edwards’ #1.

Now I’ve made some judgments here, like the inclusion of the works of Bartok, Debussy and Rimsky as symphonies. I should also include the tone poems I like, such as Don Juan by Strauss. But enough is enough. Yes, my symphonies are mainstream and heavily Teutonic. That’s the way I discovered them. I became hooked on the style and structure of the classical symphony.

Concertos: (Piano) Mozart’s best, about five or six of them, Beethoven’s five, Schumann’s one, Grieg’s one, Brahms #1, Dvorak’s one (not played enough!), Rachmaninoff’s #2 and #3.

(for other instruments):  Elgar and Dvorak, cello concertos, Mozart’s five for violin, Beethoven’s violin and for trio, Brahms for violin and cello, and for violin, Bruch’s first violin, Sibelius for violin, and so on.

Orchestra with voice: All of Bach’s cantatas, sacred and secular, his Matthew and John Passions, the Mass in B Minor, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s The Creation, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Brahms’s A German Requiem, Strauss Four Last Songs, Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and Songs on the Death of Children.

Voice, with other accompaniment: Schubert wrote more than 800 songs. I still haven’t heard one I didn’t like. But To Music and the Erlking stand out. Schuman wrote stacks too, and I do have a favourite here, The Two Grenadiers. Grieg’s ich liebe dich. Oh dear, this list is becoming the story of my musical life.

Piano music:  As just above, I haven’t heard anything written by Chopin that I didn’t like. I once had the entire oeuvre, nearly all of it played by Arthur Rubinstein, who once took a year off performing so that he could pay proper attention to Chopin’s work, and this after he had recorded a lot of it anyway. I learned to play a couple of the Preludes. Not easy. Some of Mozart’s sonatas and some of Beethoven’s. I can’t zip through and say which ones because once I hear one on the radio I realise that it is a favourite, that is until I hear another one. What is the point, O ABC, of choosing one above another? They didn’t write rubbish, either of those men. I’ve heard some excellent piano music by Clara Schumann, and her hubby wrote some good stuff too. Just about all the top mainstream composers used the piano, even if it was not their preferred weapon, so from time you hear a piece by one of them, and exclaim, ‘I didn’t know he had written that!’ Some of Liszt is great, but some seems to me just show-offy (look what I can do!).

String quartets: This is one of my favourite genres, though it requires an avoidance of other sounds and the capacity to concentrate. Here the list is long. To shorten it a lot: all of Haydn’s, Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets, all of Beethoven’s, most of Schubert’s, all of Dvorak’s (the transition from a kind of youthful Germanic style to his later, much more familiar styles is most interesting), Mendelssohn’s lot, Brahms the same. Shostakovitch’s #8, indeed, any of them, but especially that one, which I sometimes think is the most wonderful music of the 20thcentury. Schubert’s quintet is right up there at the top of good music.

And we’d better put in piano quartets, trios and bigger forces. And what about Mendelssohn’s Octet, and Schubert’s essay in the same grouping? I very much like the early Beethoven works here, and can hear them again and again with pleasure. I first heard them in Oxford nearly sixty years ago. I heard my first live concert for trios in the Music Room, England’s oldest continuous performing venue. That was an experience for all the senses, save for the essence of the people who liked smoking.

Opera: I don’t want to visit opera save in live performance, and here it does matter what I’ve seen. My favourite is la Boheme, because I’ve seen it often enough to be able to compare performances. I haven’t ever seen a bad one, and learned over the years that the Australian Opera’s performances were as good as, if not better than, some I’ve seen in London, Stockholm, the US and elsewhere. Favorites? Anything by Mozart, especially The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Bizet’s Carmen. Yes, they are the warhorses of opera. I should mention ballet, because unlike opera it is wordless, so the music can be appreciated independently. My favourite, without question is Stravinsky’s Firebird, closely followed by Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet. Film music? Not much into that, but Morricone’s The Mission is great music, all of it, not just Gabriel’s oboe.

If this long list helps anyone think further about their top ten, that is well and good. Those who are horrified that I left out Tubby the Tuba are welcome to tell me. What the list tells me is that I am an old-fashioned musical conservative, but there’s no need for you to tell me the same.

There is such a lot of good music to hear, and a lifetime to hear it in. Forget about Countdowns and simply listen. Good listening!

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I too, find this competition (or whatever it is) extremely tedious, as it is impossible for any music lover to pick something he (or she) “can’t live without”. I won’t venture into the larger works, but here are a few items that invariably catch my attention. Carmina Burana; Schubert’s Notturno; Ombra mai fu (Handel); Per la Gloria (Griselda); Song to the moon (Mikado); Wotan’s farewell (Valkure), and, to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, Chiquitita (Abba). I don’t expect any of those to be among the ‘winners’.

  • Peter S says:

    Love your choices. I share most of them. Over the last 5 years I have fallen in love with the Handa Operas, both for the ambience and the performances. Well worth a trip to Sydney.

    • Patrick Purcell says:

      Turandot was spectacular … everything was excellent … orchestral & vocal performance, soloists, acting, chorus, lighting, choreography, stage setting, costumes, sound, engineering (including a fire breathing dragon!), together with pyrotechnics over the harbour. Superb! Well done indeed.

  • Stu says:

    Don, I think you hit the jackpot with your final sentences “ Forget about Countdowns and simply listen. Good listening!”

    Agreed and music is a very personal thing unless swayed by the commercial stations.

    Enjoy your music. As a sideline have you seen the CSO under their new (local originally) musical director? Jessica Cottis seems to have made a good impact.

  • John Wilden says:

    Thanks Don.You include many of my own favourites.What would we do without great music ?.I believe it has kept many a person sane in this crazy world.Kind regards.

  • Tony Thomas says:

    After a lifetime of classical music listening, I wound up with hearing aids two years ago and my choice is hearing music unaided in something of an aural fog, or with aids, in a tinny metallic fashion. Grr. But I can still really enjoy Wagner, especially the incredible drama of the first act to Lohengrin. I have signed up to New York Met app on phone/tv and it’s really worth the $20-odd per month.
    When I was a kid of about 17-18, with almost no money, I joined the “World Record Club” buying those LP records. To drum up business, they would post you a record half-price if you signed up another member who bought a full-price record. Things weren’t computerised in those days (1958-onwards) so I signed up every variety of person over time, who all happened to live at my address. I guess the half-price records they send to Mary, Joseph, Bill and Brunnhilde (etc) Thomas, 38 Garling St, Willageee were their slow or non-saleable stock, but for me it was first-time-ever to hear that piece (at 50% discount) so I didnt care. It was probably a win-win for both me and World Record Club.
    As an extra aside, the Perth-based proprietor of World Record Club was a Red and about whom ASIO kept a close watch. Surprisingly I accessed the ASIO 100-200 page volume on him and found, according to ASIO, he was liaising with Ceaucescu of Roumania about non-musical stuff. When I brought this up at a dinner party where his daughter was present (he had passed on), she took violent offence and her frostiness cast a pall over the rest of the evening.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for sharing. It saves me a lot of time. I’ll take your favourites as recommendations. I know I should do my own home work

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Don, I thoroughly enjoy your writing because it often triggers a distant life experience. My only experience as a ‘musician’ was as a side drummer in a cadet band in the mid 1950s and playing a mouthorgan (a Hohner no less) as a boy scout in Hong Kong in the late 1940s. That said, my most memorable piece of music was Beethoven’s fifth conducted by Otto Klemperer, which I used to play as a LP when living in Kalgoorlie in the late 1960s (the nickel boom) while spread out on the floor, absolutely knackered, after heading N very early that day to Perseverance Bore (NE of Agnew), logging drill core, and driving back. How I didn’t kill myself in a one-vehicle crash, I will never know (actually I do know – I have an over-worked guardian angel). And so my question is, does ‘favourite’ (favorite?) mean the same as ‘uplifting’? That piece used to restore sufficient strength for me to shower and then enjoy a late dinner with a beautiful wife (daughter already in bed) and a glass of flagon red.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “my question is, does ‘favourite’ (favorite?) mean the same as ‘uplifting’?”
    More interesting, perhaps, would be ‘what musical pieces bring you to tears?’ Also, probably, easier to answer.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      In my case, the moment in la Boheme, almost the last moment, where the hero comes back with the doctor, and no one will look at him because Mimi has already died. I know it’s coming, but there’s that sudden silence, and then he knows. The orchestra crashes through, and so do my tears, even though I’ve seen the opera so many times.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      Very good measure Bryan, thanks. Yours too Don.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Since Don has been so generous as to offer his opinion, I suppose I should answer my own question. Wotan’s farewell. Even for those who dislike Teutonic music, it is an incredibly powerful evocation of the distress at the loss of a child.

  • Peter E says:

    A very interesting list and, of those I know, all good. I did like Beethoven’s final quartets and the ‘Moonlight’ sonofanata.

  • NH says:

    Don, I agree with everything on your list.
    Only reservations would be that Beethoven symphonies seem ponderous sometimes, and some of Mozart is repetitious. He said himself that “music comes out of me like a cow pissing”. I have two violinist friends who played in international orchestras, and to them Mozart is above all others, so I guess they understand things that are inaccessible to me.
    I spent 20 years listening to popular music only from 1920 to 1950 – a good era. Then I heard on the ABC the incredible counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky sing Handel’s “Deggio morire O stelle”, and later Bach’s “Ich habe genug”. After that there is no real path back to popular music.
    For me listening to 18th century classical music is time travel away from political and personal squabbles into a place that is higher and better.

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