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!