Saturday, 14 January 2012

My two classical music 'gods'.

I've postponed it too long. Because I've considered it something of an academic subject which may not interest many of my followers, only now, on my 240th blog, do I talk a little about the two composers who have meant so much to me through at least five decades, one of whose music I can never get enough of listening to, the other who gets into my mind with such force that I actually go out of my way to avoid listening to him, feeling emotionally drained by the experience.

     It's a bit odd that J.S.Bach, surely being one of the ultimate 'cerebral' composers does not tire me in the least, even though most of his music appeals on an intellectual level. His music has been called "mathematics in sound" which, I suppose, can be dismissed as absurd, though I think it contains more than a germ of truth.
There is a purity of vision in his compositions, an inevitability and a perfection which I think outdoes every other composer who has ever lived (a point of view that admirers of Mozart would undoubtedly challenge, but which I would maintain). There is practically no composition of his I can think of that could be improved. Yet it is difficult to believe that in the years following his death his worth was not recognised and his fame was far surpassed by several of his composer-sons. It was left to Mendelssohn, a century later, to re-claim him out of the obscurity to which he had sunk and to place him on his rightful pedestal  from where he has towered ever since.

   Beethoven, by contrast, is the eternal voice of the human spirit, aspiring for perfection, but never quite getting there. I can hear such greatness in his music while simultaneously recognising the faults in it - and, not only that, but arrogant as it may sound, in my mind I think I know how it could have been even better. While Bach is, for me, the supreme intellectual composer, Beethoven appeals on a combination of the intellectual, spiritual and emotional levels. For this reason, virtually anything by dear Ludwig is such an 'event' that listening attentively to his music simply tires me out.
   One of the very first live concerts I ever went to (I would have been maybe 16) was an all-Beethoven programme of the 'Egmont' overture, the 'Emperor' concerto and the 'Eroica' symphony. Not just three 'Es' but the two major works were in the same key of Eb, which by itself would be a challenge! Being so young my tastes and preferences hadn't quite settled yet and I thought the whole experience was wonderful. However, I know full well that I couldn't listen to such a concert these days. I'd feel mentally suffocated after nearly two hours of such passionate intensity!

  But these two, for very disparate reasons, are two beings who have given such meaning to my life that I cannot imagine what it would have been like not to have experienced them. If I had to live with one of them to the exclusion of all other composers it would just have to be Bach because he always leaves me wanting more - even though Beethoven may occasionally have the ability to penetrate even deeper.

My own favourite compositions of theirs:-

   Beethoven - Missa Solemnis
                      9th symphony (the first movement rather than the last)
                      Emperor Concerto
                      Piano Sonata in C minor Op.111 
                      'Rasumovsky' & 'Harp' Quartets Opp. 59 & 72

   Bach - Mass in B minor
              Christmas Oratorio
              St Matthew & St John Passions
              Preludes & Fugues - 'Well-tempered Clavier' (both books)
              So many of the cantatas, both secular and religious. 

Right, I've set out my 'stall'. Come and comment if you wish.


  1. Replies
    1. Fully understood, Tai - and I don't think any less of you for saying so. Everyone has their own likes, dislikes and incomprehensions. I've written before how, no matter how much I've tried, I just cannot really get into jazz.

  2. Hello Ray:
    Yes, we are absolutely at one with you here. Interestingly, as you, we should rate Bach more than Beethoven but for some reason we find that nothing really stirs the passionate soul as Beethoven can. Perhaps it is to do with the 'imperfections' which makes him resonate so well with us, poor humans with all our faults?

    An historic day for us was the performance of all nine Beethoven symphonies on one day/ evening at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It started at 3pm and finished at 11pm with intervals between the 3rd and 6th symphonies. It was truly an occasion which will stay with us for the whole of our lives, the whole conducted by Zoltan Kocsis without a single score!!

    1. Hi, J & L. In your own words, you've said EXACTLY how I feel re Beethoven. It's his essential humanity with all its foibles that makes his music easy to identify with. Nobody has ever shown the struggle and nobility of the human spirit so nakedly as he has. At the risk of sounding pompous, Beethoven gives us a glimpse of the 'eternal soul' as clouded by the human condition. Bach presents that same soul in all its perfection.

      But goodness me! All the Beethoven symphonies in just eight hours? I'd never have been able to endure that. You must have been utterly exhausted even by the interval, never mind when the peroration of the 'Choral' arrives. I admire your stamina, though must admit I envy your being able to last the course rather than envying your actual attending it.
      About 30 years ago they did the same thing when I was in Oxford, with the city's own local 'Pro Musica' orchestra (which was usually pretty good). I didn't attend the complete marathon (I think they started around 9 a.m. and had three intervals) but I did go along for the 9th. It wasn't a very good performance. It was clear that both the orchestra and the conductor were wilting by then and the playing lacked energy and commitment - though not in the chorus who'd, of course, been waiting all day for their 'big moment(s)'.

      I play something by Bach nearly every day, whether on CD, the radio or on keyboard. Can't do the same for Ludwig. It would just about unbalance me!

  3. It is always fascinating to read things like this about my blogger buddies. Your vivid description of the music inspires me to seek out some of what you mentioned. Thanks for opening your soul a bit and giving us some insight to what moves you and why. Very well written and expressed, sir.

  4. Thanks so much, S/b. I'm very touched and flattered by your reaction. It's remarkable how each of us have worlds within which mean so much to us personally, yet somehow fails to make contact with others. I know, for instance, how much comics mean to you personally, but the appreciation for which evades some of us. Yet it's things like this that make individuals so endlessly fascinating.
    I'm honoured if I've triggered you to attempt to make discoveries in what's been talked about here, but if you can't 'get into it' then I'm every bit as happy with you being the just way you are now. Thanks for your visit, my special friend.

  5. Fabulous, both of them!
    I add to the list Mahler - with whom life would have little joy.

  6. I used to be passionate about Mahler but in recent years my enthusiasm, though still there, has subdued a little bit. I note your unexpected use of the word 'joy', Dr Spo, a word I myself would have hesitated to employ in talking about the effect of this particular composer's music - though it's by no means devoid of this emotion.

    I wonder which of the symphonies you especially appreciate? I may be totally wrong but I'd put you down as one who'd nominate the 5th, 9th and (as a symphony in all but name) 'Das Lied von der Erde'.

    Although one's tastes change, currently my own preferences are for the 2nd, 4th and 6th, the latter having been one of my very favourites for about the last 40 years.
    The 8th, with it's unwieldy second 'half', I could live without, though the opening 'Veni Creator Spiritus' is quite something.
    Also, not all that keen on the 1st.

    Great pity that M. didn't have the time or inclination to write more music in other forms - chamber, instrumental, concertos - though what we do have is in itself quite a breathtaking achievement.

    Thanks so much for your comment, Dr Spo. I feel I know you a little better now.

  7. Mr. Mahler and I share the same birthday. When I was a boy I figured this was Fate; whoever he was, he was 'my composer'. Alas I could not say Gustav, it came out as Goosebumps. "Goosebumps Mahler". He still gives me goosebumps. Currently #2 is my favorite.
    Would you believe, I have never heard #8, as when I do, there is 'no more Mahler" for me new to hear.

  8. So, Dr Spo, right from the start you had a good reason to feel a special affinity with 'Goosebumps'. I'm sure that HE would have been honoured to have known it. ;-)

    The 'Resurrection', then, is currently your 'top of the league'. After I first encountered the work I started to go off it a bit, but now, thank God, I find the entire work amazing throughout - though it does take a good conductor to bring off the vision of heaven at the peroration. It must NOT be taken too fast, but rather let it speak for itself at its own pace. If it's pushed too hard the effect is diminished and all that's gone before is undermined. Must admit that my nervous anticipation of the closing bars (Will it be interpreted effectively?) rather distracts from my listening in the earlier movements. But when it does work, it's total rapture in sound.

    Never heard the 'Symphony of a Thousand'? I can appreciate your reasons for avoiding listening to it, but hope that I haven't put you off. Even if I find Part 1 almost beyond criticism, Part 2 does have many outstandingly fine moments. If you do brace yourself to listen to it I'd be most interested to hear of your immediate reactions - though I reckon I may have to waste some time.

    It's been a delight to write at length on music and to follow up on your own remarks, Dr Spo - though I could easily have gone on a lot longer. Thanks for taking the time to reveal your thoughts here.