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Sheila has a nice tribute to Rudyard Kipling, of whom I am also immensely fond.

People like to dismiss Kipling these days as nothing more than a dead, white, male Imperialist.  I strongly suspect that such people have never actually read any of his work, or they would quickly realize that he was perfectly well aware of the physical and moral complexities, ambiguities, hardships and injustices of the world around him (which are, in fact the subject of many of his stories and poems).  But Kipling was a realist, too, and I think his wisdom and observations will hold far longer than those of some snotty college kid who refuses to touch him on the grounds that, “Dude, it was like so unfaaaair that the British ruled India.”

As for relevance? Well, for just over a month now, the following lines have been flowing through my brain more or less constantly:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:—
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will bum,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Diane poses a tricky question in the comments below:

If you wanted to expose someone to classical music for the first time, and plant in them the same love and enjoyment you have for it – what music would you choose for their listening pleasure?

Let’s make it more difficult and limit it to…say five selections all told, whether they are complete symphonies, single canons, what have you. Pick from your favorite period, or go across the board.

As I say, tricky.  And I’m not sure I can come up with a really good answer, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

I should start by saying that my earliest recollections were not of being sat down and told to listen to a given piece of music.  Instead, my first musical exposure was more by osmosis:  My parents listened to music almost every night after dinner (a point of some contention and complaint, considering that my bedroom was directly above Dad’s speaker system and the Old Gentleman was already somewhat deaf even when I was a young lad).  They also both hacked at the piano in a minor way.  And when we went on hunting or fishing trips, Dad would bring along some 8-track tapes for the car – I recall Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in particular.  After a while, it all simply started to sink in.  (It’s also true that my school would periodically trek downtown for Young Persons’ Concerts, but those never made much of an impression on me.  Too many distractions.)

Later on, when I was eleven or twelve, the ‘rents started giving me my own classickal records.  Among the first that I recall were the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (the “Surprise”), some early Mozart String Serenades and my own recording of the Schumann Symphony No. 4.  I got into the habit of listening to these over and over again in my room while doing something else – building models mostly.  I can’t say that I really understood any of them at the time, but nonetheless they sank into my brain and stayed there.

It was only when I got to be a teenager that I started being taken to chamber concerts and orchestral performances.

So there you are.

Now, about this question of a list…… Well, if I had to compile a five-piece collection of the sort Diane requests, I think I would start off by eliminating a number of genres:

Programmatic Music: This is the sort of thing that, at least in my day, was used in schools to entice young ears.  Listening for the cuckoo in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony; watching a slide show accompaniment to Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre;  and of course the whole Peter and teh Wolf thing.   I’m not saying that this technique won’t leave an imprint, but I think it probably does listeners a disservice by training them to think of music in terms of something other than itself – a story or an image.  Musick ought to be listened to simply for its own sake.

The Unapproachable: No novice is going to fall in love with classical musick by being made to start off with, say Wagner’s Ring Cycle (or any other opera, for that matter), or the late Beethoven String Quartets or Bach’s “Musical Offering”.   That all comes later.

The Hackneyed: Certain pieces (both bad and good) have simply been played to death – The Chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik and the C Major Piano Sonata, K. 5-whatever it is,  Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  Their fame has become such a distraction in and of itself that I think it would be hard for a novice to actually listen to the musick for its own sake.  Besides, with so much else on offer, why not visit fresher fields?  (There is an important exception to this, however, which I will mention below.)

So, none of that.

Of course, throwing out the bathwater still leave me the task of choosing which babies to save.

In general, I think I would choose musick from two specific periods, namely the High Baroque and the Late Classical/Early Romantic.    The former represents, IMHO, the highest point of polyphony ever achieved.  And much of the latter was written specifically for the ears of the growing European middle class at the end of the 18th Century, a class eager to acquire the musickal tastes of the aristocracy but with little experience.

So, who exactly then?  Well, I think I would have to pick Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

And what pieces?

Vivaldi: There is a joke about Vivaldi’s 450-odd concerti that he really only wrote two, but that he wrote each one 225 times.   Among these, I’d select the one I first learned: the Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537.   It’s rousing, it’s uncomplicated and new listeners seem to gravitate toward brass instruments.  I would not recommend The Four Seasons because, although it is undoubtedly a great piece of musick, it suffers from being both programmatic and hackneyed.  (Remember, I’m trying to grow purists here.)

Bach: Remember, boys and girls, we’re talking about first exposure here.  So don’t throw rocks and garbage when I suggest the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047.   But find a period instrument performance.  Too often a modern trumpet shouts down everyone else and the real beauty of the piece is the way all four “soloists” – trumpet, recorder, violin and oboe – interweave with each other and with the continuo.

Haydn: Poor old Papa gets too often overlooked these days.  And yet his musick – particularly the later symphonies – is some of the most readily accessable to anyone with any sort of ear whatsoever.   I would recommend one of the London Symphonies, particularly one with a hook such as the “Surprise”, the “Clock”, the “Military” or the “Drumroll”.   Haydn wrote these pieces with his London audience specifically in mind, an audience that was less sophisticated, musickally speaking, than those of most other European capitals of the day. I often think that ol’ Papa looked on these pieces, in part, as a sort of tutorial for them.  (The “Surprise” may violate my anti-program rule, but only at the one measure so perhaps we can give it a pass.)

Mozart: Well, how the heck can you not include Gangerl in your introductory list?   The question is which piece….  Well, if I have to choose one, I think here I would go with one of the Four Horn Concerti, probably the third or fourth.  Simply beautiful.

Beethoven: Remember where I said above that there was an important exception to my anti-hackneyed rule? This is it:  His Fifth Symphony.   For all the hype, for all the du-du-du-duuuuuh, and even though it is not even my favorite (the Seventh is), I still have to confess that this is a great, great piece of musick.

Well, there you go.  I’d be interested to hear what others would suggest.

UPDATE: Oh, I can’t stand it so I’m going to slip one more pick in here for you: The Concerto Grosso from Handel’s Oratorio Alexander’s Feast.  Handel is more dramatic than Bach for the simple reason that much of his musick was written for the stage.   I’ve always loved this one.  For a beginner, I would recommend finding a recording like the one I linked that contains a lot of Handel’s other instrumental musick instead of trying to start out with the full oratorio itself.

I don’t like most secular Christmas season musick – “Jingle Bells” and the like.

I especially don’t like medleys of such songs. (In fact, I don’t like medleys at all.)

I also especially don’t like classicized treatments of them – You know, “If Mozart Had Written ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'” for example.

SO….when I hear a medley of classicized holiday musick, I feel I am in the midst of the veritable perfect storm.

wetacd I mention this because the local classickal station has started flogging a “Holiday Collection” CD that contains just such garbage (interspersed with Chant and other sacred musick – you know, because there isn’t really any difference).

Now I suppose that the station probably needs the money and it knows what sells.  But I hope that somebody there feels at least a leetle bit of shame in pushing this stuff.


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December 2008