BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is a treasure trove of listening ideas, featuring a searchable archive of guests’ choices dating back to 1942. Guests choose their music for a variety of reasons, sometimes love for the music itself and sometimes based on association and memory. Either way, it’s in the nature of the program that the selections are intensely personal, and it’s this that makes them such a rich source of musical inspiration.

Digging around the internet for Top 10s of classical composers, there’s the expected consensus that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are the Big Three. Phil Goulding’s The 50 Greatest Composers is pretty representative in having this triumvirate followed by the usual suspects of Wagner, Haydn, Schubert et al (see below for full Top 20).

By way of comparison, I typed in the names of the composers from Goulding’s top 50 to check their popularity on the Desert Island Discs site. The following shows the ranking of each composer in terms of the number of DID guests who chose one or more of their pieces among their eight selections, compared to their Goulding rank (as of October 2011).

DID rank Composer Goulding rank No. of guests
1 Mozart 2 789
2 Beethoven 3 718
3 J.S. Bach 1 649
4 Schubert 7 360
5 Verdi 16 333
6 Elgar 326
7 Tchaikovsky 10 317
8 Puccini 23 292
9 Handel 9 275
10 Wagner 4 264
11 Brahms 6 242
12 Chopin 14 236
13 R. Strauss 20 219
14 Debussy 22 179
15 Britten 154
16 Mendelssohn 11 151
17 Vaughan Williams 44 149
18 Mahler 17 131
19 J. Strauss 46 126
20 Stravinsky 15 120
21 Dvorak 12 108
22 Haydn 5 100
23 Schumann 8 93
24 Prokofiev 18 85
25 Shostakovich 19 49
26 Liszt 13 48

 

The Big Three are upheld by Desert Island Discs, with a solid lead over the rest of the field. Reflecting the British connections of most of the guests, Elgar is at no. 6, despite failing to make Goulding’s top 50, and the standing of Britten and Vaughan Williams is similarly boosted. Italian opera is very popular among DID-ers, with Verdi and Puccini scoring much higher than in Goulding. Haydn and Schumann, top 10-ers for Goulding, have less of a place in the hearts of the programme’s contributors. A few guests have a strong preference for a single composer. For example, James Ellroy chooses five pieces by Beethoven. Enoch Powell chooses four by Wagner…

Rock and pop artists fare relatively less well. A random sampling shows that the Beatles were picked by 250 guests (lower than 10th-placed Wagner). Others include Bob Dylan (92), Elvis (81), Led Zeppelin (5), Madonna (4), and Beyonce (0). Presumably, guests are often contemplating a long time spent hearing the same eight pieces of music on a hypothetical desert island when they make their choices, and the numbers must be at least partly a reflection of the relative strength of classical music to bear repeated listening, but perhaps also of its greater associative powers over long periods of time.

If she ever reads this, Madonna should note that more people (including Jo Brand) chose Brahms’s wonderful Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale than her entire catalogue. Ha!

Yo-Yo Ma Bach Cello SuiteLike much of Bach, the ever-evolving symmetry of this piece for solo cello played by Yo-Yo Ma is hypnotic in its enticement to follow, but always (and deliciously) one step ahead of the listener. The melody figure leads us along a constantly shifting staircase, weaving in, out, and back on itself with effortless complexity, absorbed in a mesmeric dance with its own shadow.

I’m quickly discovering that J.S. Bach alone represents a complete world of music to explore, and there’s something compelling about such intricacy laid so bare. The All Music Guide To Classical Music sums Bach up thus: “the immense complexities of his compositional style – which often included religious and numerological symbols that seem to fit perfectly together in a profound puzzle of special codes – still amaze musicians today”.

Amazon’s 99 Most Essential Bach Masterpieces is a great starting place for several reasons. It costs next to nothing, and the sound quality is, for the most part, pretty good. The pieces are mostly relatively short, bypassing one of the main adjustments rock listeners have to make, that classical pieces are often much longer than we’re used to.  Many of the pieces are played on period instruments, which means a chance to broaden your taste a little by tuning your ear to their different sounds. And the number and variety of the compositions here provide many potential jumping off points.

Here’s a version of the Wachet Auf chorale performed on organ, and it sounds just as stirring as in its orchestral form.

Not without justification, my wife was initially dubious about my newfound enthusiasm for classical music (“You said that about DIY once”). However, on learning of this blog, she declared a hitherto unvoiced affection for church music, dating back to her Catholic schooling (definitely with a capital C), and was enraptured on hearing Ave Maria (the Latin prayer set to a Schubert melody).

People often comment after attending a marriage service or christening, or watching, say, a royal wedding on TV, that they were moved by the sacred music. This must surely be to do with the solemnity of church music, which both affirms our sense of participating in a communal experience and reinforces the feeling at such events that we are somehow watching the cogs shift on another inexorable notch, whether the occasion is public or private.

That the same music attracts so little attention from the majority outside these formal and ceremonial contexts suggests that we have pigeonholed it as serving a particular supporting function, which we do not readily associate with private enjoyment outside these bounds.

Best of BachI defied these constraints by listening to Bach’s Ave Maria the other day while sorting the household rubbish for the weekly collection, and still found it incredibly moving. Not to be confused with Schubert’s composition of the same name, this Ave Maria is actually a melody by Charles Gounod played over a Bach prelude. There are many different arrangements of it, but this one for violin and harp (from The Best of Bach on Naxos) is lovely. Its basis, Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C major, BWV 846 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, can be heard here on harpsichord and on piano.

I haven’t got to grips with Brahms yet. While I’m aware that this is due more to a lack of appreciation on my part than any deficiency in Brahms’ music itself, for the moment his pieces seem to contain lots of the big, crashing arpeggios and portentous-sounding flourishes that put me off classical music as a child (e.g. first movement of Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B Flat Major). I’ve made a note to return to him later.

Immersing yourself in classical music is like venturing into the sea for a dip. You dabble a toe, get used to the temperature round your ankles, wade in to the knees, and so on until you’re swimming. Brahms, on this measure, must be the equivalent of feeling the cold water on your goolies. You have to be ready.

Nevertheless, a happy by-product of hearing all this ‘new’ music in an entirely different genre is to cast everything else that you listen to in a fresh light. Thus, the crunching rhythms of punk and metal assume renewed excitement, and the undulating bass that floats across a Beatles or Who record sounds fuller and rounder in the speakers.

Miles Davis - NefertitiListening to all this instrumental music in particular has refuelled my interest in jazz. Of the Miles Davis small group recordings of the 60s, Nefertiti is a mesmerising album. Rather than relying on extended solos, the record explores a series of short riffs that are first weighed and stroked, then turned and twisted in constant reappraisal, as if to massage new shapes from every angle. Dark, unsettling, and magical.

The 99 Most Essential Schubert MasterpiecesGiven my chastening experience with cheap MP3 downloads as described in my last post, I approached The 99 Most Essential Schubert Masterpieces with initial caution, and listened to the online samples before buying (the price was next to nothing).

As it turned out, the recordings are of good, clear quality, and I’m wondering how on earth I’ve missed out on Schubert thus far. Schubert died at 31 but wrote many hundreds of compositions (in comparison, the Beatles released fewer than 200 studio tracks while together). Knowing a little biographical detail about the composer certainly adds to the experience of hearing the music.  Schubert is often described as the bridge between the Classical period (dominated by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) and the Romantic period. Even on my initial forays, I can hear the difference between him and the Classical giants. He has the sweet melodiousness of Haydn and Mozart but the music is sparer and less densely ornate, and not as dark and ominously dramatic as Beethoven.

One of the obvious pleasures of listening to accoustic music (relatively) unfiltered by technology and free of the hullabaloo of marketing and the surrounding razzamatazz is that you feel with greater immediacy the connection between listener and creator (I have the same feeling when listening to Miles Davis’ accoustic groups). Schubert’s music has a gorgeous serenity that transmits itself from most of the performances here, but the first movement of the Octet is a good example, as are the Impromptus. I will definitely be exploring further.

 

Reading newspaper and magazine reviews of classical music initially left me baffled, because they contain little reference to the quality of the compositions themselves, focusing instead on performance and sound quality. The assumption is that you already know the piece and don’t need advice as to whether you might like it or not. What matters is how that particular rendition stands up.

And although variations in interpretation can seem minor or even undetectable to non-initiates like me, there must be an acceptance implicit in all this that there’s something unquestionably worthwhile about the music itself.

Rock music, on the other hand, is all about a single performance, the recording of which becomes definitively bound up with the composition. Live recordings of the same material tend to be viewed as secondary, and cover versions are rarely accorded the same value. Accordingly, rock reviews usually classify the music itself into shades of good, bad, or indifferent.

While I’m not at the point where I can differentiate too well between the performance levels of different classical musicians, I think I can tell when a recording is good or bad. And in classical music, with its greater range of dynamics than rock, sound quality is crucial to enjoyment.

Looking for a cheap way to get my hands on lots and lots of Mozart, I spied an apparent bargain on Amazon. The Mozart 100 Collection was £3.99 but Amazon applied a £3 discount, meaning that I paid less than £0.01 per track. Nothing lost, then, but the recording soon revealed its deficiencies. It was hard enough to forgive the musicians coughing over the music, but the constant rattling of turned (or dropped) music sheets was something not even Amadeus could transcend. As irritating as piece of scratched vinyl.

It certainly pays to listen to the samples available online before you buy.

Bach TranscriptionsThe first piece of J.S. Bach I listened to, consciously at least, was part of the cantata, BWV 140. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, in the form of an orchestral arrangement of the chorale Zion hört die Wächter singen (‘Zion hears the watchmen singing’), as featured on the Lloyds bank ad in the UK.

While it must be frustrating for those already familiar with this to see it commandeered by commercial interests, the piece is so beautiful I can’t see its appeal being dulled even by repeated airings in the incongruous setting of prime-time soap operas, quiz shows, and the like. The ultimate test of a piece of music’s durability, you might say. Difficult to imagine many rock or pop songs withstanding the same treatment.

There’s a tradition of ‘transcribing’ Bach’s music for more modern instruments, it seems. As a novice listener, I’m glad of this, because try as I might, I’m as yet resistant to the sound of the harpsichord that appears in a fair bit of Bach’s music. The well-reviewed set of orchestral arrangements by Leonard Slatkin includes the Wachet Auf chorale, although some are a little too lushly romantic for my taste.

 

Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major, K. 488One of the pieces that I’ve loved for a long time is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. I fell for the allegro first movement the first time I heard it many years ago, at a time when my only real interest was in rock music, and have listened to it frequently ever since. The gracefully tumbling piano figures have a crystalline beauty that affects me in the same way, no matter how many times I listen.

Mozart Clarinet ConcertoThis time, rooting through a Mozart best-of CD that must have come with the Sunday papers, I found the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, which has the same exquisite, effortless tranquillity as the piano concerto, with bubbling melody lines a perfect design for the warbling voice of the clarinet.

In this early stage of my self-education, I’m finding it easiest to listen to pieces constructed on a ‘smaller’ scale, where the focus is on one instrument or type of instrument, whose trajectory I can follow, than anything more grand or ‘big’-sounding. Hence my preference so far for string quartets and piano concertos over, say, symphonies.

Beethoven Symphony No.1I went out jogging the other day to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, chosen because I knew I’d never heard any of it before. I found it surprisingly smooth and calming, and at no point during my run was I tempted to reach for the stop button. After it finished, though, I couldn’t recall anything of what I’d heard. If I’d been asked later that day to pick out an excerpt of Beethoven’s First from among chunks of other symphonic pieces, I doubt I’d have been able to identify it. A lot more work for me to do here, I think.

I had decided to stay with Beethoven for a while. However, the vast range of music waiting to be heard is always going to militate against such planning. My brother mentioned Haydn, a composer whose music I had never really heard, and his enthusiasm was enough to tempt me off course.

Haydn himself was extremely prolific and lived quite bit longer (1732-1809) than Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770-1827), so my searches produced a lot of music by Haydn. I looked for piano concertos (mainly because one of Mozart’s is a previous favourite of mine) and came across a Naxos recording of Piano Concertos No’s 3, 4, 9, and 11. Haydn piano concertos no's 3, 4, 9 & 11.

I was quickly hooked in by this music. It’s light and uplifting, but with an undertow of sadness. As such, it’s the kind of music I’m able to enjoy instantly, without hearing it several times first, which is just what I’m looking for at this stage in the curve. The first (adagio) and second (largo cantabile) movement of concerto no.3 are nice and representative.

I’ve hunted for information on Haydn and these concertos in particular, but they don’t seem to be considered of much importance in his body of work. I’ve made a note to find out why…

My attempt to “get into classical” was triggered by something in a novel I’ve been reading, Great House by Nicole Krause. In the first section of the book, her character describes listening to part of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor (Opus 132) thus:

“The third movement is one of the most moving passages ever written, and I’ve never listened to it without feeling as if I alone have been lifted up on the shoulders of some giant creature touring the charred landscape of all human feeling”.

Beethoven String Quartet in A Minor (Opus 132) So I downloaded it. And she’s right, it’s extremely beautiful. My first reaction was that here was something that would continue to reveal itself over repeated listenings, and that’s how it’s proved to be. It’s a slow piece about 15 minutes long. Anyway, its length means that I can get lost it when out jogging, despite its slowness, and have time to listen to it twice before I get back.

At several points (e.g. between about 2 and 3 minutes in), the bow drawn across the strings produces a quivering, glassy resonance, as the different players shift in and out of the music like slowly dancing shadows sketching out the allusive form of the melody. Quite different to anything I’ve listened to (closely) before.

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132: III. Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart: Molto adagio – Andante