My Favorite Music

This is the story of my favorite music, how it came to be, and how it grew over my lifetime. I am a complete amateur about classical music. I feel like I know very little, compared with what's out there, and compared with what others know. This essay is derived from a lifetime of fairly random encounters with classical music. It's not everything I know about classical music, but it's most of it.

This account is in somewhat chronological order, with deviations to provide a smoother flow. I'm generally much more attracted to the drama of the concerto form — where a virtuoso is pitted against an entire orchestra — over the less theatrical symphony form.

When I was a child, my father would often listen to the New York classical music stations WQXR and WNYC on our kitchen radio, an old Zenith AM vacuum tube table model from the 40's, and the only radio we had. Although he especially liked Mozart and Beethoven, he enjoyed a fairly wide variety of classical music, including opera. He could often guess correctly the composer of a piece just by listening to a short fragment. I knew that my father had some strong opinions about what he heard. Occasionally, when atonal music was broadcast, he would angrily turn the radio off, saying it was noise.

Growing up this way, I took it for granted that classical music is just part of life. I internalized much of this music from the radio without even being aware of it, so that as an adult, certain pieces were already familiar to me, even though I didn't know what they were. It wasn't until I'd left home that I learned — much to my surprise — that not everyone is familiar with classical music. I'm grateful to my father for exposing me to classical music. At the time, I didn't realize that he was giving me a great gift. I don't think he realized it either.

Brahms' Violin Concerto

By my teen years, my parents had acquired a so-called "high fidelity" system for our living room — a big step up from our kitchen radio, both in terms of volume of sound and fidelity of reproduction. Our system, typical for the time, was a single large floor-standing cabinet containing a monaural record changer and an AM/FM radio driven by vacuum tubes. The front of the cabinet concealed a woofer for bass reproduction, as well as a smaller speaker for mid-range and treble.

Compared with our kitchen radio, the sound reproduction of this new system was indeed wonderful, and I was enthusiastic about listening to music in this expanded form. Like most teens in the '50s, I became immediately attracted to rock & roll, an entirely new musical sound at the time. However, I never thought of R&R as replacing the classical music sounds that I'd known as long as I could remember. Even then, I knew that the R&R songs were mostly ephemeral, but that there was a reason classical music was permanent.

Our new record changer could play the new 12-inch long-playing 33-rpm records, a format I'd never seen before. Initially, my parents had only about half a dozen such records, mostly gifts from friends and relatives. One of these was a recording of Johannes Brahms' violin concerto. I liked this piece early on. Over time, it became one of my favorites.

Brahms' Horn Trio

A second of our few initial records was the Brahms horn trio. Initially, I did not take to this piece, but over time it's become one of my very favorites. I really like the idea that one doesn't need a 100-piece orchestra to make beautiful music, but that you can make plenty of good music with just three musicians. When I was young, I was more interested in the fast movements, but as I've gotten older, I've been especially attracted to slow, quiet movements. Brahms is a master of slow movements, as in the second movement of his violin concerto, the first and third movements of his horn trio, and the third movement of his second piano concerto (see below). Of course, Brahms also wrote the Brahms Lullaby.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3

As a fifteen year old searching for a holiday gift for my father, I considered getting him a record of classical music to play on our new high-fidelity system. My knowledge of classical music was extremely limited at the time, so I had no idea what to get. As it so happened, that year (1958) Van Cliburn, a Texan, had won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, an event that Wikipedia says was designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority. As a cold-war triumph for the United States, Van Cliburn's win was a sensational news story. It was (and still is) the only time Manhattan honored a classical musician with a ticker-tape parade. Although I'd never heard of Van Cliburn or Sergei Rachmaninoff, I somehow ended up buying a record of Van Cliburn, upon his triumphant return, playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 live in Carnegie Hall.

After giving the gift, I was curious to know what it sounded like. I was glad to find it not difficult to listen to, but it didn't immediately grab me either. I find that's often the case with good music. Anyway, over time I listened to it more and got to like it a lot. I'm not sure my father ever played it — or any other record for that matter. Being old-school, he seemed to prefer listening to our kitchen radio.

Schumann's Piano Concerto

The summer before my sophomore year in college, I lived with my friend Cliff Walsh and his parents in Thornwood. Cliff's parents had a commercially curated set of so-called "light-classical" 33-rpm long-playing records. Almost everything on this album I determined to be some kind of watered-down junk, designed to appeal to people who don't really want to listen to classical music. But there was one exception: When I started playing the record containing Robert Schumann's piano concerto, I immediately recognized the sound from my childhood. I really enjoyed this work, especially that summer, when not much other good music was available. It's an easy favorite to get into.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerti

About the time I started college, I became aware that Johann Sebastian Bach has been said to be the greatest Western composer of all time. I was unfamiliar with Bach's music, probably because my father didn't much care for Bach. I was intrigued by the idea of this mysterious "greatest composer" and vowed to learn something about Bach's music. In those days, the way you could get music to listen to at your convenience was to go to a record store and buy records. But what Bach records should I buy? I had no idea.

According to my Uncle Sam, the greatest record store in the world — or at least in the New York area — was The Record Hunter. The Record Hunter was indeed a store of renown. It was located on Fifth Avenue just above 42nd Street — a few short blocks from the Center of the Known Universe (Times Square). In those days, store clerks where often knowledgeable about their merchandise, and very willing to help customers. The Record Hunter was known to have especially knowledgeable sales clerks. As I waited there for a clerk to help me, I heard one clerk explain to another customer the pros and cons of five different recordings of Beethoven's seventh symphony. Such refined distinctions went way beyond my basic needs. I simply wanted to know what I should buy to get a good introduction to Bach's music.

I'm forever indebted to the anonymous store clerk who made two excellent recommendations: the Brandenburg Concerti and the Mass in B Minor. Even better for my very limited budget was that the clerk directed me to very cheap recordings of both.

By this time, I was already familiar with — and very much liked — some Baroque music, including other concerti grossi. But when I first tried listening to my newly acquired Bach records, I was disappointed. They didn't sound a whole lot like Handel or the other Baroque music I'd been enjoying. They sounded weird and impenetrable to me. I didn't get it. I thought, "This is what the greatest composer who ever lived sounds like?" But being somewhat stubborn, I was determined not to give up — at least not just yet. The strange sounds just deepened the mystery for me. Still, I put aside the Mass as being especially unlistenable. (More on the Mass below.)

I attempted over a period of days and weeks to play the Brandenburg Concerti. For what seemed like a long time, none of it made sense. There are six Brandenburg Concerti, each of 3 movements (except that the first has four and the third has two). Eventually, I found myself gradually starting to like just one movement: the very last movement of the very last Brandenburg Concerto. This movement has a very strong beat that I could relate to. Later, I began to like the fast movements of the first and second Brandenburg Concerti.

It took me an especially long time to warm up to the fourth Brandenburg Concerto. And it was only after many years of listening that I concluded that the fourth Brandenburg Concerto is really the best one. I later learned that that's what many musicologists think too. The fourth is my favorite. But most of the others are extremely good. I like the first three movements of the first Brandenburg Concerto, especially the plaintive, haunting second movement. The opening bars of the second Brandenburg Concerto are used as the theme song for The Great Courses® series of recorded lectures. That says a lot right there. And the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which I love, is really in the form of a prototype piano concerto, though written for the harpsichord.

Bach's Mass in B Minor

It took me even longer to warm up to my recording of the Mass than to the Brandenburg Concerti. This is partly because I was not very familiar with choral music generally. I don't think my father listened much to choral music, apart from perhaps Handel's Messiah. But my persistence in continuing to listen to this initially-impenetrable music eventually paid off. The exciting and dramatic Gloria in excelsis and Et in terra pax (4th and 5th sections) attracted me first. But over much more time, I also fell in love with the soft, quiet Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus (16th and 17th sections). There are so many other excellent choral numbers! And I came to also enjoy pretty much all of the various long duets and solos. Although I didn't know it initially, the Mass in B Minor is widely regarded (according to Wikipedia) as one of the supreme achievements of classical music.

Bach's Cantatas

My enjoyment of the Mass motivated me in later years to explore many of Bach's cantatas, which are smaller mostly-religious choral works including voice solos and occasionally instrumental numbers. The first four cantatas listed below comprise a CD I bought in Leipzig, where Bach lived the last part of his life, and where Beverly and I were privileged to attend a live performance of his Brandenberg Concerto No. 4. This CD is remarkable to me because it's performed in Japan by mostly Japanese artists who have devoted themselves, through an organization called Bach Collegium Japan, to performing Bach's music. I doubt there's a similar organization in the Western world devoted to performing the work of a Japanese composer who died a quarter millennium ago.

Other Baroque Composers

I was especially attracted to non-Bach Baroque music during my high school and early college life. Below are listed my favorites from this time. Although I listen to these works less now, I still think of them as really special:

Walton's Belshazzar's Feast

In the early '60s, the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam required every student to participate in the Crane Chorus. This chorus performed a major work each year in conjunction with the Crane Orchestra, whose members were exempted from the chorus. At that time, when I was a student at Clarkson College in the same town, the Crane School had many more female students than male, to the point that the chorus threatened to be unbalanced enough to be unsuitable for properly performing most major choral works. To solve this problem, the Crane School invited — in fact encouraged — qualified Clarkson students — who were all male at the time — to participate in the chorus for free.

A friend of mine and fellow Electrical Engineering student, Bob Grunert, a competent singer, became a volunteer member of the Crane Chorus. One day, Bob told me that the chorus was rehearsing a really exciting piece called Belshazzar's Feast, by William Walton, and that I really should attend the performance. I'd never heard of Belshazzar's Feast or Walton. This was not surprising. The entire choral repertoire other than Handel's Messiah and Bach's Mass was unknown to me at the time. But I was taken with Bob's enthusiasm, so I attended. It is indeed an exciting and dramatic piece! I enjoyed it a lot, and bought the record SUNY had made of the performance. This work is a real favorite of mine. I've had the pleasure of teaching my children and grandchildren about "the handwriting on the wall" as represented in this piece.

Verdi's Requiem

In a later year, Bob again told me of an exciting piece they were rehearsing, Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, another work I'd never heard of. This time, Bob suggested that rather than just attending a performance, I should first get to know the work in smaller chunks by attending rehearsals, which anyone could do for free. This idea worked really well. I attended two or three rehearsals along with with a few other college people. In the rehearsals, four exceptionally talented students had the honor of singing the solo parts: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass. In the final rehearsal, these four students sang for the last time, to be replaced at the performance by professional opera singers from New York. At the end of that rehearsal, the handful of attendees and the full chorus gave these four students a rousing applause.

Franck's Choral No. 2

As a beginning graduate student at Syracuse University in 1966, I took some time to explore the campus. Although S.U. is a much larger school than those I'd known in Potsdam, the S.U. music department was quite small compared with the Crane School. However, the S.U. music department had one special feature I'd never known before: A specialization in organ performance, enabled by a 3,823-pipe Holtkamp organ housed in a beautiful 650-seat wooden auditorium with a 70-foot ceiling and stained glass windows. I discovered this secular church by accident — just walking around outside, hearing the sound of the organ, and entering through an unlocked door.

The organ sound I heard was not from a concert. It was just a student practicing, alone in the vast space. I sat down in the back row and listened. This really was practicing, in that the student would play a few minutes of something I didn't recognize or comprehend, then would stop abruptly right in the middle, then start again at some earlier point and repeat. The mysterious sounds I was hearing turned out to be César Franck's Choral No. 2. This piece, incomprehensible to me upon first hearing, has become one of my favorites. As I eventually learned, Franck is considered by many to be the greatest composer of organ music after Bach, thanks to this piece, his Chorals No. 1 and 3, (which I also really like) and a few other organ works.

Stravinski's Rite of Spring

The first time I heard this work was as a child. I was sitting in the front seat of a car belonging to a family acquaintance, and the piece was playing on the car radio. Unprepared for what I was hearing, I found it very frightening. When I was older, I heard some of it as part of the T-Rex scene in the famous Disney film Fantasia. I don't think I heard the complete work until I was in my third year of graduate school. Judy and I were living on the first floor of a once-beautiful old house converted into five student apartments. Our neighbor upstairs, Davy Wolpert, often invited me up to listen to Eric Clapton and other rock musicians on his high-powered stereo system while he and his friends smoked pot. The only non-rock records he played were I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus and The Rite of Spring. The Rite is truly a unique work, like no other. Another great piece I shared with my children and grandchildren.

Handel's Messiah

Also during my graduate school years, Judy's brother Bob started a tradition to play Handel's Messiah around Thanksgiving time and at holiday time. I've enjoyed keeping up this tradition. Very beautiful music. I'm not a great fan of the over-exposed Hallelujah Chorus, but the rest of the three-hour work is all well worth listening to, and sharing with family. I learned to improvise a piano accompaniment for Judy singing the soprano aria He shall feed his flock.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

One of my early childhood memories is a moment when I suddenly began paying close attention to our kitchen radio, enchanted with the very foreign and mysterious, yet beautiful music being broadcast. I'd wished to be able to hear this passage again, but had no way to do so. Though the sound stayed in my memory, many years went by before I heard it again. When I did, I recognized it immediately as the passage I'd heard as a young child. This time, I could discover what it was: The opening bars of the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The other two movements are very different, but spectacular in their own ways. Musicologist Robert Greenberg says that this violin concerto is the greatest work Tchaikovsky ever composed.

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is another great piece that I heard in childhood without then knowing what it was. Mendelssohn has become one of my most favorite composers, after Bach, and perhaps equal with Brahms. The violin concerto is to me one of Mendelssohn's best works. It's not just me: Wikipedia says that Mendelssohn's is regarded as one of the greatest violin concerti of all time. I also very much like Mendelssohn's Symphonies No. 3, 4, and 5, his Die erste Walpurgisnacht, and his A Midsummer Night's Dream, which includes Mendelssohn's famous Wedding March. Mendelssohn has a special sound that I really like.

Bach's Organ Works

Johann Sebastian Bach would be considered a great composer even if he wrote nothing but organ works. Among his numerous organ works, my favorite is his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Another of my favorites is his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. There is ambiguity in this title because Bach wrote not one, but two completely different organ works with this exact title. The one I especially like is not the famous one, BWV 565, but the lesser known one, BWV 538. Well, it's mainly the first movement of BWV 538 that I really like. The more popular BWV 565 work is also quite good. Both of these completely different works with the same name are well worth listening to.

Other of my favorite Bach organ works (not to be confused with Well Tempered Clavier works with the same name):

Barber's Violin Concerto

Somewhere around the year 2000, I happened to turn on my car radio during broadcast of an amazing and frantic work with which I was unfamiliar. In just a few minutes, the music ended, and the announcer identified the work as Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. The third and final frantic movement is actually quite short: Less than four minutes. Still, because it's so fast, it probably has more notes than the other two much longer and much slower movements combined. The contrast between the third movement, which had first attracted me to the piece, and the other two is extreme. I was initially disappointed in the first two movements, but over time I got to enjoy them a lot, especially the second movement with its amazingly long, drawn out final note. This piece has become another special favorite of mine.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2

It's been only a few months since I discovered this amazing work. So much dark and daemonic sound! I've read that this work may be the most technically difficult piano concerto ever written. Few pianists can play it well (or at all), but Yundi Li and Yuja Wang each do an excellent job. Especially noteworthy are the re-emergence of the orchestra at the end of the first movement's cadenza, and the crazy orchestration near the end of the third movement.

Other Favorite Works

Following is a short list of additional works I've known for a long time, and that are among my favorites. In no special order:

Non-Classical Favorites

I don't listen to much non-classical music, but one big exception is Mose Allison, whom I listen to quite frequently. A few other artists and works I like a lot, but feel the need to listen to much less often.

Mose Allison

Judy's brother Bob introduced me to the music of jazz/blues pianist and singer Mose Allison around 1972, and I've been a fan ever since. Although Allison occasionally covered songs, my favorites are almost exclusively songs he wrote himself — which are most of the the songs he records and performs. As Wikipedia says, Allison's lyrics are quirky with much subtle ironic humor. I've also found Mose to be very much the intellectual. Mose seems to have made a real effort to study all manner of subjects — science and technology, psychology, philosophy, history, tai chi — and to incorporate this knowledge into many of his songs. Allison's lyrics speak very much to me, and I've also come to like his jazz sound. I have enjoyed a number of his live performances at the Towne Crier. Some of his songs that I like a lot:

There are plenty more good songs written by Mose, but I'm getting tired of listing them all.

Ray Charles

As a teenager, I'd already been attracted to some of Ray Charles' songs. But when my brother Bob gave me Charles' 1961 album, The Genius Sings the Blues, I became more acquainted with Charles blues side, which I've liked ever since. Not so much his later ventures into Country and other genres.

Too many others to list, from his '50s blues period.

Stevie Wonder

Keb' Mo'

I first heard Keb' Mo''s album, Just Like You, in 1994 when it was background music in a clothing store in Chicago. It was the only non-clothing item being sold in that store. I immediately sensed that Keb' Mo' had the best pure blues sound I'd heard in a long time. I bought the album on the spot. I like almost all the songs on this album, but I can hardly listen to Momma, Where's my Daddy? without weeping. Keb' Mo''s later albums do not move me as much.

Operatic Stories

It's been a pleasure to share the music from the following wonderful works with my children and grandchildren: