Indispensable moments in music.

There have recently been a few top-10 lists about classical music floating around. I’ve never been a huge fan of such lists–they aren’t especially useful, are by nature subjective and lead to the omission of the worthy and, not infrequently, the inclusion of the unworthy.

However, there are some silver-linings to these lists. They can provoke thought and introspection on the part of the author; they may be subjective, but they force us to reveal our tastes, whether driven by aesthetic judgement, emotion, nostalgia or, the dark side, prejudices. And though the omission of the worthy (works, artists, etc) is always lamentable, it does foster a sense of spirited debate which can often lead to greater understanding. Finally, though it is also not entirely useful, there is one more upside to lists: making them can be fun!

In this spirit of reflection and merriment, I am listing–not necessarily in any particular order–some of my favorite moments in music.

Brahms: 4th symphony, trombone chorale

Brahms’ 4th is a powerful work. It is unique in several ways. It is the only minor-minor–that is, both beginning and ending in a minor key–of Brahms’ symphonic works. It is the only one of his symphonies to add a stylized movement (the 3rd, which is quite Hungarian, even adding a triangle.) But perhaps most notably, it is a curious farewell. Composed more than a decade before Brahms’ death, it does not carry the Paramount grandeur of Beethoven’s final (completed) symphonic work, the transparent ferocity of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony or the mystical, ethereal and death-obsessed aura of Bruckner and Mahler’s respective 9th symphonies. But being thoroughly introspective, with moments of levity and light still draped in autumnal melancholy–in essence, quintessential Brahms–it leaves the listener leaving the concert hall with as many questions as answers.

The final movement looks to the past through the form of pasacaglia. Summoning all of his considerable creative strength, Brahms states his theme with the vigor and forcefulness of a great orator. The early variations storm along with an overwhelming energy and a passion much less restrained than we expect from the Man who Would Woo Clara. In the middle of the movement, however, he slows himself considerably, and we are given a lovely melody in the flute: lilting, even pastoral. And then comes the Moment.

Trombones–used only for special (mostly ecclesiastical) occasions in the Baroque and Classical, and for Weimarian Bombast in the romantic–take over, presenting a chorale that is simple but breathtaking. Yes, they yield to and are joined by a horn a few moments later..but by that time the goosebumps have come to stay. Well played, Herr Brahms. Well played indeed.

Bruckner: 4th Symphony ‘The Romantic’, 4th movement coda

Bruckner is greatly misunderstood, and largely under-appreciated. He is to music what Kant is to philosophy. Lacking the charisma of a Wagner, the charm of Liszt or the relative brevity of Brahms, he nevertheless stood among them as a titan of the romantics and as sincere an artist as any that the era produced.

His 4th (and arguably most accessible) symphony is full of merriment, bombast and charm. Its nickname has more to do with the Song of Roland than the sentiments of 19th century sensuality, but it is not strictly program music. It is full of wonderful moments, but for me none is more hair-raising than the final 3 minutes or so: the coda.

Starting softly and building slowly but steadily, he builds to an incredible climax and a simple but powerful ending. Not a bad way to end the night.

Mozart: Symphony No. 40, 4th movement–beginning of the development

I’ll keep this entry brief: 12 tone music, in Mozart? Why, yes. Yes it is.

Bach: Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude in E-flat Major

Bach is filled with wonder, and WTC is as full of marvels as you will find anywhere in the repertoire.

The whole of the E-flat major prelude is a wonder–it leaves me breathless, filling me, in the space of a few minutes, with the emotion of an entire month. My favorite moment is the beginning of the chorale: coming on the heels of a grandiose opening and brief moment of technical brilliance, it seems like the pre-service music for an average, quiet Lutheran Sunday morning. That it is to be followed by such a torrent of counterpoint (leaving one to wonder if, perhaps, Bach is in fact ready to begin the fugue!) shows us just how dramatic and crafty the grand old man could be.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade–trombone entrance, 2nd movement

Scheherazade is a curious work in some ways. It is one of the pieces of truly great music that lacks truly great music. It is brilliant, evocative, thoughtful–and fun! I dare say that it would be at home on a program of light classics as much as on any subscription concert. But there is nothing about it that is epoch-making, uniquely profound or philosophical. On the other hand, it is not whimsical or empty. One might call it thoughtful fun. One might also call it a concerto for orchestra–with all apologies to Bartok–due to the unabashed orchestral and solo virtuosity which it both demands and displays.

The 2nd movement begins in such a lovely, lilting manner that we must take care not to be lulled into a false sense of security. But at the moment the celli and basses growl, we are jolted upright–and then the trombone gives its call. It is not the most exciting moment in the movement–one which is filled with wonderful solos–but it builds anticipation in a marvelous way.

Chausson: Symphony, 3rd movement opening

Chausson was a wonderful French composer who died in a freak bicycle accident. So, remember kids and hipsters–always wear your helmets. He also had a lot in common with Wagner: they both loved medieval subjects, both loved chromatic harmony, and both adored Wagner.

His symphony is woefully underplayed and is absolutely wonderful. Using cyclical form without the same, shall we say, self-awareness of some of his contemporaries, it is an excellent example of the technique.

The opening of the 3rd movement is absolutely hair-raising. Like a great novel, it leaves one wondering, at every moment, what will come next. It’s well worth a listen…or two, or three.

This is a greatly abridged list, but it’s a start. And now to you, dear readers–what are some of your favorite moments, and why?

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One thought on “Indispensable moments in music.

  1. There are so many pieces out there that fit this description that I wouldn’t know where to begin, but…here goes.
    I’ve always loved the coda of the Menuet from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – it is so magical and so ethereal that it always sends me into a world of a perfect sunset at the end of a summer day. On the other hand, the first movement of Nielsen’s second symphony, “The Four Temperaments” reveals this master’s subliminal power of fire and brilliance upon the psyche, and the coda, when done correctly, is something that can set a house on fire. My favorite recording of the Nielsen, incidentally, is conducted by Morton Gould from the 1960s, and it is also Morton Gould the composer whose American Salute brings out the patriotic fervor in my blood.

    There is one section in the slow movement of Alexander Glazunov’s second symphony that has a special moment in my heart, when the English Horn intones the principal theme against soft tremolo strings, bringing to my imagination a warm summer night on the Russian plains, and this theme is later played by the cellos, their full sound bringing to mind a bard singing in the hills with a lot of nostalgia and longing. For me it is one of the greatest moments to come from his pen.

    Now in terms of those who have composed for the cinema, I’ll mention several scores that fills my indispensable moments in music: Bernard Herrmann’s love music for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Franz Waxman’s stirring Ride to Dubno from Taras Bulba, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s symphonic poem “Tomorrow” for the 1943 version of The Constant Nymph, Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the complete scores from The Big Country (Jerome Moross) and King of Kings (Miklos Rozsa). Film music may be designed to accompany the visuals of the film, but when they bring that added dimension that ignites our emotional, psychological and physiological cores.

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