Chant. Ya gotta luvvit. Western music started there.
The composers of the early Classical style (Haydn, Mozart, and others) wrote “symphonies” as a set of separate but (usually) thematically related pieces of music called “movements.” In doing so, they were only following the pattern that had been set centuries before, when composers would write vocal-only or accompanied settings for the Catholic Mass as a series of pieces connected by their being based on the same musical theme.
While the Renaissance use of multiple vocal or instrumental parts for sacred music was a revolutionary development (compared to the all-voices-on-the-same-note model of chant), the result was often evolutionary, in that the thematic material often was a borrowed chant melody. During the 19th century—and even today—certain ancient chant fragments (such as the Dies Irae—Day of Wrath—motif) were quoted in newly composed music.
The otherworldly, organic simplicity of chant provides a much-needed respite from the hurry, noise, and chaos of modern life. The 10th century is not a bad place to visit—as long as you can get back. The recommended recording is so realistic that you can almost smell the incense.
Sound samples and downloads here.
Buy the physical disc here.
7. Glenn Gould: J.S. Bach: The Goldberg Variations
J.S. Bach wrote music to glorify God by illuminating the workings of the cosmos. Bach’s greatest works encompass the entire universe (or at least, the entire human experience) in music for one violinist, one cellist, or one keyboard player.
Even more so than Beethoven’s (to my mind, somewhat over-rated) Fifth Symphony, I think that one indispensible (and perhaps the indispensible) work of Western music a person must be aware of in order not to lack “cultural literacy in music” is J.S. Bach’s “Aria with Diverse Variations,” popularly known as the Goldberg Variations. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg may have been the first performer, but that is the subject of dispute. Neither Goldberg’s name nor that of his supposed patron Count Kaiserling appears on the title page of the sheet music published during Bach’s lifetime, in 1741.
Pianist Glenn Gould commercially recorded the Variations twice. His 1955 version fell like a thunderclap upon the musical world because of the precision and freshness of his articulation. In 1981, the mature Gould recorded his reconsideration, which is slower and is less concerned with vertical structure than with horizontal flow. Either or both are essential to any serious record collection. Note: Gould could not stop humming along with the music, even in a recording session. Just get used to it.
Listen to the complete 1981 version here.
Buy a set of both versions here.
8: David Oistrakh: Mozart Sinfonia Concertante
It’s rather hard to fathom that only 25 years separate the death of J.S. Bach (1750) from the time Mozart hit his stride as a composer (1775). Mozart wanted to move people directly and immediately. To do so, he had to invent a new way of writing music. Once that new way had taken the field, there was no turning back.
Dismissing a friend’s compliment, Mozart once said, “Oh, I write music the way cows piss.” Mozart’s music is “natural,” but only in the most sophisticated way imaginable. His double concerto for viola and violin is one of his most luminous works.
Listen to the slow movement here.
Buy it here.
9. The Cypress String Quartet: Beethoven Late Quartets
Beethoven’s symphonies and piano sonatas are among the best known of all classical compositions. However, not only are they painfully over-exposed; many hard-core classical listeners end up concluding that they are ultimately less rewarding than Beethoven’s more intimate chamber works, especially his late string quartets.
One could easily while away an 898-mile road trip by listening to all of Beethoven’s quartets (he wrote more than a dozen), but here I recommend that you dive into the deep end of the pool by obtaining CDs (or hi-res downloads) of his late quartets as played by San Francisco’s Cypress String Quartet. (I recommend Volume 3; if you like that, you can get the earlier two CDs in the series.)
Listen to Op. 127’s first movement on YouTube here.
Sound samples, downloads, and physical-disc orders here.
10. Tracy Silverman: John Adams The Dharma at Big Sur
Not all the great music was written 200 years ago. A very unlikely piece that has totally knocked me out is John Adams’ recent concerto for six-string electric violin and orchestra, The Dharma at Big Sur.
Blending elements of Indian music, trance music, and electric-guitar-style virtuosity, The Dharma at Big Sur defies description. Silverman plays the pants off the solo part. So just click below for an audio-only YouTube.
Listen to The Dharma at Big Sur Part 1 here.
Buy it here.
Record producer John Marks is a columnist for Stereophile magazine.