The Wonders of Classical Music
Jude Wanniski
December 31, 2004

 

Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: How to "Get Into" Classical Music

This "memo on the margin" ran originally on 12/11/97 with Christmas in mind as a good time to get started with classical music. New Year's Eve works too.

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If you are thinking of Christmas gifts and are stumped with a person young or old, you might consider the gift of discovery -- the discovery of classical music. When I was 13, I discovered classical music through an accidental Christmas gift. Here is how it works:

The biggest reason people do not enjoy classical music is that they do not know how to get into it. They know there must be something to it, because high society people put on the ritz to go to concerts and operas. They may even think that the upper crust has a superior intelligence, which makes them appreciate things that ordinary folk could never enjoy. They eat caviar, for example, which tastes terrible when you first try it. They go to Shakespearean plays, and who understands that stuff? They speak French and Italian and who knows what else? Classical music is part of that mystery, I think.

Classical music is a bit different than Shakespeare and foreign languages and even caviar. I found that almost everyone can "access" classical music and learn to love it, to appreciate it, to make it a part of their lives and the lives of their families. They only need the key, the key that can unlock its mysteries and access its endless profound pleasures. The key is... repetition... repetition... repetition.... This is what a wise man taught me when I was 13 years old, when I asked him how come I didnít like classical music, except I did like George Gershwinís Concerto in F -- which my father had given me as a Christmas present in 1949. I really didnít like the music, but because it was the only recording I had, classical or popular, I wound up playing it over and over, and one day I had to play it twice, and the next day I had to run home from school to play it again and again. The longer I listened to it while I was doing my homework or reading comic books, the deeper it was digging its way into me. I began to realize the difference between popular and classical music was that you could listen to a popular song and the first time fall in love with it, but three weeks later never want to hear it again. With classical music, when you hear it the first time you never want to hear it again, but if by chance you hear the same piece for three weeks, you always want to hear it again, to the end of your life.

The wise man was my Uncle Vince, my motherís younger brother. He knew all kinds of things I didnít understand. He took me to my first baseball game, Memorial Day 1946, a doubleheader at Ebbets Field between the Dodgers and the Boston Braves. He taught me how to play chess. He taught me about loyalty, and how you had to keep promises. He taught me how to always think about how the other fellow thought about things, to look at the other side of the coin, which was a favorite phrase of his. He was a devoted liberal and loved The New York Times, but still he singled out its columnist Tom Wicker for special attention, because he always looked at the other side of the coin.

When it came to classical music, I knew Uncle Vince knew all about it. He was always listening to WQXR (which you can now access via Internet anywhere in the world at www.WQXR.com) and had shelves piled with records, the old 78-speed discs. In fact, the three discs my Concerto in F by Gershwin came packaged in were 78s -- six sides totaling 30 minutes! When I told him how much I loved it after listening to it a dozen times, he said I was ready to try something else, but that I should do the same thing and only listen to one piece until I understood it and enjoyed it. He gave me Beethovenís 6th Symphony, "The Pastorale," which was the music behind the mythology segment in Walt Disneyís "Fantasia." This for a 13-year-old boy who spent most of his time following the Dodgers, Knicks and Rangers -- when he was not playing stickball or punchball in the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Sure enough, I did not like Beethovenís 6th Symphony, but I now knew that I would have to listen to it a dozen times and I would!

Ah wonders! After the fourth or fifth playing the music became familiar, and by the tenth play, I could practically whistle my way through all four movements. What next? I called Uncle Vince and he told me that now that I had a start on Beethovenís nine symphonies, I should try No.7, which I did with the same results. Should I go on to the others? No, he said I should now shift to Brahms, and instead of a symphony, I should learn his first piano concerto. These he supplied, with the 78-speed albums. A year later at Christmas I was now completely hooked. I answered an ad in The New York Times for a mail-order long-playing record changer, a "VM" model, as I recall. The man who answered said I could save the mail costs if I came by his loft in lower Manhattan, and when I did he offered me a job, three-hours a day after school and all day Saturday. He paid me $1 an hour, big money back then, as a subway ride still cost only a dime. With my first payday, I took the train up to Sam Goodyís at 49th Street off Broadway, and bought my first LP -- Beethovenís 4th Piano Concerto, with Artur Rubenstein at the keyboard, Sir Thomas Beecham with the baton. (I still have the record, although the Gershwin 78s were ditched long ago when they were scratched to pieces.) I now have more than 1600 LPs and several hundred CDs.

What happened? Iíve since made several important discoveries about how the human brain develops. It now is clear that I did have a predilection to classical music because of my fatherís interest in grand opera -- which I did not pick up until my 30s. What the Gershwin did was provide a bridge between popular music and classical, as the piano Concerto in F was one step further in complexity to Rhapsody in Blue, which must still be considered "jazz," as opposed to "classical." The synapses of my brain which had refused to accept my fatherís opera or would have had great difficulty coping with Beethovenís 9th, got some easier exercise in dealing with Gershwin and the "Pastorale." By the time I was whistling through Brahmsí second piano concerto, my brain was conditioned when I hit it with yet another symphony or concerto. By the time I was 16, I was spending Sunday afternoons at any free concerts I could find listed in the Times at one of the Manhattan museums.

In the years since, I have introduced a great many people to this tried-and-true method of getting hooked on classics -- always warning novitiates not to make the mistake of moving on too quickly from one piece to another. When they get impatient, their brain at times gets confused, being asked to decipher the complexities of one piece before it has thoroughly dealt with the earlier efforts. It does not always work, Iím afraid, but even when it fails, the people who have tried still are open to the pleasures of classical music, even though they never go to concerts or buy classical recordings or know what it is they are listening to.

Sometime around Christmas 1950, I tried an experiment with several of my buddies, who got together on Saturday night to play penny-ante poker in a game that lasted several hours. I purposely stacked the Gershwin on the player and every time it concluded, I began it again, so that by the end of the evening the boys were screaming at me to stop. I was discouraged until the following afternoon, when the doorbell to our apartment rang and I answered the door to find Richard Campanella, one of the boys. He had walked six blocks to ask if he could borrow the Gershwin, he said, as he could not get it out of his head. His father was a city cop on the Sheepshead Bay beat, with no discernible liking for anything classical. Campanella now lives in Vancouver, B.C., a professor of structural engineering at UBC the last time I heard from him. His classical collection is not as extensive as mine, but it is respectable, and he has over the years thanked me for making him suffer through that poker game.

Those I have encouraged since then have been given varied lists of ways to go. But I always suggest they start with the Concerto in F or Maurice Ravelís two piano concerti. Like Gershwin, Ravel bridges the world of popular/jazz and the classical world. It helps that you sneak up on your brain, before it realizes you are asking it to decipher classical.

Uncle Vince also gave me some interesting advice on the sequence of my appreciation of classical music. When I was 16 or 17, he told me I should wait until I was in my mid-30s before I began to seriously tackle grand opera, and that I should wait until I was in my 40s before I approached chamber music. Because he was such a good guide from the start, I took him seriously. Now, more than 40 years later, chamber music is near the top of my evening programming, especially Mozart and the late Beethoven string quartets.

The amount of pleasure a person can get from sex, or food, or drink, or winning at cards or dice, or reading great works of literature, or making money, is tiny compared to the pleasure derived from classical music over the course of his/her life. At this time of my life grand opera, more than anything else, fills my heart and enriches my soul. As a wise man once said, it is the most omnipotent of all the arts.

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Try this sequence. Notice Iím not suggesting the Nutcracker Suite or Beethovenís Fifth or Swan Lake, etc. It is a mistake to try to cultivate your brain by pandering to it with fluff. Beethovenís 5th is not fluff, but you should put it way down your list so you can appreciate its profound dimensions, not the familiarity of its opening notes. Challenge your brain as if it were a computer separate and apart from the rest of you.

1. Gershwin Concerto in F
2. Ravel piano concertos (one for the left hand only)
3. Beethoven #6 symphony
4. Beethoven #4 piano concerto
5. Beethoven #7 symphony
6. Brahms #1 piano concerto
7. Brahms #1 symphony
8. Brahms #3 symphony
9. Mozart #40 symphony
10. The Bach, Brahms and Beethoven violin concerti.

Once you have worked your way through this series, drop me an e-mail and I will throw another batch at you. If you disagree with the sequence, please tell me so. And if it works, pass this on to others. It is the easiest way to increase the sum total of human pleasure. If you are going to give someone a Christmas gift of discovery, simply print a copy of this Memo on the Margin and wrap it up. It would be nice if you included the first compact disc. Gershwinís Concerto in F is almost always accompanied by "Rhapsody in Blue" and/or "An American in Paris." The two Ravel piano concerti usually are recorded together. At this earliest stage, the recording artists are not as important as they will be when your tastes become developed. Happy New Year.