The Best Classical Music (for me)

One of the immeasurable joys for me over the years has been music, starting with the Christmas season of 1956. I was fourteen years old and my parents and I were decorating our tree with the sounds of Bing Crosby and Perry Como and Doris Day singing carols in the background. I had given up on popular music some months before because all the love songs drenched me in self-pity after my girlfriend broke up with me.

For reasons I’ve never understood but always celebrated, our little local radio station (the only one in the county) slipped in a very different kind of music. It was not anything to do with Christmas, not anything familiar, but it was so beautiful I stood motionless during the whole piece, transfixed and spellbound.

At the end, John (the DJ, station manager, and play by play announcer for our high school sports teams) gave the name of the piece. I heard words I’d never heard before and couldn’t understand at all. Now I know what he said but at the time it was just gobbledygook to me. The piece was “The 18th Variation in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff.” And now I know it was just a small part of the whole set of 24 variations on the same theme. It was nearly two years later when I heard it again, was able to read the name for myself, and commit myself on the spot to buying the best HiFi equipment I could. I started with a borrowed one-tube amp/pre-amp, an old turntable removed from a decrepit console and held up at each corner by small stacks of books, and a brand new 8″ speaker from JBL, which I put in a cardboard box to give it some depth of sound. Over the next couple of years I built a speaker cabinet, bought a very high quality used turntable, a new stereo amp/pre-amp, and even a tuner. The greatest step ahead in quality of sound was when I added a second JBL speaker and built a second cabinet for it. And not long after I had the turntable converted to stereo.Wow, I was one modern guy!

It took nearly three years to save enough money to assemble that system and during that time, of course, I discovered much more beautiful music, such as the New World Symphony by Dvorak, piano concertos by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Grieg. I’ll save discussion of these and other pieces for future blogs. Meanwhile, if you don’t have a copy of the Rhapsody, get one quickly. Don’t go another day without such great beauty in your life.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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4 Responses to The Best Classical Music (for me)

  1. Ashley says:

    The Rhapsody is a favourite of mine too (although it’s been some time since I listened to it), as well as the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos. Rachmaninov(ff) was a juggernaut!

    • mthayes42 says:

      One of the qualities I soon discovered in Rachmaninoff was that, unlike the popular music of the day which just seemed to lead me to self-pity, Rachmaninoff brought tears to my eyes but no self-pity to my heart. The music I heard from him (and later from other composers as well) seemed not to come to me but from me. That’s a perhaps awkward way of saying Rachmaninoff expressed my heart far more perfectly than I could myself. Because music has that power sometimes, we need to be wise in what we listen to. the music can shape what’s in our hearts to one degree or another.

      You must have other favorites as well. May I ask what they may be?

      • Ashley says:

        Musically I’m a retired headbanger and not a classical aficionado, but I do listen to a little bit of everything. Rachmaninoff is about the extent of my listening to the romantics. Otherwise I like my music with some intensity.

        Some other favourites are Holst’s The Planets, Carmina Burana, Ravel’s Bolero, Shotakovich’s 5th etc. Symphony No. 0 by Schnittke also comes to mind. I come by most classical music that I like via the radio at work, and I visit my local orchestra performances from time to time (I’ve seen some of the above listed stuff performed in concert, such as Carmina Burana which was one of the best performances I’ve seen).

      • mthayes42 says:

        The word “headbanger” makes me a little tense because it brings to mind a young friend of mine who got a bit carried away at the keyboard and inadvertently became a facebanger. Lots of blood and stitches!

        I like your list of music you’ve enjoyed but have to confess I’m not at all familiar with Schnittke. I’ll have to see what I can find and give him a listen. In general, I don’t care much for composers after Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Too often (for me) they seem to reflect the disjointedness of modern life, which makes them good artists. (I think of artists as mirrors and prophets, seeing better than most where a culture is and which way it is heading.) The problem for me is that I don’t feel that disjointedness so their music just doesn’t express anything in me. Bach and Vivaldi and Telemann express my sense of well-being when everything is tidy and in order. Mozart floats like a happy butterfly in my heart. Beethoven keeps me on the edge of having deep passions explode. Rachmaninoff expresses both love and yearning for me. Prokofiev puts sounds to the part of me that is always on a journey, always wanting to move ahead. These, of course, are all just personal feelings and wouldn’t give me a good grade in a music appreciation class. I don’t know the difference between a fifth and a third and can’t even tell you what the theme is in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.” So I’m musically illiterate but deeply moved by what I hear. . .so long as it expresses my own heart in some way.

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