Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The greatness of the Swiss cultural and art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1918-97) is unquestionable. Splendid are even his lesser works, like the Weltgeschichtlische Betrachtungen, whose English translation, Reflections on History, I don’t possess. From time to time I dip into the original, as I did the other day, when his thoughts on music caught my eye. Some of this I translate herewith.

“Its [music’s] effect is (i.e., in the right instances) so great and direct that the feeling of gratitude immediately seeks out the creator and coincidentally proclaims his greatness. The great composers belong among the undisputed geniuses. More questionable is their perpetuity. It depends in the first place on the ever renewed efforts of posterity, to wit performances, which must compete with performance of all subsequent and (each time) contemporary works, while other arts can display their products once and forever; and depends in the second place on the survival of our tone system and rhythm, which is not everlasting. Mozart and Beethoven may become for a future mankind as incomprehensible as might now be to us the Greek music so highly praised by its contemporaries. They will remain great on credit, on the enthusiastic say-so of our times, like, say, the painters of antiquity, whose works have been lost.”

Which makes me wonder: am I that postulated man of the future who has no use for Mozart and Beethoven—and throw in for good measure Bach and all others before the coming of the Romantics, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and the rest. I have a huge collection of CDs, but nothing before circa 1827. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (yes, even the vaunted late sonatas and quartets) are anathema to me.

Now all you music lovers may ask, as did once a minor conductor of my acquaintance, “Do you then not love music?” But, of course, I do, only I start closer to home. And I proceed to many a composer, even little-known ones (see my book John Simon on Music), up to some of the more recent abominations, e.g., Pärt, Penderecki, Gorecki, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Reich and their likes, but not including the Messiaen of Quartet for the End of Time, a good deal of Henze, and some of Thomas Adès. And I love such slightly earlier composers as Frank Martin, Barber, Britten, Lutosławski and Dutilleux.

Who, though, are my desert island composers, my necessaries? Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and a bunch of other Frenchmen, but not Saint-Saëns and Lalo, and only some of Milhaud. Certainly Satie and Poulenc, and Bartók and Kodály, Berg and Stravinsky and early Schoenberg, the wonderful Janáček and Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and some other Slavs and Central Europeans, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and a couple of other Brits (but Elgar only for the Cello Concerto), and yes, the delightful Nino Rota. Also Latinos like Falla, Villa Lobos, Guarnieri and the superb Montsalvatge. And still others—check out, I say again, John Simon on Music. 

The late Alan Rich, who loved to disagree with me, wondered how I could publish a whole book on music and mention Mozart only once, and even that in a quotation from someone else. My answer: Easily. Here again is Burckhardt on music: “Now it is fantastic mathematics—and now again all soul [lauter Seele], infinitely distant and yet intimately close.” Well yes: I don’t like it when it is merely fantastic mathematics, or, rather, geometry, governed by the kind of rules that make a square: four equal sides. Such, for me, is Mozart: one bar pretty much replicates the next three or more. (You are free to call me anything uncomplimentary you choose.) Repetition or near-repetition is to me one of the curses of pre-1927 music. A Bard College female student of mine once admonished, “Be charitable, John, toward mathematicians. They are failed poets.”

Failed poets—that covers for me (I keep stressing, for me) those earlier composers. Whereas something like the Janáček Sinfonietta or the Third Piano Concerto of Bartók or Prokofiev—that is poetry set free. It can be achieved even by somewhat lesser composers, say, Tcherepnin, Franz Schmidt (his Fourth Symphony), or much of Dohnanyi. And certainly by Hindemith, Honegger and Hahn, to name only a few H’s. (But not, of course, Handel, Haydn—though preferable to Mozart—or that ghastly Vivaldi.)

But what about failed poetry? Are the poets of earlier eras uninteresting? Certainly not. To say nothing of Shakespeare, a genius for all ages, but also Wyatt, Skelton, Donne, Marvell, Rochester, Prior, Pope, and a lot of others, to mention only early Brits. Still, my great passions are for later poets: MacNeice, Ransom, Cummings, and especially Robert Graves; also the Jameses, Dickey and Wright. Non-Anglos? Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Valéry, Prévert, Queneau, Celan, Rilke, George, Hofmannsthal, Kastner, Lenau, Morike, Storm, Morgenstern, Cavafy, Ritsos, Montale, and those amazing Hungarians: Ady, József, Babits, Kosztolányi, Illyés, Pilinszky and Radnóti, and one Serb, Vasko Popa. See my Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry.
But back to music, and Burckhardt’s “all soul.”  What exactly is soul in music? I can readily point to it in, say, the piano music and melodies of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, to name only Frenchmen; in operas like, among others, Otello, Falstaff, Wozzeck, Lulu, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Fiery Angel, Jenufa, Vanessa, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande; in symphonic music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Stravinsky, to name only Russians.

But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again. And what reinforces my love for my wife, even though her music is very different from mine.

Finally, what are certain works at least part of which elicit a swoon of ecstasy, that could sustain me in the dire case of all other music being lost? And let us assume that I’m allowed no more than a baker’s dozen.

So here, in no particular order, are fourteen sublime works by thirteen composers: Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto and Souvenirs ballet, Ibert’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp, Mompou’s song cycle Combat del somne, Montsalvatge’s Lullaby for a Small Negro Boy, Martin’s Concerto for 7 Winds and Strings, Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, Debussy’s La plus que lente, Ravel’s ballet L’Enfant et les sortileges, Kodály’s Approaching Spring (Közelítő Tél) for baritone and orchestra, Bartók’s Second Suite for Orchestra, Sallinen’s opera The Red Line, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (I cite the works that include the beloved passages). However, I do hope it will never come down to no more than that.


  1. I know and love most of the pieces on your list of fourteen sublime works (and I love all five songs in that Montsalvatge set, particularly in their orchestral version), and can certainly understand, from reading your confessions, why you are not attracted to music from the Classical Period. There's nothing wrong with that, really.

    It took me a long time to love Mozart, and an even longer time to love Beethoven, even though I knew a lot of their music very well. I really think that in order to truly cuddle up to music from the classical period you have to PLAY it. It's not just knowing how it works, but it's knowing how it feels to play it, and how it feels to communicate with other people through playing it. That's what Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven string quartets are all about.

    Sure, someone can love watching a sport, but playing it is a totally different experience. It is through playing that I have learned to love Mozart. It is through being a composer that I have learned just how astounding and remarkable an accomplishment writing the Jupiter Symphony is.

    I think that one reason that people respond so immediately to vocal music, particularly when it is set to delicious poetry, is we all have voices, and we can all understand the physical act of singing, even if it is something that we only feel in our bodies and never spew out into the actual air.

    My list would be far too long. I am totally fickle, and am a relentless omnivore. I was deeply in love with Glazunov's music for several years, and now I barely think of it. I went through a Saint-Saens phase too. I have always loved Brahms' chamber music, but only recently learned to love his orchestral music. I only recently started exploring music by the British composers who came before Britten, and ten years ago I might have dismissed them all as unimportant.

    Music is far greater than you or me, everyone reading this post, or everyone we (and they) have ever met or ever heard of. I don't think that, as long as people can read music and can play instruments, Mozart's music will go the way of whatever those figures are playing on all those Greek vases (and we'll never know because they didn't have a system of notation), even if you don't much care for it.

    1. Thanks for this, Elaine, and for your additional essay on MUSICAL ASSUMPTIONS at http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com/

    2. As for Burckhardt's view that one day Mozart and Beethoven might become somewhat “incomprehensible”, I would say that is possible but not likely. What could be more likely is that they will fade over the centuries ahead, because new composers appear and produce masterpieces that are greater than anything previously written. It has been suggested that in the distant future (maybe even near future) knowledge will be infused directly into the brain. Thus, one could learn to play the piano or violin at a virtuoso level in a matter of minutes. Advanced composition techniques could be absorbed likewise, and in such a world one could only expect greater art. I don't think it's science fiction conjecture that some such advancements will be made. Moreover, who knows what Beethoven's and Mozart's reputations will be in 500 years. Somehow I would expect them to survive, but it's possible they will be regarded with less esteem.

      As for John Simon's post-1827 preferences in classical music, I would say he is an intelligent man whose musical tastes are far from radical: I've met people whose musical tastes barely go beyond 1827 and many to whom 20th century music is totally anathema. I myself have tastes that nearly exclude Baroque music (apart from some JS Bach and a good many D. Scarlatti sonatas), and I find the first half of the 20th century more interesting than any other period.

  2. Sibelius is tops.

    Btw, by 'anathema', does Simon mean he doesn't like Beethoven and Bach or that he really thinks they were awful?

    If the latter, Simon is deaf.

  3. Replies
    1. Here's a far superior version:


  4. First: Im totally with Elaine Fine [I enjoy watching soccer so much more since I started playing]. Second, a rhetorical question: Do I find Bach to be quite divine only because one of the greatest pleasures as a young boy was to find I was extremely good at math? Finally: one piece mentioned in John's article is surely loved and appreciated by all who have ever investigated Mahler - the adagio from his fifth.

    1. Absurd. While doing something can help one appreciate it more, anyone with a pair of ears should be able to recognize the greatness of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven--even if one isn't the greatest fan of the music. I love Bach but was never a fan of Mozart and Beethoven, but how can anyone not recognize their genius?

      Does one have to learn to cook to appreciate good food? Does one have to make films to appreciate 'Citizen Kane' or 'Rules of the Game'? Does one have to write to appreciate 'Great Gatsby'?

      Perhaps John Simon dismisses Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven because they are the big three. Most people know who they are, so Simon the snob would rather prattle off his list of more obscure composers to show off how finer and more special his taste is.
      We hear this among rock critics all the time. They'll roll their eyes if anyone mentions the Beatles, Stones, and Springsteen and name obscure bands that the mainstream hasn't heard of. Every group has this attitude.

      While certain things can be appreciated more via participation, even a child can recognize the greatness of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and of course, that is precisely the problem. Simon turns up his nose at them as if he's put away 'childish' things.

      Btw, is it right to even compare music with poetry, failed or otherwise? Some music is like poetry, but some are like architecture, in which case order and symmetry do matter a great deal.

    2. I have been reading John Simon for many years and do not believe he says anything he doesn't believe. He is always ready to express his opinions regardless of the trouble they would get him into.
      So, no, I don't think his stated musical tastes are meant to impress.

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  6. When someone speaks of what s/he loves,
    Listen closely to what s/he doth mention---
    But when someone speaks of what s/he hates,
    One needeth not pay close attention.

  7. Mr. Simon writes:

    "I proceed to many a composer, even little-known ones (see my book John Simon on Music), up to some of the more recent abominations, e.g., Pärt, Penderecki, Gorecki, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Reich and their likes, but not including the Messiaen of Quartet for the End of Time, a good deal of Henze, and some of Thomas Adès. And I love such slightly earlier composers as Frank Martin, Barber, Britten, Lutosławski and Dutilleux."

    I wonder where Fritz Kreisler fits in, in that list.

  8. I find Mr. Simon's irreverence toward Mozart a relief from the usual smiling smuggery exemplified, say, by George Steiner: "There are no lies in Mozart." At that high end there's an annoying tone of prescriptitve, religiose authoritarianism about Mozart's reputation these days and lower down there's his status as cuddly cultural mascot (the legacy of Amadeus, I suppose). I share Mr. Simon's enthusiasm for Faure, Magnard, Jongen and recall my pleasant surprise at recognizing him sorting through the Frank Bridge and Chausson sectors at Record Hunter and Tower respectively too many years ago. Of course I'm baffled by his (and anyone else's) enthusiasm for the dank, cardboard gray music of Britten around whose work also hangs that same aura of obligation.

  9. "Filthy Mozart." - Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim)

  10. In its full glory:

    "The piece was recognizable to Dixon as some skein of untiring facetiousness by filthy Mozart....Desperately he tried to listen to Welch's song, to marvel at its matchless predictability, its austere, unswerving devotion to tedium."

    Amis's favorite composer was...Mozart.

  11. An apathy about or antipathy toward Mozart is like saying "No" to Shakespeare -- or to a beautiful naked woman.

  12. Hm. I must confess Mozart has never made me think of beautiful naked women, but when I hear such ravishments as Chausson's Soir de Fete, Faure's piano quintets, Delius's In a Summer Garden I can think of little else but. Perhaps the otherwise lamentable reign of Regietheater will bring us yet a nude Rosenkavalier finale.

  13. It takes time to really appreciate Mozart. Sure, you can like Mozart's music because it's pretty, and you can even like Mozart's music because, on the surface, it's beautiful.

    The thing about Mozart that makes his music great is the way it makes musicians behave. It makes them listen to one another in new ways, and in the case of pianists, it makes them listen to themselves in new ways. It makes non pianists take care of their intonation and the clarity of their sound, and it makes them strive to be reverent and tasteful while pouring their hearts out.

    Sometimes it is difficult, when listening to recordings, to remember that music making is a highly spontaneous activity that is disguised as a scripted activity. What is amazing about Mozart is how, in the hands of great musicians, by simply following the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, and articulations, the music making can go immediately to a "place" that is beyond the normal. Mozart is what makes us grow as musicians. As Rossini put it (and I'm quoting approximately), "Mozart was inspiration in my youth, the envy of my adulthood, and the comfort of my old age."

    A great performance of the slow movement of the "Dissonance" Quartet can be an almost transcendental experience because the music compels the musicians to reach beyond themselves. Musicians learn from Mozart, and Mozart keeps teaching. He elevates our expectations from music by other composers, and teaches us to appreciate the wholeness of natural expression.

    Listen to Dinu Lipati play Mozart on the piano, and notice how Mozart brings out the best in him.

  14. Link goes to a symposium from 1971 with Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden, et al., in which McLuhan calls Bach and Mozart the Muzak of their day:


  15. While I have been a life-long lover of Mozart and Beethoven's music, I look forward to experiencing the many works and composers on your above lists, John. And, may I add, that the following paragraph in your article is nothing less than, well, musical:

    "But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again. And what reinforces my love for my wife, even though her music is very different from mine."

    Thank you, John. Brilliant piece.

  16. As much as I adore music I have no problem acknowledging this basic truth about the art form:

    "As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once. Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged"

    -- Steven Pinker (How The Mind Works)

    1. Western art music largely HAS disappeared,
      From the culture at large; the results?
      A people adrift and on antidepressants,
      And vulnerable to weird woolly cults.

      BTW, Joseph Epstein wrote a story called “Postcards” (collected in his wonderful book of short stories Fabulous Small Jews) in which the protagonist, Seymour Hefferman, sends out uncomplimentary postcards to famous persons (some of them musicians) who are described but left unnamed. Below are excerpts from the story, with each postcard followed by an “Ed. note” making a guess at the addressee’s identity:

      [Hefferman] had begun to think a great deal less of Ravinia ever since it had been taken over by a small German conductor who wore a white tunic and hopped about on the podium. He decided to send him a postcard:

      Dear Maestro,

      How regrettable that as a conductor you turn out to be what a French writer on music called “one of those good dancers”! Your antics, like a great jackanapes, enormously increase your general grotesqueness. A mistake, I think, in every way. Stick to the music, kid, and while you’re at it, my advice is to knock off the tunics.

      Ronald Landesman

      [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Christoph Eschenbach]

      When a now elderly and formidably boring teacher of his from the University of Chicago wrote a book about playing the viola in amateur string quartets, Hefferman, warming to his task as the Zorro of culture, seated himself before his laptop:

      My dear dottore,

      My idea of hell is you playing your viola while simultaneously lecturing on any aspect whatsoever of English literature. The thought of you scratching away for nearly fifty years on your oversize fiddle makes me pity your wife. Be merciful and give her surcease.

      Anson Ginsberg

      [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Wayne C. Booth (with viola substituted for cello)]

      …[Hefferman] began by shooting off a note to a man who at a youthful age had been named president of a small college in New York State and later turned up as a conductor — apparently a damned poor one — of an orchestra for which he had been able to raise funds.

      Dear Leonardo,

      I address you as Leonardo because you are truly a Renaissance man. The only problem is that, with your third-rate college, your hopeless conducting, your many fatuous statements about education and the state of the world, you, kiddo, give the Renaissance a bad name. Do consider taking an early pension and returning to a St. Helena of your own choosing, where we shall hear no more of your passionately expressed banalities.

      Lyle Futterman

      [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Leon Botstein]