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Earthling, What Do You Choose?

When Prostentic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council arrived in the vicinity of Earth in order to enact the dictum Veni, vidi, efflixi, he may not have been quite the mindless bureaucrat that Douglas Adams would have us believe in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Recent research1 has shown that as a man of the Arts, he—Prostentic Vogon Jeltz— was keen to ensure that representative samples of Earth culture be preserved; after all, he was a connoisseur of poetry (well, of Vogon poetry anyway). To this end he instructed what he thought to be a highly qualified Earthling to pick ten examples from each branch of the Arts, to survive the otherwise total destruction of all things Earthly. Sadly, due to an unexplained computational error, he selected Ford Prefect for the task, who fully intended to lumber the job onto Arthur Dent, who in turn had rather a lot else on his mind that fateful Thursday when Ford raised the matter in the Horse and Groom pub. As a result, shortly afterwards, Earth culture and indeed the very Earth itself, vanished in a gargantuan hot puff of dry-roasted electrons, protons and neutrons, while Ford and Arthur had an appointment with a poetry chair. One wonders what they might have chosen, had they got round to it.

Imagine if you will, that we are in Ford and Arthur’s position right now, at least as far as being Curators of Culture is concerned. Since this column is music related I’m going to focus only on the Music element of the Arts, and as it’s my column, what follows will relate to that branch of music that is usually referred to as 'Classical Music'. So, what ten pieces of classical music are we going to choose from the countless tens of thousands of candidates? Remember we are not choosing our personal favourites, but ten works that positively demand to be preserved. Perhaps this is not as daunting a task as it might appear; let’s try breaking it down into manageable chunks and see where it takes us.

For example, could anyone imagine such a list that did not include a work by Johann Sebastian Bach? Or indeed by Mozart or Beethoven? Would we not want to include examples of as wide a range of forms as we could? How could we not include at least one symphony, concerto and opera?

Good, so we’ve at least made a start. Bach was mentioned first so let’s look at him straightaway. Bach was unquestionably the Baroque-era master of the art of counterpoint. Today, more than 250 years after his death, we are still analysing his music and finding undiscovered little contrapuntal devices. But what single example of Bach’s amazing skills are we to choose? With something close to 1,120 works to choose from, if we are in a rush then that definitive demonstration of counterpoint, The Art of Fugue2 might seem an ideal choice, but if we are more relaxed, then the St. Matthew Passion is the work to go for. The part writing for the eight soloists, the double choir and the double orchestra is simply breathtaking.

Bach was continuing a developmental path that leads back through Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in England, Palestrina and Desprez in Italy and Flanders respectively, and ultimately to Léonin and Pérotin, and the very beginnings of polyphony, at the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. It is to Thomas Tallis that we must turn for our second rescue: his 40-voice motet Spem in alium. It is sung, unaccompanied, by eight choirs, each of five voices: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Recordings of this work cannot portray its full charm; it can only be heard properly in live performance, preferably in the round, with the choirs arranged in an arc around the audience. The 40 voices are introduced one by one, one per bar, until all the singers have joined in. The voices then pass from choir to choir, moving around the arc and back again—10 to 12 minutes of pure vocal magic.

Beethoven? Well he’s got to be there in some form or other, but goodness, what single work are we going to choose? The violin concerto perhaps, or one of the piano concertos? One of the symphonies, or one of the string quartets, or a sonata? Beethoven composed his first eight symphonies in the space of barely a dozen years and they shocked their first audiences, who were accustomed to symphonies in the 18th Century style of Stamitz, Haydn and Mozart. With his third symphony, the Eroica, Beethoven effectively kick-started the Romantic period of classical music. It (the symphony ) was on a scale, particularly its length, quite different from its predecessors. At its first public performance at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 7 April, 1805, one member of the audience was heard to yell out: 'I'll give another Kreutzer3 if it will just stop.'

Beethoven was aged 21 when he settled in Vienna, just a few months after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had died in that city at the very early age of 35. The composition dates of the 27 piano concertos that Mozart wrote span most of his albeit short lifetime. Many were written as ready money-earners, to be performed by him and published, but one, the No. 23 in A major K.488, he kept for himself and friends alone. Of great lyrical quality throughout, in the third movement, melodies pour forth, as though from a fountain. The concerto was never published in his lifetime, despite many occasions when the money it would have brought him was sorely needed. If this was a work that Mozart himself thought that highly of, then we in turn must include it in our most-important list.

Contemporary with Beethoven's time in Vienna was Franz Schubert, another master composer who, like Mozart, was not destined to live a long life: he died in 1828 at the age of only 31. In the short period allotted to him, he composed over 1,000 works, including seven completed symphonies, one incomplete symphony and many pieces for solo piano. However the bulk of his oeuvre comprises over 600 songs; these include two song-cycles, both settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller, that are considered to be the finest of their kind. The first of these, Die schöne Müllerin (The beautiful mill-girl), deserves to be included on our list for preservation. This cycle of 20 songs can be transposed readily enough to suit either male or female voice, but is most commonly performed by a tenor or baritone singer, accompanied always by a pianist.

So to recap, our choices thus far are:

  • JS Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV244 (1727)
  • Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium (c.1570)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 (1803-4)
  • WA Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K.488 (1786)
  • Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin D.795 (1823)

In the next issue of The Post, we shall discover what other important compositions make it into the five remaining places in our list. Till then, happy listening.

Musical Notes Archive


05.02.09 Front Page

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1Recently lost, that is.2An unfinished work that Bach worked on intermittently over the last 10 years of his life. It comprises 14 Fugues and four Canons, all based on a little four-bar D minor theme.3A sub-unit of currency in use in Vienna at the time (1 Gulden=60 Kreuzer). Thus the man wasn't actually offering that much was he?

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