I do not know what piece of classical music I heard first was but I do know that I was young, maybe 5 or 6. I was introduced to classical music by my father. He spawned my love affair with it which has lasted to this day. In fact, were you to inquire of me my favorite music form, it is classical. And the reason for my affection is simple, it always moves me.
I suspect one of the first pieces I heard what Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; that perennial classic of the Christmas season. But what I did not realize, at least in my youngest years, was the fact that classical music was playing all around me and I was simply unaware. On television, for example, I liked to watch “The Lone Ranger,” the theme song for which comes directly from Rossini’s William Tell Overture which premiered in 1829. And the cartoons were littered with such music. The Warner Brothers cartoons Looney Tunes, and in particular “Bugs Bunny,” loved to use the music of Grieg and Mozart. A Bugs Bunny scene you may be familiar with, Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit,” is from Mozart’s Ride of the Valkyrie” which was first presented in 1856. But when you consider the meager budgets 1950s television had to deal with, creating new music for their shows was simply not possible. The music for the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” is the Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod written in 1872. And in the 1960s the comic Allan King did a song called “Hello mother, hello father, here I am in Camp Grenada.” That music is The Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli who first performed it in 1876.
I remember as a young boy delighting to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Bizet’s Carmen, and many others. The music spoke to me.
What we refer to as Classical Music was around for over 300 years before it was displaced by jazz, blues, swing and then rock and roll. Not that these latter forms of music are somehow not worthy, they are, but to me, at least, they lack the fullness of classical. And that is not a bad thing. Lord knows I love the blues, rock and roll, and folk music. But there is something I find special about classical music.
This afternoon I was listening to a program on the life of Rachmaninov. He was the last of the great classicists having lived from 1873 to 1943. Ironically George Gershwin may have been able to claim that title, having been born in 1898, but he died in 1937, a full six years before Rachmaninov. Gershwin dearly wanted to be of the classical genre and his dearest dream was to write an opera. Like any artist, Gershwin had to be able to sell his music and it was suggested he look to American folk music to find what he needed. He wrote the opera, it is called Porgy and Bess. What you hear is the blues but the style is definitely operatic in nature. One of Rachmaninov’s most famous pieces, Rhapsody on a theme on Paganini, was first performed in 1937, the year Gershwin died. This was one of his last pieces, his first, Prelude in C Sharp Minor, was performed when Rachmaninov was but 18 years old. I asked myself, “What 18-year-old writes such music?” The complexity of the piece is astounding and sounds more like a mid-career piece than a first of a career.
It is said of Mozart that he had mastered the violin at the tender age of five and was engaged as the court musician in Salzburg at age 17. He died at age 35! The vastness of what he did write leaves us wondering what might have been if he had lived as long as Beethoven, 57 years. And Beethoven, stone deaf when he wrote his 9th Symphony, names the final movement of the piece Ode to Joy. He had little joy in his life at that point, to be sure, and yet that is what he writes about.
Each piece of music written by these masters has a story behind it and tells that story musically. Beethoven said the music is the pictures in the composer’s mind and each of his compositions, for him, conjured up those visions. In some cases we know the story the composer is telling. Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf is from an old Russian folktale. Mozart’s Valkyries is from German fables. And in one case, a composer named Grofe’, wrote a piece called the Grand Canyon Suite, just knowing the title and subtitles, we see the beauty of the canyon and the power of a storm, the sauntering of the donkey.
Classical music of this sort is no long written, and maybe that is all right. I sometimes wish its creation had lasted longer but I am left asking myself, is what we have not enough? Considering how much I listen to classical music and how little I know of what it is saying, I must say yes, it is quite enough.