Like many people, I first came in contact with classical European music in my early childhood when I started attending church in Uganda. The great choral hymns were my introduction to what I would discover, decades later, to be music that was written down by men like Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frederic Handel and Jean Sibelius. The hymns, when sung with total conviction and humble adoration of our Lord and Saviour, are in a class above all else. I love to worship through modern Christian songs, but the traditional hymns by people like Charles Wesley, John Newton and Fanny Crosby take me to a different spiritual depth.
I recommend the entire album by Huddersfield Choral Society from which the following examples are extracted:
Who are we deserve His Grace?
My formal introduction to this music was in early 1967 when I was in Senior One at King’s College, Budo. Mr. Brian Bowles, our music teacher, played an LP of music that was very foreign to my ears. He asked us to identify canons and oboes out of a cacophony of sound that was oozing from a spinning black disc. I had no idea what those instruments looked or sounded like.
Mr. Bowles was a very strict teacher, and left no doubt in my uninformed mind that we were there to be tormented and reminded that we were incapable of understanding these things. I promptly hated the music. Yet I kept going back for more.
There followed many years without further exposure to the music until Flo and I moved to Dublin, Ireland in 1980. There I met the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, his Symphony No. 6 to be exact. It has been a passion since.
I later realized that the record Mr. Bowles had played for us was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It became a favored piece in our house. Sadly Mr. Bowles died before I could visit him in England to express my deep appreciation for the gift he gave us. I dedicate this page to his honour.
My kind of classical music spans the entire period of written European music. However, if I were to categorize my favorite periods, in order of preference, I would say:
Modern (except the atonal stuff)
My top-10 composers:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left us a massive amount of music. All of it very beautiful. All of it rich with praise for the Lord that he served through music. It is my life’s ambition to listen to each and every one of his Cantatas. Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s music made it very accessible to many.
Here is a sample of what Bach’s Cantatas consistently offer:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) straddles the Classical and Early Romantic periods with musical power that is both delicate and volcanic. His piano sonatas, his chamber music, his piano concertos, his symphonies, his opera – all from the same mind; so similar and so different. He composed his Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 when he was completely deaf. There have been many beautiful performances in recent years, with excellent sound to boot. However, listen to the Adagio from Wilhelm Furtwangler’s version, recorded in 1954, and let me know.
Now listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, played by the superbly gifted Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-American who has taken her seat among the greatest masters of the piano:
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), one of the Three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), towers above composers of his generation, with music for piano, small groups, orchestras and The German Requiem, a choral masterpiece that I listen to more often than other choral works. He wrote most of it after his mother’s death. Very befitting. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor was dismissed by the critics soon after its premiere in 1859. Today, it is considered one of the greatest works in the genre and is frequently played in the great concert halls of the world. Helen Grimaud and the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra show us why:
Now listen to the German Requiem, a work that I found wonderfully comforting in the days following my mother’s death on July 9, 2013. I rate the version under Otto Klemperer’s baton higher than all others that I have heard. Majestic! However, the sound of the Klemperer examples on Youtube is suboptimal. This version by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the former Chief Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, is one of the best among recent performances.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy, a genius whose whose music is the place to start for anyone who wants to begin to explore classical music. His choral works, his operas, his symphonies, his piano concertos, and so much else – where does one begin? How about Piano Concerto No. 21 K. 467 played by a young Korean lady with exceptional talent? Please listen to the whole piece, but if you must only sample it, then go to 15:07:
Now hear the Great Mass in C minor KV 427 in the hands of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir:
Then listen to Olga Jegunova play the Sonata No. 11 in A Major K.331 with great delicacy, precision and indescribable beauty:
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a contemporary of Beethoven, was said to have been a better pianist than his more famous colleague. He influenced the styles of Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. His Piano Concertos are always delightful. Here is my favourite rendition of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A minor by Stephen Hough (p) with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. If you are not able to listen to whole recording, start at 15:39 and enjoy the Adagio.
Now listen to Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E Major in the hands of Wynton Marsalis, yes THE Wynton Marsalis of Jazz Music:
Antonin Dvorak(1841-1904) was a Czech composer who incorporated folk music of his native Bohemia (among other sources) into the classical tradition. I could live with Dvorak alone. Here is one of my top choices from his superb canon, played by my favourite cellist. The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104 in the hands of Pierre Fournier, the “aristocrat of cellists,” and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Georg Szell. It is worth listening to the entire recording at some point. However, the second movement, which starts at 14:56, is exceptionally beautiful. Please play it for me in my last days on this Earth.
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a very famous piano virtuoso in his day. He was also a great composer of music that pianists describe as challenging to play, but always very satisfying to the ear. Without doubt his Concerto for Solo Piano is a monumental work that demands the greatest finger dexterity even when played by the top asters of the instrument. My favourite account is by Marc-Andre Hamelin, a Canadian, on Hyperion Records. However, to my ears, this performance by Jack Gibbons is a very close second:
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a Finnish musical giant. His 7 symphonies are uniformly rich tapestries of musical essays about his Finland. His Finlandia is music we sang to hymnal lyrics as children and youth, unaware of the composer and its significance in the history of Finland. It is music that would be appropriate if adopted by people seeking independence and a desire to rally around their flag. It is nationalism embodied in song. Here is my favourite Finnish conductor with his orchestra:
Now listen to the Kullervo:
And now Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 43, under the baton of Osmo Vanska. The last 10 minutes of this masterpiece is so vivid, so….: well, it is OK to cry.
Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was an English composer, author, poet of high standards. His music may not be for the novice, but it is quintessential English music that leaves one wondering why he is rarely on the program of my favourite Orchestra in the Greater Toronto Area. The recordings by Vernon Handley are the finest presentation of Bax that I know of. The tone poem Tintagel is the best place to start for those who are new to Bax. Try and get Handley and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in their now classic recording on Chandos. Absolutely top notch. Here is one by the Spanish Radio Television Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper:
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer of music for the piano. He wrote more than 200 compositions, including 2 melody-rich piano concertos, etudes (studies), sonatas, ballades, impromptus, preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas and so on. Here is Yulianna Avdeeva playing Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op.11 with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anton Wit:
My favourite instrument is the Piano. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was its master, not just as a composer but performer. Here is his Hungarian Rhapsody played by Marc-Andre Hamelin, a Canadian whose work is of consistently very high standards:
Listen to Hamelin play Rachmaninov’s Piano SonataNo. 2 and Preludes. So delicate, so melodious. God’s gift to us.
And then here is Valentina Lisitsa – again – extracting the music of Chopin from the piano the way the masters did. What a blessed time we live in, with all this recorded music at the click of a button!