The Ultimate Desert Island Disc

For the Professor:

The BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs provides a unique insight into the many composers, musicians, and other artists and illuminati who have featured as guests over its 75+ year run. In anticipation of its 75th Anniversary, the BBC crunched the numbers to find the most popular selections. In the end, six works towered above all others. Beethoven was naturally well-represented. Both his Ninth and Sixth Symphonies made the Top 6, as did his Emperor Concerto. Not surprisingly for a British show, Elgar also made the list (for Hope and Glory) as did Rachmaninoff (for his second piano concerto) for reasons I don’t quite understand. What do all of these have in common? They are all big, celebratory works written for large orchestras.

There was one work, however, that was not written for orchestra amongst the Top 6. Indeed, for much of the show’s history, it had been the #1 most requested work (mostly for its remarkable Andante second movement): Schubert’s Quintet in C. Unlike most quintets, which add a piano to the usual two violins, viola and cello, Schubert’s quintet adds a second cello, hence the dedication to our resident cellist, the Professor.

Schubert composed the Quintet in C during the final weeks of his life in 1828.  It was to be his last instrumental work and he died prior to it being performed. Indeed, the score was lost for decades, until it was found in a cupboard in the 1850s, published, and performed.

Schubert’s decision to bookend the standard two violins and viola with two cellos seems unprecedented.  The only works I am aware of with this unusual grouping are Luigi Boccherini’s–but that was because his patron was a cellist and the second cello part is little more than a basic bass line. Not so here–Schubert’s score is richly virtuosic in all parts. I suggest Schubert did this to add a darker color to the sound of the ensemble—string quartets skew higher in pitch than an orchestra, with its full complement of cellos and basses.  The Quintet sounds richer, fuller and more dramatic than the chamber pieces that preceded it—it is decidedly symphonic in sound and color, allowing Schubert to explore interesting harmonics with a second bass line. 

The first movement is written is classic sonata form (an exposition of two themes, development, recapitulation and coda). It opens with a classic Schubertian melodic line, which continues to unspool over the first minute or so. The melody moves between the first violin and first cello, just as the key shifts between major and minor. The two basic phrases that comprise the melody are separated by what can be called a fanfare–the “da dum” chords. As the violins shift into harmonic exploration, the cellos take over the melody. Arpeggios essentially push the music onward, not unlike Beethoven, but the presence of Schubert’s long melodic lines mark this work as very much his own.

The second theme emerges in G Major, the expected key for the second theme of a C Major sonata form movement. And this is where the two cellos emerge, playing a melodic line that is equal parts fragile and tragic. The theme revolves around the B in the first cello part (the third tone in the G Major scale) but pay attention to the harmony in the second cello. Minor tones are creeping into the score. The two violins take over the theme, bringing their brighter timbre to what is increasingly a sorrowful mood.

Schubert isn’t really concerned with the development of themes, because the contrast that his melodies provide are the necessary harmonic development he needs for his music to succeed. So instead of launching into the development, he adds a coda, a dance-like rhythm, before bringing back the second theme before launching into a very short development section. To be fair, this is far from the most interesting development section–it is largely comprised of a minor version of the coda in the cellos contrasted against the fanfare element in the violins. From this, a new theme is introduced (breaking the rules of classical composition), which contains elements of the second theme. The development section underscores duality of the scoring, rarely are two violins or two cellos left on their own.

The recapitulation is brought about through a series of arpeggios ending in G Major. The movement ends peacefully, but not unlike the creeping shadows of an autumn afternoon, suggest that darker times are ahead.

The enduring popularity of the Quintet in C lies in the serene and sublime second movement in E Major. This is peak Schubert, taking the opening chord from the first movement and unleashes a seamless melody of about five minutes. There is something deeply celestial about this music. The dreamlike state is interrupted by a trill–a shock to the system–which leads into a section of music that could not be more different from what came previously. This is the music of despair, aggitated and anxious, scored in F Minor. Schubert unfurls this heart-wrenching score–supported by those two cellos–until it literally melts away into extended silences, interrupted by chords reminiscent of the first movement’s fanfare element. After an age, a prayer of such fragility that it seems unsustainable. Is this Schubert’s prayer and, if so, what is he praying for? Musicologists have struggled to answer that question without reaching a satisfying conclusion. The agitated music returns in the first violin, but quickly disappears as the movement ends, back in E Major, but seemingly unresolved.

Schubert’s melodic gifts are on full display in the last two movements, a Scherzo and Rondo, respectively. The Scherzo, underscoring its roots in the minuet, is a folksy dance that lightens the mood considerably. The timbre of the quintet as a whole changes as the noise produced by the five musicians appears to increase exponentially. There are two reasons for this. First, Schubert provides many opportunities to play open strings, which, relieved of any pressure from the fingers, sing out with more intense overtones, giving the impression of additional instruments. And the instruments are asked to play more than one note at a time, compounding the effect. Resolving the dance, Schubert’s trio brings back the quasi-religious overtones from the second movement. This prayer, if anything, is even darker and more foreboding. But these phrases are increasingly fragmented, frustrated by the lack of resolution. Schubert’s prayers are not being answered. It is as if someone attending a wild party has been overcome by dark thoughts. The music descends downward, in tone and dynamics. It is, in a word, dying. Schubert’s imminent death is hard to ignore here–was he scoring his dread? The rollicking dance theme returns and Schubert’s repeat of the Scherzo ends on a joyous note.

The final movement is more of the same. This vaguely Eastern European music reflects the then-current vogue for Hungarian folk music, one persistent strand of the coming Romantic movement. This dance is never far away, even as the music turns inward, either reflecting the second movement’s prayer or the second theme from the first movement. But ultimately, the dance just won’t relent. To the contrary, Schubert increases the tempo. The end in sight, the dance becomes delirious and perhaps a bit out of control. A series of chords bring the quartet to its final conclusion.

And it is that final half-stepped chord at the death that has produced so much debate. It is a D-flat to C, bringing the quintet back to its home key. But it is fundamentally unsettling. Is it a moment of doubt? A premonition of his death? There are no clear answers here. But I’ve never come away from listening to this work particularly uplifted. Moved, shaken, disturbed–yes. But great art doesn’t always bring resolution. Indeed, in the coming century, art would move away from providing answers and assurances to simply asking more questions. In that, the Quintet in C is truly proto-Romantic.

Franz Schubert, Quintet in C, D. 956:

Credo in unum Deum

The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Mass in B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study:

Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Mass in B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.

So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.

In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.

I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.

Credo in unum Deum.

J.S. Bach, Mass in B minor:

Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Part I

One thing is certain.  Even if few truly appreciated it at the time, Bach was very aware of his genius.  A humble Lutheran by nature and faith, Bach sought to cement his legacy at the end of his life through two monumental works.  Sick, going blind and dying, Bach set about to compose on both a small and massive scale.  In the Art of the Fugue, Bach delivers the ultimate summation on musical theory to date.  Included in this set of compositions are the most intricate, detailed and complex music ever written.  It’s as if Bach threw down his gauntlet, exclaiming “Decipher this!” 

Bach did not specify which instruments should perform these fugues and instrumentation varies widely in recorded versions.  I’ve selected a few here, but they are all worth careful listening and consideration, across multiple recordings.  These may not be among my truly favorite works of music, but they’d be on my Desert Island Discs for sure—I’d never, ever tire of hearing them.  For this first entry, I’ve selected two, the Eleventh and Seventh.  The Eleventh is perhaps the most complex fugue ever written.  Again, we have the familiar three subjects, which were taken from the Eighth. But, here, each of them is inverted and combined.  In the Seventh, the themes are so dense I can barely figure out what’s going on.  This is where my ear reaches a wall I cannot pass. As I said several weeks ago, Bach brought me to my knees musically, delivering a humbling realization that what mattered most to me was beyond my ability. Here, over 30 years later, he compounds that lesson. Every entry is in stretto—so each subject is imitated before it has even finished.  I hear chords in this that are so new for the period they seem to anticipate jazz.  And . . . that’s about all I can explain.  Bach continues to elude me after all these years—what was that Einstein quote again?

J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue

Contrapunctus XI (harpsichord):

Contrapunctus XI:

Contrapunctus VII (harpsichord):

Contrapunctus VII (brass quartet):  

Baroque Music XI: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.” J.S. Bach

Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived… I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Ludwig van Beethoven

The two titans of Baroque music, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, were born several weeks apart in 1685.  These two composers, collectively, brought music forward at an exponential rate.  While Bach was busy creating some of the most complex music ever composed, Handel was upping the dramatic urgency, particularly through his oratorios and operas.  As with the Baroque, the watchword was always more: more instruments, more singers, more complexity—more, more, more!  And no one met that challenge better than Handel.  I consider Bach to be the superior composer, but Handel gets more playtime in my home.  Everyone knows his Alleluiah chorus from the Messiah.  But he’s so much more than that one piece.

Born in Germany, Handel found his fame in London under what was then the new Hanover dynasty. No wonder Germans love London so much—the Queen is German, their greatest composer was German, and they love sausages and beer. But before he arrived in England, Handel, like many composers, spent time in Italy. While in Rome, he studied with both Corelli (and thus mastered orchestration) and Alessandro Scarlatti, from whom he learned about opera and composing for solo voice.

Hands down, my favorite work of Handel’s is an early one, composed in Rome around 1707—his great early oratorio, Dixit Dominus. Dixit Dominus is divided into eight movements, scored for a five-part chorus and five soloists. Composed at 22, this 30 minute piece is a blockbuster. In the raucous first movement, the strings’ arpeggios punctuated by the chorus repeating “dixit”, i.e., the Lord said—the synthesis of Corelli and Scarlatti, with a dash of German oomph (yes, that is a technical term). In the penultimate movement, “De Torrente in via bibet,” Handel unleashes a series of dissonant suspensions that are so unbelievably beautiful as to practically stop your heart. And while I have not checked the score, I do believe we hear the Circle of Fifths poke out from time to time.

This piece is very special for me. It was the first music that my daughter ever heard–starting on the first day of her life. We played this disc so much the (largely Dominican) nurses thought we were VERY Catholic and paid extra attention to her as a result. It was perhaps inevitable she ended up in Catholic school.

Religion aside, my interest in this music is far more prosaic. This is baroque rock n’ roll—proto-Led Zeppelin. You cannot play this one too loud—the horns, the chorus all benefit from more volume. Here is the full recording on YouTube and some selections on Spotify–the Spotify links are to my favorite recording of the work, the same one we played for my daughter on her first day of life.

George Frideric Handel, Dixit Dominus:

More Monteverdi: A Prayer on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, without end.

It is a wonderfully cool morning in NYC. Perhaps that’s what triggered it in my mind — it was that nearly imperceptible hint of fall that did the trick. 9/11. It had been the same 20 years ago: 9/11/01 was just a peach of a day until IT happened.

I had gotten to the office early that day for a conference call on one of those digital music joint ventures the record companies were always trying to get off the ground in the pre-iTunes world. The call started at 8:30am Eastern. I saw the towers fall from my office window. My wife had been there just two days prior. The walk home up Lexington Avenue seemed to take an eternity. The last time I had been in a crowd like that had been in Paris the year before. The French had just won Euro 2000; the mood had been quite different then. Here and there I caught bits of conversation, but mostly things were unnaturally quiet. No cars. No buses. Just people walking. You could sense the fear, the anger, the grief. I heard a couple of guys talking about going “Jew hunting” that night. Didn’t happen, but I still remember that. Mostly, I felt numb. A half eaten donut would lay on my desk for a week.

I bought a ton of pasta and bottled water that night. We ate mostly in silence and left town two days later when the bridges opened. In many ways, I never looked back. We moved to London that November and wouldn’t return for three years. London was different. Its scars were older and had been accepted by the time we got there. It was a happy place. We finally threw out the rest of the pasta when we returned in 2005.

I was in Scotland on 9/11/02.  We were staying at a small farmhouse outside of Oban.  We spent the day on the Isle of Kerrera, where sheep outnumber men by at least 3,000:1.  It couldn’t be more different than where I had been the prior year.  Nothing had changed here in centuries.  It was as it ever was.  The fateful hour had passed unnoticed.  I had begun to heal.  That night, we had dinner at the inn. We ate the BBQ chicken without thinking, reliving the day’s adventures; it wasn’t until we had the chocolate cake for dessert that I realized that the innkeepers had made an all-American dinner for us. And then, in an instant, I realized why.  That meant the world to me; it still does.

Twenty years on, that feeling of good will has been lost, squandered by the hubris of successive Administrations that have unethically preyed on the fears of the American people, driving us apart from each other, and us from the world at large. We have become the sheep, jumping at every little last provocation, repeatedly failing to embrace compassion and forgiveness because the lure of hatred is the easier path. Twenty years on, the memory of 9/11 still haunts this city. But the great tragedy of 9/11 is not the gaping hole that it left for the better part of a generation in downtown NY or even the lives that were lost that day. The greater tragedy by far is its legacy. It is a legacy that transformed our nation from a beacon of liberty and justice to an international pariah. Twenty years on, NYC has recovered. It is our nation that has been fatally wounded.

Sacred music can lift the spirits and inspire humanity to goodness, even if you do not have faith in its message. The message of music is universal, allowing those of us who are gripped in the vise of a historic pandemic in the 21st century to be soothed by music written half a millennia ago. Today, I think we need some of that.

Freed of the strictures of Renaissance music, Orfeo is where the full flower of Monteverdi genius began to take hold. Leaving his position at the Court of Mantua for the greener pastures of Venice, Monteverdi entered a city that would be described as “opera mad” only a few decades later. Libertine Venice, soon to be home to half a dozen opera houses, was surely ready to embrace Monteverdi’s revolution in full. And that’s because Monteverdi’s music, matching the ambitions of new employers, was simply bigger and louder (not to mention better) than anyone else’s: At a time when everyone maxed out at 7, Monteverdi went to 11. Gone were the subtle polyphonic harmonies that had been carefully developed in the Renaissance. Hello, over-the-top Baroque. For a taste of just what exactly that Baroque aesthetic looks like, gaze upon the splendor of the Church of the Gesu in Rome:

Commonly referred to as the Vespers of 1610, I can’t think of a better way to introduce the glorious sound of the Baroque in its fullest. If there is such a thing as music that heals, this is unquestionably it.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine:

Recording note: John Eliot Gardner is one of the towering geniuses of interpreting Baroque through early Romantic Period music. If you are ever in doubt as to which recording to get, get his: Monteverdi through Berlioz. Although the Vespers were composed during his time in Mantua, some have speculated, given their unusual length and complexity (which made them unusable for standard liturgy services), that Monteverdi submitted the score as an informal application to the Basilica of San Marco. Regardless of whether that legend is true, Monteverdi was in fact hired and this recording was made live in the very space in which Monteverdi’s new music was first heard. This performance was captured on a 2-disc set that has been among my Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember.

Renaissance Music VII: Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)

Right on the heels of Thomas Tallis comes what may be my favorite work of Renaissance music.  In the 1630s, Gregorio Allegri produced what for more than a century was considered—widely considered—to be the most beautiful music ever composed.  As most of us will recall, chasing after obscure bootlegs even before the CD age, scarceness itself enhances the perceived specialness of the music (example: Led Zeppelin’s Hey Hey, What Can I Do, a much-revered song until everyone could get their hands on it).  Well, the OG bootleg was Allegri’s Miserere, composed for the Pope for services in the Sistine Chapel.  Successive popes all conspired to keep the score under lock and key for more than a century, making it more legend than anything else.  Want to hear it?  Go to Rome, get invited to service at the Sistine Chapel and hope you attend on the right day.  That was until the 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart secured a pass to a performance.  Famously transcribing the score entirely from memory, he used his transcription as his ticket to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor.  At least that’s the story as I remember it and after finding some of my other treasured stories of musical history to be little more than myth, I have no desire to discover whether or not this story has been debunked.  It’s a good story and should remain as such.  Likewise, I have no desire to ponder the details of its composition, trace its origins, note its effects, or do anything other than revel in its absolute magnificence.  It is still performed annually during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel.  Attending that performance might just be at the very, very top of my bucket list (knowing full well that this will never happen).  But until then, I have the Tallis Scholars and their justly famous recording from the 1980s.

Gregorio Allegri, Miserere:

Polyphony is comparatively rare in contemporary music, but always finds a special place in my heart when I hear it. I am a sucker for an achingly beautiful polyphonic melody. No band in the rock era does polyphony better than The Beach Boys. And it never got any better than the ending of the most gorgeous song in history: God Only Knows. There is no better parallel to the high Cs in the Miserere than this Brian Wilson classic.

The Beach Boys, God Only Knows:

Renaissance Music VI: Thomas Tallis (1505-1575)

For me, Thomas Tallis is the unparalleled genius of Renaissance music.  Tallis was my gateway early music drug, leading me to a rabbit hole of music that I will never bottom out.  Nearly within living memory of Tallis’ older contemporaries, music had existed in two parts, male and boy, singing octaves, fourths and fifths only.  Tallis exploded the idea of what was possible in music like no one before him.  The sheer texture of his music is unrivaled, even by Bach’s most complex fugues.  I lack the skill to explain how I hear Tallis, but perhaps my description of him as the most tactile of Renaissance composers will find common ground with your ears.  Here is the pinnacle of his achievement: Spem in Alium.  Scored for 40 individual voices, the work is divided into eight choirs of five voices each. The opening theme moves through each of these choirs individually, until all 40 voices come together in a climax at the 40th bar.  This has led many to suggest that Tallis composed this work to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573.  I like to think that’s true. 

Again, we turn to the Tallis Scholars for one of my absolute favorite pieces of music of all time and another Desert Island Disc:

Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium:

Bonus:  In the 1980s, the avant-garde Kronos Quartet had Tallis’ masterpiece transcribed for string quartet.  Through the magic of overdubbing, four instruments become Tallis’ 40 voices.  Placing this track here, a decade before their Early Music album, Kronos shows us the musical conversation that stretches across the centuries and binds us all together in a world of sound.  Their transcription appears alongside works by Charles Ives, Dimitri Shostakovich, George Crumb and others.  While all of the compositions on this album are linked by the subject of war, Kronos also appears to argue that you cannot understand modern music without understanding Tallis first.  I agree.

Kronos (after Thomas Tallis), Spem in Alium:

Renaissance Music I: John Dunstable (1390-1453)

It was the English composer John Dunstable who introduced the third to music, creating the unique color palette that allowed Western music to flourish. In short, a “third” is simply the third note above the root note: If your root note is a C, the third interval is an E.  Thirds are referred to in music as imperfect because they can be both major and minor (depending on where you start).  And, of course, when you stack two thirds together, you get the 1-3-5 triad—the foundation of all Western music through to that pop tune that came out last week. 

Dunstable also found that there was an inherent logic that knitted together different triads, since each triad is composed of two notes of a different triad.  Moving from one closely related triad to another gives a logic to music that has informed our understanding of harmony to this day.  This video gives a great introduction to triads and chord theory:

Don’t worry about diminished and augmented chords, as they won’t become really relevant for a few hundred years.

Of Dunstable’s other major developments, his revolutionary decision to move the melody from the tenor line to the top treble line is the most significant. In this, he broke the continental preference for dissonance and the primacy of lower voices. Before Dunstable, music was, with very few exceptions, dull, sparse and predictable. Dunstable is responsible for bringing the color of the Renaissance to music and with his music that we start our musical journey in earnest.

John Dunstable, Quam Pulchra Es

Several hundred years later, a retired miner in the north of England composed a song based on a traditional Yorkshire ballad. Drawing his musical inspiration from the Middle English period (roughly from the 5th to 16th centuries), Ewan MacColl’s remarkable 1947 Canticle has been performed by many bands over the years, including most memorably by Simon and Garfunkel. From their legendary concert in Central Park, when these two brilliant musicians transported 1980s New York back to the English Renaissance, if just for a few minutes.

Simon and Garfunkel, Scarborough Fair:

Incidentally, I should note that my personal Rosetta Stone for Early Music was the Kronos Quartet’s remarkable album “Early Music” from the late 1990s. Kronos was, and remains, on the vanguard of contemporary music, but this album saw the group reach back across the centuries to find the inspiration for much of what they had been performing. The album effectively presents contemporary music along side music written several hundred years ago. The effect, for me, was remarkable and I recommend the album highly. It is one of my Desert Island Discs.