By Patrick F. Cannon
The Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, is despised by sophisticates like me as being excessively sentimental and cheerful. A case in point would be the song “My Favorite Things,” which extols the virtues of “Raindrops on roses, And whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles, And warm woolen mittens.” Yikes!
Nevertheless, the musical may be the most popular of all time, and contains some of Richard Roger’s most beautiful melodies. The heirs of the composer and lyricist are happily counting their royalties and could care less about the “tut tuts” of people like me.
While “whiskers on kittens” isn’t one of my favorite things (I don’t hate cats, but I could happily live without them), the song got me to thinking. So, from time to time, in this space, I’ll let you know about some of the things that I prize most highly.
One is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Originally written for the harpsichord as a series of exercises for the 13-year-old Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who must have been quite the prodigy, it consists of an aria and 30 variations. It runs to about 80 minutes, give or take. While there are many recordings on the original instrument, it is now most often played on the piano. The most famous recordings are the two versions done by the wonderfully eccentric Canadian virtuoso, Glenn Gould. He was given to humming along with his playing, which must have driven recording engineers crazy; and was so adverse to cold that he wore a hat, coat and mittens even when visiting Florida. He was only 50 when he died in 1962.
I own both of his recordings and listen to them often, usually during long car rides. How many times? I’ve lost count, but it must be over 100. While that may make me seem as eccentric as Gould himself, I have a simple defense: the Goldberg Variations is one of the greatest musical accomplishments of all time. If you haven’t heard it, you can find various versions, including Gould’s, on the internet. What can it hurt to give it a listen?
One of my pet peeves (one of many) is that the majority of people simply never listen to so-called Classical music. And not only that – the audience for it is dwindling. Now, you might hear about sold-out houses when Ricardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony, is conducting, but “sold out” doesn’t mean what it used to. The total audience for Classical music has stayed roughly the same while the population continues to increase. Thus, in real terms, the audience is declining. A sold-out audience at Symphony Center totals 2,500, while a sell-out at a rock concert at Chicago’s United Center totals 23,500. I believe the Rolling Stones sold it out three times recently. And no doubt would continue to do so even when they have to be rolled on to the stage.
With due respect to the Stones, their lifetime musical output doesn’t equal the Goldberg Variations. It doesn’t bother me that people like the Rolling Stones – I like a good deal of popular music myself – what amazes me is that they dismiss Classical music without actually ever listening to it Do they think it’s too hard? It’s music, for God’s sake! All you have to do is listen. For most of it, you don’t even have to worry about the words. It doesn’t require thought. It is the purest of all the arts because it reaches us most directly.
That’s why the Goldberg Variations is one of my favorite things.
Copyright 2016, 2020, Patrick F. Cannon