Friday, August 19, 2011

Basic Music Library

I remember reading some literary criticism by Ezra Pound a long time ago in which he says something like there are only a very few books you need to read: but you need to know them very well. The list included Homer, the Bible, Dante and Shakespeare. It is something like that in music. There are some pieces by some composers that you should really know and the rest is all peripheral. We often hear about how the modern world is full of an incredible, diverse variety of everything. Yes, there is some truth to that. But in music it is more like, there is a small amount of music that is really central and everything else is influenced by it. Knowing Bach really well is a lot better than a vague acquaintance with a host of Baroque composers like Telemann, Buxtehude, Froberger, Vivaldi, Rameau and so on. So here is my very provisional list of music you should know well:

  • Bach: Mass in B minor, Brandenberg Concertos, Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, suites for solo cello and violin
  • Beethoven: symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas (yes, all of them)
  • Mozart: symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets and operas
  • Shostakovich: symphonies, string quartets, preludes and fugues for piano
  • Haydn: symphonies, string quartets
  • Chopin: piano music
  • Selected music by Josquin des Prez, Guillaume DuFay, Guillaume de Machaut, Palestrina and John Dowland
  • Some Gregorian chant and music by Leonin and Perotin
  • Songs by Schubert and Schumann
  • Symphonies by Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Bruckner
  • Selected works by Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky and Debussy
  • The Beatles
That is, an idiosyncratic and incomplete list! But the omissions are important. You don't need, for example, to know anything about Beethoven's chamber music for winds (I made that mistake myself), or Haydn's operas, or Schumann's symphonies or Berlioz' music for guitar or French music between Berlioz and Debussy or those hundreds of lesser-known Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers that we are always "rediscovering". Everything they did Bach, Beethoven and Mahler did better. If you know Shakespeare, you really don't need to know all those lesser Elizabethan playwrights, do you? Well, maybe Christopher Marlowe...


Marc Puckett said...

A fine list to work with; thanks. Any changes you'd make, after four years?

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I'm sure. I would add some Prokofiev, I think. A violin concerto, a piano concerto and a symphony or two. And I would add the symphonies of Sibelius and probably drop those of Brahms and either Mahler or Bruckner. Or maybe just one of each. I guess I should do an updated version!