"Give us a day," promise Deutsche Grammophon, "and we'll give you a lifetime." The label has released a box set titled The History of Classical Music in 24 Hours, guaranteeing a broad introduction to classical music over the course of 24 CDs.
If I'm going to give classical music a day, I thought, why not make it an actual day? Why not listen to the set in a continuous 24-hour listening session?
That's exactly what I'm going to do, starting on Wednesday, May 25 at 9 a.m. CDT. I'll live-blog the entire experience, sharing my thoughts as I whip through 1,200 years of music history in 24 hours — a rate of just about a year a minute. Whew!
Here's my schedule — watch for updates throughout the day.
9-10 a.m.: Music of the Middle Ages (Disc 1)
I pressed play on my iPad, and the chanting began: the chanting of Choralschola der Benediktinerabtei Münsterschwarzach (yes, I had to copy that spelling letter-by-letter), singing Gregorian chant from the Middle Ages. With this homophonous, anonymous chant, we're at the dawn of the Western classical music repertoire. Later, this disc will move into the signed compositions of Perotin and Machaut.
This wasn't the beginning of music — far from it — but it was the beginning of documented compositions that began to establish the classical repertoire, a body of music that could be considered one of the great achievements of the human race.
As the set's website notes, this is music that was created and disseminated not just to praise the Almighty but to unify the disparate branches of the Christianized Roman Empire. Later, classical music would become divisive as well as unifying — but that's another chapter of the story.
Gregorian chant had a hot minute in the '90s — the 890s, yes, but also the 1990s, when the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos hit number three on the Billboard album charts with Chant, an album marketed with the promise that Gregorian chant could help calm hectic lives with a dose of music from a simpler time. The chant fad came and went, but chant itself is still around. It will probably still be around in another 1,200 years. Will we be?
10-11 a.m.: Music of the Renaissance (Disc 2)
The Machaut hadn't played yet when it hit 10 a.m. — there's actually more than an hour of music on each disc in the set — but I had to stay on schedule, so I skipped ahead and jumped into the Renaissance with the merry tootle of Lamento di Tristano.
Listening to Renaissance music in historical context certainly highlights the differences between these worldly, often festive compositions — full of emotional and musical variety — and the relatively spare Middle Ages music I'd just been hearing.
Still, "worldly" is relative, as I reflected when I carried my iPad to a food court and the soothing sounds of Dufay suddenly had to compete with 21st-century pop hits. As I ate my breakfast sandwich, I thought about the fact that the people who wrote the music I was hearing didn't even know that the continent where I now stand even existed.
By the end of the Renaissance, Europeans' world had changed: Columbus had sailed, the Reformation had occurred. The notes for this disc point to the rapidly growing complexity and "rhythmic freedom" of Renaissance music — hence the "bounce" I mentioned.
The notes say that this era featured "the original guitar shredders." It ain't Hendrix; nonetheless, in this music you can certainly hear how foundations were being laid not just for the next half-millennium of classical music, but for those pop hits as well.
11 a.m. - noon: Baroque Vocal (Disc 3)
And...we're Bach! Okay, now that's out of my system, I can save the obligatory Baroque pun for later.
We're now squarely in the core classical repertoire, with two popular vocal works by two of the most acclaimed composers in history. Bach is represented by his Easter Oratorio — not his vocal masterpiece (many would say that's the Mass in B Minor), but a piece that pairs well with Handel's mandatory Messiah.
The set's notes say that "Handel made it big; really big!" True: not only was Handel a commercial success during his own lifetime (unlike the devout Bach, note the notes), Messiah is one of the most perennially popular 250-year-old pieces of music in the world. The energetic chorus defines the Baroque in the popular imagination, but most of the era's vocal music is much more chill.
Compositions like these capture the profundity and exuberance of religious expression at a time when people felt themselves to be much more in God's hands — for better or for worse — than most of us do today.
Noon - 1 p.m.: Baroque Instrumental (Disc 4)
There were still a few selections from Messiah left as noon approached, so I skipped ahead to the Hallelujah chorus for the last few minutes of the 11:00 hour.
No matter how many times I hear that piece of music, it still brings me back to childhood: listening to one of those flimsy little plastic records Time-Life would mail out to promote their wares. (There was a place for you to set a penny that was supposed to hold the disc still on the turntable.) I can't even remember what set, exactly, that little record was promoting, but the majesty of Handel came through clearly even on my portable record player.
That was one of my first experiences with classical music — along with my dad's Nutcracker record; the Vivaldi score that featured in Alan Alda's Four Seasons movie (not exactly a kids' flick, but that didn't stop our dad from letting us watch it all the time); and of course Fantasia, especially the Night on Bald Mountain sequence that was included in Halloween specials on the Disney Channel.
The box set I'm now listening two is just one of many on-ramps the classical world offers to help newbies approach this music — in fact, this very website is another. I understand why such efforts are necessary: despite having positive experiences with classical music as a child, even up to my college years I felt like classical music wasn't "for me," like I was too late to really understand it.
Then, one day in freshman year, I decided to take the plunge. I walked to a record store in Boston and purchased two budget CDs: The Four Seasons and Holst's Planets. Over the next couple of years, I took out a subscription to BBC Music Magazine and read Jan Swafford's Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and the rest is history.
I work at a classical radio station! How crazy is that? Actually, it's not too crazy at all. Classical music is here for everyone — from superfans who never listen to anything else, to people like me who enjoy classical music as part of a balanced musical diet, to people who virtually never prefer to listen to classical music but go for Baroque when it comes time to walk down the aisle.
1-2 p.m.: The Classical Symphony (Disc 5)
Only five discs in, and we've reached the iconic heart of the classical repertoire: Beethoven's Fifth, the symphony that virtually defines classical music for many casual listeners. (This one was on that Time-Life sample disc, too.)
The fact that we're just five discs in and already at the cusp of the Romantic Era is partly due to the thematic grouping of the music in this set, but also indicates just how long the history of classical music is — and how much music started to be written in the 18th century and onwards. Just as is the case with pop acts today, classical composers faced an insatiable demand for new music — and also like with pop acts today, the challenge was for the composers to meet that demand while making a living wage.
Haydn churned out music like mad — and because he was a genius, most of it was great. Of his 106 symphonies, Deutsche Grammophon picks No. 94; not necessarily because it's the best, but because it's well-known due to its "surprise" timpani hit in the second movement. Haydn knew he'd need to wake some of his listeners up, as snoozing in the concert hall is nothing new.
Mozart is represented with his "Haffner" symphony — also not his best, but one that's accessible and concise. Then comes Beethoven's mighty Fifth (in a live recording by Bernstein and the Vienna Phil), and the program notes make much of the "fate knocking" narrative. However you interpret the symphony, it vaults this history into a new intensity of subjective — not to say anguished — expression. God, so omnipresent earlier in the history, now seems to have abandoned us entirely.
2-3 p.m.: The Classical Concerto (Disc 6)
At 2:30, I'm conducting a phone interview for a story I'm writing; the person on the other end of the line may wonder why classical concertos are playing softly in the background.
The timing is unfortunate, since this isn't at all background music: solo instrumentalists step to the fore as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven advance their art while making use of the developing technical capabilities of the instruments at their disposal.
The soloists here have more freedom to let it rip than their Baroque counterparts did, but the stakes are getting even higher: tonight, I'll be hearing two full disc of virtuoso music from the Romantic Era.
3-4 p.m.: A Trip to France (Disc 7)
Disc 7 takes us on "A Trip to France," but not for waterlilies and baguettes: for a nightmare vision of the scaffold, courtesy of an impassioned Hector Berlioz. Brief pieces by Cherubini (never mind that he was Italian, I guess) and Auber are also included so we can hear "just how fantastique the symphony is!"
Really, then, this is less about French regionalists than about, as the notes indicate, "the moment when the Romantic Era is dawning," with its emphasis on art for art's sake. The Symphonie fantastique is also a landmark of orchestral storytelling, known for its use of the idee fixe: a recurring theme that appears in different guises throughout the piece. As filtered through Wagner and his use of the leitmotif, this would become a standby of operatic and cinematic music in the post-Romantic world.
4-5 p.m.: The Romantic Symphony (Disc 8)
I caught myself air-conducting for the first time while walking to my car, iPad under my arm, to drive home. A good symphonie will do that to you.
Schubert's Unfinished Symphony isn't necessarily the soundtrack I would have chosen to be stuck in traffic with. I associate the rustling, ominous first movement with darkness and fright — in part because I first encountered it late at night while listening to an old, hissy cassette tape my dad had. The second movement is gentler, but the entire piece feels ominous given that Schubert died before he finished it. (Granted, he lived for six years after finishing these two movements, so it's not as if the rug was totally pulled out from under him.)
It's paired on this disc with Brahms's epic First Symphony. Famously hesitant in the shadow of Beethoven, Brahms took his time jumping into the symphonic pool — but when he did, he went all the way in. Like much of Brahms's work, this piece remains solidly traditional — and yet daring in very deliberate ways, such as in its surging opening.
5-6 p.m.: Cycles and Songs (Disc 9)
And now for something completely different: a song cycle, Schumann's Dichterliebe. The notes describe the frustrations the composer experienced in trying to wed Clara Wieck, whose father objected to "Schumann's poverty, alcoholism, and basically being unable to care for his daughter — a litany of complaints that every father makes of any young man wanting to steal away his daughter." Really? I guess I haven't tried to steal anyone's daughter away, so I wouldn't know.
Also on this disc are a selection of songs by Beethoven and Schubert. I've always struggled to enjoy lieder — maybe because it's hard to appreciate phrasing and interpretation when you don't speak the language. Really, some day I should sit down with Dichterliebe and a translation of the lyrics...but not today. I have to do laundry while I'm listening.
6-7 p.m.: The Virtuoso I (Disc 10)
Laundry: in the washer. Dishes: in the drying rack. Piano: virtuosic, as played by Martha Argerich. This hour features two signature pieces by the virtuoso du jour, Franz Liszt; as well as some Chopin, two Brahms Rhapsodies, and short pieces by Prokofiev and Ravel because why not.
With the technical developments of the 19th century, the piano became an instrument with a near-symphonic range of expression, in the right hands. Being efficient to record (if not to transport), there's a vast range of piano repertoire out there for those who care to turn an ear. For many, this repertoire is the quintessence of the Romantic Era: passionate yet restrained, epic yet intimate, the pure personal expression of one player commanding the keys of an instrument the size of a Mazda.
7-8 p.m.: The Virtuoso II (Disc 11)
What's better than a virtuosic soloist? A virtuosic soloist with an orchestra! I'm sitting out on my porch now, watching people stroll past on a beautiful Minneapolis evening while Nathan Milstein zips through Tchaikovsky's colorful Violin Concerto in D major. It's paired, on this disc, with his take on Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor.
The violin seems like one of the most impressive instruments on which to be a virtuoso — it must be difficult to play with even basic competence. Tiny neck, no frets, you have to keep it tucked under your chin the whole time. When a great violinist takes flight, it sounds like something from another world: a flurry of rapid-fire notes that go so high they seem to be evaporating into the air. No wonder it's so frequently associated with the devil.
8-9 p.m.: The Romantic Cello (Disc 12)
Paired in a case with Disc 11 is Disc 12, featuring "the two greatest cello concertos in the repertoire," the notes confidently state. The cello, with its range so similar to the human voice, can be a singularly poignant instrument, and that's certainly the case with these compositions by Dvorak and Elgar — the latter famously recorded by Jacqueline du Pré, though both concertos here are performed by Pierre Fournier.
As I go about my day listening to these Romantic epics, I'm struck by the alienness of music like this. I don't mean alien in a bad way, I just mean that to immerse yourself in this music the way I've been doing is to soak yourself in the sounds of another world.
These men were writing well over a century ago, creating music that conformed to rules and traditions that in some ways are deeply familiar (tonal structure, for example, that forms the backbone of Western music) and in other ways are challenging to grasp for someone who's not intimately versed in this type of composition.
These composers in particular, of course, were among the great geniuses of their time — meaning that their music works on many layers, some of which are right on the surface and others that seem to be forever slipping away. Is the music happy? Sad? Angry? Contemplative? It's all those things at once, whereas much of the music we hear in day-to-day life is content to be one thing at a time.
It's in that sense that it feels alien: music from another world, created by artists who struggled their whole lives to realize ideas as fully as this. It's inspiring, but also a little scary. It's not the kind of territory most brains are used to occupying — at least not for 24 hours at a stretch.
9-10 p.m.: The Virtuoso III (Disc 13)
I brought Schumann to the gym. On the elliptical, I burned 293 calories as Sviatoslav Richter slammed into the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor. Dramatic as the Elgar was (that fueled my crunches), it was table ante for Rocky 2: the piano concerto coming up on the second half of the "Virtuoso III" volume. After Rachmaninov, where could the piano concerto go? In all sorts of directions, but none as grandly Romantic.
Halfway! I'm now over the hump, entering the second half of the history, as the edifice of classical music fragments and all the rules are rewritten.
10-11 p.m.: Big Voice, Big Orchestra (Disc 14)
The title of this disc puts it forthrightly. A solo singer holding forth in front of an orchestra is one of the most easily-mocked classical tropes, but composers have saved some of their strongest statements for this configuration. As the night deepens, it feels appropriate to listen to this music — in particular, Richard Strauss's autumnal Four Last Songs.
11 p.m. - midnight: Get Your Programme! (Disc 15)
Okay, now we get to the nationalists! After the sturm und drang of the past few hours, it comes as a breath of fresh air for the celebratory, brassy peals of Sibelius's Finlandia to come rolling in. Classical music: sometimes, it's happy! Or at least, not totally morose!
This may be the single most accessible disc in the collection, from Finlandia to Smetana's sublimely tuneful Moldau to Holst's Planets — a suite that defined what "space" sounds like for generations of science fiction film composers.
More generally, this use of the orchestra — highly melodic, rhythmically charged, sometimes (if not always) inventive in terms of arrangement and instrumentation — became a go-to mode for film composers over the succeeding century. While film music hasn't traditionally been considered "classical music," that's rapidly changing as even declared classical fans admit that some of the best and most beloved living composers have made their lives in the movies. As the cinema settles into its second century, the classical music establishment is starting to, as it were, get with the program.
Midnight - 1 a.m.: New Currents (Disc 16)
A new day arrives with a bang: three sharp-elbowed string quartets by 20th century masters. I sat on the porch with my neighbors Dewey and Shelby for a while while listening to this hour of music, and Dewey became totally engrossed, nodding his head and almost conducting the music. We agreed it sounds cinematic, full of quick rhythms and tense figures.
In addition to definitively establishing the modern milieu, these selections by Prokofiev, Bartok, and Shostakovich also illuminate the range and power of chamber music — not much in evidence elsewhere in this set. Great writing for string quartet is every bit as engrossing as great writing for orchestra: you can hear the parts moving, and in performances like these by the Emerson String Quartet, the players' camaraderie and mutual trust are unmistakable.
1-2 a.m.: A World Re-Arranged (Disc 17)
Here, we arrive at one of the pivotal works in music history: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, with the program notes duly describing the opening-night violence that became for classical music in the 20th century what Dylan going electric did for rock music. Even if it wasn't quite as dramatic as the popular imagination remembers it, it was unmistakably an event, signaling that the musical world had changed forever.
As we get into the wee hours, we also encounter the first American composers deemed significant to the canon: Charles Ives and Samuel Barber. The critics are more fascinated with Ives, who showed a brilliant idiosyncrasy in his melding of American music with European traditions; but it's Barber who wrote the saddest piece of music ever (a BBC poll says so): the Adagio for Strings, which serves as an elegiac opening to the hour.
(Speaking of Americans, you know who's not anywhere to be found on this set? Aaron Copland. Ouch!)
2-3 a.m.: Viva España! (Disc 18)
As the Rite ebbed and the jaunty guitar of Göran Söllscher fired up, I decided to run an errand — and grab some sushi as a late-night treat while I was at it. This disc is a varied and appealing set of music from Spanish composers. That's welcome, but of course listening to "Viva España!" while eating sushi begs the question: where's "Viva Japan"?
Of course I'm being disingenuous: with only 24 discs to cover the entire "history of classical music," it would be a surprise to find an entire disc dedicated to any country not on the European continent. When we say "classical music," we generally mean "Western classical music," and when we say "Western classical music," we generally mean "European classical music," and when we say "European classical music," we generally mean "German and Austrian classical music." In this frame, Italy is the other main powerhouse; France and Spain are exotic outliers, and England and the United States feel like total underdogs.
There are long and complex (as well as some short and not-so-complex) reasons for that, but does it need to stay that way? Certainly today, the Western classical tradition emcompasses composers and performers on every continent — but as long as "classical music" centers on Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, it will be impossible to get too far off the well-beaten path we're currently traveling.
Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach are all great — but they're not getting any younger. Fortunately, classical music organizations are working to connect their rich musical legacy with new music as a living art — through programs like the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music. Viva diversity!
3-4 a.m.: Lasting Impressions (Disc 19)
The term "Impressionism" was originally applied to a style of French painting as an insult, and it remains a matter of debate whether it properly ought to be extended to the music of Debussy and Ravel. Were they trying to do the musical equivalent of what Monet was up to on canvas around the same time? In conventional wisdom and nomenclature, at any rate, the matter is settled: yes, or close enough. At any rate, Impressionist music is just as attractive and evocative as Impressionist painting, applying a splash of 20th-century daring to the 19th-century taste for personal expression and rich scene-setting. In both art and music, stark abstraction would come later.
This disc includes Ravel's Bolero, infamous as a sex score — though Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, also included, is much more subtly and powerfully erotic.
4-5 a.m.: 12 Points of View (Disc 20)
"Things ought to get really interesting around 4 am..." wrote my colleague Jodi Gustafson on Facebook, sharing this post. Right she was — but then, things would get interesting any time you hit Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg in a classical music marathon.
The title of this disc refers to 12-tone music, invented by Schoenberg as a way of rethinking the fundamentals of music. The technique fascinated scholars and alienated listeners, with surprisingly far-reaching results that helped define a generation of composers — as important for the music it inspired in protest as for the music it inspired in imitation.
The set goes easy on us here, with relatively early (and, thus, tonal) compositions by Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School cohorts — followed by Berg's "to the memory of an angel" violin concerto, which incorporates 12-tone rows but (as the program notes put it) permits "tonality to rear its beautiful head."
5-6 a.m.: Minimalism (Disc 21)
"Minimalism" sounds even more daunting than "12-tone," but in fact, Minimalism was a sort of populist reaction to Schoenberg and his disciples, inspired by world music and rock. Like "Impressionism," Minimalism isn't a label that's always been embraced by its supposed purveyors, but it's apt as a description of their shared inspiration — in this case, repetitive, cell-like structures.
The three names on this disc are well-chosen — though some, probably including John Adams himself, would have booted him in favor of Terry Riley. There Adams is, though, represented by his glorious Shaker Loops sandwiched between Reich's Six Pianos and Philip Glass's Violin Concerto — a work characteristic of Glass's mature style, if not his most influential.
Personally, I was ready for some stronger stuff, but then, I'm a guy who's willingly listened to Music in Twelve Parts multiple times.
6-7 a.m.: Opera — Overtures (Disc 22)
Good morning! The sun has risen on a grey, rainy day in Minneapolis; as my girlfriend's alarm went off at 6 a.m. to wake her up for work, I bumped my playlist to the beginning of Disc 22 and was greeted with the galloping overture to Bizet's Carmen.
It's a bummer to roll the clock back and leave off at a date that was still nearly 30 years ago (1987, the year of Glass's Violin Concerto), but Deutsche Grammophon has grouped all the set's opera selections onto the final three discs. (Also disappointingly, the notes dismiss contemporary opera with, "operas written in the twentieth century have struggled to find an audience" — never mind the 21st, I guess — and suggest that "the future of opera" might be found in underperformed stage works by the likes of Handel and Vivaldi.) That said, it's hard to complain about a collection of rip-roaring overtures — especially at 6 a.m.
7-8 a.m.: Opera — Arias (Disc 23)
We've officially reached the sing-along-in-the-shower portion of our program...I mean, unless you're also into lieder karaoke with the loofah.
It's tempting to think of the greatest hits from the likes of The Magic Flute and La bohème as songs everybody knows, but every time Andrea Bocelli sings "Nessun dorma," the Internet lights up with people wanting to know what that catchy number is.
The answer: it's a selection from Puccini's Turandot in which an unknown Prince sings to a princess who wants him (and, if necessary, all of her subjects as well) killed, expressing his confidence that she'll fail to meet his contrived challenge of guessing his name before dawn, thus compelling herself by the terms of their agreement to marry him, at which point his kiss will dissolve her cold silence and they'll live happily ever after.
Or...go team! Whatever.
8-9 a.m.: Opera — Duets & Choruses (Disc 24)
Here we are. The final hour. A collection of duets and choruses that mark the end of my 24-hour marathon of classical music history. What have I learned?
1. The classical music repertoire is vast.
I've just listened to 24 straight hours of music, and it hardly even felt like a "greatest hits." Just one Beethoven symphony? No Goldberg Variations? No Mozart Requiem? Even 24 CDs are just the barest of starter packs.
2. It's also limited.
This set doesn't include one single composition by a woman. There are other questions of inclusiveness, as I mentioned above. That's the way it is, but it also means that as epic as the scope of the standard Western classical music repertoire is, there are many voices that have been, until very recently, unheard.
3. Sometimes, quality time is better than quantity time.
I devoted 24 hours to this music as I went through my day, and though I'm finishing my journey with a new sense of the historical sweep of classical music, I haven't had as many unforgettable musical moments as I might have had if I'd just taken these discs one at a time and really concentrated. I feel like I've just come up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and done a 360: the view is incredible, but the delight is in the details. I'm looking forward to getting back to delighting in those details...after a nap.