Classic Essays

The Core of Western Music

bach_beethoven_and_bartokby Jeff Hilton

A READER HAS asked me to recommend a list of recordings of Western music performed by Western musicians. During long and hard cogitation I have made lists of the Ten Greatest Recordings and the Hundred Greatest Recordings, but these lists are too personal and include many recordings that are out of print. A music lover who has already become a passionate collector, searching for the elusive perfect recordings, might find such a list suggestive, but such persons are few compared to those who want advice on where to begin to acquire what may later become a deep appreciation of Western music. (ILLUSTRATION: Bach, Beethoven, and Bartok)

It is to the person who has begun to explore our musical accomplishments that I will direct my advice. Begin at the very top. Get a rock-solid basis in the Masters, and do the branching and exploring later.

The best course I ever had in college was a reading of the masterpieces of European literature from Homer to Dostoyevsky. At the time I wondered why many of these works are so highly regarded. The Divine Comedy, say, has been picked apart and analyzed until it has become so familiar that it almost seems to be formula literature, obvious and easily imitated. It is only when one reads literature of the second rank that one gains an understanding, even if one cannot articulate it, how distinct is that of the first. A solid grounding in the greatest achievements makes such judgments possible. The same is true of music.

The massive, grave organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) may be considered representative of the foundation of Western music. Though Western music began several centuries before Bach, no other music has such confidence and solidity. Each work is complete, with nothing superfluous.

His chorale preludes (except the so called Schuebler set) are not as good as his free-form preludes and fugues, and it is the latter that should be acquired. The blind organist Helmut Walcha (whose recordings of pre-Bach organ music were reviewed here in January) is the only performer worthy of the Master, and his is the set to choose. If you can locate a used copy of the monophonic set, buy it — but the current stereo set is almost as good.

There are four other Bach compositions that rank alongside the organ works. The wonderfully inventive set of six sonatas and partitas (three each) for solo violin constitute the purest of absolute music. Of the out-of-print recordings, those of Adolf Busch (who recorded only two of the works) and Joseph Szigeti (who did all six) bring incisive, analytic interpretations which are rivaled by no other violinists save the Hungarian Sandor Vegh, whose set is still available.

The Goldberg Variations are Bach’s great accomplishment in this form (get Glenn Gould’s recording, above all others). Another late chamberwork, the Musical Offering, was built around a theme by Frederick the Great and presented to him. Nicholas de Harnoncourt’s version is the best available, but look also for Wilfried Boettcher’s.

The last of Bach’s works, the uncompleted Art of Fugue, is also their culmination. It is not known on which instruments this collection of fugues was to be played, but the most effective realizations are Gould’s (who did only the first half) and Walcha’s, both on the organ.

If Bach laid the foundation of Western music, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) gave us the West’s deepest expression of the Faustian spirit. We all know his Eroica (“heroic”) Symphony, but a more intimate expression is to be found in the string quartets that followed, which show us what J.W.N. Sullivan descried as “the hero when he is alone.” These are the so-called Middle Quartets, and the Late Quartets press into an unknown world that leaves the rest of art behind. The superb Vox recordings of the Loewenguth Quartet, an Alsatian group, are no longer generally available. Of the current versions, the deceptively tranquil and straightforward Hungarian Quartet set is most recommended.

The introspective side of the Faustian hero is also revealed in Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Indeed, the full range of Beethoven’s art, except for the Late Quartets, is to be found in them. Of the monophonic performances by Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff, only a few from the Kempff set are still in print. However, a complete, new stereo set by Kempff is now the best choice. Also, the Backhaus stereo remake may still be found in remainder houses.

The other necessary work of Beethoven is his last piano composition, the Diabelli Variations. This and Bach’s Goldberg Variations are complete microcosms, and the Backhaus recording brings an authority to the work no other performer can come close to matching (Kempff hasn’t yet tried it). Fortunately, it has been reissued in Japan and should be available.

Western music might have ended with its finest Faustian expression in Beethoven, but the troubled, dissonant, ambiguous century of transition in which we are now living has stirred the Western soul in new ways. The musical expression of the groping and anguish of this century (though not without its exhilaration and promise) is to be found in the six string quartets of Bela Bartok (1881–1945). This difficult music is not to be heard once, or ten times, but is to become a staple in one’s musical diet until one knows it well enough to reach a proper judgment. I am so familiar with the Vox box of recordings by the Ramor Quartet I grew up on that I find it hard to listen to any other, but it is no longer in print, and I can vouch for the currently available Hungarian Quartet recording as a fully worthy one.

It is painful to limit my list to these works, leaving out the piano concerti of Mozart and the chamber music of Brahms, not to mention a hundred other masterpieces. Any random dozen from this unlisted list would be more than adequate for the everyday, even for most special days. But on very special days, when one seeks the outer limits of our race’s art in order to get at its essential foundations (Bach), its Faustian drive (Beethoven), or its spirit of searching and experiment (Bartok), it is to the greatest works of these three that one must turn.

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Source: National Vanguard tabloid, No. 78, 1980; from Best of Attack! and National Vanguard Tabloid, Kevin Alfred Strom (Ed.), National Vanguard Books (1984), pp. 196–197; transcribed by Helmut Stuka

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