Category Archives: Music

The Great Symphonies

     A symphony is a long orchestral work, usually with four movements and a particular structure within each movement.  Sometimes it has a overall theme–or program, as it is usually called.  For example, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is his “Pastoral Symphony” because it depicts life in the country, including a thunderstorm.

      Below is my list of the five best symphonies that I have heard.  My experience?  I started listening to so-called classical music as a teenager.  Among the first recordings that I owned were Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and Mozart’s Fortieth.  After that I collected others and listened to public radio and attended orchestra concerts.  I started as a music major in college and took two semesters of music history.  In that course, I was required to learn to recognize, among other things, the first and second theme of each movement of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.  The professor would play something at random, and we would have to identify it and list details about it.

     I admit that I have not heard every symphony ever composed, but I have heard more than the average person and have heard them more often, too.  So here’s my list–

1.  Symphony No. 9 in E-minor by Antonin Dvorak, also known as “From the New World”

I enjoy the melodies of the dramatic themes in this piece.  They are simply beautiful.  The fact that it was inspired by Dvorak’s visit to America makes it intriguing to me.  You can definitely get a sense of Americanism in it. 

2.  Symphony No. 6 in B-minor by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, also known as the “Pathetique” Symphony

It is hard to find music with a more sweeping range of emotions–from optimism to despair to clam resignation.  Tchaikovsky himself ran the gamut of emotions, which is something that I identify with.

3.  Symphony No. 94 in G-major by Joseph Haydn, also known as “Surprise”

This one is rather light and cheerful and the surprise is always fun.  It is from the classical period, therefore it is very straightforward and proper with a very firm structure.

4.  Symphony No. 5 in C-minor by Ludwig van Beethoven

Seriously!  In regard to form and thematic unity, it is one of the best, even though it is also the most popular.  Sometimes things are popular because they are good.

5.  Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler

     Mahler is a less well known and underappreciated composer.  There has been a revival of interest in his works in the last fifty years, which is a good thing.  This symphony starts and ends with trumpet fanfares.  It is rousing but not just in the energetic sense; it rouses strong emotions on both ends of the scale.  It was ahead of its time in employing close harmonies and dissonances, such as you might hear in modern movie scores.


What do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?

Have I inspired you to listen to these great works?


American Idol Favorites–Week 1

     Among the men compteting on American Idol 2011, I like Jacob Lusk the best.  He is a jazzy singer, and that style appeals to me very much.  His vocal power and range are phenomenal–literally.

     For the same reason I like Naima Adedapo the best from among the ladies.  She sang a completely captivating rendition of “Summertime,” which is one of my favorite songs.

     Among the men I also like Casey Abrams, the best all-around musician, and Brett Loewenstern, who reminds me of Carrot Top but who sings like a bird.

     Among the women I also like Haley Reinhart, because she has a lot of spunk and pizzazz, and Pia Toscano, whose voice is the most well developed of them all.

     Are you watching it?  Whom do you like best?

Judging the American Idol Judges

     American Idol is the only television show that I watch.  I enjoy the music, and I enjoy watching people being given the chance to make their dreams come true.

     I wondered what it would be like without either Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul as judges.  Only one of the original judges remains.

     I was pleased with the two new judges, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.

     Steven Tyler seems to connect with the contestants easily and at times profoundly.  His total passion for music comes through loud and clear, and he treats the contestants who perform well as fellow musicians with no condescension whatsoever on his part.  He is a very funny and very likeable guy.

     Jennifer Lopez is much more down-to-earth than I would have expected.  She is warm and encouraging to the contestants.  She seems to speak her mind sincerely but generally with a lot of tact and concern for the contestants’ feelings.  She has done and said several things that indicate that she has not let her fame give her a swelled head.  It seems that it is very hard for her to say no to anyone.  I hope she toughens up a little.

     I will miss Simon.  The current judges do not seem to be able to be blunt or sarcastic.  The fact of the matter is that sometimes the kindest thing you can tell somebody is the truth, however much it stings.  Simon could do that, but I doubt the current judges can.  It will make the show less entertaining, I think.

     Nevertheless, I plan to keep watching.  I plan to pick a favorite and support that person.  Maybe at some point one of the judges will assume the role of the judge who tells it like it is without sugar coating things.  If not, I will enjoy more of the sweetness and positive attitude that I observed in the first two installments.



I must be the last person on the planet to hear about the unique musical group called Pomplamoose.  It consists of a man and a woman whose music has been described as indie jazz, which seems to be as good a description as any.  I understand that they have appeared in television commercials.  Whatever you call their music, I call it fantastic.  I not only like their thoroughly captivating sound, but their performances on video are immensely entertaining.


     I just finished reading two highly enjoyable books.

     The first is a novel entitled The Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.  It is the second book in a series called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  I have not read the first book in the series or any of the others, but now I want to.  The book had several subplots that were masterfully and imaginatively interwoven.  It contained some nice, small surprises but no completely unexpected plot twists.  It presented African culture in a sensitve way.  In addition, there were several cleverly placed comments on modern Western society that were deliciously sarcastic but not overly sharp.

     The second is a book by Bill Bryson called The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.  Even if you are not particularly interested in the history of the English language, you might enjoy the book because of Bryson’s wittiness.  As entertaining as it is informative, this book will surely fascinate most people who give it a chance.  Although I have read several books on the subject and have taken a graduate level course in it, I learned a few things and had a few laughs along the way.

Christmas Songs

     I have been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately.  I love it.  I sometimes listen to three different versions of the same song on any given day.  I probably had different favorites last year, but here are my top three sacred Christmas songs and my top three secular Christmas songs along with my current favorite performer.  (Can you tell that I’m partial to female singers?)


1.  “What Child Is This?” sung by Allison Crowe

2.  “O Holy Night” sung by Mandisa

3.  “In the Bleak Midwinter” sung by Moya Brennan


1.  “The Christmas Song” sung by Aaron Neville

2.  “The Christmas Waltz” sung by The Carpenters

3.  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Yolanda Adams


What Christmas songs have you been listening to?  What are your favorites?

Another Glimpse Into My Life

     I teach piano and guitar to a few students after school, most of whom are beginners.  In two weeks we will be putting on a recital with a flute student and a saxophone student who are being taught by other people.  We live in a remote place, so the kids have little opportunity for things like this.  The parents practically begged me to teach the lessons, and I obliged.  It is time for them to show what they have learned.

     One of the other music teachers involved has suggested that the teachers also play something.  I see the value in it, as long as we are careful not to take any of the spotlight away from the kids.  I hope that performing with adults will make them feel special and not overshadowed.  The truth is that every kid will be the “star” to their own parents, and I am happy about it.

     I will be playing a polonaise by Chopin.  I have just finished learning it, but I plan to practice every day between now and then.  I want it to be perfect–not to show off, but to make sure that I represent the music well and inspire my students to keep at their lessons and to strive for excellence themselves.

     I chose the piece because it is very accessible.  It has a driving rhythm and a very lyrical melody.  Even people who do not like classical music are likely to enjoy it.  I think the kids in the audience will enjoy it as well–or at least they will enjoy it more than they would a whole lot of other selections that I could have chosen to play.

     I also chose it because, if I play it well, it is sure to impress the adults in the audience.  I admit that I am a bit of a ham.  This particular polonaise is not extremely difficult–not as difficult as some of Chopin’s others with their tricky keys and big, full chords.  However, it sounds fairly complicated.  One of my goals is to show the parents of my students that I really know what I am doing.

     Mostly, though, I want to inspire my students.  I want them to open their minds to the possibility that they will be able to play such pieces in the future.  I want them to hear a piano piece live and to convince them, I hope, that this is good stuff.  I remember the first time I went to a symphony concert.  I was enraptured; I was hooked.  I wish the same thing will happen to the kids at the recital.

     I will not be playing a guitar piece, but I plan to play some duets with my guitar students to make their pieces sound more interesting.  I am going to suggest that the finale of the recital be a song that all of my guitar students can play together with the audience singing along.  I want them to see that what they are learning can be bigger than just them strumming a few chords or picking a melody.  I want them to see that they can use their skills to involve others in music.

Movie Scores

     Great music is the key to making a movie really sizzle.  As I write this post I can think of several different musical scores that added that extra je-ne-sais-quoi to some really great movies.  Here are some that stand out to me.

1.  Giant, music by Dimitri Tiomkin

     The main title is the best cowboy theme in my opinion.  In addition, Tiomkin uses familiar tunes related to the state of Texas, namely “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” in other parts of the movie.

2.  The Red Pony, music by Aaron Copland

     The orchestral score is absolutely beautiful like all of Copland’s music.  The circus music is whimsical and catchy.

3.  The Bridge on the River Kwai, music by Malcolm Arnold

     Full of intensity, the score brings out the power of this dramatic movie.  Everybody knows and recognizes the “Colonel Bogey March” from this one.

4.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s, music by Henry Mancini

     The song “Moon River” is one of the best movie songs of all times, alluding to Huckleberry Finn and referring to yearning and camraderie.  The rest of the score includes a lot of fun as well as pathos.

5.  The Summer of ’42, music by Michel Legrand

     The theme music has one of the most haunting melodies I have ever heard.  That alone makes this score worth listening to.   The score evokes nostalgia and wistfulness.


What do you think?

Best Songwriters

     After thinking about the more heavy composers in an earlier post, I decided that I would want some of the more popular or light songwriters on my mp3 player, were I stuck on an uninhabited island.  I chose these songwriters, because of the number of songs that I like in their catalogue, for the ingenuity of their lyrics, and for their power to keep me entertained for however long I might be left on the island alone.

     1.  Cole Porter

     Among his many great songs, I would want recordings of “You’re the Top,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “Anything Goes.”

     2.  Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

     I would want to listen to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Getting to Know You,” and “My Favorite Things.”

     3.  Stevie Wonder

     For somethine more modern, I would choose “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

     4.  Irving Berlin

     I would certainly want “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” and “Blue Skies.”

     5.  Joni Mitchell

     One of my all time favorite songs is “Both Sides Now,” and I would also want a recording of her sad song “River.”  There have to be some contemplative, moody songs on the mp3 player, after all.

     How about you?  What songwriters appeal to you so much that you would just have to have their music with you?

Best Composers

     I once asked my high school band director who his favorite composer was.  He said that it was a question he could never answer.  He explained that you cannot really compare composers, since they composed at different times and in different styles.  

     While I have come to agree with him, I still like some composers more than I like others.  I am referring, in this post, to serious, art composers, as opposed to popular songwriters or to folk music writers.

     If I were trapped on an island with an mp3 player, here are the five composers whose music I would most want to have on the player:

1.  Johann Sebastian Bach

     I love the counterpoint in his music, the mathematical way that the parts are worked out.  There is order and pattern in the music, and yet there is also great beauty.  I would especially want recordings of his organ fugues and the Brandenburg Concertos.

2.  Sergei Rachmaninoff

     I love the lushness and smoothness of his compositions.  The diverse colors of his complex chords are deeply emotional without becoming sentimental.  In some ways his music is the opposite of Bach’s, although it is still very structured.  I would want either his piano concertos or his symphonies, or, if allowed, both categories of works.

3.  Frederic Chopin

     I would certainly want his waltzes and his polonaises for piano.  I love the bravado and the range of dynamics in them.  His music can take you on a roller coaster, which is a lot of fun.  He also is quite removed from Bach, which would provide me with variety on the lonely island.

4.  Camille Saint-Saens

     His Carnival of the Animals is fun to listen to.  It would provide a whimsical contrast to the more serious music of the previous composers on my list.

5.  Igor Stravinsky

     I must choose Stravinsky, because he is more outrageous and wild than the other composers on my list.  I would want recordings of his ballet music, particularly The Rite of Spring and The Firebird.

     It seems like a strange list.  I left off Mozart and Beethoven, which actually surprises me.  They are, after all, two of the undisputed greatest composers.  I also left off Handel, even though his oratorios would certainly nourish my soul.  I decided to go for variety and for the music that moves me the most deeply without words.

     What do you think?  Which five composers would you choose for your mp3 player?

Best Country Songs

     I am not a big fan of country (or country and western) music, but I have certainly been exposed to it throughout my life.  Like every genre, there are a few great country songs and many n0t-so-great ones.  I can actually point to a few that I like.  How about you?

  • “I Fall to Pieces,” sung by Patsy Cline, written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard
  • “Wabash Cannonball,” sung by Roy Acuff, traditional
  • “You’re Cheatin’ Heart,” written and sung by Hank Williams
  • “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” sung by Willie Nelson, written by Fred Rose
  • “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” sung by Ray Charles, written by Don Gibson
  • “Ring of Fire,” sung by Johnny Cash, written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore
  • “Jambalaya,” sung by Brenda Lee, written by Hank Williams
  • “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” written and sung by John Denver
  • “The Lucky One,” sung by Alison Krauss and Union Station, written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz
  • “Tennessee Waltz,” sung by Patti Page, written by Jimmy Wilkinson

     As you can see, I tend to like the more traditional or traditional-sounding songs of this genre.  Almost none of the new Nashville music appeals to me.