Sunday, April 21, 2013

On the collecting of music

I love music.  I grew up in a house of music.  I live in a house of music (sometimes very loud music).

I need to make another donation to the local classical music station because during the recent episode in Boston, the morning host promised to provide news updates when there was actual news but said that it was okay if we didn't want to listen to the constant barrage of coverage and offered a safe haven where we could listen to beautiful music.

Yesterday was Record Store Day, so I went to a local music store to see what collectible treasures there were to be had.  Mostly I was hoping for a copy of the Grateful Dead release to give to the other music listener in the house, but they were all claimed before I could find one.  (Hopefully, none of them are included in the hundred or so eBay listings which have since shown up.)  Luckily, the release will be available to the general public on cd at some point, and I find plenty of other fun things such as a Newport Jazz Festival recording and previously unreleased demos by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

The classical cd section in the store isn't very big, and the last few times I have looked there hasn't been much of interest, so I wasn't expecting much yesterday either.  Turns out I was in for a surprise.  There was a far better selection than usual, including numerous recordings and artists on my wish list.  And used CDs were buy two, get one free.  Not surprisingly, I came home with a bag full and, after the baseball game was over, spent most of the rest of my day in headphones.

The variety and intricacy and history of classical music never ceases to amaze me, not to mention the fact that a lot of it has survived hundreds of years, as have some of the instruments.

Did you know that Scarlatti composed 555 keyboard sonatas?  He didn't get started until he had turned forty, and he wrote them in twenty years.

Did you know that J.S. Bach, so famous for religious choral music, played in coffee houses?

Mistlav Rostropovich played the Duport Stradivarius cello made in 1711 and scarred by Napoleon Bonaparte when it was a mere century old.  Jacqueline Du Pre's Davidov Stradivarius, made a year after the Duport, is now played by Yo-Yo Ma.

And so on and so forth.  So many stories; so many pieces; so many performances and recordings.  Which to choose?

The digital age has done wonders for classical music, preserving aging recordings which only exist in libraries of one sort or another.  Sometimes the preservation is faithful to the original, and sometimes a remastering process is applied, with varying degrees of success.  The result is a list of choices which can be overwhelming.

While I am a huge fan of reading as research, in this case, I don't think that a book is really going to do it.  Sure, an expert can tell you which are the most famous or most loved or "best" pieces and performances, but everyone's musical palette is different.  You have to get in there and listen.  Find a good classical music station.  If you don't have one locally, there are many which stream live online (99.5 WCRB out of Boston is my favorite -- see above reference to the fabulous morning host) and make programs available after the fact. If you hear something you like, chances are there is a schedule online which will tell you the exact name of the piece, composer and performer.  There might even be a link to a recording you can download or purchase on cd (or even the treasured vinyl).

If you choose to go wandering through the online offerings, many at astonishingly low prices (for example, the voluminous "box sets" put out by, I don't recommend reading too many reviews.  Classical music enthusiasts tend to be vehemently opinionated and can get carried away harping on details which may not be apparent to a more casual listener.

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself.  Keep listening and trying new (to you) composers and performers, and you will learn what you like.

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