Sunday, June 21, 2015

Who is my favorite composer?

Who is your favorite composer?  This is a question asked by many, but it is often a difficult and perhaps impossible question to answer.  First of all, people change constantly, and so do their opinions.  What was someone's favorite composer at one time may easily be replaced by another within a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Plus, there is another problem.  From Leonin to Stravinsky, from Monteverdi to Glass, from Hummel to Ligeti, how can one select 10 or 20 favorites, let alone one?

I adore Schumann and Mendelssohn, Copland and Shostakovitch, Brahms and Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, Wagner and Verdi, but if I had to chooose, I think my favorite composer would be Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

I love the music of Vaughan Williams (at least for the present) above all other music.  It is not because I think he is the greatest composer who has ever lived.  That distinction would probably have to go to a German, were I to be totally honest.  But I feel an extremely intimate relationship with Vaughan-Williams' music.  Every time I go to listen to one of his pieces, I am deeply struck by its tranquility and serenity.  His pieces never seem to go far, and return unerringly to to their origin, inevitably a place that somehow always seems to remind me of a pasture or a meadow of some kind.  Not a meadow you might find in the American midwestern plains, where I live, but rather a meadow as might be imagined from the poetry of a 19th century British romantic poet, or maybe a J.M.W. Turner landscape, but viewed through the often pessimistic lens of the 20th century.

Maybe because of this pastoralism, many people take a dim view of Vaughan Williams music, describing it as boring.  Did you know that Aaron Copland is supposed to have said of Vaughan Williams' 5th symphony that "it was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes"?

Sometimes when I listen to music, I need the music to strike me to the floor with its weight and its passion, which is why we have Strauss and Mahler.  Music should be strong, powerful, and epic.  Or should it?  Often, when I listen to music like this, it seems almost pornographic in how explicit it is.  It grabs you by the throat, and drags you to where it wants to take you.  It's sometimes hard to be transported somewhere beautiful when your being is assaulted so aggressively.  And, I think maybe that's the beauty of Vaughan Williams.

When I listen to a piece by Vaughan Williams, I feel incredible.  I always start with thinking how the music is pretty and nice, but slowly I am drawn more and more into it, until I feel a kind of revelation, and am transported to another existence.  It's the most spiritual experience I can imagine.  It's not that it moves me in an obviously discernible way, but instead the musicholds me in a kind of aesthetic stasis from which I can look out at the world and look into myself and see no barriers.  And that's why I love his music as much as I do.

I don't know very much about Vaughan Williams the person.  I'm not certain if I want to.  I kind of think music should be a spiritual experience, and although it's so often interesting to understand the composer as a person, I am a little afraid that knowing more about Vaughan Williams might taint my love of his music with the impurity of humanity.

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