In the summer of 1968, a friend and I went to see the blockbuster movie of the year—2001: A Space Odyssey. We settled into our seats and the theater went dark. The film began. And then we heard the most astounding music. It grabbed me like no movie music ever had.
There was more magnificent music in 2001, some of which I recognized, such as “The Blue Danube,” but it was the opening that stuck in my mind. What was that music and where did it come from?
Many others were wondering the same thing.
A year or two later, I found out that 2001 opened with the beginning of a tone poem by Richard Strauss entitled Also Sprach Zarathustra. I learned the name of the work because I had taken to listening to Milwaukee’s radio station WFMR, which broadcasts nothing but classical music. Through that station, I’d discovered a tremendous world of sound, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach through 20th-century greats like Dmitri Shostakovich. After hearing that 2001 music one evening, I had to buy a recording of that magnificent work by Strauss.
As a youngster, I had heard a variety of music on radio and records—pop songs, Broadway show tunes, jazz. It was okay listening, but nothing to make me want to hear it again and again. Nothing that made me tune out everything else so I could savor the music.
A few years before my movie encounter with Strauss, I made a discovery that changed my life. One day my mother asked me to put on some nice music before dinner, so I went to the big stereo cabinet and found an LP that looked unusual. The cover read: “Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff—London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux.” I put the record on, having no idea what to expect.
What I heard was utterly captivating. The sounds captured on that LP were unlike anything I could have imagined: beautiful melodies, rich harmonies, engaging rhythms. Afterward, I took the record up to my room to play over and over. I was hooked.
About sixty years later, after countless hours of listening to classical music on records, on radio, and live, another stroke of good luck came my way when the classical station in my area (Raleigh, North Carolina) was looking for a new announcer. I was eager to give it a try and was thrilled when I got the chance to host a program for the first time.
The station prides itself on operating without any government funding, which in turn requires it to play music that people enjoy hearing and never the kind that some stations (and performing ensembles) play just because it’s avant-garde or purports to make some political statement.
I host the mid-morning program “Classical Café.” I always enjoy the mix of works we have scheduled, but I especially enjoy Fridays, when the playlist is comprised of pieces that listeners have asked to hear. Their choices tell me a lot about why people love classical music.
Music can put a smile on your face and leave you humming a melody. Once one of the requested works was Bach’s Italian Concerto. After I played it, a listener called in to say, “If that doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what would.” Yes, and I’d say the same about Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet.
Conversely, some works speak to feelings of loss and grief. Great music can heighten those emotions. Two pieces that listeners sometimes choose to dedicate to loved ones are Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.
Some music uplifts you spiritually. Recently, I had a request for Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. The Russians had tried to suppress this nationalistic work back in 1899, at a time when Russia controlled Finland. The listener had asked for the version of that work with chorus. After I played it, he called to say that he felt the choral version, with its hymn to freedom, made the work even more stirring. He was right.
Sometimes the requests are for works that set a contemplative mood, such as Chopin’s Nocturne in D-Flat or the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. They’re works to sit back with and savor.
I'm not saying that you can't find those emotions or that satisfaction in other kinds of music, but my belief is that they're heightened in the classics. The great composers knew how to build with sound, from the simplest tunes to works fit for cathedrals. There's something for everyone. Tune in and I think you’ll see what I mean.
George Leef is the host of Classical Café on WCPE – 89.7 FM in central North Carolina and everywhere at theclassicalstation.org.
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