A friend sent me a link to a recent article by Guardian music critic Tom Service on a “three-a-day” menu of works he was using to convince a radio DJ to like classical music. As someone whose livelihood partly depends on getting more bums on seats, as it’s so elegantly known in the trade, I hesitate to criticize such a noble aspiration. But I’ll admit to a little irritation at Service’s chosen works for each day: two standard-repertoire pieces that are already so ubiquitous that not to have heard them would mean you’d never watched a television commercial (e.g. Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven 9), alongside a modern-ish piece that was clearly put there to function as some sort of nasty vegetable alongside the sugary stuff (Penderecki’s Threnody, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge).
I suppose I could complain that Service didn’t list any Bach, Mozart, Brahms or Bartók, or that he didn’t think to include any women composers, but it wasn’t even those omissions that annoyed me. After all, it was a short list, and he couldn’t have everyone. It was more that he seemed to have compiled it out of a sense of duty. Overplayed classics, plus something Improving from the past fifty years so no one would think he was old-fashioned?
This made me wonder what would happen if performers and proponents of classical music stopped worrying about what new listeners “should” know, and instead tried to attract them to classical music with music they love. Haven’t we all had an electrifying or mesmerizing or heart-wrenching experience while listening to music, one that made us sit bolt upright, or dissolve uncontrollably into weeping, or go for a long, long walk afterwards to contemplate what had just happened to us? Wasn’t it experiences like these that convinced us to join the music profession? Why don’t the proselytizers and scalp-collectors of classical music recommend this stuff rather than trotting out poor old Nimrod from the Enigmas yet again?
With this goal in mind, I’ve made a few menus of my own. I’m afraid I wasn’t very dutiful or thorough at all: my preferences are often biased by things I’ve performed myself or heard a lot because people I’m close to were doing them (my opera singer father, my trumpeter husband, various of my teachers). Some are things I studied at university, some are things I discovered while working for HMV during my student days in London, some come from my lifelong habit of wandering off to whatever concert happens to be on wherever I am. Some, I’ll admit, veer awfully close to warhorse territory. I haven’t tried to group them by genre or instrumentation or anything like that; I just tried to have one piece in every menu that was earlyish music, one that was composed in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and one from the twentieth or twenty-first.
I’ve left out dozens of my own favourite pieces and composers, but what all the ones I listed have in common is their ability, under the right conditions (such as a wonderful performance or recording), to set my hair on fire. And if anyone wanted me to win somebody over to classical music, this might be where I’d start.