December 08, 2016


My First Classical Albums. Naxos. $49.99 (9 CDs).

     The understandable and somewhat justifiable stampede to push education heavily in the direction of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has had a deeply unfortunate side effect, whose true impact may not be known for decades. Yes, the STEM fields are the economic engines currently driving much of society, in both the developed and less-developed worlds. But driving it where? The purpose of a so-called liberal education has always been to produce adults with at least some knowledge of and comfort in fields that diverge from immediate practicality and speak to what can be called, for want of a better term, humanity’s spiritual side. Without knowledge of or interest in the arts, we risk becoming a world devoid of ultimate purpose and ultimate aspiration, one in which we get better and better at making more and more things that do less and less for any aspect of life beyond the everyday and mundane. It is already quite possible for someone to graduate from college without, for example, taking a single course involving Shakespeare – indeed, such a course could be deemed a waste of time if a student could instead learn, say, a new programming language. But society as a whole loses something unquantifiable but crucial to its future when it wholly abandons fields that may not offer immediate technological gratification or brightened career prospects but that show us how much we are capable of thinking, and in what depth, in fields other than those that are obviously economically useful.

     Christmas, which after all has a religious and spiritual basis dating back to the Saturnalia and before – even though it has largely become a commercial holiday – can be a time for family members to connect with each other and, in the traditional exchange of gifts, perhaps exchange a bit of meaning as well. It can be a time to make a bit of an attempt to help people reach for their higher selves – however defined – instead of looking only at that which is immediately practical and practicable. Thus, well-chosen gifts of music can not only bring immediate pleasure but also help show the recipients – children and adults alike – that there is and ought to be more to life than what the STEM fields can offer, that the undeniable worth and importance of those fields is not all of which people are capable and not always indicative of the best that we can be. In the absence of schools teaching this extremely important but not particularly lucrative subject, it falls to true believers in the power of the so-called humanities (which are called “human” for a reason) to produce material that can help us connect with our potentially higher and better selves. Thanks to its enormous catalogue, Naxos is in the forefront of this effort, since there are so many ways it can package and repackage excellent performances of a wide variety of music, directing the material to different audiences in different forms.

     My First Classical Albums is a perfect example of this and a superb choice as a gift for a child or, for that matter, an adult who thinks the stupefying dullness of most pop singing is all that the word “music” means. This excellent and very well-priced nine-CD set includes albums labeled Classical Music, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Piano, Violin, Ballet, Lullaby and Orchestra. There is plenty of overlap among the CDs – encountering the repetition of some material and understanding the reasons for it is in itself a useful learning experience – but each of them also stands thematically on its own, to very good effect. The amount of music per CD is very generous – all nine approach the traditional 80-minute limit of compact discs. And the performances are uniformly good-to-excellent and, in this context, more than good enough to serve as well-thought-out introductions to the classical-music world. Indeed, considerable thinking has clearly gone into the programming here. The Classical Music CD serves as an introduction to the whole set and includes several pieces also heard on other, more-focused discs – and that is just fine. This CD starts with part of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, one of the few classical works likely to be highly familiar even to people with no knowledge of the classical-music field; and the disc includes easy-to-listen to pieces by Beethoven (first movement of the Fifth Symphony), Vivaldi (first movement of “Spring” from The Four Seasons), Haydn (finale of the Trumpet Concerto), Brahms (Hungarian Dance No. 5), and Bach and Grieg and Bartók and Dvořák and Saint-Saëns and others. It also includes pieces by John Adams and John Williams (the latter from a Harry Potter film) – an excellent way to show that classical music is not (or at least not always) super-esoteric and confined to erudite listeners and concert halls or opera houses.

     The music itself is only part of the excellence of My First Classical Albums. The included booklet is exceptional, because it brings music that many likely think of as esoteric down to earth, without in any way misstating its significance. For Fauré’s Berceuse, for example, the text says, “Time to be quiet as you let the music move around you. The tune on the violin wanders gently along, and the piano supports it like an older brother or sister.” That is a marvelous image for this work, and an apt one. And not all the images are verbal: Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt not only gets a brief description but also receives a wonderful cartoon drawing of a troll, something along the lines of Where the Wild Things Are. The important thing is that the text really does explain the music, but it does so in a distinctly non-threatening way. Thus, for Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk, there is an explanation that the work starts with “a jerky, jazzy dance,” followed by a slower section that “wanders around, as if it could go anywhere,” after which “the jazzy tune is back again!”  Exactly right.

     There is more. Every description comes with a “keyword” that neatly describes the music and should fit right in with the way young people now tend to relate to information. The Swan from Carnival of the Animals is “gliding,” for example, and the Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 is “sparkle.” These well-chosen words encapsulate the music well – not completely, but in a way that makes it easy for an inexperienced ear to latch onto the sounds and hear them with a degree of immediate comprehension and understanding.

     The presentation is exactly the same for the eight albums after Classical Music – in fact, written descriptions from the first CD are repeated word for word when the same music is reused; and that is a good thing in this context, since it reinforces the material. The booklet gives a brief general discussion of the material on each disc before getting into the specifics of the music, whether by offering a short biography of a specific composer or by explaining something about the different types of pianos and the basics of piano playing. Enlivened by pleasant general illustrations as well as ones specific to individual pieces, the booklet is an integral part of My First Classical Albums and a very valuable element of the release.

     The fact is that the whole boxed set is very valuable. Of course, most of the material is excerpted from longer works – but Naxos has done a wonderful job of selecting a few pieces in their entirety: Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture on the Beethoven disc, Chopin’s “Minute” waltz on the piano-focused one, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on “Greensleeves” on the orchestra-focused CD. And while almost all the works on these discs will be familiar to anyone already involved in classical music, there are a few pieces here and there that are a bit off the beaten path, or at least unexpected in this context: the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, a Beethoven military-band march, one of Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances, a Scarlatti sonata, and so on. There is truly a wealth of music here, and a wealth of material for opening doors to a life that is not exclusively focused on everyday practicality and the exigencies of competition and career. It is unfortunate that a wonderful release such as My First Classical Albums must be seen as a replacement rather than a supplement for in-school (and in-home) music education and musical experience, but that is the inevitable consequence of there being only a limited amount of time for teaching young people, and thus a limited number of topics on which it is possible to focus. The current educational environment gives short shrift to the arts, kicking the consequences of the STEM orientation down the road to a time when today’s teachers will be gone and their students will likely face a world of substantial technological advances while lacking the background to understand that there is more to human beings than the sum of their parts and their inventions. It would be utterly naïve to believe that My First Classical Albums can turn the tide of unending (and, as noted, somewhat justifiable) technology focus on its own. But as the old proverb has it, “it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness,” and My First Classical Albums has the content and presentation needed to be a bright spot through this holiday season and for many years to come.

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