The Greatest Music In The World

Hits: 350
January 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

Angel Stankhov, left, Lionel Rolfe, right

Theodosii Spassov, left, Mayya Isaeva, center, Lionel Rolfe, right


         While I’m mostly inclined to listen to what is called “classical music,” upon occasion other musical genres have proven enticing and powerful. I grew up with classical music, but along the way a few musicians not necessarily in that category have impinged their way onto my consciousness. I will humbly offer up a few of their names to make my point that what makes music great is not necessarily its genre.

Foremost among them was Giora Feidman, the greatest of the Klezmer musicians. ( The first time I heard him was in a small synagogue as the result of an invitation by an old friend Marshall Levy, an amateur clarinetist and magician who said I just had to hear Giora.

As we sat on small uncomfortable wooden chairs, and I was intent on the stage, from behind me came this most haunting song being played on a clarinet.

Then this almost Charlie Chaplain-like figure strolled down the aisle, and my neck craned as he sauntered past me, clarinet in his mouth, and his arms holding the rest of the instrument on high. As he mounted the stage, he was playing Dixieland and Gershwin.  Then he switched to “Jewish” music–you could hear those ancient tunes from Safed as if you were there. He also played Jazz, even cool Jazz. He was much better than Benny Goodman, who was his obvious inspiration. I didn’t know the clarinet was capable of such grand music.

Because the place seemed an unlikely stage for such great music, I assumed that no one else in the world but Marshall knew of Feidman. I learned there were a few others appreciative souls when I went to hear him in concert at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Back in the days before Disney Hall, the Ambassador had much better acoustics than either the old Dorothy Chandler Music Center or the Shrine. It was easily the best venue in the Los Angeles area. And he played before a packed house there of folks who were enthralled to hear him play.

The music was more varied this time, not just Klezmer and Jazz but also standard classical pieces. Feidman was then  the base clarinetist in the Israeli Philharmonic.

Those ancient tunes from Safed made it seem there in Pasadena Jerusalem was only a few distant hilltops away.

Of course it must be said that Klezmer music is not entirely Biblical or even Middle Eastern. It is also Slavic and Gypsy and Moorish and Polish and Bulgarian and Russian. I am a Diaspora Jew, and in particular a Californian. Of course his music fits me. In California I suffer from a feeling of rootlessness, a sense of loss of the original land where my ancestors wrote their history large and plain upon the landscape. But this is true of most Californians–blacks, whites, jews and Asians, only the Latinos have a more organic connection to the land. Part of what Feidman captured was that sense of the wandering Jew, who became nomadic centuries ago while most of the world’s population was born and died within a 20-mile radius.  The first world war ushered in a stage where many of the world’s people through terrible wars and perpetual mayhem have been forced to become exiles.

You might ask by what right do I have to proclaim what is the greatest music in the world and what isn’t. Who the hell am I? Well, you can judge by what I say, but when it comes right down to it, your opinion has as much validity as mine.

I accept that. I remember discussing this very question with my aunt Hephzibah, a concert pianist, musical prodigy and a revolutionary of sorts. Hephzibah’s brother Yehudi Menuhin was a fiddler, and many say the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart. My mother Yaltah was a concert pianist too, who gave a concert with the San Francisco Symphony when she was 10, only because her mother had refused to let her to perform at an earlier age.

Hephzibah and I discussed what makes great music one day as she sat by her miniature piano that was in the downstairs hallway of the Center for Human Rights and Responsibilities, which she and her husband Richard Hauser ran at 16 Ponsonby Place, only a few steps away from the Thames.

She talked about how she liked to come down here and play Bach when she tired of all the comings and goings on Ponsonby Place. There were always people coming and going–revolutionaries from Ireland and South Africa–or others with various causes. Hephzibah herself was injured while trying to prevent “Paki-bashing.” So her solace came from playing Bach.

But she was willing to admit that for others, jazz or even rock was the only real music.

“Musical loves are subjective,” she said. “Mine was Bach, for others perhaps its the Beetles.”

I shared Hephzibah’s love for Bach and for Beethoven, for Brahms, for Prokofieff, Shastakovitch and Bartok. I began with classical, and then became more open to jazz and folk and even rhythm and blues. I’ve heard great music in all the forms, but almost never in Rock music with the possible exception of the Beetles and Frank Zappa. I know by personal conversation with Frank that what he was seeking was a few moments of recognition not in the popular music arena but on the concert stage. And in a few of his later classical music efforts, he did show streaks of genius, writing some beautiful melodies obviously influenced by the French from the turn of the 20th century.

One of my wives said that my problem was I had grown up hearing the world’s greatest musicians playing the greatest music in my mother’s salon. Tis true I turned pages for my mother playing the Kreutzer with the great violinist Szigehti, who had collaborated closely with Bartok. Still I’ve learned that the boundaries of different type of music can be quite artificial. Great music is all connected.

I am sure most people will never get the kick I do out of string quartets. Nevertheless, I think this country’s greatest classical composer was George Gershwin, whose immortal music was dismissed as pop by many. I suspect our most recent incarnation of  Bartok was the great Argentinian tango and stomach steinway player Astor Piazzolla.

The inescapable fact is that to become “classical,” music has to have its roots among the “folks.” And it has to be true to those roots. An interesting example of this is the great Czechoslovakian composer Smetna’s, whose “The Moldau” is a great melodic masterpiece. In 13 or so minutes, the orchestra portrays a great river’s journey.  Smetna is said to have trudged the river, listening to the music coming from the different ethnic villages up and down its length, and part of what gave shape to the incredible melody line of “The Moldau” was a particular song from a Jewish village.

Smetna was in no way Jewish, it’s just that as he had traveled up and down the river, capturing village tunes, he incorporated much of “Hatikvah,” now the Israeli national anthem, into his description of the river The Moldau.

It’s cliche to say that music is universal. It’s a cliche, but it’s also a powerful truth. I remember long ago hearing that Paul Robeson used to sing songs from Africa and China that were strikingly similar to make the point. Music really belongs to no one people or even time, and this is especially so even with and maybe especially Klezmer music.

So-called classical music is no different. Folk music runs all through Beethoven, and his music is incredibly political. The music describes a world moving away from the clergy, toward science and democracy and enlightenment. It also describes other amazing things.

The story of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is, you should excuse the expression, telling. If you listen to the violin and piano talking to each other, they’re not just talking–they are making love. The whole amazing piece of music is about two people playing different instruments using those instruments as genitalia.

This is not just my mad interpretation. Tolstoy wrote the novel “The Kreutzer Sonata” about the sonata.

And it’s not so tangental to say that how Beethoven came to name The Kreutzer. Beethoven had a close artistic relationship with an African violinist named George Hightower. He had intended to name the sonata for Hightower. But they had a falling out after Hightower premiered the work in 1803. They went out to drink and wench, and Beethoven took offense at a description Hightower made of a woman Beethoven admired. So Beethoven named his sonata after a senile old court musician named Rodolphe Kreutzer–it was meant as a slap to Hightower.

About a decade later,  in the Archduke trio, Beethoven offers some passages that some musicologists believe are where African music was first heard in an early form of Jazz. Shades of Hightower.

Beethoven’s music told the story of man’s rebellion against monarchs and clergy, into a future guided by reason, democracy and enlightenment. And in truth, all music is political–they’re wrong when they tell you otherwise.

Maybe more than any other country, Bulgaria celebrates its folk tradition–in part by making new musical forms from it. I met Angel Stankhov, Bulgaria’s preeminent violinist and conductor, in 2002.  Stankhov has been the soloist as well as concertmaster of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra when it toured Europe and the United States. It had only been a year or two since he conducted the complete cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies when the European Union commemorated the 230th anniversary of the birth of the composer and its own 50th anniversary.

He is also known as an important Bartok interpreter.

Although as a communist country, Bulgaria was one of the most rigid, he notes that its musicians were always strangely unique and even quirky. He notes there is a large underground punk and heavy metal scene in Bulgaria, but at its heart you will find folk music, he says.

The folk tradition, he notes, is often incongruously woven in. Imagine a disco beat to an old folk song.

I was visiting Stankhov in his home in Sofia, and he wants to make a point about that extra beat in a measure of traditional Bulgarian songs. He picks up his violin and plays for us, demonstrating the unique and some would say “crooked” rhythm of Bulgarian folk music. The sound he produces is “very sad” because that is what life has been for Bulgarians throughout much of their history, he says.  Traditional Bulgarian music is based on melodies and rhythms from the east as well as ancient Greek scales.

There is the possibility that the unique Bulgarian beat dates from the country’s ancient Thracian ancestors.

This combination of eastern and western is not entirely unique to Bulgaria. Yehudi went to Romania to study with the great composer George Enesco, much of whose music is inspired by Gypsy music. It is no accident that later, Yehudi made his East Meets West albums in the ‘60s with Ravi Shankar, the Indian Sitar player .

Stankhov says Bulgarians always loved western music such as Beethoven and Mozart, but there’s another factor. The great Bulgarian composers always drew from folk music, just as Hungary’s Bela Bartok drew from his nation’s folk tradition in his own music.  Stankhov is rector and professor at the state academy named after one of these composers, the Sofia State Music Academy Pancho Vladigerov.

Stankhov says Bulgarians have been incredibly successful in making both incredible icons and music, and whether the music is jazz or classical or popular, it is always based on a rich folk tradition.

For the last 800 years or so, the defining thing in Bulgarian history were the centuries spent under the “Turkish Yoke,” also known as the Ottoman Empire.

Stankhov argued that Bulgarians poured their souls into music and icons just because they never got the chance under the Ottomans to develop such domestic arts as cutlery, ceramics or furniture making.

The country’s music speaks of western and eastern influences, with acceptable input from Moslem and Jewish denizens.  Bulgarian musicians are among the most individualistic and perhaps eccentric by putting their own personal stamps on the music they played, he said.

Sadly, he thinks the world’s musicians are mostly moving away from their souls and joining the homogeneity of our times. Today’s young musicians are very good, very slick, but in the old days there were violinists like Menuhin, Paganini, Heifetz and Oistrach. They each spoke their own kind of poetry.

There is no real point to music, he says, if it doesn’t communicate one’s individual humanity.

A decade or so after my conversation in Bulgaria with Stankhov, I was once again sitting in a small auditorium near downtown Los Angeles. It was a Bulgarian church and not a synagogue, such as had been the case the first time I heard Feidman.

I was there because a friend, Mayya Issaeva, had said I must hear Theodosii Spassov, a Bulgarian who played the kaval, an eight-hole wooden “shepherd” flute, reputed to be one of the oldest instruments in Europe.  ( Like Feidman, you could call his stuff traditional, but it’s in the jazz idiom as well. He’s been credited with having created a new musical genre by blending jazz and traditional.

Mayya told me a bit about Spassov whose music was  based on traditional Bulgarian dance music, a musical form that undoubtedly can trace itself back to those hedonistic, wild lovemaking horseback warriors, the Thracians. They say the last of the Thracians was killed by the Romans 2,000 years ago. That eccentric Bulgarian rhythm undoubtedly came from the Thracian warriors, hedonists that they were, drinking and loving and dancing and making music.

Spassov played and then a fellow played a traditional Bulgarian Guida, a bagpipe, the ultimate folk instrument, you could argue, that produces music armies used to frighten their enemies with, and often as not to get married by. Great music comes from specific places and times, but then transforms it into something more universal. From Beethoven to Bartok, composers have taken their inspiration from traditional songs about war and love and death and other such mundanities. When Beethoven died, 30,000 came to his funeral. He was the composer of the people, and the composer for their aspirations and welfare.

I always regarded Beethoven and Mark Twain as the same artist. Both represented science as opposed to clericalism, and democracy over monarchy and feudalism.

After Spassov played, I talked to him. It turns out that he loved Feidman, and had performed in festivals with him. When I mentioned my experience with Stankhov, he said Stankhov was a good friend of his.

There are threads woven between great musicians, links or chains between them, you might say. The web is what we truly call great music.


Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made ( Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.


Comments are closed.