On listening to all the work of a single composer

These days I don’t listen to as much unfamiliar music as I did in college. This includes work by both famous and obscure composers. I always intend to put music I don’t know on my iPod so that I will listen to it in the morning before work. But this takes effort and planning, both of which are in short supply.

Occasionally I feel panicked when it occurs to me that I might die before listening to all the work of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. It seems awful to live a life without having accomplished this. For some reason, this terrifies me much more than the thought of not reading all the books written by my favorite authors.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what it would feel like to listen to all of it and then have nothing left–to know, for instance, that now I had consumed the entirety of Beethoven’s output.

It might be an irrational fear, since a Beethoven piece doesn’t get worn out the more you listen to it. Some of them, like the violin concerto, happen to me all over again each time I hear them. The ideal listening phase starts on the tenth or so listen, when the piece has been absorbed and you can start to enjoy its intricacies.

But I often wish that I could hear the Third Symphony with fresh ears again. I still remember the first time I listened to it. That moment of startling dissonance in the first movement shocked me. Now when I hear it it sounds customary. It’s hard to recover that original feeling of delighted surprise. It’s the same with Radiohead’s album “OK Computer.” The first time I listened to it, it was shocking. Now that I’ve listened to it countless times it might as well be background music.

In the case of Beethoven, a symphony can sound new again if an orchestra really performs well. I had this experience recently at the Chicago Symphony. They gave a thrilling performance of the Seventh Symphony that revived all the suspense and excitement I felt when I was first getting to know it.

In college, one of my professors said he had a friend, a Shakespeare scholar, who was saving one sonnet for himself. He hadn’t read it yet and was waiting for a later time in his career to encounter it for the first time. It struck me as a wonderful idea at the time.

But lately, as with other things, I’ve been thinking, why wait? You never know when your time will run out. It sometimes seems wiser to grab as much of life as possible while you can.

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