I'm still plowing through all the CDs I bought over the years, now up to #55 which I got in November 1988. It's a 1957 recording of the Robert Shaw Chorale performing various Christmas carols. (Remember, remember, I got it in November.)
This comes between Billy Joel's Piano Man and Glenn Gould performing Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias. Then I'll get Simon & Garfunkel, Mozart, William Byrd, and Haydn.
At least part of this strangeness comes from my experience as a music major during my first year at university, when the music department announced a new requirement for every music major to take a listening exam every year. They published four lists, one for each school year, effectively giving students up to 3½ years to listen to all 100 works. The list drove a lot of my CD purchases while there.
In mid-April, you'd go to the music library and listen to a cassette with 60-second excerpts of music. (I think there were 50 excerpts.) You got one point for naming the composer, a point for naming the work, and if applicable, a point for identifying the movement. To pass the exam, you had to get 80% of the total points available.
Here are some of the works on the 1988-89 list:
- Bach, Cantata #4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden"
- Beethoven, Symphony #6
- Mozart, Requiem K626 (but only the "Introitus," "Kyrie," and "Dies Irae")
- Varèse, Ionisation
- Verdi, La Traviata
The lists got progressively more difficult, with the 1991-92 list containing obscurities like Schubert's Der Erlkönig and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2.
The music faculty believed, quite reasonably, that musicians should have some passing familiarity with these 100 works for the same reason one would expect an English major to know a few Shakespeare plays or a computer-science major could explain the bubble-sort algorithm to a non-major. It's called the canon.
In April 1989, I was the only music major to pass the exam. I didn't take the 1990 exam because I'd switched majors; but in 1991, the music department asked me to take the exam again as a control, because in 1990 no one passed the first time. Once again, I was the only person to pass the first time out.
I just couldn't fathom why. Each list had such variety, just knowing the pieces on them should give you 67% of the right answers without even trying. For example, the 1990 exam included polar opposites Berg's Wozzeck and Brahms' piano quintet in f-minor. You'd think someone could easily distinguish them. If I recall correctly, the department even let people bring in the list after the 1989 debacle. So you could just look at the list and decide whether the thing you're listening to is atonal singing in German with orchestra or a small ensemble with four strings and a piano. Or if it's a choral work instead of a massive symphony. Or if it's something by Bach or something by Ives.
It was about this time that I started worrying for the future of the arts.
If you're interested, here's the 1988-89 list. If you know anything about classical music, you should be able to identify most of these works.