Robrt Sandarg teaches French in North Carolina. His interests include Celine, Mahleer, and motorcycles.


Classical music echoes throughout Bukowski's life and wrting. He has listened to serious music since young manhood, and His ceuvre contains nearly 300 references to no less than 50 different composers. Their works have buoyed Bukowski during good times, drowned the dissonance of bad times, and inspired his literary creation. In "classical music and me" (BSP 1991) Buk acknowledges that this music

gave heart to my life, helped me get to here.

Bukowski writes with his radio on and enjoys music from all eras-the Baraoque, Classical, Romantic and Modern. Yet his tastes are clearly defined: a visceral, intuitive individual, he prefers the emotive 19th century Romantics as a group. Now let us pursue our study chronologically.


Among Baroque composters, Bukowski reveres Handel (whom he mentions three times) and Bach (nine references). Handel's "Concerti Grossi in A Minor" are heard in the movie "Barfly", and in "classical music and me" Buk declares that handel "created things that/took your head and lifted it/to the ceiling." In the same poem he states that if you listen to Bach long enought, you won't want to listen to anyone else. Pop music may have the beat, admits Bukowski in "Remember Pearl harbor" (BSP 1973), but Back has the soul. In "ANTS CRAWL MY DRUNKEN ARMS" (BSP 1969) Buk laments the fact that "our schoolboys scream for Willie Mays instead of Bach."

But Bukowski's approach to Vivaldi (four references) is somewhat negative. In "Spain Sits Like a Hidden Flower in My Coffeepot" (BSP 1988) Buk listens to "the bones of Vivaldi," and in "poem for the future" from Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window (Litmus 1975) a woman with a "wax heart gushes, "I just love Vivaldi!"


From the elegant Classical period, Bukowski prefers Haydn (five references) and Mozart (25). Haydn is associated with comfort. In "very" (BSP 1988), as an edgy Bukowski prepars for a poetry reading, he thinks gently of "successful papa Haydn." In "Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood" (CLB 1972) Buk is listening to Haydyn's Symphony No. 102 when he happily realizes that he has enough beer to last the night. In "postcard" (BSP 1990) Buk contentedly drinks Beaujolais and smokes a cigar while enjoying a Haydn cello concert.

For Bukowski, a Mozart symphoney is among the "decent things" in life, like "the sky, the circus/the legs of ladies getting out of cars" ("lack of almost everything" BSP 1965). But even Mozart has his limits: Bukowski cries in "quiet clean girls in gingham dresses" (BSP 1977): "I need a good woman...more than I need Mozart..." And as Buk admits in "classical music and me"

Mozart was only good when I was feeling good and I seldom felt that way.

Yet there are three instances when Bukowski does feel good and Mozart is appropritate. In "sweet music" (BSP 1977) the radio plays Mozart as a woman prepares Buk's breakfast. In Women (BSP 1978) Bukowski enjoys an idyllic dinner: "Liza sat me down on some big pillows, put Mozart on the machine, and poured me a chilled wine." And Wolfgang Amadeus is an even better accompaniment to the action in "the place didn't look bad" (BSP 1977):

She had huge thighs and a very good laugh... she bent over and I saw all that behind as she put Mozart on.

In addition, Barfly contains music from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Exultate Jubilate.

Beethoven, that monumental bridge linking the Classical and Romantic eras, has the highest number of references with 48, and Bukowski cites 5 of Beethoven's works: the opera Fidelio,plus the Third, Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Symphonies. It is in "Bee's 5th" (BSP 1977) that a prophetic Caliente whore mentions Beethoven's Tenth...the first movement of which was not constructed from fragmentary sketches until 1988!

Beethoven's music has surrounded Bukowski during much of his life. Buk associates the Bee with sleeping on a park bench, with heavy rains, with panhandlers and with young girls from Iowa ("sardiines in striped dresses" BSP 1984)> Bukowski first heard the Fifth "while screwing a blonde/who had the biggest box in Scranton" (Bee's 5th), then listened to the same work while writing to his mother and had printing short stories. In San Francisco, he played the Fifth until the other tenants beat angrily on the wals of this room ("we, the artists" BSP 1974).

For Bukowski, Beethoven represents creative energy, unflaffing courage and formal beauty. In "brave bull" (BSP 1988) the fallen animal is "as good as Beethove." Elsewhere, a woman's "pink tight magic butt" blazes in Bukowski's eyes and mind "like a Beethove symphone" ("mother and son" BSP 1965).

You can become hooked on Beethoven as on the horses or on pot, and although Ludwig Van is "as dead as a beet," Bukowski imagines a "red-palmed Beethoven" rising from the grave. And if the Bee were alive today, wrties Bukowski in "note upon the love letters of Beethove" (BSP 1984), he'd be

tooling along in his red sports car roof down he'd pickup all those mad hard cases on the boulevards we'd get music like we never heard before...

In "what the want" (BSP 1977) Bukowski depicts Beethoven as an artist betrayed by his public: "That's what they want/a goddamn show.." But only fools fail to appreciate Beethoven; they ignore "all possible concepts and possibilities...ignore Beethoven...and just make it, make it" ("making it" BSP 1972).

Although Beethoven receivers the most references (and sections of his Archduke Trio and Fourth Pian Concerto are heard in Barfly) Bukowski confesses that he is tired of Beethoven's mighty Fifth. Moreover, in "classical music and me" Buk admits prefering Tchaikovsky and Brahms while a young man.


The 19th century Romantics hold a special appeal for Bukowski. He makes 24 allusions to Mahler, including specfic references to the Fifth and Tenth Symphonies, while Barfly includes parts of Mahler's Sixth. Mahler's music is a search for the meaning of life, and in Notes of a Dirty Old Man (CLB 1969) we see Bukowski listenig to Mahler in the dark. In "peace" (BSP 1969) Buk admonishes hunters to put down their guns and listen to a mahler symphony, and he avows in "classical music and me,"
Mahler was always one of my favorites. it's possible to listen to his works again and again and again without tiring of them.

But Mahler's introspective tones may be associated with the demented as well as with the noble. in "Nut Ward Just Wast of Hollywood" one character is "fucked-up on...a minor admixture of Mailer and Mahler." In Factotum (BSP 1975) Buk is ravished by a grotesquely obese woman to the strains of the Autrian composer. The child rapist Martin Blanchard of "The Fiend" (CLB 1972) listens to symphonic music, preferably Mahler, on his radio.

In terms of referecnes, Brahms is a close second to Mahler with 21. Bukowski cites Brahm's First, Second and Third Symphonies; the September 4, 1987 issue of Le Nouvel Observateur (mis)quotes Bukowski as lauding Brahms' Fifth, although the composer wrote only four symphonies.

In "Doing Time with Public Enemy No. 1" (CLB) 1972 Buk enigmatically writes of listening to "Brahms' second movement" when arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia. The second movement of which work?! This question is resovled in "ww 2" (BSP 1972): "i am listening to the 2nd movement of brahms' 2nd symphony when there is a knock on the door"

Bukowski had heard a lot of Brahms, and in "I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead" (BSP 1988) he writes that this composer "can be a bore and even insufferable."

For Bukowski, the great Russian Romantic Tchaikovsky (10) represents freedom. On a glorious, lazy morning Buk listens to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D. ("the life of the king" NOLA 1972); in "Flower Horser" (CLB 1972) Buk wins big a the trac, then hums the melody from this concerto, adding his own lyrics: "Once more, we will be free again, oh, once more, we will be free again..."

But in Notes of a Dirty Old Man Buk attacks Tchaikovsky for sacrificing his own freedom by marrying "a nutty soprano with wrinkles showing under her eyes, and a lesbian when you were not even a man..."

This passage shows Bukowski's familiartiy with the composter's biographies. In Post Office (BSP 1971) he mentions his two-volume Lives of the Classical and Modern Composers; in "fragile" (BSP 1988) he cannot sleep and starts reading about Frederick Delius and Igor Stravinsky at 5:30 a.m.

"Chopin was only good at moments." states Bukowski in "classical music and me." Still, he makes ten references to this Polish-born Romantic. In "Chopin Bukowski" (BSP 1977) the composer's piano is equated with the poet's typewriter. In "Head Job" (BSP 1983) Choping represents effete over-refinement: a nocturne-playing sculptress is contrasted to a vulgar but vital writer.

Other Romantics mentioned by Bukowski include the "peaceful" Bruckner (4); Berlioz (3), with references to The Damnation of Faust and the Symphonie Fantastique; Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; and Rachmaninoff's songs. Schumann does not fare well: in "TO HELL WITH ROBERT SCHUMANN" (BSP 1969) the poet cannot bear to hear yet another piano concerto, so he clicks off Schumann and goes to a boxing match.

Bukowski is well axquainted with the 19th century nationalist composers. he mentions the Norwegian Grieg, and the Czechoslovakian Dvorak's tone poem The Midday Witch. Bukowski makes three allusions to another Czech, Smetana, and cites The Bartered Bride; but in "classical music and me" he dismisses this composer as "obvious."

Buk also refers to the Russian, Scriabin (whose swirling Poem of Ecstasy is in Barfly) and to Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Although Bukowski states in "classical music and me" that "Borodin didn't work," he alludes to three pieces by this Russian - Symphony No. 2, Prince Igor and On the Steppes of Central Asia. Bukowski also wrote a poem entitled "the life of Borodin" (BSP 1963) which sketches this chemist-composter's tragic existence. Evidently, Borodin "worked" for Bukowski at one time.

The Finn Jean Sibelius (5 references) stand above the other nationalists; for Bukowski, he is "awesome" ("classical music and me"). In "suckerfish" (BSP 1981) Buk listens to an unnamed work by Sibelius, then feels good for the first time in hours. In "Sibelius and etc." (BSP 1981) Buk relates a major event of Sibelius' life:

When Sibelius reached 40 he shaved all the hair on his head, walked into his house and never came out again until they came for him.

Nineteenth century compsers garnering a single reference include Debussy, the Franco-Belgian Cesar Franchk (Le Chasseur Maudit), Johann Strauss Jr. (The Blue Danube Waltz), and the Austro-Hungarian Karl Goldmark, whom Bukowski calls "very under-rated" in "classical music and me." In "WHEN HUGO WOLF WENT MAD-" (BSP 1969) Buk outlines the mental collapse of this syphilitic German songwriter.

But Bukowski is extremely critical of certain 19th centtury works. In "Notes of a Potential Suicide" (CLB 1972) he scorns sugary, simplistic pieces like Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne.

Although Buk makes five neutral references to Gilber and Sulivan, he dislikes French and Italian opera. Bizet's Carmen (Nietzsche's favorite) is "very corny" - especially whensung in English ("Flower Horse"). Donizetti's The Elixir of Love fails to lift Bukowski from depression in "Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood." Rossini is an "intoleralbe idiot" ("All the Great Writers" CLB 1972) and both his overture to William Tell and his entire La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) are from the grammar school of music.

In "Too Sensitive' (CLB 1972) Bukowski lampoons a writer whose characters possess complete collections of Verdi, while in "Beer and Poets and Talk" (CLB 1972) Buk charges: "There's nothing as good as...a Verdi hold back progress."

Wagner (13) is the notable exception to Bukowski's deprescation of opera, for Buk is strongly moved by this composere whom he considers emotional but solid. Wagner is a "roaring miracle of dard energy" ("classical music and me") who creates an "astonishing FORCE of sound" ("1813-1883" BSP 1972)

Bukowski associates Wagner with storms: in "rain" (BSP 1972) thunder halts an open air performance of is work; in "1813-1883" (the composer's dates) Bukowski listens to Wagner "as outside in the dark the wind blows a cold rain the/trees wave and shake.." The entire house trembles as the tempest and the music combine.

In "clomas" (BSP 1972) Bukowski imagines a nuclear gotterdammerung erupting during a performance of Siegfried: "there was flame/world ending/bodies hurled through air..."

But Bukowski also sees a lighter side to Wagner. On a rainly April, the worms hums Tannhouser ("WHEN HUGO WOLF WENT MAD-") and Buk tells a screechy German heckler that he should have been a Wagnerian soprano ("there are hecklers in Germany too" BSP 1981).


Fro Bukowski, the 20th century is less rich thatn the 19th. He brielfy mentions the German Neoclassicist Pal Hindemith, Richard Strauss' orchestral tone poem Death and Transfiguration and Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.

Again, we see Buk as music critic. In "Notes of a Potential Suicide" he dismisses Ravel's Bolero, Falla's The Three Cornered Hat, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance march, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Copland's El Salon Mexico as works for beginners. Elsewhere, he denigrates those innovative Americans, Charles Ives and John Cage. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man the character Stirkoff mastturbates to the accompaniment of Darius Milhaud and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Fortunaley, there are brighter spots on the 20th century musical horizon. In "classical music and me" Bukowski lauds the English violist composer Eric Coates as "unbelievably cute and astute." Buk cites Stravinsky only six times, but he refers to the opera The Rake's Progress (libretto by W.H. Auden) and in "now" (BSP 1984) calls Stravinsky "the best."

The most frequently cited modernist, with ten references, is Dmitri Shostakovich. In "take it" (BSP 1984) Buk hears the Soviet composer's First Symphony, then sleeps like a baby. While typing the Barfly screenplay, he listens to Shostakovich's Fifith on the radio. However, in "culture" (BSP 1981) Buk admits preferring the Fourth, a piece with an interesting history: writeen in 1936, it was withdrawn during rehearsals and did not premiere until 1961.

To sum up, Bukowski's musical taste is decidely mainstream: he needs melody to counteract life's disharmonies and he avoids avant-garde cacophony. His preferred genre is the symphoney, and although he enjoys composters (especially Germans and Russians) from every period, the Romantics predominate.

Bukowski's all-time, top ten classical composers would probably be, alphabetically: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Mahler, Mozart, Shostakovich, Sibeliuis, Tchaikovsky and Wagner (with Stravinsky waiting in the wings).

Serius music has long formed a centeral part of Bukowski's life which is understandable since poetry and music are closely related. In "classical music and me" Buk calls such music "a part of the world/like no other part of the world." And he told Loss Glazier: "I've had my crutches...Mozart, Mahler, Bach, Wagner." (RDO 1985)

Charles Bukowski is a man of words; he is also a man of music.

Robert Sandarg October 1991

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