Composers Were Considered Rebels
Beethoven would have been considered a hard-core, heavy metal rock star back in his day. Ravel was kicked out of his music class for producing unconventional sounds. Debussy’s impressionistic music was also considered weird and non-conforming. These composers, and many other famous composers, were not always popular. Many composers were considered socially awkward and were generally misunderstood. Feeling deeply misunderstood is a feeling that many of us could identify with on a universal level at some point in our lives; in our youth, adolescence, or adulthood.
How My Classical Music Obsession Started
My obsession with listening to good classical music probably started from before birth, when my mom was pregnant with me; my parents shared a passion for listening to amazing classical music. My dad played piano and guitar for my mom and she would sing. It was typical for our family to spend Saturday and Sunday mornings listening to classical music blast through my parents’ bedroom stereo. We would all flop on the bed in our pajamas and just melt into the music.
A List of My Favorites
I’ve been asked by many friends, especially younger generations, to provide a list of my favorite classical pieces. I’d like invite you, my friends, to flop onto my virtual Sunday morning bed and take a listen as I share some of my favorite pieces, listed by composer:
- Sonata No. 8 in C minor for Piano, Op. 13, “Sonata Pathetique”
- Ode to Joy from Symphony No. 9
- Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37: I. Allegro con brio
- Moonlight Sonata
- Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: 2. Allegretto
Beethoven exudes a desperate, deep brooding sadness in Symphony No. 7. Then he surprises us with extreme, angelic elation in Ode to Joy in his 9th Symphony; you feel so much joy, it brings tears to your eyes and lumps in your throat. Beethoven's music, to me, represents the dynamic range of emotions we feel throughout major life events, such as the birth of a child; the loss of someone close to us; and deep, eternal love.
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- Pavane pour une infant defunte – for Piano
- Ma Mere L’Oye – for Piano (from Mother Goose Suite)
I love Ravel because he puts the most unusual notes together to form a roller coaster of unconventional, yet beautiful, sounds. I never imagined that such seemingly clashing notes could come together to produce such rich chords. The Pavane pour une infant defunte, for Piano, begins with a somber sadness, explodes with a crying out of pain, then ends with a form of acceptance and peace with whatever fate the composer was handed. I prefer the piano version over the orchestral version because more of the distinct note nuances can be heard in the piano, making your music ride deeper and more fulfilling.
- Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K 488: I. Allego
- Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K 488: II. Adagio
- Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467, “Elvira Madigan”: II. Andante
- Symphony No. 25 in G Minor – K. 183: 1. Allegro con brillo
Most of Mozart's music is light-hearted and frilly, like Bach, except with additional sharps and flats to evoke a slight sense of mystery. My favorite songs that I listed by Mozart are not his typical sound, but I enjoy them because I feel that this is Mozart’s version of reaching inside of himself and pulling out the deepest somber feeling he could muster. His deep pieces sound more contemplative and slightly romantic to me than brooding. Many of his pieces are just plain fun and happy.
- Pavane Opus 50
Faure transforms us from this world to the next with his Requiem. It's dark, somber, and non-secular with angelic-sounding interjections that woo you through the veil between life and death; these sirens beckon you to join Heaven's choir. My interpretation of the entire Requiem is one of a long journey of one's ascension to the next life. I never tire of listening to this composer.
- Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor
Rachmaninov is probably best known for his romantic song, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, that was used in the famous movie, 'Somewhere In Time'. However, to me, his Piano Concerto No. 2 trumps all of is other work. This piano concerto starts explosively; you think the pianist is going to break the piano strings. Then we continue our cold and very Russian-sounding journey through Rachmaninov's tough exterior and into his tender soul, where much passion and love reside. When the entire concerto is over, because you won't be able to stop listening once you're pulled in, you're left sighing, feeling humbled and grateful for your life.
- Scheherazade, Op. 35 & Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36
I'm not really a fan of Rimsky-Korsakov's famous Flight of the Bumble Bee; it sort of stresses me out with its insanely erractic, busy notes. If Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee also steered you away from venturing further into his music, you'll be surprised to learn that he has some other compositions that are very different from that stressful piece.
If you like the story of Aladdin, you'll probably love Rimsky-Korsakov's entire Scheherazade compilation, which capture the tales from the literary classic, 1001 Arabian Nights, through music. His work contains sounds of war, raging tempests while sailing at sea, seduction, beauty, betrayal, fear, and passion, just to name a few of the many themes packed into this collection of adventures. You can even read the book that contains the short stories to coincide with the music.
- Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
- Fantasia on Greensleeves
- The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams gives us a metaphysically awakening experience with his perfectly tuned strings and flutes. The Lark Ascending never fails to leave me feeling like my soul has been purified of all wrong-doing and my maker welcomes me home with open arms.
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- Death of Ase (from Peer Gynt)
- In the Hall of the Mountain King
- Anitra’s Dance
Grieg has a mischievous and adventurous quality to his music. His sounds range from sneakily tip-toeing toward your unaware victims to surprise them, to sweet Gypsy-like melodies, to somber, funeral-esque mourning.
- Op. 28, No. 4 in E Minor, Suffocation
- Nocturnes, Op. 72: No. 1 in E Minor
These two romantic pieces by Chopin are my absolute favorite songs by this composer. Most of you are likely familiar with the song, Op. 28, No. 4 in E Minor, Suffocation, because it was used in The Notebook movie. If you loved that song, then you'll really love the romantic Nocturnes, Op. 72: No. 1 in E Minor.
- Claire de Lune
- The Snow is Dancing
In my opinion, Debussy deserves his own article. He is in a class of his own. Most people know Debussy from the famous Claire de Lune song that begins quietly and slowly starts to sprinkle little droplets of rain. The song builds to a steady shower, climaxes to an all-out deluge that douses us with waterfalls of notes. The song finally ends the way it had begun...with simple little droplets, ending the rain storm. The song, The Snow is Dancing, sounds like swirling snow flurries. One can also hear childlike tauntings interwoven throughout this song...as if the snow teasses the child to come play in its flurry. Debussy never disappoints!
- Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra – 2. Adagio
- Fantasia para un Gentilhombre for Guitar and Small Orchestra: 2. Espanoleta y Fanfare de la Caballeria de Napoles
This traditional old-world, Spanish-style classical guitar is just plain beautiful and simple. Rodrigo's sound is not overly complicated like some of the other more modern Spanish guitar composers. Though Rodrigo remains seemingly humble, his impressive guitar composition skills continue to dazzle the listener still today.
- Praeludium I (sometimes used to accompany Ave Maria)
- Praeludium II
- Tocatta and Fugue in D minor
- French Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major, BWV 815, for Piano : I. Allemande
Who doesn't love Tocatta and Fugue...especially around Halloween-time? Bach is a very structured composer who liked to follow the rules and who rarely, if ever, ventured outside of that structure. Bach is the first composer I learned to play piano with; he is a great music teacher and, as a bonus, he's typically easy to play but makes you sound like a great pianist. Bach gives a busy, stacatto feel to many of his works while maintaining a mathematical, scientific structure of harmonizing runs and notes that call and answer each other.
Not All Classical Music is Awesome
I realize that my definition of good classical music is purely subjective and that the reason there exists so many classical pieces and genres is that everyone has different tastes. Beethoven is one of my all-time favorite composers and is a total genius, but, not everything he wrote was amazing. It takes a lot of sifting through the good, the bad, and the ugly to discover which pieces float your boat when you listen to them. To fan the flame of a possible interest in classical music, you may want to start with the movie, Immortal Beloved.
The Great Songs Rarely Get Air Play
Most people I meet don’t really know that super incredible classical music exists. For that, I blame classical radio stations and just a general lack of exposure at home and in schools. I’ve lived in or near big cities on both ends of the coast of the United States and I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have heard a good classical song. In fact, the only time I hear an amazing classical piece is when the radio station is selling a collection of the best classical pieces in the world in order to raise money to continue playing the crappy junk they usually play. This tells me that they knowingly play crap. Don’t they know that if they always played good stuff that they would have more listeners?
Additionally, if you’ve ever added a classical composer station to your favorite music-listening site or app, you probably ended up sifting through songs like Beethoven’s Pathetique (a personal favorite) on a sub-standard instrument, set to sea gull and ocean wave background noises…in between weird new age songs played on electronic instruments…this saddens me. It felt like a mockery of one of my all-time favorite pieces; it’s like hearing your favorite song as elevator music (unless you actually love elevator music). It’s okay to be picky and to critique different recordings of the same song. The quality of recordings, the conductor, and the instruments used can drastically affect the musical impact to the listener.
Introducing Classical Music into Your Life
Do yourself these favors:
- Listen to classical music on a really good stereo or with high quality headphones or ear buds.
- Attend a local orchestra or concerto; I challenge you to not cry sometime during the performance.
- When the hospital hands you the complimentary classical music CD to play for your new baby, don’t throw it away. Give it a listen.
- Play classical music while your kids do their homework, while you’re working, while driving, or during your shower.
When we’re passionate about something, we want to share it with the world. I was known to subject many of my poor friends to Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor; I would hand out tapes and ask them to listen. Surprisingly, some of my friends came back and begged me for more pieces. Today, I subject all of the kids that ride in my car to a classical piece or two and many come back asking for more. I’m passing the classical torch on to you.