The Friday mix: my favorite stirring, dramatic classical music
I have two separate mixes of classical music on my iPod. One of them is full of quiet, soothing music. Lots of Baroque, lots of Classical, a smattering of Romantic music, chamber music, some solo pieces. All very relaxing. Then there’s the other one. This is smaller, but full of vigorous, dramatic pieces that either startle the ear or stir the soul. That’s what I’ve put together today.
Some of my very favorite classical music pieces are in this mix, but they are nowhere near relaxing enough have pop up on a Sunday morning. ‘Mars, The Bringer of War’ does not follow ‘The Flower Duet.’ On my iPod, this mix has 55 songs and runs for about 7 hours. Here are my dozen favorites.
- Night on Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky
This song makes its way onto a lot of Halloween compilations. The instantly recognizable violin line is tense and expectant. Then the low brass kicks and stomps all over the place. The piece is long and complex with several distinct movements and it’s exciting throughout. I recommend the old recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is what you will see here.
- In the Hall of the Mountain King – Edvard Grieg
You know this piece as well, though perhaps not by name. It comes from Peer Gynt, which is brilliant from end to end. This is the most exciting piece on it, though. It tiptoes in but doesn’t take long to gather speed and power. As a kid, I always heard this as an instrumental piece, but the end actually has a big chanting choral line.
- Mars, The Bringer of War – Gustav Holst
From his famous composition, The Planets. Honestly, I think this is the single most exciting piece of classical music I have ever heard. It is ominous, uplifting… almost terrifying at times. I get excited every time I hear it.
- Lieutenant Kijé Suite: Troika – Sergei Prokofiev
Again, this entire suite is great. Sting borrowed a melody from it for ‘Russians,’ though it wasn’t ‘Troika.’ This piece has a stately opening that is bold and pompous, but quickly moves into a part that depicts racing across a snowy landscape in a horse drawn sleigh.
- The Barber of Seville. Largo al factotum (7) – Gioachino Rossini
It’s funny how many classical pieces make me think of Bugs Bunny. This is the piece the fat opera singer was trying to sing in Long Haired-Hare. It has some quiet moments, but overall the piece is quite dramatic. “Fiiigaaaarooooo! Fiigaaroo! Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.”
- Phantasiestücke, op. 12: II. Aufschwung – Robert Schumann
I heard a recording of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing this and chased it for literally years before I identified it and found the very same recording. It’s just solo piano, but Ashkenazy pumps it so full of energy and emotion it is completely engaging. This sample is someone else playing it, but if you can find Ashkenazy, you should.
- Swan Lake: Mazurka – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Of course, everyone is familiar with Tchaikovsky, if for no other reason than The Nutcracker. So you know that when he is inspired, he can create a grand and stately piece for full orchestra. I have never seen this performed, but I can imagine women being swung though the air during this energetic dance.
- Lakme: Act Two: No. 7 – Chœur & Scène du Marché – Leo Delibes
Lakme contains the achingly beautiful ‘Flower Duet.’ The same opera also contains some fantastic music at the other end of the spectrum. The full ensemble sings an appealing melody in this lively, powerful piece.
- Requiem and Resurrection – Alan Hovhannes
I often don’t like late 20th century composers because in their effort to not sound like the masters, they played mathematical games and lost all sense of melody. Hovhaness is the big exception. This is not your father’s classical music, but it is still beautiful. The folks who put together music for the Carl Sagan TV mini-series Cosmos picked this one, which is how I found out about it. My favorite parts of this are not in this sample, but trust me.
- Tannhauser Overture – Richard Wagner
Again, listening to this is like watching Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc? All of the major themes from Wagner’s Tannhauser are represented, so if you don’t have a few hours to kill listening to Wagner, you can get all the dramatic highlights from the overture.
- Symphony #9 In D Minor: 4. Presto, Allegro Assai – Ludwig von Beethoven
It’s hard to grasp how the same guy who wrote music as gorgeous as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ could also write music as serious as a gallows. This movement in his 9th symphony has it all: passionate drama, uplifting joy, triumphant power. What an amazing piece of music.
- Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
I include this even though it is not particularly melodic. No shortage of drama, though. In fact, it is chaotic and disturbing. I read people leaving the auditorium rioted when this debuted. That’s getting your money’s worth.
Enjoy with some Chateauneuf de Pap, or something else high brow, then spill it all down yourself. Have a great weekend.
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