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.
I’m going to go way back today. I think this is the oldest thing I have recommended, with the exception of some of the stuff I put in my American Songbook mix. I was watching an old episode of Cosmos last night (Yeah, I loved that Carl Sagan series. It made a big impression on me as a kid.) and heard an excerpt of the first movement of Shotakovich’s Eleventh Symphony among the soundtrack music. I bought the whole symphony as a teenager and have loved it ever since.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer who lived his entire adult life during the Soviet Era. He became famous when Trotsky was in power, but had a rocky relationship with the Stalin regime. His music was actually officially denounced twice (1936 and 1948) and his music was banned periodically. But he also received a Lenin Prize and even served in the Supreme Soviet. Interesting fellow.
A lot of 20th century composers lose me. In their desire not to tread the same ground as Classical and Romantic composers, they wrote atonal music or music structured to interest mathematicians more than laymen. Shostakovich played around with scales and modes and arrhythmic percussion, but the effect was always beautiful or dramatic, never cacophonous, at least to my ear.
Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is about Bloody Sunday, when the Tsar’s guards opened fire into a crowd of protestors, killing 96 and injuring hundreds. There is a wonderful recording of this being performed by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of none other than Leopold Stokowski. It’s the best recording of Shostakovich’s Eleventh I’ve ever heard.
In particular, I want to describe the first two movements. Here are links to a different performance, but I thought it was better to link you to a longer sample, rather than 30 seconds of my favorites.
- The Palace Square (Adagio) – This movement is so beautiful, but seething and ominous. You can almost see the fog drifting around the Palace Square as it starts. It oozes around like this for 5 ½ minutes before flutes introduce a pretty melody that we hear again and again, but the undercurrent of minor chord strings and brass keeps it menacing.
- The 9th of January (Allegro) – As this movement opens, we hear the unrest of the people. Their anger at the government’s inefficiency and corruption drives them to descend on the Palace in great numbers. The first half is so exciting my breath still catches as I listen to it. The second half of this movement sounds to me like the reaction of the government. It’s brooding at first, but it builds quickly with frantic strings and trombone glissandos that give way to staccato snare drums and xylophone. The whole orchestra blares the gruesome horror of the massacre itself before all fall suddenly quiet and we’re left with an eerie, tremulous echo of the first movement depicting the aftermath. Whew.
The second half of this symphony is beautiful and dramatic as well, but the first half is my favorite. People have criticized Shotakovich’s Eleventh, calling it “a film score without the film.” Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with music so evocative and appropriate that it clearly depicts its subject matter. It’s not subtle, but then neither am I so this appeals to me.
One thing I have written very little about since I started this blog is classical music. I don’t know that people come her for classical music recommendations, but then if you’re here, you’re interested in music at large so I’ll write about what I like.
I have a great fondness for Baroque music. I like the mathematical structure of the layered arpeggios, the stately, soaring beauty of the melodies. I love Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, and J.S. Bach. My very favorite composer is Georg Phillipp Telemann, but that’s now who I’m writing about today. Today I want to recommend a disc by composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751).
For years and years I collected CDs. I had a pretty impressive wall full of them, to the point that I had to get rid of a bunch of jewel cases and start keeping the CDs in sleeves so I could fit them all on my wall. I finally decided that I just had to rip all of my CDs into iTunes and move the CDs in to storage. While I had been ripping all of my Pop/Rock and my Jazz to my iPod, I had never ripped any Classical, so now I was faced with the task of ripping all of my Classical music. Oog.
I basically immersed myself in my Classical collection and listened to almost every piece from every disc I own. The process has taken a long time but now I have a mix of dramatic Classical (with Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Holst’s The Planets, etc.) and a mix of relaxing Classical. This is where I’ve placed Albinoni. One particularly great disc is a collection from EMI Classics of his concertos and sonatas called — wait for it — Concertos & Sonatas.
One of the things I love about Concertos & Sonatas is the broad range of pieces on it. Albinoni was known as a composer of opera back in his day but it is his instrumental music that is popular now. He wrote pieces for trumpet and harpsichord, pieces for full orchestra, pieces for oboe and chamber orchestra. A wide variety is represented on this disc. The tempos range from grave to allegro and are in major and minor keys. This disc also features a many different musicians, some of whom, like Maurice Andre (trumpet) and Pierre Pierlot (oboe), are pretty famous.
I didn’t bother looking for any of these on YouTube, but if you go to check out some samples, pay attention to:
- Sonata A Cinque Op. 2 in G Minor
- Concerto for 2 Trumpets in C
- Oboe Concerto Op.7
- Concerto “San Marco” for Trumpet
These pieces have multiple movements, but they’re all good. I wound up ripping 16 of the 22 tracks to my iPod. The tracks are $0.99 apiece on Amazon, but you can download the whole release for $7.99, which I think is a bargain.
When a friend first told me to listen to it, I wasn’t expecting much. A Reggae band, The Easy Star All-Stars, put out a song-for-song cover of the entire Dark Side of the Moon album. I thought it might be of passing interest — a novelty album. What I got was much more remarkable. Dub Side of the Moon, released in 2003, is frankly inspired.
Like many people, I was a huge fan of the original album, but I have listened to it perhaps more than 100 times. The Easy Star All-Stars breathe fresh life into the songs, and clearly spent a great deal of time and effort at the sound board mixing it. It is a beautiful, lush sounding album that perfectly translates the original into the Reggae vibe. Much of the album’s success is due to the fact that Pink Floyd is like Reggae music in a lot of ways: songs with dark lyrics about struggle and suffering buoyed by joyful, triumphant music. The entire album is great and you will enjoy listening to it end to end, as you do the original, but pay particular attention to
- On the Run
- Any Colour You Like
- Time Version – The Amazon sample of this is disappointing, but believe me, it’s good.
- Great Dub in the Sky
I was very excited when they released their follow-up in 2006. Another end-to-end cover, this time of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiodread was not as successful, I think because some of Radiohead‘s deconstructed pop songs are more dark than triumphant and they don’t translate well. Still, the strength of their concept, the great songwriting, and their brilliant musicianship allowed them to skillfully rework several songs on that release as well. I recommend you check out
- Subterranean Homesick Alien
- Paranoid Android – This one barely edges out the others as my favorite on this album
On January 13th, the All-stars announced they will be releasing their next project on April 14th, 2009: Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (check it out on their label’s website). Mark your calendars.
Quick extra recommendation. I stumbled upon a really great classical disc. Scarlatti: Sonaten by Ivo Pogorelich. It is solo piano work all the way through, which sounds like it might get tedious, but it really doesn’t. Most of the pieces are upbeat — lots of allegretto and andante — and Mr. Pogorelich has such a light touch and great technique that these sonatas, composed originally for harpsichord, are airy and engaging all the way through. If it’s too much solo piano, throw it in your disc changer with some Vivaldi, Telemann, and Bach…