“Wait, That’s Classical?” Five Musical Pieces That Will Change Your Views on the Genre

violinist-on-fireLet’s do a little word association – ready? Here we go:

Classical music.

Can I guess what you may have come up with?

“Stuffy.” “Boring.” “Pretentious.” “YAWN.”

I get it; classical music is synonymous with rarefied air, stuffy black tie affairs, the grayed and immobile denizens of the upper classes. Classical music began to become passé with the advent of jazz, with its toe-tapping rhythms and honest, simple soul. Ragtime, jazz, swing, and later soul, folk, motown, and rock ‘n’ roll spoke to the masses. While classical composers crafted epic tone poems to the classics of literature, or sacred works for church, the twentieth century brought music that spoke to the working-class spirit – and got your feet moving to boot.

It certainly hasn’t helped that our media, notably television and film, have reinforced the association of classical music with pretension. To set the mood of a scene as dry, formal, and overly proper, many directors and sound designers will have a classical piece playing in the background (it’s usually Vivaldi or Bach). Put your actor in a tuxedo, hand him a martini, and place a string quartet somberly drawing out Bach’s Air on the G String (Suite No. 3, BWV 1068) and you’ve got a scene drenched in dreary snobbery.

I think this regrettable, because there are many classical pieces that I find highly evocative, powerful enough to induce unbridled joy, immense sadness, and every affective state in between. In casual conversations with other people, I find that most of us are familiar primarily with Baroque and Classical era music – and given the highly structured form of the music from these times, I can see why classical has a reputation for being formulaic and subdued. Make no mistake, the Baroque era (1600 – 1750) saw great creativity spurred on by the Renaissance – notably, the development of tonality (the use of chords along with simple melodies) and modality, or chord progressions. But, a lot of the music was written for church and it is, indeed, relatively dry. (Other enthusiasts will no doubt lambaste me, but even I only enjoy Bach as background music – not for a transcendent musical experience.)

If your experience with classical music ends around the time of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven, I urge you to give some later Romantic (mid- to late-nineteenth century) and Modern (20th century to present day) classical music a try. Not only had classical music expanded its armory of instruments, but composers were willing to work with more interesting themes: folklore, fantasy, passionate romance, nature, and more. And, newer forms of compositions with fewer restrains on style were in place. Composers experimented with dissonance, atonality (what we might call disharmony), and novel forms. Most importantly, there’s much to discover in the evolution of late-romanticism, which is exemplified by Wagner and epic and exuberant work, to impressionism, which underscores the sensuality of music. Claude DeBussy, one of the leaders of Impressionism said he wanted music to be a “fantasy of the senses” (Machlis, Joseph. 1979. Introduction to Contemporary Music, second edition. New York: W. W. Norton). The aim was not to convey a precise, formal narrative, but rather to stimulate the imagination of the listener, to stir up a tableau of feelings and images.

Later composers also worked jazz into their compositions, and if you’re familiar with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” (used in Blake Edward’s comedy film “10”) or George Gerschwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (used to tremendous effect in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”), you’ve heard the results of jazz-classical experimentation.

Indeed, modern film composers draw much from their Romantic and Modern predecessors. As you listen to the tracks that follow, you’ll almost certainly here cues or passages that remind you of the music from “Star Wars,” “Superman,” “Alien,” and many more.

I think the compositions below will defy your stereotypes of classical music as dry or boring. I’ve posted video links to some of the most powerful segments, with the hope that – if you enjoy what you hear – you’ll check out the entire piece. Please post your comments below!

Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade Suite, Op. 35. 

Considered Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular work, the Scheherazade suite is based on The Arabian Nights. Presented below is part of the fifth and final movement, the sultan’s ship is dashed against the rocks, but the love between him and the titular character endures. The tempest comes to the fore in the crashing percussion – the repeated banging of the cymbals, the resounding smash of the gong, and the final, sweet feeling of eternal love is portrayed in the coda played by the violin. Charles Dutoit, one of my favorite conductors, stands dripping with sweat and tears as the piece comes to an end.

Gustav Holst – The Planets, Op. 32

Written between 1914-1916, the Planets is practically a blueprint for every science-fiction film soundtrack of the 20th century. The seven-part suite includes one composition for each of the planets known at the time (that is, all but Pluto, which is no longer a planet in any case). Holst also subtitled each planet with a description of the Greek God for which it was named, so Venus is “The Bringer of Peace,” Mercury is “The Winged Messenger,” and so on. The opening piece is the thundering, bombastic opener of the suite, “Mars: The Bringer of War” conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras with the BBC Philharmonic.

Vaughn Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

In order to capture the sensual, bittersweet feeling of fantasy and love, composer Vaughan Williams wrote the Fantasia Tallis for an expanded orchestra, a second orchestra, and a string quartet. The result, as you can hear, is a lush and otherworldly sound, one that summons images of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the full majesty of a brilliant night sky in July. James Horner used this piece as inspiration for his love theme in the film “Troy.”

Claude DeBussy – La Mer, L.109

Considered a masterpiece of impressionism, La Mer (The Ocean) is precisely as the title suggestions: a musical portrait of the sea. Composed of three parts, Debussy captures the rise of the sun over the waters, the play of the waves, and the “dialogue between the wind and the sea.”

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection Symphony” 

Mahler finished the first three movements of his second symphony, but found himself unable to come up with a conclusion. He knew he wanted a vocal finale, but couldn’t come up with the right wording. It was at the funeral of a friend that it came to him: he heard the words of an older composition, “Rise, yes you will rise again/my dust!” and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. The result is surely one of the most spectacular symphonic finales ever devised, arguably more stunning than Beethoven’s Ninth. The vocals, sung by here by soprano Sheila Armstrong and mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, conclude with these words (in German):

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

The London Symphony, led by Leonard Bernstein, performs. Berstein, as you can see, is moved to tears – and I think you will be, too.

A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Classical Music

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Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel has become a rock star of the classical world recently – he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for part of the score to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and will conduct the 2016 Superbowl half-time show on February 7. Image courtesy of pbs.org.

Every Wednesday, my local Salvation Army Thrift store runs a 50% off sale on everything in their inventory. I make it a point to stop in and browse the books and compact discs each week. It’s a lot of rummaging through trash for the odd treasure, but generally a worthwhile effort.

This week brought in an impressive haul of ten mint-condition, world-class classical music CDs  that cost me a mere $0.99 – a price not even Amazon can beat. As I was checking out, the clerk asked if I’d noticed a few other discs of the same genre. “There’s a collection of classical meditation songs and a 4-disc set of Beethoven’s sonatas,” she mentioned helpfully.

She meant well of course, so I simply thanked for her the tip and completed my purchase. I’d seen both of the discs she mentioned, but the meditation CD featured no-name orchestras and Beethoven’s sonatas were performed by an unknown pianist. But her comment reflects the general disposition towards buying classical music: cheaper is better. Make no mistake, there are a lot of cheap classical records and discs out there, and many buyers are tempted by colossal boxed sets selling, if you’ll pardon the pun, for a song. For casual classical listeners, these types of bargain discs are probably quite sufficient. But if you’re serious about classical music, you’ll want to learn how to sort through the many recordings available for the best ones.

Let’s accept the subjectivity of taste as a given. When talking about the quality of music, much will fall into the realm of personal opinions. However, there are generally accepted markers of good vs. mediocre recordings, and they are your guidelines to making sound purchases. To organize these standards and make them easy to remember, I use a rubric of my own design, the CLASS system: Conductor, Label, Artists, Sound, Symphony.

Here’s how each category breaks down.

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The great Leonard Bernstein. Image courtesy of openculture.com.

Conductor: Truly great performances are accomplished not just by skillful musicians, but the vision of the conductor, too. The conductor interprets the composer’s score in ways that dramatically affect the sound, pace, and feel of the performance. A good conductor brings something new to the table, or else interprets the composition in a way that honors the composer’s original intent. The novice classical music fan might think that one performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will sound the same as any other. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Performances of the same piece can vary dramatically from conductor to conductor, and many critics will find one interpretation divine and another profane.

The most celebrated conductors of classical music earned their status by being consistently talented and unique in their interpretations of different works. They know how to coax the best performances from their musicians, and they show obvious passion and respect for the music they choose to perform. While there are variations of opinions, a few conductors to watch for as you shop are: Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Charles Munch, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Pierre Boulet, Andre Previn, Masaaki Suzuki, and Daniel Barenboim. I’m also a fan of Charles Dutoit and Leonard Bernstein – I have yet to hear a Bernstein recording that I didn’t enjoy.

Label: The cost of producing a classical record or CD is – you may be surprised – considerable. Licensing fees and the costs of paying world-class performers account for much of the expense, and rightly so – these costs help fund orchestras and artists and keep classical music, which represents a fraction of a percent of total music sales, a viable genre. So a no-name recording label probably couldn’t afford the best orchestras and musicians, and the resulting performances will likely be poorer for it. Look for respected labels with a proven history of great releases: EMI, Sony Classical, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, and RCA. For budget-priced discs with superb performances and quality, Naxos is a fantastic label which I strongly recommend.

 

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Violinist Hilary Hahn. One of the most acclaimed musicians of our time, Hahn lends her intense, impeccable style to pieces like Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, a personal favorite of mine. Image courtesy of Deutsche Grammaphon.

Artists: A slam dunk category – this is one of the first things I look for on a disc. If the artists or soloists are no-names or aren’t listed at all, you’re taking a risk of getting sub-par – and in some cases terrible – performances. Because musical prodigies are recognized at a very young age, if the soloist is unknown it’s a sure bet that their talent is average. Always keep your eye out for proven musicians like Hilary Hahn, Sarah Chang, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel Jasmine Choi, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma (to name just a VERY few). For vocal music, look for the great tenors and sopranos – Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Andrea Bocelli, and so on.

 

Sound: Applicable to any musical genre, this category refers simply to the recording methods and mastering for any given performance. Since you’re unlikely to be able to listen to a record or disc before purchasing, consult the reviews online to get a sense of the recording quality. Some of the greatest performances of classical music were given in the early half of the 20th century and later, so analog recording methods were used and you should keep that in mind. The mastering of the recordings, however, can significantly impact even an analog source, and great performances can be completely ruined if the mix is off (imagine a concerto where the soloists are far off in the mix – I’ve heard it before, and it’s quite disappointing). Modern releases, of course, will have a clarity and immediacy you may not find on older recordings (though some prefer the older analog sound), but even with cutting edge equipment some sound engineers still get it wrong from time to time. For example, I prefer Leonard Berstein’s First Mahler Cycle, recorded in the sixties on analog equipment, over some of the recordings of Gustavo Dudamel’s cycle from just a few years ago. The former has a stronger and more evocative mix, while the latter suffers from a very flat, compressed sound to my ears.

Symphony: As important as musicians and conductor is the symphony performing the piece (for chamber works, refer to the individual artists). Symphonies with platinum reputations attract the highest caliber musicians, and have provided consistently strong performances – some of them for a century or more. If your bargain CD features a performance of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony by the Downer’s Grove Illinois Orchestra, you’re taking a chance that the performances will be poor. Look for the greats: The Royal Concertgebouw Symphony of Amsterdam, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the London Symphony orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and so on.

There you have it – a quick guide to purchasing the best classical music. As you explore, you’ll start to realize which conductors, artists, and orchestras you enjoy the most, and indeed there is always disagreement over who did which piece ‘best’ or ‘better’ than the rest. Whether online, at the bargain store, or browsing flea markets and tag sales, the best deal is a low price and superior artists, conductors, labels, and sound.