“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.

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