As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have a pretty varied taste in music. My music library is loaded with all manner of things, from rock to country to pop to electronica to jazz, even ambient instrumental music. As a former violinist, I developed an appreciation for classical music early in life, an appreciation that endures to this day. I’ve never really discussed my love of classical music on this blog, so I thought I’d take the opportunity today to share my five favorite classical pieces.
#5: Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity (from The Planets), by Gustav Holst (1916)
The Planets is probably my favorite orchestral suite of all time. Each planet’s piece has its own distinct character and spirit that Holst infuses into the different movements. Jupiter has always been my favorite of these because of its versatility. It starts out with a fast thirty-second note part in the violin section (difficult to perform, I might add), and then transitions into a more majestic feeling just after. Speaking of majestic, the climax of the piece occurs early on (2:55-4:40 in the above recording). Few pieces (except maybe the ones that will follow here) have a stretch as stirring as that one. Fun fact: that part of Jupiter was adapted into the British patriotic song “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” written about 5 years after The Planets was completed.
Jupiter also foreshadows the evolution of modern pop music. It is divided into distinct sections, many of which repeat and stick in the listener’s mind. It has striking similarities to riffs in rock music, which are small sequences of notes that are repeated and comprise the main musical idea.
#4: The Imperial March (from Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), by John Williams (1980)
You had to know I was going to pick a John Williams piece here. While not “classical” in the strictest sense of the word, it does use classical instrumentation, so in my mind, it counts. There are so many gems in the Star Wars soundtrack (like this, this, and of course this), but the Imperial March stands out in my mind. It does such a good job of conveying the spirit of the Empire: cold, regimented, and downright evil. It is the perfect song to hear as Darth Vader stalks through a corridor aboard his Imperial command ship, ready to stamp out any dissent his Empire may attract. You can hear a riff-like repetition of motives in this piece much more distinctly, as well.
#3: Air on the G String, by Bach (approx. 1717-1723, arr. August Wilhelmj, late 19th Century)
This piece is originally from Bach’s third Orchestral Suite (his other suites contain some fantastic music as well), but most people are familiar with the later arrangement by August Wilhelmj. Bach was very good at conceiving music that conveyed a lot of emotion and passion without being overdramatic (like, say, Wagner or Handel would occasionally do), and I think Air on the G String is the clearest example of that. The cello and violin parts complement each other very well, and their contrast is what drives this piece forward and makes it appropriate for many occasions (I once performed this as a wedding entrance piece, for instance).
#2: Sonata Pathétique, 2nd Movement, by Beethoven (1798)
The first minute and eight seconds of this song are pure musical gold, capable of moving grown men to tears. I love the way it just hangs in the air; it’s also one of those pieces that makes the listener visualize a scene to accompany it. The movement speeds up a little and takes on a little of the frenetic pace that Beethoven sometimes takes on (the most famous example being the Fifth Symphony). But he always comes back to that first musical idea, and that keeps the piece on point and maintains its emotional depth. Even today, we still marvel at how much Beethoven accomplished in music despite being functionally deaf for most of his career. He was a pivotal figure, transitioning music from the Baroque to Classical periods and even laying some of the groundwork for today’s music, as well. Another fun fact: Beethoven composed this when he was one year older than I am today (cue “what have I done with my life” facepalm).
#1: Canon in D, by Johann Pachelbel (approx. 1680)
This, in my mind, is the crowning achievement of classical music. Nothing else tops it. It’s versatile, elegant, beautiful, and shows off the best qualities of its instruments. I call it versatile because, depending on how it’s performed, it can convey sadness and loss or happier, light emotions. It’s one of the only pieces I know that fits in nicely at a wedding or a funeral. The chord progression has also influenced countless modern songs as well. Artists from Blues Traveler to Green Day to Aerosmith use the same progression in their songs. It has also been adapted by artists of many different genres, such as rock and choral versions. I can’t think of one piece of music that has endured to the degree this one has. I’ve listened to it countless times, and it still evokes a response in me every single time.
Five more picks (in no particular order):
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, by Handel (1748)
Moonlight Sonata, by Beethoven (1801)
Procession of the Nobles (from Mlada), by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff (1889-1890)
Hoe-Down (from Rodeo), by Aaron Copland (1942)
Palladio I. Allegretto, (from the album Diamond Music) by Karl Jenkins (1996)