Here at KUSC we’ve been coming up with our personal lists of “ten pieces of classical music everyone should know.” I can’t come close to covering all the music I love in so short a list, so I offer you the first ten pieces that came to mind (arranged in chronological order).
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue (1740s)
There are complex and fascinating musical procedures that underlie these fugues, these fabrics skillfully woven from melodic strands. But you don’t hear the wheels turning; you hear music. And that is part of the genius of Bach. Another part is that he achieves, as no one else can, a perfect balance between the melodic dimension and the harmonies that support the structure.
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor (1788)
So many great Mozart symphonies to pick from. Why this one? It’s incredibly unified from beginning to end, with much of the music derived from that tiny little semitone that begins the first theme of the first movement. And the symphony embodies what I prize as a key characteristic of Mozart: He may not take you where you were expecting to go, but when you get where he takes you it immediately seems like the place you were headed.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein” (1804)
Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony” rightly gets credit for breaking new ground with respect to thematic development, harmonic exploration and enlargement of time scale. But around the same time, Beethoven composed his remarkable “Waldstein” sonata, which is comparable in power to the “Eroica.” In the first movement the piano becomes an orchestra (with thundering low end, sparkling upper register, and everything in between) and Beethoven takes us through surprising twists and turns as he expands the form he inherited.
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor (1868)
Grieg was principally a composer of miniatures, with just a handful of large-scale orchestral pieces to his credit (including an early symphony which he withdrew). But in my opinion he hit the jackpot with the Piano Concerto. I’ve listened to it many times and have come to believe that it’s as perfect as a work can be. And I’m pleased to say that Tchaikovsky agrees with me. He praised its “charm, richness of imagery, warm and passionate melodic phrases, vitality of harmony, ingenious originality of rhythm, novelty and independence of thought, perfect simplicity and lack of affectation.”
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca (1900)
Oh, those opening chords, three individually innocent harmonies that are combined with chilling effect to represent the bad guy, Baron Scarpia. They become an undercurrent until, when Scarpia finally appears, they are part of one of the most electrifying moments in opera. And when, at the end of Tosca, a soaring love duet is transformed into a doleful cello quartet, it’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in opera.
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910)
Yes, I confess to being a Stravinsky fanatic. (My Twitter handle is @stravinskyite.) The Firebird is not only the work with which Igor introduced himself to the world; it’s a masterpiece of imagination and orchestral color from a young man who had not long before finished law school. It’s a thrill from beginning to end, whether you listen to the complete ballet or one of the suites, and it has one of the most dazzling conclusions ever composed.
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)
Well, of course! It’s the piece that kick-started the twentieth century. People commonly point to the unusual bassoon solo at the beginning, or to the famous “Augurs of Spring,” with its raw energy and unexpected accents. I direct your attention to the opening of the second part, which I’ve always found to be indescribably unearthly. I’ve heard it said that The Rite sounds like it could have been written last week. I think there are parts that sound like they’ll be written two weeks from now.
George Gershwin: Concerto in F (1925)
After the success of Rhapsody in Blue, conductor Walter Damrosch suggested that Gershwin write a conventional three-movement piano concerto. Gershwin joked that he rushed out and got four or five books on musical structure so he could find out what a concerto was. What he wrote is a gem that contains an irresistibly soaring melody that I eagerly anticipate every time I hear the piece.
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto (1935)
The dedication reads “To the memory of an angel.” That angel was 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler’s widow Alma. Berg created a musical memorial by placing the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” (It is enough! Therefore, Lord, take my spirit) inside a twelve-tone piece. The twelve-tone row that is the foundation of the piece is structured to allow references to traditional harmony and contains a specific melodic connection to the hymn tune. When Berg alternates his twelve-tone writing with Bach’s harmonization of the chorale (orchestrated to sound like a distant organ), the effect is deeply moving.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus (1972)
I have a special affection for works that incorporate recorded material, especially when the substance of the piece grows organically from the recorded element. Such is the case with Cantus Arcticus by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. It’s subtitled “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra” and it’s a beautifully conceived accompaniment to tape recordings of birdsong recorded near the Arctic Circle and on the bogs of northern Finland.