Let’s face it, classical music isn’t all that popular compared to more “modern” genres. I guess people just think that Rihanna has more to say about the human condition that J. S. Bach. But part of the problem is that the same hackneyed classical pieces get played again and again, to the point of banality. If I ever hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Pachelbel’s canon, Boccherini’s minuet, Albinoni’s adagio (written by Remo Giazotto in the 20th century!), Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, or Beethoven’s Für Elise on the radio, I turn the dial immediately. Honestly, Rihanna’s Diamonds seems more fresh.
But it’s not the fault of classical music in general. There’s a lot of crazy, beautiful, weird, awe-inspiring, emotional, frightening, uplifting classical music out there—you just have to know where to look.
Anyway, here’s my list of the top 10 classical pieces that are probably off your radar but shouldn’t be. These pieces aren’t even that obscure (maybe someday I’ll post about the Busoni piano concerto, George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, or Buxtehude or Meyerbeer or Piston or de la Guerre) but for whatever reason these pieces just aren’t played that often. That’s a shame; they should be. I hope you like them.
1. Funeral of Amenhotep III (from the opera Akhnaten) (Philip Glass)
Amenhotep III’s son was originally crowned Amenhotep IV, but soon re-named himself Akhenaten and tried to ditch Egyptian polytheism and replace it with a sort of cult-of-the-sun. It didn’t stick, and everyone forgot about him. Except for Philip Glass, apparently.
2. String quartet no. 8, movement 2 (Dmitri Shostakovich)
Shostakovich dedicated this piece “to the victims of fascism and war”. The 2nd movement is particularly chilling.
3. Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (Wolfgang Mozart)
I know this isn’t that obscure, but I think this is the most profound thing Mozart wrote and it doesn’t get much attention. When the viola comes in at about 2:27, you realize it was already there for about 6 seconds without you realizing it. Sublime.
4. 9th Symphony, 2nd movement (Anton Bruckner)
Savage, rhythmic chords in one section, eerie icy elfin menace in the other. Listen to this in the dark if possible.
5. Mt. St. Helens Symphony, movement 3 (volcano) (Alan Hovhaness)
A musical depiction of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, belying the idea that Hovhaness only wrote “soothing” stuff.
6. Concerto Grosso 3 (Alfred Schnittke)
Insanity. What can one say? Madness. If anyone ever makes a Cthulhu movie, this should be the soundtrack.
7. B minor scherzo (Frédéric Chopin)
Chaotic. Good times. Oh, and there’s a lullaby in the middle!
8. Piano concerto No. 2, movement 2 (Dmitri Shostakovich)
Might be the most soothing music that I am aware of.
9. Piano Sonata No. 2, movement 4 (Frédéric Chopin)
Someone (Rubinstein?) described this as wind over your grave. And ya gotta love the ending.
10. Symphony No. 1, movement 4 (William Walton)
After three dark and brooding movements, there is finally triumph. Why isn’t Walton better known?