10 Pieces of Classical Music Everyone Should Know

This is my first contribution to a new series on the KUSC blog. Over the next several weeks, each of the KUSC on-air hosts will unveil a list of 10 essential pieces of classical music that we think everyone should know. These aren’t the “10 Best” pieces, or even our “10 Favorite” pieces–just 10 that we absolutely love and want to share with you. 

1. J.S. Bach: Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in d minor for Solo Violin – This is breathtakingly epic music and, at times, it’s difficult to believe you’re only hearing a single instrument. The architecture is of the Chaconne is spectacular and a performance of it requires the highest level of virtuosity and artistry. I love both modern and period instrument performances and highly recommend the latter here, with Rachel Podger doing the honors. Also check out: Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor (solo organ) and Suite No. 6 in D major for Solo Cello.

2. Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus – I’ve often said if all the music on earth disappeared except one piece, this would be the piece I would choose to remain. Maybe, just for practical purposes, I should pick something longer–how horrible would life be without music?–but, I’m fairly comfortable standing behind my original opinion. This is Mozart’s final completed work and it represents everything that made him the transcendent genius that he was. It’s the little things. Like the flowing, descending lines in each part as the text mentions the water and blood that flowed from the pierced side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Also check out: Adagio from Gran Partita Serenade and Symphony No. 29.  

3. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring – Any piece of music that inspires a riot at its first performance deserves to be known, don’t you think? The infamous premiere is certainly a great story, but a less talked about aspect of that spring night in Paris is that the rabble that was roused in the audience wasn’t from unanimous opposition to the music. In fact, the audience was divided about 50-50. Also, they were actually more upset about the choreography than Stravinsky’s score. The Rite has been one of the most important pieces of classical music from day one…and composers today are still wrestling with it. Also check out: Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (sounds like if Stravinsky wrote a Brandenburg Concerto), Silvestre Revueltas: La noche de los Mayas (sounds like a Mexican Rite of Spring),

4. Mahler: Symphony No. 6 – Chances are, if you know anything at all about the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, you know there are two giant hammer blows in the final movement. But this symphony is so much more than the big bangs. This was Mahler’s most personal symphony. He wrote it in response to three tragedies in his life and it is an emotional journey from darkness to darkerness. Also check out: Symphony No. 9 (for more darkness); Symphony No. 2, Resurrection (in case you need a break from the darkness); Uri Caine’s jazz transcriptions of Mahler.

5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 – Yes, you know those first four notes. They are, probably, the most famous four notes in all of classical music. But did you know that short-short-short-long rhythm appears an astonishing 382 times in the first movement alone? (By the way, I will passionately argue that the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th contains no melody–only rhythm and harmony.) After the first movement, Beethoven is not done with that s-s-s-l rhythm. He infuses the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements with that rhythm, which Gustavo Dudamel told me is like a “master key” which unlocks the mysteries of the symphony. You may think you know this symphony (I know I do), but like any great masterpiece, there’s always something new to discover in every hearing. Also check out: Piano Sonata No. 23 in f minor, Appassionata, which Beethoven was writing at the same time as the 5th Symphony and which also ruminates on s-s-s-l in the first movement.

6. Andrew Norman: Play – Norman is the “It Composer” for 21st-century classical music and Play is his most ambitious work to date. In his words, Play is “a symphony in all but name that explores the myriad ways musicians can play with, against, or apart from one another.” It’s partially inspired by video games and when you listen to it, you can certainly feel like you’re watching a really good gamer do his/her thing on the screen. There’s a wonderful exuberance in this music and, for me, the most exciting thing about Play is how, after all these centuries, composers like Andrew Norman are somehow still able to elicit new sounds from the symphony orchestra. Also check out: Gran Turismo (for violin octet, also inspired by video games), The Companion Guide to Rome (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and the wonderfully-titled Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash (a piece written to help introduce young people to classical music).

7. Ravel: String Quartet – You might recognize the playful second movement scherzo as the music for the opening credits of The Royal Tenenbaums. That’s just one of the many wonderful moments in this quartet. The opening movement is a textbook definition of “impressionism.” The slow movement makes time itself seem to stop. The finale is the exact opposite: more energizing than a triple-shot of espresso. Also check out: Gaspard de la nuit, Piano Concerto in G major, and the string quartets by Debussy and Grieg.

8. Mendelssohn: Octet – The greatest thing I ever did at age 16 was not crash my car. The greatest thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did at age 16 was write this masterpiece. No one had really been able to successfully combine two string quartets into a single ensemble before…and only a few have tried since. The word musicologists use most often to describe Mendelssohn’s Octet is “perfect.” Just give the first movement a whirl. If you don’t have goosebumps racing up and down your arms by the end, check your pulse. Also check out: Symphony No. 4, Italian; Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor.

9. Schubert: Impromptu in G-flat – Schubert is a composer known for his lieder (songs). This is a song for 10 fingers. It is excruciatingly simple and delectably sublime. The notes are easy enough to play, but the challenge of crafting an artful interpretation is immense. Each note requires a precious amount of care and contemplation. The pacing must be perfect otherwise what can be pure poetry ends up as just a lame collection of notes hanging out together. Also check out: String Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden; Symphony No. 5.

10. Verdi: Macbeth – No, this is not one of the great Verdi hits. However, there is something really special about this opera. It marks a turning point in Verdi’s compositional output. We get our first glimpse of Verdi, the mature dramatist, in this work. Shades of Otello and La forza del destino to come. If you like the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, you’ll love the Chorus of the Scottish Exiles from Macbeth. Also check out: Otello, Don Carlo, and the String Quartet in e minor, which Verdi wrote during a break in rehearsals during a production of Aida.

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