Friday, February 26, 2016

My Favorite Classical Music Selections

People who only know me casually might think that it’s strange that I enjoy classical music. If you know me because I’m a DJ, focused on electronica and dance music, you’d probably think that listening to classical music would be the furthest thing from my mind. However, I actually like quite a few different types of music, with dance, rock, indie/alternative, and classical being among the top genres (and I don’t mind country). I studied classical piano for a long time, and an understanding of classical piano theory gives everyone a great building point for understanding other genres of music.

For those of you who have always wanted to learn more about classical music, but didn’t know where to begin, I’m going to give you a quick “top ten” list to think about. All the pieces that I'm going to list here are easily recognizable, and quite memorable. I don’t watch a lot of movies or TV, but I can think of several movies that have soundtracks which included various of these pieces, so I’ve tried to list those tie-ins where I could. Anyway, here is my late-night off-the-cuff “top ten classical music” list.

1. George Gershwin, “Rhapsody In Blue” – One of America’s most well-known and loved classical works. This piece was written by Gershwin in 1924, and many people remember it from its appearance in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” movie. It's also in the opening sequences of Woody Allen's "Manhatten."  When Gershwin was asked about his inspiration for the piece, he said that he wrote it on a train trip from New York to Boston, to describe the musical kaleidoscope of America. To honor this piece, it was played at the opening of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles by eighty-four pianists, playing simultaneously. The piece is instantly recognizable for its opening glissando on the clarinet. This is a very whimsical and upbeat piece.

2. Samuel Osborne Barber, “Adagio For Strings” – This is another unforgettable composition for me, because it was the backing music for the “Barnes Shoots Elias” scene in the movie Platoon. This piece was written in 1936, and was voted as the “saddest” classical musical composition of all time by a recent BBC survey. That’s not surprising, when you hear it, considering its mournful tempo and melodies. Versions of this composition have been remixed or sampled for tracks by such well-known DJ’s and producers as Sean Combs, Ferry Corsten, the Skip Raiders, Paul Oakenfold, and Tiesto. In fact, it was the strength of Tiesto’s remix of this piece, from his “Parade of Athletes” album, that led to him being asked to perform at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

3. Maurice Ravel, “Bolero” – This 1928 composition by Maurice Ravel actually embarrassed him because of its popularity. It was featured in the popular late 1970’s film “10” (Bo Derek & Dudley Moore), and is most recognizable for its ostinato rhythm on the snare drum throughout. The piece itself is very simple, and is one of the best examples in classical music of a piece that constantly builds throughout the performance. It is basically just two separate melodies, which continue to overlap each other, and more and more instruments get added as the piece progresses, until finally the entire orchestra is playing together at the end. Some people might also recognize this from its inclusion in the theatre production Copacabana.

4. Carl Orff, “Carmina Burana (O Fortuna)” – The Carmina Burana is a manuscript from the 12th or 13th century which is really just a collection of hundreds and hundreds of medieval songs and poems. Carmina Burana means “songs of Burana” in whatever language it was written in (Latin?). In the 1920’s or 1930’s, Carl Orff set 24 of these songs/poems to music, and the most famous of this group was “O Fortuna.” If you’ve seen “The Doors” (the movie), then you’ll easily recognize the “O Fortuna” selection from that soundtrack, when Jim and Patricia (the reporter) were in the library, entering the blood pact.

5. Mozart, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” – This work, meaning “a little night music,” was written in the late eighteenth century. There are four known movements to this (with the suggestion by Mozart himself that there was also originally a fifth movement), and the first movement is the one that everyone would recognize instantly. The best way that I’d describe this work would be that it is a pretty whimsical or frivolous piece of music. This composition has been featured in a couple movies that I can think of: Alien, and one of the Ace Ventura movies.

6. Johann Pachelbel, “Canon in D” – This 17th century work, often [mistakenly] assumed to be composed by J. S. Bach, is a simple three-part canon based on a repeating two-bar (eight note) bass line.  I used to love to play it when I was studying classical piano. However, a rock arrangement was made extremely popular by YouTube, in this video by an Asian guitarist.

7. Tchaikovsky, “Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” – The Nutcracker Suite is a ballet. Within the musical score to the ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote a series of waltzes and other works. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is probably the most famous of these. The song in the original Nutcracker which introduces the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is called “La Marche,” and that piece was used as the basis for a pop rock single that became a #1 hit in Britain in the 1960’s, although I can’t remember who wrote it. Anyway, that song, “Nut Rocker,” is one of the theme songs for Boston Bruins. Parts of the Nutcracker Suite (including “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” as an opener) were used in the original soundtrack to Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940 version).

8. Rachmaninoff, “Piano Concerto no. 2, opus 18” – Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer of the early 20th century, is famous for four concertos he wrote, and also for the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” I really like his 2nd Concerto, although his third Concerto is notable for being one of the most difficult works to play on piano. I think this selection is in "Shine."

9. Ludwig van Beethoven, “Mondscheinsonate” – Most people would probably know this better by its common English name, the “Moonlight Sonata.” Beethoven’s list of produced works is enormous, such as his nine symphonies, and he is well known for the compositions that he continued to write over the years as he slowly became completely tone deaf. In fact, it is said that when his Ninth Symphony premiered, he did not hear the audience clapping so he started to cry because he thought they didn’t like it, and he did not realize until someone turned him around to face the audience that everybody had loved it. Anyway, the Moonlight Sonata is probably in a ton of films, but I can’t think of any right now.

10. Johann Strauss Jr., “An Der Schonen Blau” – This is something that you might recognize if I told you that the common English name for the piece is the “Blue Danube Waltz.” And if you’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’ll recognize this song. It was also used in a Monty Python skit, where there was an orchestra playing this piece in a football field, and someone kept blowing up members of the orchestra.  It was also in "Hannibal."

Alright, that’s enough about classical music for this evening, but if you have ever had any urge to start learning a bit about classical music, find copies of these ten selections to get you started, and you won’t go wrong.

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