Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Doug Spata's Classical Playlist (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I wrote out a playlist of some of my favorite pop songs and actually got a response from a commenter, so I thought I'd do it again. As I wrote in that earlier post, I use my iPod when biking in the park, so I prefer to fill it with up-tempo pop songs to keep my momentum going. For this list, I thought I'd share some of my favorite classical (that is, orchestral) works:

1. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This is it. Numero uno. Possibly the greatest artistic influence of my life. A touchstone to all the music I've created - you can hear it in Gauntlet, Gargoyles, Avatar, Agincourt... the list goes on. I first heard The Rite in high school and it blew my mind so much that I'm still picking up the pieces. I could go on for days about the rawness and immediacy of the style, how in one instant the world of music irrevocably changed forever. How this one piece was a turning point in history and decisively marked the beginning of a new era. I've been a die-hard Stravinsky fan ever since and have discovered many other masterpieces through The Rite, but this, in my opinion, is the single greatest piece of music ever written.

2. Overture to The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart. The whole opera is great, but I have a special place in my heart for the overture, which, thanks to Mozart's limitless prolificity, doesn't contain any melodies from the rest of the opera. In short, it's the sound of pure, unfettered elation. It builds slowly with the 'cellos and bassoons, bubbles up, and then explodes into a confetti of happiness. Then, as if to say "okay... keep it cool," it quiets down again, but just can't contain itself for long, so it bursts out again and winds and swirls through a colorful array of melodies - happy, wistful, romantic - before finally collapsing breathless into a satisfying ending. This little roller-coaster ride is the perfect start to the perfect evening.

3. Requiem by Gabriel Fuare. The composer himself described this piece as a "lullabye of death." It's not somber like Verdi's Requiem and it's not angry like much of Mozart's. Instead, Fuare's is gentle, warm, and comforting. The part that really gets me is the Agnus Dei - the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard. It's so simple - just arpeggios and scales in the violins - but it's filled with such deep longing, such consoling sadness. It does exactly what you'd want from a Requiem. It says "I understand your grief and I feel it too." And it assures us that everything will be okay. Breaks my heart every time.

4. Symphony No. 6 in F Major by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Ask around about which is the best Beethoven symphony, and you'll hear many different answers. Number 5 is by far the most famous - who doesn't know those first four notes? Some will say that No. 3 is the best because it's a turning point in symphonic style. Some will say No. 9 for its expansion of the orchestra and groundbreaking use of choir. Some will say No. 1 and those people are just wrong. I say the best one is No. 6. Here, Beethoven takes a break from heavy thoughts and dense orchestrations and takes a trip out to the country. He has a reputation as a serious, dour thinker, but the "Pastoral" symphony shows that he had a lighter side. The joyous first movement sounds to me like towering clouds majestically floating by in a bright blue sky. The final - fifth! - movement brings on a thunderstorm, followed by a glorious sunset, and in between we get playful bird calls, a lively country dance, and a lazy afternoon in a boat, just floating around. Beethoven is an icon of music and has been elevated to impunable status, but I think that this piece, more than any other, shows off his humanity.

5. Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Leonard Bernstein. This was the first piece of music Lenny ever had published and it does a great job of illustrating where he came from and where he was going. It only has two movements and lasts about ten minutes, but it rivals larger works and deserves a better reputation among the chamber repertoire. The first movement is all lazy curlicues and sharp angles and you can tell that he was heavily influenced by the works of Paul Hindemith. It's dense style owes a lot to Hindemith's own clarinet sonata and reminds me in some places of Wiemar-era cabaret jazz. In that first movement, Bernstein is leaning over a precipice, holding on to Hindemith's hand for support and looking backwards for assurance. In the second movement, he lets go and soars. This is pure Bernstein, with broad, lyrical passages, swing-style jazz, odd meters, and everything that makes Lenny Lenny. It's evident that after this, he was ready to go out and write West Side Story.

That's just the first five. In order to keep the posts relatively short, I'll think of some more later.

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