In a musical world where Drake and Taylor Swift are trending, names like Brahms or Haydn aren’t as popular as they used to be. Orchestras, symphonies, and quartets may seem a little daunting those unaccustomed, but there is some serious beauty to be found in classical music. It takes a little adjusting since it’s a different kind of listening experience, but it’s well worth the initial adjustment. So to give you a head start, here are 5 classical pieces to check out. Put them on while you’re cooking supper, writing letters, or just sitting on the couch while giving them your full and undivided attention (my personal recommendation).
1. Piano Sonata No. 12 in F Major, K. 332
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
First up on our list is one of Mozart’s piano sonatas. I’m not normally much of a fan of solo piano pieces, but Mozart is, well, Mozart. Certainly one of the most prolific composers in Western music, Mozart achieved such fame for good reason. He began composing at the age of five and would go on to play for royalty in Salzburg and Vienna.
What is a sonata? Great question. It’s a musical structure composed of 3 sections, each section being a few minutes long. First, there is an exposition of a musical theme, then a development, and it ends with a recapitulation. This sonata was written published by Mozart in 1784.
2. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Composer: Ralph Vaughn Williams
Period: Twentieth Century
Ralph Vaughn Williams, a British composer, was greatly influenced by the music of his own country, particularly of the English Renaissance as well as folk songs. Vaughn Williams wrote a number of works for orchestra, stage, as well as voice. He sought to make music available to the wider public, frequently assisting at festivals.
In this piece, Vaughn Williams takes a musical theme from Thomas Tallis, the English composer of the Tudor period. Tallis had written chant music for a set of Psalms set by Archbishop Parker in 1567, and Vaughn Williams takes inspiration from the tune of one of these psalms (specifically psalm 2, “Why fum’th in sight”). This orchestral piece is grand and rich, carried along in the strings and horns. It starts off soft, but swells throughout the piece. This is personally one of my favorites.
3. Tafelmusik – Banquet Music in 3 parts/ Production 1- 3. Concert in A Major. TWV 53:A2
Composer: Georg Philip Telemann
The Baroque period boasts some of the big names of classical music including Bach and Handel. A lesser known figure was the German composer Telemann, who helped bridge the late Baroque and early classical period. The baroque period was important in establishing tonality in music, which means that songs were centered around one fundamental note, and they used the major/minor scale, as opposed to using modes like earlier music. To put it simply, medieval music sounds fundamentally different than baroque music because of these two changes.
This piece of four movements is quite a delight. It begins very stately then gets much faster in the second movement. If you take a listen and hear an instrument you don’t quite recognize, it might be the harpsichord, which is like the piano, except it plucks strings rather than strikes them. Tafelmusik is a genre of music that was designed to accompany a meal, so this concert might be best saved for after you’re finished cooking. I’d recommend just searching “TWV 53: A2 Telemann” and finding the one played by “Musica Amphion.”
4. Ma Vlast
Bedřich Smetana is regarded as the father of Czech music, which was very influential in his country’s aspirations to independent statehood in the late 1800s. Má Vlast translated means “my country” and features various elements of Bohemia including geography, myth, and history. Most of this six movement symphony was written by Smetana after he had gone deaf, which shows his love of music. He continued to create beautiful music, but not for his own listening pleasure (for yours!).
The most famous movement is the second, Vltava or The Moldau, which was the basis for a number of other songs, including the Israeli national anthem. It was featured in the 2011 film Tree of Life. The composition describes the Vltava river as it begins in springs, flows through the countryside, courses through Prague, finally ending in the Elbe.
5. The Planets, Op. 32
Composer: Gustav Holst
Period: Twentieth Century
Don’t be fooled by his name-Holst hails from the British Isles. He came from generations of musicians and achieved great fame after the success of The Planets. He composed many works in a variety of genres, but is known primarily for symphony highlighted here. Each movement of the orchestral suite is named after a planet of the solar system.
Each movement is also defined by an emotion and influence which the planets were thought to have had over man. Most famous among the movements is Jupiter, which indeed brings jollity, as it is entitled. It contains a musical theme which became a hymn tune very popular in the English speaking world.
I’ll mention three runners up, because they are too good not to mention.
1. Brandenburg Concertos by Bach
These concertos are known as some of the best orchestral pieces of the Baroque era. If you like Telemann, you might enjoy these as well.
2. Mass for 3 voices by Byrd
William Byrd wrote this Mass setting to be sung by three people during Masses offered secretly in private homes due to the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth Tudor. Despite its being only three voices, it is incredibly beautiful.
3. Lord of the Rings Soundtrack by Howard Shore
Even if you are not a fan of the Trilogy, I would recommend giving the soundtrack a listen. The variety of themes and their richness contained shows Howard Shore’s brilliance as a composer.