Celebrating National Classical Music Month

IMG_0365Classical music is so fascinating to me because it quite clearly carries the most variety and possibilities over any other genre. Thinking of its growth over time — from Medieval Gregorian chant to Renaissance madrigals to Baroque counterpoint to the typical Classical orchestrations to the Romantic piano pieces and then splintering into the avant-garde 20th century — is just staggering. And that’s not even glancing at the different instrumental groupings that occurred. You can get big orchestral works, solo piano, string quartets, ballets, operas, and so many more! To adapt a phrase, if you don’t like Classical music, you just haven’t found the right piece yet.

Personally, as much as I love modern music, it just can’t get me excited like Classical does with its historical context and imaginative storytelling. As a writer, what always captured me was reading what some composers intended on telling through their music. I can remember the first time my band director began regaling us with the composer’s writings only to find that the picture in my own head was completely different. This excited me, because isn’t that what art should do? It inspires something different in everyone.

As fun as it is to come up with my own story, it is still exciting for me when I hear one that is clear-cut. For example, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony conveys such emotion and premiered so close to his death that many thought it to be his “musical suicide note.” My heart swells every time, like going back to an old favorite story.

No matter where you come from or where you’re going, I can all but guarantee that there is a Classical piece that will meet you there. Just like visual art, you can pinpoint a piece’s time frame by defining characteristics. I actually love matching up visual art with music written during that time because they simply go together so well. I love to look at Vincent van Gogh paintings while listening to Ravel (who just so happens to be my dog’s namesake) because they both capture the Impressionist era with blurred, flowing, beautiful lines and melodies.

milton-babbitt-electronic-studio
Milton Babbitt and RCA’s new synthesizer

I tend to think that this is also so exciting to me because, in the grand scheme of things, none of this happened very long ago. Not even 100 years ago, Aaron Copland was scoring films with that big, brassy, iconic Americana sound we all know. Just before that, Debussy was writing those piano pieces we’ve all heard young pianists practice endlessly. There are some amazing musical moments that our living relatives lived through. Just in the ’60s, Milton Babbitt was writing the first Classical piece with the newest musical invention: the synthesizer.

It’s hard for me to understand exactly why Classical music has gotten such a bad rap over time. It is something that has had me so captivated since the first time I heard Grieg’s take on Peer Gynt, and yet my mother still affectionately calls it “elevator music.” I suppose, for lack of a better phrase, some people are just different.

If you are under the presumption that Classical music is boring, then, first off, you are entitled to your opinion and are under no obligation to allow me to persuade you otherwise. However, if you’re willing, I would suggest that you look into Igor Stravinsky’s ballets, like the Rite of Spring or Petrushka. These are pieces that tell rich and exciting stories that are sure to capture your imagination; and, if you’re into tales of pagan sacrifice, this is definitely the place to be.

If you want to find some inspiration, I would point you to Holst’s The Planets. These pieces always give me a Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque wonder over our universe and all the possibilities that be.

If you’re looking for something peaceful and tranquil, I’ve found that certain Brahms concertos even help relieve headaches.

Furthermore, if you’re really looking to get crazy, I can take you down the path of some very strange (and, in some cases, a little terrifying) 20th century pieces.

All of these pieces are also great options to have in the background while studying. Actual studies have shown that playing Classical music lights up parts of the brain that allow you to function at a higher capacity and retain more information. So, why not give it a shot?

I took the liberty to gather a few of my favorites (including some listed above) into a playlist for you. Whether you’re well-versed or new to the style, this list could act as a great starting point to, hopefully, pique your interest to further investigate this deep well of musical history. Happy listening!

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