10 Essential Classical Songs
Interested in Debussy and Bach but don’t know
where to start? Check out these 10 triumphs.
“If you’re intimidated by classical music, don’t be,” says Craig Wright, professor emeritus of music at Yale University. His Yale online class, Introduction to Classical Music, has 1.1 million views, and he’s the author of seven books, including The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness (due out in October from HarperCollins). “Classical music is simply pop music on steroids,” he says. Wright became interested in the genre as a child, when his parents owned just five records, including works by Dvorak and Beethoven. “You get joy in life through music,” he says. “And if you have joy, it can keep you alive longer.” Here are Wright’s picks for 10 essential classical works.
1. Pachelbel Canon, Johann Pachelbel (composed between 1680 and 1690)
If you’ve attended a wedding, you’ve probably heard the Pachelbel Canon. A canon, as it’s most commonly known, is when two or more voices or instruments play the same melody but start at different times (such as “Freres Jacques”). Pachelbel’s piece features three soaring violins, but you may hear some similarities to blues. Just as blues are built on a standard chord pattern, classical music uses harmony to support the melody, Wright explains. “To appreciate Pachelbel, listen to blues,” he says. “To appreciate blues, listen to Pachelbel.”
2. Organ Fugue in G Minor, J.S. Bach (1703–07)
A virtuoso on the organ, Bach earned his living as a church musician. To entertain the 2,500 souls who crowded his Leipzig, Germany, church every Sunday, Bach composed pieces to showcase his skills, Wright says. But the Organ Fugue is also brain food, he notes, because it forces us to think analytically: “Is it in a major (happy) or a minor (sad) key? It’s like trying to solve a sonic Rubik’s cube.”
3. Flute and Harp Concerto, Mozart (1778)
“If you ever feel your life coming apart, listen to Mozart,” Wright says. The composer’s music achieves such perfection that Albert Einstein once declared it “so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” Mozart wrote the concerto for one of his students, who played the harp, and her father, a flutist. “It calms me down,” Wright says of the concerto.
4. Symphony No. 5, Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)
Beethoven began writing his fifth symphony at age 33, when he was struggling with the loss of his hearing. Symphony No. 5 asks in music what Hamlet asks in drama, says Wright: “What is music all about? What is life all about? Is it worth hearing? Is it worth living?” And that thunderous Da-da-da-daaah opening, he adds, is the equivalent of “To be or not to be?” Forty tumultuous minutes later, after a roller coaster of highs and lows, we get the answer: To be.
5. “Ave Maria,” Franz Schubert (1825)
Austrian composer Schubert didn’t write “Ave Maria” as a religious work. He titled it “Ellen’s Song III,” one of a series inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Lady of the Lake.” But Wright calls it a musical prayer: “ ’Ave Maria’ suggests to believers as well as nonbelievers that if there is such beauty as in Schubert’s melody, there must be a God. Such faith can keep us alive.”
6. Scheherazade, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov (1888)
For many listeners, Scheherazade sparks a lifelong love of classical music, Wright says. “Music is the poetry of the air, and it can tell a story by using different sounds and instrumental colors,” he says. “Listening to this musical evocation of tales from 1001 Arabian Nights will carry you to distant lands and seas, an exotic vacation that can be experienced while sequestering at home.”
7. “Claire de lune,” Claude Debussy (1890–1905)
“Moonlight” is the third of Debussy’s four-part Suite Bergamasque, with a melody that “soars, dives and soars again above a mysterious harmony,” Wright says, but leaves us “safe and sound with the comforting tones with which we began.” It’s a prime example of Debussy’s belief that “by its very nature, music is more likely to contain something of the magical than any other art.”
8. Symphony No. 9, Antonin Dvořák (1893)
Music helps retrieve memories by unlocking information stored in our brains. “When I want to revisit an earlier time,” Wright says, “I put on ‘Goin’ Home,’ the melody of the slow, second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9.” Wright spent time in Spillville, Iowa, as a child; Dvorak stayed there in 1893. “Spending three months among the mainly Czech-speaking people of this rural farming community, he finished his ninth and last symphony,” Wright notes.
9. Symphony No. 2, Jean Sibelius (1902)
Most pop music features a band of five or six musicians backing up the lead singer. But classical music has the symphony orchestra, “one of the crown jewels of Western culture,” Wright says, which can number 120 performers. “If you want to be blown away by the Western orchestra at its most powerful, fasten your safety belt and put on the last movement of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. If you think classical music is for wimps, think again.”
10. “In the Red Glow of Sunset,” Richard Strauss (1948)
Richard Strauss wrote Im Abendrot (“In the Red Glow of Sunset”) at 84, as a love song to his wife of nearly 55 years. It was inspired by a poem about an elderly couple pondering the last chapter of their lives. “When I hear this, it makes me think of the love I have for my own wife of 41 years,” Wright says. “Maybe it’s true, you cannot truly enjoy the beauty of this world until you do so with someone you love.”
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