Instead of doing a Beauty Faves or Fashion Faves post, I decided to write about my favorite pieces of classical music. I’ve been in a ton of orchestras and choirs, and I studied vocal performance in college, so I have lots of opinions on classical music. These are my top 13 pieces of orchestral music and why I love them. I also plan to do Opera faves and Choral music faves at some point.
1. The Planets Op. 32: I. Mars, the Bringer of War: Gustav Holst, 1916
Ok, starting off with a bang. I fucking love this piece. I played it my junior year of high school in orchestra. I go off every time I hear it. Holst wrote the movements in the piece to encapsulate the personality traits each planet is associated with. Mars is the god of war in Roman mythology and the planet that bears his name is heavily associated with war and masculinity. It’s a very chaotic and aggressive piece that’s filled with a sense of grandeur and drama, so it’s a perfect fit for me. It’s written in an irregular meter (5/4), so you feel that you can never settle into the rhythm. Similarly, the amount of dissonance that Holst uses causes a sense of unease to the ear of the listener. It sounds like there are wrong notes everywhere, which gives it a chaotic feeling. This movement opens the piece, which is a super bold move because it was pretty revolutionary when it was written. The Planets as a whole heavily influenced the music that was written for space exploration and science fiction movies and TV shows for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. Basically, Holst is a fucking genius that can write a piece that sounds like a planet.
2. Rhapsody in Blue: George Gershwin, 1924
This piece is super jazzy and might not be what you think of when you think of classical music. Gershwin mostly wrote music for musicals, but this piece cemented him as a serious composer. I love it because in the movie Fantasia: 2000 there’s a beautiful animation that goes with the song, which I used to watch all the time when I was little. This piece reminds me so much of New York. The traffic and the hustle and bustle, and just the energy.
3. IX (Adagio) “Nimrod”: Edward Elgar, 1899
I think this is the most beautiful piece ever written. It’s so sweeping and grand and emotional and dramatic. I played it when I was in high school and I loved it because it wasn’t hard to play at all, so you just got to enjoy making beautiful sounds on your instrument. Elgar wrote it for his “good friend” who’s last name was Nimrod. I think they were gay. Who would write a piece with so much emotion and romance in it for a friend? When I listen to it the image in my mind is like an impressionist painting that is blue and purple with yellow dots.
4. Marche slave, Op. 31 TH 45: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1876
This piece is just so grand and regal its hard not to love. I played in high school and instantly fell in love with it. It’s really technically difficult to play so that sucked but I just pretended to be playing most of the time anyway. Tchaikovsky wrote it during the Serbo- Turkish war for a Red Cross benefit dinner, which is why it has that very militaristic, patriotic sound. That war apparently only lasted for 2 years, which is hardly a war at all, if you ask me. The main theme that you hear at the beginning is two Serbian folksongs. Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to use folk music in his compositions. Composers generally tried to conform to the musical standards set in Germany, France and England without adding any individualistic elements. Tchaikovsky helped usher in a new era of nationalism in classical music. It can be argued that composers like Tchaikovsky lead to the increase in nationalist sentiments that we see in the early 20th century. Which, we all know resulted in disastrous consequences (communism). This piece is blissfully unaware of that grim future and marches on, full of optimism.
5. Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216: II. Adagio: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1775
Ah, Mozart. What a guy. He wrote this piece when he was 19 and it’s still so mature and evocative and beautiful. I took (most of) a class all about Mozart and his life, and he was pretty wild. He wrote a choral piece called “Leck mich im Arsch” which translates to “Lick my Ass.” He was also into poop, like sexually (????), which is not something I ever thought I would know about a genius from the 18th century. This piece has a special place in my heart because over the summer last year, when I worked at a daycare, all the babies would be asleep when I got there, and this piece would be playing in the room every day. It’s super comforting and peaceful, which was a nice way to start off work.
6. Swan Lake: Valse, Act I, No. 2: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1876
More Tchaikovsky!!!! I love this piece for two reasons. I played it in high school so it’s nostalgic, and it’s from the ballet Swan Lake and I am obsessed with all things ballet. Tchaikovsky was a master of ballet. Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, literally the two most iconic ballets ever written, are by him. What’s funny is that Swan Lake was actually a huge flop when it was first performed. Critics thought the music was too complicated and too “noisy.” That’s, of course, why I like it. The music is so rich and full. Tchaikovsky utilizes the whole orchestra in such a beautiful way. Tchaikovsky was gay and this piece could only have been written by a gay man.
7. Danse macabre in G Minor, Op. 40: Camille Saint-Saëns, 1874
Would you believe there’s another song on this list that I played in high school orchestra ???? I know crazy right???? We played this for the fall concert cause it sounds creepy and witchy. The Danse Macabre, or dance of death, is an allegory from the Middle Ages used to represent the universality of death. Sort of like, no matter your station, the dance towards death unites us. It has been represented in many different mediums of art. The personification of Death rises up and summons all of the other dead to dance on Halloween until the sun rises. Like a lot of the most famous pieces, this was not well received when it premiered. Critics didn’t like the use of a xylophone and “the hypnotic repetitions.” Both of these devices were used to enhance the macabre-ness. The xylophone is supposed to sound like rattling bones and the repetition is used to make it feel frantic and inhuman. Also it’s in 6/8, which is my favorite time signature.
8. Barber: Adagio for Strings: Samuel Barber, 1938
This piece is so gorgeous. It makes me so sad. It’s so heart wrenchingly beautiful. I was going to play it with a string quartet for a competition in high school, but my mom advised against it, saying that we didn’t have the emotional maturity required to make it sound good. She was honestly probably right. Could you imagine four 15 year olds doing this justice? I don’t really have a ton to say about this one its just so insanely beautiful it kills me.
9. Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “ From The New World”: III. Molto vivace: Antonín Dvořák, 1893
Once again I played this piece in high school. We played it my senior year and then my freshman year of college the whole school did a “Dvořák in America” festival, so I know it very, very well. Dvořák is a Czech composer who came to America when the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write a symphony. He used inspiration from the Native American music and the spirituals he heard here. “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” He was woke af!!! American “serious” music had been written in the style of European music. There was no truly American classical music to speak of. All the white American composers disregarded spirituals as lowbrow, similar to the way that European composers thought of the folksongs in their countries. Dvořák is a contemporary of Tchaikovsky and he was also experimenting with putting folk music into his compositions. When the he was commissioned to write the piece he found the most American music he could. He’s considered basically the only truly “American” composer in the 19th century.
10. Swan Lake, Op. 20, Act II No. 10: By a Lake: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1876
You guessed it; I played this piece in high school. We played this and the other movement from Swan Lake for an orchestra competition, which we won. This piece is high drama; it is giving you the full fantasy. Have I mentioned how much I love Tchaikovsky? He was really out here giving it to us.
11. The Nutcracker: Overture: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1892
The Nutcracker is the first piece of classical music that I was obsessed with. I had a VHS of the Royal Ballet dancing it that I watched a million times. I picked the overture to put on this playlist because it always gives me the warm fuzzies. When the Nutcracker premiered it was deemed nothing special, and even Tchaikovsky himself said that he wasn’t happy with it. Now it makes up 40% of ticket sales for most American ballet companies. People love trash I guess. The Nutcracker is very fluffy and does kind of pander to a less intelligent audience, but that’s what I love about it. It’s very easy listening and a fun story. Ballets, like operas, tend to be pretty sad, so it makes sense that this silly ballet, where no one dies, would be a popular first ballet for young ballerinas. I’ve only actually seen it live once because the tickets are insaaaaanely expensive. It’s really funny to be downtown near the Joffery Ballet around Christmas, and to see all of the suburban moms, with their bratty daughters, walking through the ~very scary~ streets of Chicago to get to the theater. We had a nutcracker as a Christmas decoration and when I was little I would dance around the house with it and pretend to be the main character, Clara.
12. Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183: 1. Allegro con brio: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1773
This is such and aggressive piece. Mozart is really giving it to you. He was 17 when he wrote it, so it’s all that teenage angst I guess. I first heard this piece in the movie Amadeus, which is pretty historically inaccurate according to the Mozart class I took. It was written in the Sturm und Drang style popular in the late 18th century. Sturm und Drang translates to “storm and stress” and I think this piece sounds pretty stormy and stressful. I just love the drama of it. Plus it has a great violin part.
13. The Planets, Op. 32: IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: Gustav Holst, 1916
Another movement from The Planets, which is honestly one of the best pieces ever written for orchestra. This movement is supposed to sound like the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is the king of the gods in Roman mythology. Another name for Jupiter is Jove, which is the origin of the word “jovial’ and Jupiter represents that spirit. This movement is the most fun in the piece because it’s so playful and upbeat. Even in the slower more serious section the joy is still there. During the faster parts there’s always more than one musical line moving at a time and I think it sounds like Jupiter’s power sparking and swirling around him. The actual planet Jupiter also has swirling clouds on its surface, which the music could also represent.