[The following is my first column that was published for the guide, the lifestyle magazine of The Hoya. The print version of AMPlify will run every other Friday. You can find the originals by searching my name at thehoya.com.]
Classical music is a scary thing. Many of the people who listen to it wear diapers, and I’m not talking about the generation that watches Baby Mozart. Most of the people who wrote classical music are dead white men. The people who review it use words like “lush,” “cantankerous” and “supple” in their descriptions. In my youth orchestra, we took out our graphing calculators and did homework — all while humming Debussy — when we rarely got a break.
I get it. It’s an easy genre to hate. Here’s a secret, though: You hear classical music all the time, whether you know it or not. Movie soundtracks, commercials, TV shows, when someone puts you on hold, you name it. You know more than you think, and for those of you who want to listen rather than merely hear, you’re in luck. The following list will provide you with all sorts of knowledge you can use to impress your grandma, and it’s also a solid study playlist.
1. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”: This song is arguably the most popular in classical music, and people just can’t get enough of it. If you’ve ever been to an American wedding, you’ve heard it. A simple eight-note theme is audible throughout. The embellishments that accompany it never overwhelm it. The Stradivarius String Quartet has one of my favorite versions.
2. Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5”: Johannes Brahms probably didn’t expect that one of his 25 Hungarian dances would be playing from pockets and purses hundreds of times a day as their owners’ phones rang. Listen to the performance given by the London Symphony Orchestra.
3. Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”: Violinist Sarah Chang once said — to paraphrase — “This guy wrote, like, 500 concertos, but ‘The Four Seasons’ really stand out.” She’s right; there’s a reason these are some of the most famous works of all time. With provocative imagery and a set of poems that goes along with the music for each season, what’s not to love? Sarah Chang and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have one of the best versions.
4. Piazzolla’s “Libertango”: Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla brought elements of jazz and traditional classical music to the tango, one of his country’s traditional dances. This one, his most famous, has been recorded on just about every instrument by just about everyone. Check out sexy Montenegrin guitarist MilošKaradaglic playing it on his latest album, or hear British trumpeter Alison Balsom make her instrument sound so much better than it really is in her recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
5. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”: You may have heard of Wagner in your history classes because he was Hitler’s favorite composer. However, he did incredible (and incredibly weird) things for opera and classical music as a whole. You’ve probably heard this song before, especially if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now.
6. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”: Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, but this one is by far the most famous. That opening “da-da-da-DUM” is one of the most-played musical sequences in TV and movies, but the entire symphony deserves some lovin’, too. Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic have a great recording of this piece. There’s also a disco recording from 1976 by Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band, which is a favorite in my house.
7. Smetana’s “Die Moldau”: You may have heard this one, also known as “Vltava,” in the trailer for Tree of Life. With an epic flute solo at the beginning and a theme that sounds like waves, you’ll feel like you’re in Prague on the river for which the piece was named. Look up a few facts about other nationalist Czech music, and you’re set.
A familiarity with these pieces will arm you for discussion with any pretentious classical fan. Oh yeah, and you may even like the music.