As we enter April, it’s a great time to discover new music to accompany the change of seasons. In honor of more sunny days, I’ve put together a list of my favorite classical music along with a bit of history about each one. Enjoy!
The Gadfly Suite, Dmitri Shostakovitch
From Shostakovitch’s score for the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly, a flamboyant drama about a Russian hero in 1830s Italy.
Après un Rêve, Gabriel Fauré
About a dream of a “romantic flight with a lover” and wanting to return to the “mysterious night” upon awakening. Based on the French version of an anonymous Italian poem.
Le Cygne “The Swan,” from Le Carnaval des Animaux, Camille Saint-Saëns
The second to last movement of The Carnival of the Animals has been arranged for many instruments but is known best as a cello solo. This is the only movement from The Carnival of the Animals that Saint-Saëns allowed to be performed while he was alive—he thought the other movements were too “frivolous” and would hurt his reputation.
Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This concerto was published after Mozart’s death. The only original manuscript of the music written by Mozart was probably designed for a different instrument in a different key. But because the manuscript was pawned away, for many centuries no one knew that this version is not the same piece of music that Mozart composed.
Goldberg Variations, Johann Sebastian Bach
These variations are named after one of Bach’s music students, who requested a piece of music to play for his friend, a Russian Ambassador, to cheer him up when he was sick with insomnia at night. Bach thought the variations were very boring.
“Emperor” Quartet, Joseph Haydn
The national anthems of both Austria and Germany are based on this piece.
Cello Concerto No. 1, Camille Saint-Saëns
Saint-Saëns wrote many other pieces for cello around the same time as this concerto. Music historians think this sudden interest might have had to do with the death of his great aunt—cello has a deep, dramatic tone.
Danse Macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns
This piece is a “tone poem,” which means it illustrates another non-musical piece of art. It is based on “The Dance of Death,” an artistic genre from the middle ages which is based on the unifying idea that everyone will die. The piece itself is based on the old French superstition that Death appears at midnight on Halloween and plays the fiddle while the dead come out of their graves and dance.
Piano Trio No. 2, Dmitri Shostakovitch
This piece is extremely difficult to play; it also ends with a movement based on The Dance of Death (see Danse Macabre, above).
Violin Concerto in E Major, “La Primavera” from Four Seasons, Antonio Vivaldi
Vivaldi published “The Four Seasons” along with a group of sonnets about the images his music attempts to evoke (it is unclear whether he wrote them himself). This means it is one of the earliest examples of “program music:” music based on narrative.
“Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), a shepherd and his barking dog, buzzing flies, storms, drunken dancers, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, and warm winter fires.”
J.S. Bach Complete Cello Suites (transcribed for violin – super unique!), Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Gandelsman
People debate over Bach’s character: he has been called a “hooligan,” a “truant”, selfish, romantic, and a devoted family man, but there is no doubt that his cello suites are some of the most famous and beloved pieces of classical music. Bach was not famous during his lifetime, and the Cello Suites did not become famous until a century and a half after his death. Additionally, Bach did not mark how he wanted the suites to be played and they are largely up to interpretation. The suites are cloaked in mystery and that makes them all the more intriguing.
Passacaglia in G Minor, Johan Halvorsen
“The Passacaglia” is a musical form from 17th century Spain: an interlude between dances. Now it usually means a series of variations played over repeating phrases.
String Quartet in F Major, Maurice Ravel
Ravel’s unconventional ideas were usually dismissed early in his career by more conservative teachers and directors, but his friend Gabriel Fauré (see Après un Rêve) inspired him to keep composing and he became widely celebrated.
Quartet No. 16, Ludwig Van Beethoven
This was Beethoven’s last major work. The last movement is titled “The Difficult Decision.” In the original manuscript, above the slow chords at the beginning Beethoven wrote, “Muß es sein?” (Must it be?) and during the faster section near the very end he wrote “Es muß sein!” (It must be!). Could these words and the evolving style of the music have to do with his decision to end his career?