11 Classical Music Favorites

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on a few different times when someone has asked me, “What kind of music do you like?” and I was almost completely at a loss as to how to begin to answer the question. It doesn’t, in theory, seem like it should be a difficult one.

I enjoy music in many different genres, and it really depends a lot on my mood and activity what I like to hear at any given time. It never seems easy to summarize the scope of my musical likes and dislikes. I end up thinking, “How many hours do you have available while I expand on that answer?”

I’ve heard people say, “I like everything,” but I doubt that is literally true that they like everything indiscriminately, unless they have no taste or discernment at all. Those who say this probably mean that they listen to music in more than one category, and it seems simpler to say, “I like everything,” than to give a long answer and proceed to list all the specific songs or musicians on their like and dislike lists.

I originally thought I would attempt the long answer and list a few favorites per genre in one post. When I couldn’t narrow the Celtic genre favorites to less than five, I knew I was in trouble and would have to create a series. So, here is the first in the series … 11 Classical Music Favorites … which was almost 15 Classical Music Favorites.

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I especially like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and other composers from the Romantic period onwards on the timeline. Two things helped me gain more of an appreciation of Bach in somewhat recent times: discovering the Swingle Singers’ jazz scat renditions of Bach and watching a biographical film on Bach. I still probably like the Romantics a bit more. My absolute favorite composer is George Gershwin, and my favorite composition of his is Rhapsody in Blue.

  1. “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

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Gershwin, I think, is in a bit of a class by himself. When you hear his orchestra pieces, it’s hard to say whether it’s jazz-sounding classical or classical-sounding jazz. George Gershwin was inspired to write “Rhapsody in Blue” while traveling by train and hearing the rhythm of the train. I know the piece has come to be associated with United Airlines commercials, but, when you hear it, try to imagine a train and not a plane.

The embedded video in the playlist at the bottom of this article is a 1976 performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Leonard Bernstein. I’m amazed that Bernstein can both play the leading piano part and conduct the orchestra during the same piece.

I like the part at 1:26 where it builds up to a point that is truly bombastic and 3:29 where a lot of jumpy hand-crossing piano craziness begins. At 11:02, there is a pretty, smooth string part that is a change in musical mood, leading to a sweet violin solo. After that, things begin to build and gain a little more tension, some swelling and lessening which leads to some more almost jarringly jumpy piano.

I love this swelling brass sound at 14:46. It’s all these changes in mood and dynamic that makes the piece so exciting and emotional for me.

2. “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin

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The performance in the embedded playlist is by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.

One interesting thing about watching an orchestra performance is observing the percussion section. There are so many different percussion instruments, and while listening to a recording, I know I can’t always visualize the instrument responsible for the effect. At 1:32, some percussionist is honking what looks to be a series of old-fashioned bicycle horns. Yes, it is noisy, but I believe it is meant to suggest the traffic on Paris streets. In fact, Gershwin called these odd instruments “taxi horns.” You can see Gershwin with the original here.

It is this kind of genius that I admire in composers of movie scores where the composition fits the atmosphere or mood of a particular scene or activity or paints a picture with music. The piece, a symphonic tone poem, has segments that suggest frenzied city life like this one and other segments that are more smooth, sweet and romantic as in this smooth trumpet part set up by an interesting rhythmic segment.

If you enjoy the orchestra performance, you might also like to see it expressed in dance. The 1928 piece was featured in a 17 minute long ballet scene in the 1951 movie, “An American in Paris.” It features Leslie Caron, a ballerina, and Gene Kelly, a tap dancer, and incorporates both of their dance styles. No, you won’t see Kelly or any of the male dancers in ballet tights. It is really an artistic masterpiece with scenes that mimic the art of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. You can watch the dance scene in this YouTube playlist or order the “An American in Paris” movie from the Amazon image link below.

3. “Hoedown” from Rodeo by Aaron Copland

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So, this is another piece that has come to be associated with a TV commercial, this time for beef … “It’s what’s for dinner.” The performance in the embedded playlist is by the Philadelphia Virtuosi. It really is a fun mood-setting piece. There are sounds that seem to suggest the movement of horses as well as an old American folk sort of fiddling style. In fact, Copland sampled traditional folk music in “Hoedown” and in “Appalachian Spring.”

4. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

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This is probably the most recognizable classical piece. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music fan, you most likely can recognize Beethoven’s Fifth. Everyone knows the DUM DUM DUM DUM part, so I thought I would highlight some of the other segments.

The playlist performance is from the 2012 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, is interesting to watch with his dramatic arm movements and faces … and so is the drummer, for different reasons. There is an interesting shift in mood at the beginning of the second movement. If you heard the first few seconds of the second movement alone, would you recognize it?

5. “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven

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“Moonlight Sonata” is perhaps the quietest of the pieces in this list, but it still has a lot of quiet drama, a little moody and melancholy. It evokes more of a peaceful than melancholy mood in me. It was this piece of music that helped me discover that music could have a soothing, pain-reducing effect on my migraine attacks.

The playlist performance is by YouTuber and piano player, Rousseau, who uses a reactive visualizer for an effect similar to the visuals in rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution. It may help a piano player learn the finger positions, but, even if you are not, it is interesting to watch.

6. “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven

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It’s a dramatic and joyful-sounding piece, a prelude to the final movement in Beethoven’s 9th and last symphony.

The video performance of “Ode to Joy” was done flash mob style in Sabadell, Spain and is sung in Catalan. It really is a joyous performance, beginning with a single bassist who is joined by more and more strings, a bassoonist, timpani, a brass section and a choir. It’s great to watch the reactions of the people in the courtyard, particularly some of the children.

7. Overture to “The Barber of Seville” by Giacomo Rossini

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I confess that I was first introduced to music from The Barber of Seville by Bugs Bunny cartoons. As a high schooler, I was reminded of the overture on a classical radio station and have loved it ever since. What’s even more wonderful is that, in my hometown, my father and brothers visited a real life Italian barber who sang opera to them as he gave them their cuts and shaves. That must have been quite an experience.

The video performance is of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with Yuri Temirkanov conducting. At 3:23, there’s this wonderful floating sound chased by a tripping little rhythm. It seems perfect for a cartoon, a movie score or some other visual presentation. At 3:50, there is this lovely, gentle swaying and swelling melody that builds into a rapid, dance-like sound suitable for cartoon rabbit shenanigans.

8. “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky wrote his “1812 Overture” to commemorate the 1812 Russian victory over Napoleon. The piece was originally written to include such unusual instruments as church bells and cannons, 17 of them.

The video outdoor performance by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra does not have cannons but does use rifles at 12:38 and what looks to be a carillion, visible at 13:35. The part at 11:38, during one of the gentler segments, sounds a bit like Russian folk music to me. At 14:53, you can hear a little piece of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” which makes sense when you consider the event commemorated by the piece.

9. “Romeo and Juliet Overture” by Tchaikovsky

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The performance in the video is by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valeri Gergiev at the 2007 Proms. At 7:56 begins the repeated theme you often hear in movie or TV show scenes where characters fall in love, sometimes in cases where it’s meant to be overly dramatic and comedic. I enjoy the beautiful harp at 4:04 and the building tension at 4:36. With a story like Romeo and Juliet, involving feuding families and a double suicide, there ought to be some tension.

10. “Hungarian Dance No. 5” by Johannes Brahms

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I first became familiar with “Hungarian Dance No. 5” in high school when a couple of my classmates played the piece as a piano duet for a competition. It’s been a favorite ever since. I remember getting tense at this dramatic point where things get a little louder and the tempo get faster, just as some would at a sports event, because I wanted my classmates to compete well. Like so many classical pieces I love, it seems to alternate between loud and soft, fast and slow, in ways that are dramatic.

11. “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt

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This piece of music has so many associations for me from Bugs Bunny (again) to the comedy piano performance by Victor Borge. In the video in my playlist, Valentina Lisitsa plays it seriously, without any dancing rabbits, silly showmanship or stunts, and she doesn’t need it.

She has a wonderful touch, caressing those keys and knowing just when to tickle them or give them a little more force. I love how she manages this bit that begins at 1:49 and again at 4:09. It’s wonderful to watch her and see how dexterous her fingers are. In comedy, a concert pianist always begins by dramatically stretching and flexing their fingers. This makes you believe that might actually be necessary.

Classical Favorite Playlist

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