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Instrumental Classical Music: My Favorites
In this article, I discuss briefly my favorite instrumental classical music, focusing upon short pieces and movements from larger works. Any lover of classical music will soon find this task impossible — there's just too much from which to choose — so I guess I should have named this Hub “*Some* of My Favorite...”
I do not purport to be a learned music critic or historian, but as the phrase goes, ...I know what I like. I'm using the word "classical" loosely throughout this Hub — some of the works described below come from the Baroque or Romantic eras, and even the twentieth century. Also, some of my comments are aimed at more novice lovers of classical music.
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - 18th Variation
This piece is a variation, that is, an alteration, of the previously composed Caprices by Niccolò Paganini.
The variation is, in fact, a passage played "upside down."
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, The Great Gate of Kiev
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky helped stage an art exhibition in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia to commemorate the life of his artist friend Viktor Hartmann, who died an untimely death in 1873. Mussorgsky then went on to compose a suite with ten movements, each inspired by a work at the exhibition. The Great Gate of Kiev is one movement.
Ludwig van Beethoven: 8th Piano Sonata "Pathetique," 2nd Movement
This piece may perhaps be best associated by classical music buffs of a certain age (ahem!) as the theme music used for the legendary radio program hosted by Karl Haas, Adventures in Good Music, which was syndicated throughout the world. It was composed by Beethoven when he was 27 and is thought by some to express youthful emotions. In music, "pathetique" refers to music affecting the emotions of pity, grief, or sorrow.
Handel: Water Music, Hornpipe
Handel's Water Music was a suite composed at the request of George I of England for a royal outing on the Thames River in which court members were floating on the royal barge, with another barge holding the musicians. When I was younger, I thought all the pieces were musical metaphors for water in nature. I still think of the Hornpipe as illustrating, in my mind's eye, an exuberant waterfall. If you don't know this piece, I assure you it sounds better than its name.
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks, Overture — “La Paix, La Rejouissance”
Handel composed this suite to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The different pieces were intended to illustrate various kinds of fireworks. The public performance of the music was accompanied by an elaborate fireworks display. A large stage had been built in London's Green Park for the musicians; however, during the fireworks display, it caught fire.
Chopin: Military Polonaise
This is usually thought to be a tribute to Polish nationalism, and was played daily by Polish Radio during the 1939 German invasion of Poland that began World War II.
Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata, Movement 1
Beethoven dedicated this to a young student, Countess Julie Guicciardi, with whom he had been in love. The sonata's great popularity in Beethoven's day puzzled him — he once commented "Surely I've written better things."
Johann Strauss II: On the beautiful Blue Danube
This is my single favorite piece of music of any kind — in my opinion, it's a nearly perfect work of art. Traditionally, it is played by the Vienna Symphony every year for its New Year's concert. The accompanying ballet is performed by the Vienna State Opera Ballet. Oddly, it was only moderately popular in Strauss' day — Strauss is reported to have said "The devil take the waltz, my only regret is for the coda—I wish that had been a success!" Fortunately for us, the devil left it alone.
This was written by Sibelius as a nationalist protest against the dominance of Imperial Russia over Finland at the time. It is often (incorrectly) thought to be the national anthem of Finland. Embedded within in it is the beautiful Finlandia Hymn, usually played as an oboe solo.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastorale," 5th Movement
Beethoven's Sixth was completed only a short time after his renowned Fifth Symphony. The lightness and pleasantness of the Sixth is thought to be Beethoven's demonstration that he was capable of that viewpoint, after the powerful "knocking of fate on the door" of the Fifth. The beautiful fifth movement of the Sixth Symphony was entitled Shepherds' song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm — it comes just after a movement representing a fierce thunderstorm in countryside. The entire Sixth Symphony was prominently featured in Walt Disney's 1940s feature-length animation Fantasia.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3, Part 2
This is one of my most favorite classical pieces, and is considered one of the more challenging concertos for a pianist. The third movement theme was more or less ripped off for the 1940s popular song Full Moon and Empty Arms.
Smetana: The Moldau
This is one of several tone poems composed by Smetana to celebrate his country — what is now the Czech Republic. The Moldau is a river winding through the country, and the music connotes the river's beginning as a small spring, growing in power, until it finally merges with the Elbe.
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, 3rd Movement
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are considered to be emblematic of Baroque Era music (1600 - 1760). They are so-named because they were presented to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. I like all the Brandenburg Concertos, but number 2 is my favorite. It was used as the theme song for William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Firing Line talk show on PBS.
Now you 've read (and heard) what some of my favorite pieces of instrumental classical music are. Which of these pieces did you enjoy the most? What are some of your favorites that don't appear on my list? Please add a comment and let everyone know.