Hello music friends! I was going about my day and started putting together a list of classical pieces that I enjoyed for one reason or another. I came up with a list far longer than this. Believe me. However, that doesn’t make a very enjoyable reading experience. So I’ve narrowed it down to 5 pieces.
The final criteria for this list became, “pieces that I enjoy in which there is ample or at least significantly contributing violin”. But that doesn’t really do these works justice. So in addition to this simple rubric, I added some specifications for you to further define these choices into categories and it helps to understand why they made it onto the list.
To be clear, this is not the definitive list, as there are many more pieces that fit these 5 categories. However, this is a great place to start if you’re looking for iconic works in the classical genre. Without further adieu, let’s begin!
The Critically Acclaimed: Appalachian Spring -Simple Gifts by Aaron Copland
The composition known as Appalachian Spring is a ballet. Copland began work on it in 1942 and it debuted in 1944. It’s arguably the most contemporary work on this list due to it’s more recent creation date. However, it borrows heavily from themes and melodies that could be centuries old. Appalachian Spring draws from the pioneering spirit of early America and visions of this can nearly be seen if the listener simply closes their eyes.
This work was groundbreaking and award winning. So much so that it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for it’s masterful work with melodies and the creation of raw emotion within the context of the ballet. Even more impressive is the fact that this is all accomplished with an orchestra of just 13 members. This is due to the spacial constraints of the orchestra pit where it was debuted, The Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.
Simple Gifts is actually part of the 5 shaker theme section of the piece. It’s melody and variations are so gripping and mentally projecting that it conjures the terms “expanse,” “frontier”, “adventure”, “quiet”, “peace”, and “contemplative” all at different times during the piece.
This is required listening for anyone hoping to hear the best of the 20th century.
The Most Requested: Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D
Hands down, this piece tops the list for weddings, funerals, and a myriad of other engagements at which I have played throughout my two and a half decades with music. The time honored piece now called “Pachelbel’s Canon” has been played, over played, maddeningly played, and incessantly played. BUT, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the listen.
Historians speculate that the Canon was written between 1680 and 1706, and that it was widely beloved at the time of it’s debut. It is hard to imagine a time when this piece lived in obscurity. However, for a period of roughly 100-140 years following it’s first presentation, the music had all but disappeared from the collective consciousness of the masses. The amount of time depends on which performance and recording you use as it’s re-break out moment. The canon’s modern rise to fame began with Jean-Francois-Paillard’s recording with his chamber orchestra in 1968.
The piece has an Ostinato in the bass line, which means the combination of notes the instruments play occurs repeatedly. Additionally, the original piece found the violins repeating several themes by trading them off between each instrument. This is the definition of a canon. Pop music producer Pete Waterman called the Canon, “almost the godfather of pop music because we’ve all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years”.
The music is incredibly soothing. When listening to the Paillard version, it brings about an almost meditative state. The harmonies of the song are based on music theory that has been proven to be the most aesthetically pleasing to the human ear. If you’ve never heard the piece, or if you’ve never heard the Paillard version, give it a listen.
The Transcendent: Also Sprach Zarathustra Op. 30, “The Sunrise” by Richard Strauss
This category is assigned to pieces that sweep us from our current confines of the home, the commute, or the workplace, and launch us into an otherworldly experience altogether. Most people know this work via it’s introduction, called “The Sunrise”, as it was featured in the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but it’s part of a much more grand experience. The entire piece runs about 30 mins or so.
I’ve included this specifically for the opening as it manages to accomplish the aforementioned awe, wonder, and mind altering effects in less than 2 minutes. The main theme finds itself driven by brass and the decidedly gargantuan sound of the 5th, 1st, 5th scale degrees of the key. A fun side note is that these are the scale degrees, when played simultaneously, that create the foundation of rock and metal music.
In this piece, you’ll find yourself acquiring a sense of adventure. As if all barriers and boundaries cease to exist. It is a truly inspiring work of art and I highly recommend listening not only to this introduction, but to the entire piece. This musical work may be 30 minutes, but it’s time well spent.
The Fun One: William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini
The piece most modern folks know of as the Theme From The Lone Ranger is actually the finale of a 12 minute piece written for an opera of the same name. It starts out ominous, developing into thoughtful discourse with its chording and structure taking a narrative component to convey the name of the section: Dawn. The piece makes a rocky transition into the next part, called “Storm” and a third section called “Ranz des Vaches”, or Call to the Cows. All of this sets up the final section of the piece titled “March of the Swiss Soldiers”(which is the finale), where the soldiers are on their way to liberate their homeland from Austrian oppression.
This piece is simply a good time. It’s uber march feel instantly lifts the spirits. It’s hard not to feel emboldened, happy, and excited by the major chord romp through the alps. Admittedly, I have found myself enthusiastically conducting in the car as I drove down the road. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to do something similar. Listening to the finale is what music is supposed to be: carefree and inspiring.
Virtuoso’s Glory : Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 1st Movement
This piece is well known amongst violinists and arguably classical music in general. It begins with soft pleasantries and then shifts into a preview of the driving intensity the piece has to offer, foreshadowing the epic performance about to unfold. The piece itself is a dynamic wave of volume, effortlessly using the back and forth of soft and loud to deliver tension.
One of my favorite aspects of this piece is how the orchestra enters and exits gracefully. At times, you hardly know it’s there. But the composer reminds you of it’s presence by bringing the entire ensemble together for the tutti(meaning the whole orchestra) sections in a way that makes the listener appreciate it’s contribution. Tchaikovsky masterfully knows when to thin out the instruments involved and when to bring everyone back together in a way that delights the senses and tells a tale without overpowering the soloist.
The main theme of the tutti section is marvelous. It reminds the listener of all the sweeping, memorable, and spectacular motifs and melodies found in today’s movie scores. If you’re a fan of movie music, check out the first movement of this concerto. When it comes to memorable moments of grandeur, John Williams probably took a page or two from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
I hope everyone enjoys these pieces. They’re just a few that top my list. Of course, this entire compilation is my personal opinion. Having said that, even if one piece isn’t your cup of tea, it’s great to expose yourself to something new, or even something you don’t like. As a musician, I have found that doing just that has helped me grow as much if not more than playing my favorite tracks on repeat. Have a great day, and remember, music is magic!