You tell your friends about an obscure band you discovered, and they admire how hip you are, right? Unfortunately for classical musicians, the more obscure pieces you know, the bigger geek you are. But it’s a happy sort of nerdiness. Archives (paper and digital) are filled with glorious, delightfully innovative music, and “discovering” a less-known piece feels like finding a rare gem.
In FAIL! Avoid Three Common Mistakes in Writing Musician Characters, I complained about “war horse” pieces that are
overrated overused, such as Pachelbel’s Canon and Beethoven’s Für Elise. Today I’m featuring alternatives to 5 famous pieces you probably know and are perhaps a bit tired of. If you like to expand your listening and try new music, check out these less-known but utterly worthy substitutes for your Classical playlist. Who knows – maybe you’re a geek at heart. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell.)
Note: I linked listening samples to YouTube. If you fall in love with a piece, I hope you’ll purchase it from a retail source and support the artists.
1. Like Pachelbel’s Canon?
Maybe you remember a simplified version of this piece on the “Master and Commander” (2003) soundtrack? The producers chose wisely for that sunny panoramic shot of the warship dancing across the waves, when all is well in an ironic sort of way for the Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany characters. (The actors passably faked playing stringed instruments for the movie.) While Pachelbel’s Canon is lovely and jubilant, it’s also predictable. Some find it unforgivably repetitive. Corelli’s Adagio loses no points in the beauty pageant and boasts a sophisticated, sentimental joy that makes you keep hitting the “replay” button. When my string quartet plays at a wedding, we frequently persuade the bride to defect from Pachelbel to Corelli for her unforgettable walk down the aisle, and she doesn’t regret choosing the more distinctive piece.
2. Are you a fan of Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet?
Listen to Sospiri by Sir Edward Elgar.
Heart-breakingly tender music for solo cello and orchestra by Elgar (1857-1934), one of the greatest English folk romanticists. You may hear elements reminding you of old Celtic or “Oriental” music. If I ever heard this performed live, I fear I might crawl onto the stage and pledge undying devotion to the cellist before I could stop myself.
3. Familiar with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?
Only The Bible could provide such an epic tale of adventure, love, betrayal, and heroism. Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) captured it all in this ballet movement from his opera, Samson and Delilah. On stage you’d see giant gilded idols erupting steam, dozens of jangling Philistine dancers, the wiles of the treacherous Delilah, and finally, Samson’s climactic collapse of the temple pillars. I hope you enjoy this gargantuan orchestra playing music that’s the audial equivalent of a rhinoceros dose of adrenaline shot directly into the brain.
4. Do you like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata?
Try Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt.
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (1935 -) embraces “minimalism,” a modern, largely American style of composition featuring rhythmic or harmonic stasis – a fancy term for repetition. In a nutshell, “less is more.” Spiegel im spiegel translates to “mirror in the mirror,” or “mirror inside a mirror,” implying infinite reflections. I love Pärt’s music for its elegant simplicity. I hear longing and reverence, but so understated the feeling comes softly. Perfect music for meditation.
5. Love Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor?
Wait ’til you hear Fratres by Arvo Pärt.
The “Mighty” Chaconne is rightly dubbed. Pristine. Supremely virtuosic. So sublime it’s spiritual. Unlike some of the other famous pieces I’m advocating less-known substitutes for, Chaconne deserves its spot on your playlist; I’m suggesting you make room for its kinky little sister. Elementally similar, Fratres might evoke the same emotions, but with a twist. If listening to Chaconne feels like experiencing every monumental event of your life – good and bad – condensed into ten minutes, then Fratres is the same, but through the filter of a bizarre dream. Chaconne is the buttressed ceiling of a cathedral, and Fratres is the window view from a space shuttle. Chaconne reminds you of the first time you fell in love, and Fratres makes you relive that one moment you wouldn’t ever talk about and couldn’t find words for anyway, but thinking about it still makes you blush. Complex. Trippy. Ethereally gorgeous. Enjoy!