One "all time favorites" compilation is advertised as "The Only Classical Music CD You'll Ever Need." We beg to differ; making our choice was no easy task.
Cologne's Festival of Early Music, which began on March 17 and comes to an end on April 2, had an interesting theme this year: Greatest Hits. We think of hits as things that come and go, but hit music long predates the charts, classical or otherwise. Motifs, melodies and complete compositions we call "classical" are enduring, and when performed in a different setting or restored to the original sound, they continue to engage the imagination and the spirit. After all, their sheer familiarity gives them a head start. We've been inspired to make our own selection, narrowing down the original list from 50, then to 25, and now 11. And we hope, in the process, to get lots of responses to the tune of, "How could you have ever forgotten (fill in the blank)?"
It's hard to pick an all-time favorite by this composer. Would it be the thundering Toccata in D Minor for organ? Or the inextinguishable "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," whose lilting refrains are so captivating that, listening to them, church choristers miss their entries? Or his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with its mechanical, turbo-baroque energy? The Badinerie, perhaps, from the Orchestral Suite No. 2, immortalized as a popular cell phone ring tone? Any of these could join the top 10 best loved classical music pieces ever, but we've chosen the "Air on the G String" from another Bach Orchestral Suite, No. 3 in D Major. The warm and gentle contours of the piece carry you off to paradise - or rather, from the first notes, you're already there. It's an obligatory piece in any meditation studio - but not only there.
We would have also liked to have included Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana"
Beethoven: Ode to Joy
Between "Für Elise" and the "Pathetique," plunked out or hacked through by countless piano students, it's just as hard to decide on just one all-time Beethoven favorite. Or maybe the iconic "fate knocking at the door" ta-ta-ta-TAAAHHH of the Fifth Symphony, described as the first riff in music history? That melody - if in fact it even is a melody - can hardly be outdone for recognition rating, yet my vote goes to the "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth Symphony. While the words speak of a utopian brotherhood of the peoples, the melody is the official anthem of the European Union. The symphony with its choral finale is a mainstay at New Year's concerts and at signature events such as this year's opening of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. And Beethoven's Ninth is just about the only non-Wagnerian work to have ever been performed in Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Not bad for a composer who was completely deaf at the time he penned it.
A dark-haired temptress, seduction, jealousy, freedom and death - it's all contained in the Habanera "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Love is a Wild Bird) sung by the gypsy woman who captures a soldier's heart. And it's only one of the immortal melodies from arguably the world's most popular opera. Opinions will differ on that, too, though. Others will cast their vote for Mozart's "Magic Flute." But we digress…
No national anthem can outdo "The Star-Spangled Banner" for its stiffness and difficult-to-sing quality, or "God Save the Queen" for its graceful air of pomp and circumstance. But for sheer beauty of composition, our vote goes to Germany's national anthem. It comes from a string quartet with theme and variations by Joseph Haydn. Before Germany was even a nation-state, the melody from it was recycled into an official hymn honoring an Austrian head of state, "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" (God Save Emperor Franz). And no: Germany's national anthem doesn't begin with the words "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" (Germany, Germany above all) - they don't come until the third verse, and in the text, they don't assign the country a status among the world's countries, just within the heart of the singer.
L'homme armé (The Armed Man)
You won't find this one on the classical music charts, but in the late 14th century, the song that warned about men in arms was so popular that it was used as a theme in countless mass settings in the French and Flemish lands. Anti-militarism clearly isn't limited to modern times, as we learned at Cologne's Festival of Early Music. Another enduring medieval hit, incidentally, is "Lachrimae pavan" (Flow My Tears), preserved in countless song and instrumental settings by a number of composers.
Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Tucked away in a lengthy serenade, this immortal melody could almost be overlooked. Yet it emerged from the fray because of the motif: an ascending melody that catches your attention like a rocket launch, followed by the descending melodic answer. And having gotten your attention with these seconds of sheer perfection, Mozart doesn't disappoint you in what comes afterwards. Pure genius. Incidentally, a generation ago, pregnant women and young mothers were encouraged to inundate their progeny with Mozart, the promise made that his music was "Good for Baby's IQ." Has there been a resultant surge in intellectual ability among millennials? Maybe it's time for serious research.
Another ring-tone hit, this melody was played to satiation point by classical music radio stations in the US in the 1990s - and survived. Not too much other material by Johann Pachelbel is known, but this durable ditty probably made many thousands of people classical music fans - even if they didn't listen to anything else afterwards.
At the premiere of the ballet danced to Maurice Ravel's composition in 1928 at the Paris Opera, one woman in the audience cried out, "Help! He's crazy!" To which the composer replied, "She's understood it." Ravel was later mystified by the enduring popularity of the music, which graduated from the ballet stage to the concert hall. "I've created only one masterpiece, the Bolero," he said. "Unfortunately, there's no music in it." This piece of non-music consists of only one lengthy, dreamy, exotic melody and another equally dreamy and exotic melodic reply, going back and forth over and over again and taking the listener on a guided tour of the various instrumental sections and timbres of the orchestra - growing in strength, power and volume until it all comes crashing down around our ears.
Strauss: By the Beautiful Blue Danube
"Unfortunately, not by me" is how Johannes Brahms described the piece. It came instead from the pen of Johann Strauss, Jr., who with his traveling orchestra was probably the first pop star in music history - and this piece one of his major hits. But not originally: In 1865, Strauss was commissioned to write a piece to lift the spirits of his countrymen after Austria's defeat at the hands of Prussia, and the piece was only a lukewarm success. Now, however, this it is seen as embodying the spirit of Vienna and is considered Austria's unofficial national anthem. There's no escaping this lilting waltz, there or anywhere else - even in outer space, as the unforgettable accompaniment to the docking of two space vehicles in Stanley Kubrick's iconic 1967 film "2001 - A Space Odyssey."
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
It's one of those pieces that will be recognized by those who never listen to classical music. And be it the cheerful "Spring," the "Summer" storm or the frozen "Winter" landscape, it's a tossup as to which melody from Antonio Vivaldi's set of violin concertos has best permeated the collective consciousness. Igor Stravinsky, a later composer, once disparagingly said that Vivaldi composed the same concerto 500 times. Opinions will differ on that, but not about the standout quality of this composition - any time of the year.
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Wagner: Bridal Chorus from 'Lohengrin'
Some might cast their votes for "Ride of the Valkyries" as a typical Wagnerian ditty complete with visions of immortal mounted warrior women gleefully galloping through the skies. But no: for sheer frequency of playing, the tah-TUMP-pah-taah takes first place. Yes, that very familiar melody comes from the Second Act of Richard Wagner's opera "Lohengrin." The wedded bliss ushered in by the melody in this Romantic opera doesn't even last through the wedding night, though - and typically for Wagner, it's all the woman's fault.: Elsa has the temerity to pose the forbidden question, asking her newlywed husband just where he's come from. With Wagner, women are either reckless or redeemers, with, unfortunately, very little in between. But this Wagnerian melody has certainly withstood the test of time, followed in a close second in the nuptial category by Mendelssohn's Wedding March, from his incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
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