The most common phrase I hear about Classical Music has always been “it’s too complicated for me.” Completely understandable though this thought might be, I’m here to encourage all of you to take a second glimpse into the beauty that is the journey of Classical Music. Hopefully, you’ll take this opportunity of spare time that has been endowed upon us all during these difficult times, and use it to chillax with classical music. I have compiled a list of music to fit different moods that might permeate throughout your day; so give it a twirl and you might find yourself satisfied in ways you never thought possible.
In the mood for Love: Dimtry Shostakovich – The Gadfly “Romance”
To start things off, I present to you a piece that was written for a Russian film in 1955 and was composed by Dimitri Shostakovich. Usually known for his more bombastic works, The Gadfly is a stunningly beautiful work by the Russian Genius. The soaring melancholic lines sing with a certain yearning that, to me, sound like a song being sung to our loved ones. If you pay special attention to the arpeggiated figures that rise upwards in the violins, it sounds like love being triumphant above all else. And in times where we are physically distanced from our loved ones, perhaps this feeling is what we all need right now.
In the mood for serenity: Johann Sebastian Bach – Goldberg Variations
Legend has it that Count Hermann Karl von Kaiserling, who was Russian ambassador to Saxony in the mid-18th century, frequented Leipzig with keyboardist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The Count suffered from insomnia, and while there the Count asked Johann Sebastian Bach to compose a piece, for Goldberg to play, that would help the Count relax during his restless nights. While this story is most likely full of fiction, it paints a beautiful picture as a backdrop to this masterpiece of a work.
To give more context, one can think of a set of classical variations as a character study. Variations start with a complete melody (a ‘theme’), that’s played to completion. Once the theme ends, the theme, harmonies and rhythms are modified in a variety of ways that create variations on the original statement. This creates a meditative quality that can lead one into a Zen-like state that could be perfect for that afternoon stress relief.
In the mood for action: Gustav Holst: The Planets “Mars” and “Jupiter”
Who said classical music is boring? These two movements from Gustav’s Holst gigantic orchestral suite The Planets easily prove that classical music can pack a punch when it needs to. Mars seemingly depicts the image of an alien invasion that could easily be part of the War of the Worlds. In fact, Holst even subtitles this movement as “The Bringer of War” and clearly had in mind an action-packed, full-scale fight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is “Jupiter”. You can imagine that this movement illustrates the triumphant victory that is brought forth after the war is over. Nevertheless, give this movement a shot if you need that late day pick-me-up.
In the mood for simplicity: Arvo Part – Fratres for Violin and Piano
Sometimes we have to simplify our complex thoughts to give structure and understanding to difficult circumstances. In Fratres, the piece starts off with seemingly tumultuous thoughts that are played on the violin. Once these feelings reach their ultimate peak, the violin is interrupted by the piano which brings back simplicity to the life of the listener. These simple ideas are slowly explored, developed and dissected before finally ending with a simple tranquil ending that brings back a peace of mind that was first stated in the piano. The hauntingly beautiful simplicity can certainly help one collect their thoughts and help us all process our complex minds at a more relaxing pace. Bonus: I (the writer) filmed and performed for this video at my Alma Mater Rice University along with Violinist Emily Nebel several years ago.
In the mood for joy: Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet, The Trout 4th movement.
What can be more joyful than watching a fish simply swimming in a stream on a peaceful, warm afternoon. That is exactly what Schubert wanted to depict in the last movement to his wonderfully happy Piano Quintet. The main motive of the work clearly stems from rising and falling notes that start and end in the same place; imagine this as the image of a trout jumping in and out of the stream. No complex thoughts are needed here, just close your eyes, imagine your happy place, and smile along with the superbly cheerful tunes that ooze throughout this lovely work.
There are thousands upon thousands of possible choices I could have chosen for any of the above moods, but I tried to go off the beaten path with this list of music while making sure they can still serve as a primer for new listeners of this genre. One last thing I’d like to give to the reader as food for thought; Music is an artform that only resonates over a duration of time. Give it a chance, and listen to each track in full. Much like a film, it can’t really be appreciated without going on the full journey. So open up your minds, and your hearts, and let yourself be swept up in the beautiful sounds of classical music and just chillax.
Listen to all of the selections on Spotify:
About the writer:
Pianist Christopher Janwong McKiggan’s (Doctorate of Musical Arts, Rice University) playing has been called as “masterful, highly contrasted and sharply characterized” (Gramophone), and he has been hailed as having “astounding technique… startling poise and control” (Kansas City Star), “astonishing virtuosity and piano coloration” (The Citizen), being “commanding” (Limelight), “outstanding” (Bangkok Post) and “proving to be colossus, converting every piece into a virtuoso composition” (The Manila Times). In its review of McKiggan’s debut solo CD Paganimania, Fanfare, called McKiggan “the best hope for a global music of the future.”
McKiggan won a top prize as laureate at the prestigious 12th UNISA International Piano Competition (WFIMC) and won numerous other top awards in multiple International and National Piano Competitions around the globe.
As an educator he is the co-founder/head artist of the Piano Academy of Bangkok, and his students have won top prizes in multiple National and International competitions around the world.
He has also worked as a director and director of photography having professional work released as commercials, music videos, and promotional videos.