Let the bright Seraphim rejoice! Handelian exclamatory aside, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for (just go with it, okay?)…the moment I unveil the last of my Top Eight classical pieces. Remember, they are in no particular order, lest Copland and Beethoven get into some sort of otherworldly she-loves-me-more squabble.
7. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), The Lark Ascending First things first: His name is not “Ralph” as in the beloved rodent hero of children’s fiction. It is the highbrow “Rafe”, as in the beloved hero of grownup films such as The English Patient. If pressed (and by “pressed” I mean tantalized with a free trip to Fiji) I will tell you that RVW is my favorite composer. Like a moth to a flame I am endlessly drawn to the lushly orchestrated, highly melodic, clean, bright music he penned. I love virtually everything he composed, but The Lark Ascending is an absolute standout. Based on English poet George Meredith’s eponymous poem, the piece features a solo violin-as-lark, the lilting arpeggios of which gracefully swoop in and out of the orchestral measures. RVW was devoted to folk music, and the B section is an echo of just that. I love when the violin is trilling over a triangle and the woodwinds (oboe and clarinet). It’s amazing to me how Vaughan Williams was able to musically capture a lark in such a shockingly vivid way. The entire piece swells and recedes, swells and recedes, ocean-like, but with a feel like velvet. By the last few measures my ears are listening as hard as they can, just to make sure they catch every last bowing of the violin as the lark “is lost on his aerial wings”.
8. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Agon (Greek, “contest”) The music of this important Russian composer has always been difficult for me to listen to. It can be really hard, harsh and clanging, far from the golden fields of RVW or floating clouds of WAM. But because my Sibling and I want to encourage our readers for whom classical music isn’t quite so delightful, I chose Agon to challenge myself and bend my ear a bit. (Disclaimer: there are plenty of people who do not categorize Stravinsky’s works as “classical”.) I’ve been listening to it for quite a few months and I can honestly say I now like and appreciate it. Six months ago? Hated it. Hated it. See how I’m growing? Quick history: Agon is a ballet choreographed by the great George Balanchine. He and Stravinsky had a notable artistic relationship, which still shines brightly thanks to the New York City Ballet. What really knocks me out about Agon is that it’s largely written in twelve tone (a first for Igor). Twelve tone means that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used throughout a composition without any emphasis on one single note. It also means that said composition isn’t in any key. Agon is in four sections and scored for a large orchestra. If you are able to make it halfway through, you’ll even hear castanets. It’s not pretty. It’s not relaxing. At certain points it doesn’t even make sense. But I greatly respect Stravinsky for the architectural interest he brought to the modern landscape.