So You Want to Listen To Classical Music

By Selorna A. Ackuayi, Contributing Writer
By Nayeli Cardozo

For many listeners, classical music conjures up images of old men in powdered wigs, ballerinas in swan-like tutus, perhaps even a season or two of Bridgerton. The origins of classical music are rooted in Western Europe, with pieces originally being written for churches and royal courts. Given the genre’s long history, four periods have come to define the style’s development. The baroque period spanned the 17th and 18th centuries headed by composers like Bach and Vivaldi. The classical period followed through the 18th and 19th centuries under the leadership of prominent composers like Mozart and Beethoven. The romantic period of the late 19th and 20th centuries brought a more personal and emotional style of the genre, and finally, the quartet is rounded out by the contemporary period beginning in the 20th century and continuing through today.

Behind the antique curtains of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” or Handel’s “Messiah,” lies a fountain of lesser known composers and compositions from across the four periods of music that provide a fresh vantage point from which to explore the genre.

This nonexhaustive list presents a small window into the world of unique classical songs out there through a new approach to appreciating this music.

Recontextualizing Classics

Dance for Harp and Orchestra, L. 103: 2. Danse profane” - Claude Debussy (1904)

Heavy on the harp, Debussy’s “Danse Profane,” brings a light-hearted, whimsical feel to classical music. The song’s soundtrack-like nature tells the story of an ethereal dreamscape, with soft harp notes transitioning into louder orchestral movements then back to silence — creating a sense of exploratory suspense.

Prelude from Bach Cello Suite #1” - Alex de Grassi (1994)

De Grassi’s fresh take on this quintessential piece of classical music brings even more appreciation to Bach’s original cello arrangement. The overlapping of melodies and harmonies all on a single guitar provide a young and spritely feel to a very poised piece of music.

Scarborough Fair” - Sheku-Kanneh Mason & Plínio Fernandes (Arranged for Cello and Guitar by Simon Parkin) (2020)

Mason and Fernandes take Scarborough Fair to a new level, abandoning the traditional use of winds to play this English ballad from the Middle Ages. In combining the sounds of guitar and cello to express the old folk song’s haunting melody, the song becomes almost comforting and familiar. Parkin’s arrangement of the piece is more than just transposition, it is a literal rearrangement of rhythms and note patterns and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the listener on the edge of their seat.

Spiegel im Spiegel” - Arvo Pärt (1978)

The intimacy of the simple opening arpeggios from the piano and the water-like flow of the violin intertwine in a delicate dance. “Spiegel im Spiegel” signals innocence and rebirth, mirroring the piece’s contemporary composition – a modern musical rebirth and reimagining of classical music.

Beyond Piano and Strings

Romance in D Flat Major, Op. 37”- Camille Saint-Saëns (1871)

Saint-Saëns’s flute solo starts off sweet and almost understated, but gradually becomes majestic as the music crescendos and reaches several high notes that punctuate the climax of the piece. This confidence is maintained as the piece progresses. The dynamism between sweet and confident helps the piece maintain a balance between unnoticed and overwhelming — the perfect song to listen to on a peaceful walk.

Five Bagatelles, Op. 23A, V. Fughetta: Allegro Vivace” - Gerald Finzi (1945)

One of Finzi’s “Five Bagatelles” featuring a clarinet alongside a piano, “Fughetta” displays a crisp and playful clarinet sound with bright notes that engage in a dance with the corresponding piano accompaniment. Although playful, the clarinet maintains a grand and dignified air that seems to evoke an image of an older child telling their younger siblings a daring story.

Variations on a Hungarian Folksong “The Peacock”: Moderato” - Zoltan Kodaly (1937-1939)

Kodaly’s Moderato of “The Peacock” is yet another wind clarinet featured piece. The piece opens up with timpani and horns, then the clarinet, lending to an innocuous and calming blend of winds that keep the climax of the piece a surprise. A minute into the piece, a series of string instruments bring buoyancy to the piece, before a harp comes in and the music begins to soar. Listeners will get the sense of flying, an obvious nod to the piece’s name.

Introduction and Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, Flute, and Clarinet” - Maurice Ravel (1905)

Ravel’s chamber music piece combines the lightness of the string and wind instruments to create a frantic energy reminiscent of raindrops — with the harp cutting through periodically to calm the piece down as if caught in the eye of a storm.

Underrepresented Identities in Classical Music

3 Compositions, Op. 40: No. 2, Berceuse” - Amy Beach (1898)

Beach, an American female composer, composed this brief lullaby alongside two other compositions entitled “La Captive” and “Mazurka.” Beach imbues a loving and caring ambience into this piece with a violin melody firmly but smoothly maneuvering over a peaceful piano in the background.

Feeling Exceptional”- Kris Bowers (2020)

Black composer Kris Bower’s “Feeling Exceptional” is one of the pieces composed for “Bridgerton” (of which Bower composed the whole score). The piece mixes the vintage classical music feel representative of the regency era the show is inspired by with a more modern percussiveness — driven by dramatic drums and a consistent bass — that give the song an addicting quality.

Hang the Art” - Khari Mateen (2021)

Mateen, a Black composer from California, composed this piece for a film called “Really Love” that premiered in 2020. With opening chords from a piano, slowly followed by the comforting resonance of a cello, this one-minute piece maintains a spacious introductory aura that spells out the feeling of new love.

Chrysalis Extended” - Nia Imani (2021)

Nia Imani Franklin is a Black female composer from North Carolina and the founder of ComposeHer, an advocacy project that highlights female composers. Just after a slow introduction featuring a smooth set of elongated chords played on various strings, with an almost unnoticeable underlying percussive rhythm from a bass, “Chrysalis Extended” almost leans into jazz with various horns pushing on the original string baseline, much like a butterfly escaping a chrysalis.