OR SEVERAL YEARS, our blog contributors have wanted to produce a “Listening Guide” for readers. There are certain musical compositions everyone simply must hear before they die.1 The problem is, there are too many wonderful pieces to choose from! If one chooses Rachmaninoff, what about Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt? If one chooses Palestrina, what about Lassus and Guerrero? If one chooses Bach, what about Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert? We must overcome this paralysis. Even the longest journey begins with a single step.
Bookmark this URL
so you can always find this list,
which will grow more lengthy
with each passing week.
(7) Johann Sebastian Bach: “French Suites”
Jeff Ostrowski: You might have already heard parts of the Bach FRENCH SUITES without even realizing it. For example, the brief Gavotte from French Suite No. 5 (BWV 816) is very famous, and often assigned to budding piano students. The excerpt above is played by Glenn Gould. The interpretation truly does make a difference! Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any artist being able to present these French Suites in a more convincing way than Gould does. Next time you take a long car trip, I strong urge you to listen to all six French Suites played by Glenn Gould.
(6) James MacMillan: “Seven Last Words From The Cross”
Dr. Alfred Calabrese: If the name and music of Sir James MacMillan are not known to those interested, involved, and inspired by Catholic music, then that is a situation that I hope this post will remedy. I consider him to be, along with Arvo Pärt, the most important living composer of our time. The Scottish MacMillan came to prominence in the early 1990’s. His Roman Catholic faith has inspired many of his works, including two Passions, several Masses, a Magnificat and Stabat Mater. Even some purely orchestral pieces nod to names and tunes found in the faith.
In 1993 MacMillan completed his Seven Last Words from the Cross, a Cantata for Choir and String Orchestra. This is a gripping and intense setting of Christ’s final words from the Cross and some of the Good Friday Tenebrae responsories. The heartbreaking string writing of the opening draws the listener into this unique sound world, both modern and ancient. Silence is juxtaposed with emotionally charged outbursts, (see “Woman, Behold Thy Son!”), while elements of Scottish lament touch the soul with pathos and immediacy. After hearing this work, especially in a live performance, I can say that not a dry eye or unmoved heart can be found. This is, in short, a true masterpiece.
An excellent recording was made by Stephen Layton and Polyphony, but it’s not on youtube.
(5) Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”)
Keven Smith (25 March 2022): I was but a 19-year-old freshman at Curtis Institute of Music when I had the good fortune to play second clarinet in this massive work. Mahler’s Second Symphony deals with the composer’s thoughts on death and the afterlife. I knew Mahler 2 would be the musical highlight of the schoolyear at Curtis—everyone had been talking about it since I got to Philadelphia—but it wasn’t until we began rehearsing the piece that I understood how powerful a programmatic symphony can be. During the five movements of this piece, you’ll experience a funeral march, fond memories, utter despair, the trumpets of the apocalypse, and a great thunder by which the graves of the dead are broken open so that they can walk the earth once again. The finale brings a heavenly chorus. I remember sitting on stage during the fifth movement of our performance and realizing that the first movement seemed like two weeks ago. What better time of year to listen to the “Resurrection” symphony? You can also read this introduction to Symphony no. 2.
(4) Franz Joseph Haydn: “The Creation”
Dr. Tappan (23 March 2022): Today I share with readers Haydn’s ever glorious “The Creation,” which premiered in Vienna in 1798 and has been performed ever since. I had never heard parts of this work until in graduate school, and I—who am usually quite reserved—was moved to tears when I heard the composer’s setting of that primordial sunrise, an incredible but simple climbing D major scale above its attendant dissonance, all played in the strings until the orchestra enters at the climax. Haydn later used some of the material from “The Creation” in his “Creation Mass.”
(3) Johann Sebastian Bach: “Art Of The Fugue”
* Mp3 Download • Contrapunctus 5 (Played on the organ)
* Mp3 Download • Contrapunctus 7 (Played on the piano)
* Mp3 Download • Contrapunctus 7 (Played on the organ)
* Mp3 Download • Contrapunctus 2 (Played on the piano)
Jeff Ostrowski (14 March 2022): If you could only listen to one thing for the rest of your life, the best choice would probably be Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Essentially, Bach takes a MOTIF and—in a series of fabulous pieces—shows how such a theme can be developed. You can listen to Glenn Gould playing the entire Art of the Fugue free on YouTube, but I strongly recommend you purchase the CD on Amazon—it’s only like $6.00 (and you’ll never spend money better). In 1975, Sir Neville Marriner recorded the Art of the Fugue with the “Academy of St Martin in the Fields”—and you can purchase the collection on two CDs. [Disc number 1, tracks 7-9 are definitely worth hearing.] One of the recordings above is played by someone named “jfeucht82.” The others are by Glenn Gould, who began his career as an organist. Whichever piece you listen to, try to pick out the theme; sometimes it’s upside down, sometimes the intervals have been “filled in,” sometimes it’s augmented, and sometimes it’s used in diminution. Gould’s live performance on his “harpsi-piano” is interesting.
(2) Sergei Rachmaninov: “Third Concerto”
* Mp3 Download • Horowitz plays “Rach3” (9 February 2022)
Jeff Ostrowski: This is one of the most famous “pirated” recordings of all time. In the 1990s, only a few people owned a cassette copy (I was one) … but now it’s all over YouTube. In an unforgettable 1941 performance, Vladimir Horowitz plays Rachmaninov’s 3rd concerto with John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Everybody must hear this recording at some point—it’s truly breathtaking, especially the repeated notes in the 2nd movement.
(1) Giovanni Gabrieli: “Deus, In Nomine Tuo”
* Mp3 Download • “DEUS IN NOMINE TUO” (8 February 2022)
Jeff Ostrowski: Even the longest journey begins with a single step; so let’s begin with Giovanni Gabrieli (d. 1612). I suppose Gabrieli is considered a “Renaissance composer” (and he did study with Orlando de Lassus), yet he has very little to do with Palestrina, Guerrero, or Victoria. Gabrieli served as choirmaster at Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I’ve never been there, but somebody told me it has several choir lofts, which are separated from each other. Gabrieli was a master of Cori Spezzati (“Divided Chorus”), and I have no idea which choir loft held the conductor. However, the singers probably had to watch very carefully, since they were so far away from each other. There is a wonderful recording made in the spring of 1967 by the Gregg Smith Singers, the Texas Boys Choir, E. Power Biggs and Vittorio Negri. They actually traveled to Gabrieli’s church in Venice. I knew someone who sang on that recording as a small boy. He says they had to pay the bars to shut down (owing to the noise) and the recordings were made at night. According to this person’s testimony, they preferred Vittorio Negri as a conductor. If you look at the final bars, you will get a sense of how difficult this piece is! The recordings are available on YouTube. The whole record is marvelous; this is just one piece! Here is a translation:
Deus, in nomine tuo salvum me fac,
Et in virtute tua libera me.
Save me, O God, by thy name,
and judge me in thy strength.
Deus, exaudi orationem meam;
Auribus percipe verba oris mei.
O God, hear my prayer:
give ear to the words of my mouth.
Quoniam alieni insurrexerunt [contra] me,
Et fortes quæsierunt animam meam.
Et non proposuerunt Deum ante conspectum suum.
For strangers have risen up against me;
and the mighty have sought after my soul:
and they have not set God before their eyes.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 When it comes to our “Essential Listening Guide,” we will strive to choose music which can be downloaded instantly. Needless to say, the particular performance is very important. A masterpiece is ruined when its performers do a poor job. The first installment is a piece by Gabrieli. But that’s only the first installment! We will have so much more: Bach, Victoria, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, etc. These are the pieces every human on earth must hear before they die.