I recently came across a list of the “10 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music” on a blog somewhere. Of course it contained the standards like Beethoven 9 and Carmina Burana (which are great works, don’t get me wrong) but I couldn’t help be reflect that the list should have been called the “10 Most Commonly Known Pieces of Classical Music”. One of the major criticisms coming from the orchestral community begrudges the masses’ ignorance of countless great masterpieces. I don’t think the problem really lies with the masses, but rather with the overwhelming volume of the repertoire and obscurity of recordings. If you don’t know that much about classical music but are looking for something new to listen to, where would you even begin? I’m hoping that with this list I can share some lesser-known but just as powerful pieces that have made an impression on me in one way or another. Even if you are familiar with one or two of these, I’m sure you’ll get to hear something new. Enjoy!
Most people are familiar with Brahms’ iconic Hungarian Dance #5. As the name suggests however, there are a few others in the reparatory (21 in fact). This particular dance is not unlike #5 in its character and, although I stumbled upon it quite by accident, I think it deserves a slot on this list. If you enjoy it, by all means check out the other 20. Especially if you’re not familiar with #5, definitely give that a listen!
9. "Poeme Roumaine" (Romanian Poem)
Never mind the obscurity of his works, George Enescu himself is largely unknown (outside of Romania that is). He composed Poem Roumaine in 1897 when he was just 16! Although it’s probably the most obscure work on this list, I couldn’t resist including it on account of its haunting beauty. Like the Hungarian Dance, I discovered this by chance on a CD containing some other piece I was looking for. Among his other works for orchestra are the two Romanian Rhapsodies which I would highly recommend. (Parts 2 & 3 of this video can be found here and here)
8. "Lieutenant Kije Suite" (Troika)
As a percussionist, I often erroneously took for granted that Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kije Suite” was well known. He wrote the music as a film score and then an orchestra suite in 1934. The story was meant to be a silent criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy and featured a fictitious “Lieutenant Kije”, who’s entire existence was fabricated in an effort to validate a typo in military report to the Czar. The music from the Troika is certainly the most recognizable from the suite and it’s been known to make an appearance on the radio around Christmas time.
7. "Cuban Overture"
It may be a far cry from the previous masterworks, but I couldn’t help but feel this list needed an American composer. George Gershwin composed the Cuban Overture in 1932 after vacationing in Havana. It’s jam packed with Caribbean rhythm and percussion and is just plain exciting. Once again, I stumbled upon this by accident while I was listening to some more iconic Gershwin compositions like “American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue”. (Part two of this video can be found here)
6. "L'Arlesienne Suite"
Yet another accidental discovery and I have to say this has become one of my favorites! Although he only lived to be 36, Bizet achieved immortality through his opera “Carmen”. “L'Arlésienne” was composed in 1872 to accompany a play and later as two orchestra suits. “Farandole” is the last movement of the second suit and it’s just awesome.
Unlike the other pieces on this list, I actually got the opportunity to play this one. It begins and ends with a powerful fanfare thick with brass and timpani. The other movements are awesome as well and it’s all even more remarkable when you consider that Janácek was 72 when he wrote it!
4. "Lord Nelson Mass"
As far as orchestral church music goes, most of us have heard the old stand bys; Handel’s “Messiah”, Bach’s “Magnificot, Mozart’s “Requiem”… but Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” deserves a shout-out (besides not list of classical icons be complete without an Austrian). I came into contact with this piece as part of a listening assignment for a music history class and it wasn’t long before we were all humming along to it.
3. "Cortège de Bacchus" (from Sylvia)
One of the problems with classical masterpieces is that they are often hidden in lengthy and seldom performed operas, well out of the reach of the casual classical listener. To solve this problem, I’m going to introduce you to some great selections from Delibes’ operas. The “Cortège de Bacchus” from Sylvia is awesome as are the “Indian Bell Song” and the “Flower Duet”, both from Lakmé. Check them out!
2. "The Moldau"
You would be hard pressed to find a work as purely Czech as the Moldau. It is a musical description of the Vltava River which winds its way through Prague. The main theme which is stated at the beginning and again at the end is unforgettable! It’s also worthy of note that Smetana was completely deaf when he wrote it (Beethoven wasn’t the only deaf composer after all). (Part 2 of this video can be found here)
1. "Procession of the Sardar"
I first heard this piece on the radio at work during a segment called “One hit wonders” (You know, one of those miserable excuses for a classical station to play Carmina Burana a million times). I was just amazed I could have missed something as awesome as this so I dropped what I was doing and hurried over to the radio waiting for the announcer to tell me what it was. The “Procession of the Sardar” comes from Ivanov’s “Caucasian Sketches” and was composed between 1894 and 1896. If you’ve never heard it before, you’re in for a treat!
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Last Modified: Friday, October 2, 2009.