How often do you listen to music? How long do you listen? How intently do you listen? From my conversations with other classical guitarists, it turns out we are awful at listening to music, specifically classical music. It seems like the only thing we listen to, if we’re listening at all, are guitar pieces. How limiting! Now this isn’t to say that listening to other guitarists is not important. Indeed, we can learn plenty from listening to and watching others in the way of fingerings, interpretation, and even new repertoire. But we can’t stop there. If you’re playing William Walton’s Bagatelles, can you name any other pieces by Walton? Which is your favorite? What about Benjamin Britten? Alberto Ginastera? What about the non-guitar pieces by Rodrigo or Villa Lobos? Whatever piece you’re working on right now, listen to as much music as you can by that particular composer. Not only will you get a better sense of that composer’s harmonic language, you’ll learn how to better interpret the music from those non-guitarist musicians. How does a pianist voice this chord or that chord? How does a cellist tackle a certain phrase? By listening to a composer’s music that aren’t the guitar pieces, you’ll not only be able to perform a piece with more clarity and assuredness, you’ll simply become a better musician.
But why stop with just the composers you’re playing? What are your favorite pieces of classical music that have nothing to do with guitar? Do you have any that you can’t live without? Are there any that you just like? I’m going to be honest - if you can’t name 5 classical (non-guitar) pieces off the top of your head that you love, then you are impoverishing yourself. Not only are you missing out on so much great music, you’re missing your chance to be a better musician over all. It’s time to start elevating our playing and musicianship, and it starts with listening. It’s time to stop being simply classical guitarists, and to start becoming classical musicians who happen to be guitarists.
Need help? Start with the major composers if you need and work your way from there. Bach’s B Minor Mass, Renaissance motets, the Beethoven symphonies, late Romanticism, French Impressionism, Minimalism. There’s just so much great stuff out there! If there’s a classical radio station near where you live, turn it on and let it play! You might even hear something you never would have imagined. Turn on YouTube when you’re doing the dishes or laundry. Check out a cd from the library and listen when you’re driving. Just listen!
Now you’re probably thinking, “Fine, smarty pants. What are YOUR favorite pieces of music?” Well, I’m glad you asked! Here are 5 of the pieces of music that really make me tick as a musician. These are the pieces that have solidified a place in my heart…
The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams
RVW looks to the Renaissance for inspiration and finds a motet by composer Thomas Tallis entitled “Why Fum’th in Fight". His use and treatment of the main theme is spellbinding, as is his orchestration of the piece. The harmonic language here is quintessential Vaughan Williams. The score for double string orchestra and string quartet is simply astounding, and from my first listen had me entranced. It’s definitely one of the pieces that I always come back to no matter what. Make sure you’re able to devote all 18 minutes to the piece when you listen. You won’t be disappointed.
Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky
Another strings-only piece, however this one is a string sextet (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos). As far as chamber music goes, this is probably my favorite. Generally Tchaikovsky doesn’t make much of an impression on me (heresy, I know), but this is simply a masterpiece. It’s a wonderfully appealing work that has so much depth to it. From the very first note, it hooks the listener and doesn’t let go. Below is the final movement, but of course you have to listen to all four movements to understand the full depth and scope of the piece. And for the record, the Emerson Quartet’s recording simply kills.
Vespers (All Night Vigil), Op 37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff
I love Rachmaninoff so much. I only wanted to do one piece per composer, so this was a touch decision. His piano Preludes, Symphonies, and Piano Concertos are incredible, but this is the piece that speaks most to me.
I was introduced to this behemoth of acapella music in college when my choral ensemble performed a few movements for a concert. Again, this was a piece that had hooked me from the beginning and I knew I was listening (and learning) something incredibly special. Rachmaninoff takes sacred text and somehow is able to create a piece that is simultaneously earthly and heavenly. There are rich, dark textures in the bass and tenor voices as well as stratospheric, angelic notes in the altos and sopranos. Luckily I was able to hear this piece live in concert back in Arizona. The Kansas City Chorale joined the Phoenix Chorale for what was one of the greatest concerts in my life (their subsequent recording of the Vespers went on to win a Grammy). Here is just one of fifteen movements, but obviously the whole thing is worth exploring.
Scherzo No. 3 in C# Minor by Frederic Chopin
I really debated between the Scherzo, the Fantaisie Impromptu, Etude no. 3 Op. 10, and Etude no. 12 Op.25. Chopin, in my opinion, is the embodiment of Romanticism. You can’t just pick one piece! However, I ultimately went with this Scherzo. It was the first real piece by Chopin that I encountered, and it revealed to me a world that I, more or less, didn’t know existed.
I went to high school with an astounding classical pianist and when he played this piece for me my heart started to flutter. The A section is loud and obnoxious and energetic, but Chopin really hooks you once the B section comes in. Those flowing cascades of arpeggios can make one weep. Whenever I hear this piece I’m immediately transported back to that practice room where I heard it the first time, along with the emotions. I was spellbound then, and I still am today at this magnificent composition.
Finlandia by Jean Sibelius
Finlandia is simply a feel-good piece of music. It’s loud, it’s lyrical, it’s triumphant, it’s haunting, it has anything and everything you need from a 10 minute work. And it’s a quick 10 minutes too. The different sections are short enough to pique your curiosity, and interesting enough to hold your attention. It’s also the source of one of my favorite hymns, “Be Still My Soul.” Did Sibelius write bigger, more substantial works? Sure he did. I love his second symphony. But Finlandia is just enjoyable, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what music is supposed to be about? Finding a piece that sticks with you, that makes you start humming subconsciously? I’d say so.