Good songs in classical, romantic, impressionist and 20th century art music

April 14, 2014

I’ll list only those songs I really like but add a (★) to the those that have especially stuck with me.

Find a cozy chair, turn up the volume and let’s begin.

Aaron Copland

A man of musical contradictions. He has distinct styles, from forbidding angular melodies, to gentle populist songs (for instance commercial background music for a puppet show). He’s all-American, like a musical Frank Lloyd Wright.

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926). A poignant song of spacious yearning. The second movement gets ragtime and goofy though. youtube
  • Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (1926). It confides a sad secret.
  • Piano Variations (1930). Contemptuous, self-sufficient. youtube
  • Sunday Afternoon Music (1935). A simple, pure little song.
  • Appalachian Spring (1944) ★. There is a recording of Copland rehearsing it with an orchestra. On the last movement he makes them retry several times, saying “no, do it like a prayer.” It’s a musical prayer which has stayed with me ever since. youtube
  • Midsummer Nocturne (1947). Jazzy yet contemplative. youtube
  • Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950). Complex, with a peppy neoclassical second movement. youtube
  • Two Ballads for Violin and Piano (1957). Like an edgy lullaby.
  • Night Thoughts (1972).

Virgil Thomson

His compositions have an interesting disinterestedness. It’s as if he indicates his musical exhibits with a pointer, murmuring, “now observe this melody.” Spend some time with his music and enjoy its curious aloofness.

  • Symphony No. 1 “On a Hymn Tune” (1928)★. Sweet hymns mingle with tart accompaniment. A memorable piece that displays Thomson’s characteristic hesitating transitions and American flavor. Listen to both the orchestral and piano arrangements for a better appreciation of the song.
  • Symphony No. 2 (1941). A mercurial romp, sometimes emotionally distant, sometimes intimate.
  • Solitude, a portrait of Lou Harrison (1945). A thorny bramble.
  • Mother of Us All (1947). Ordinarily I don’t enjoy opera, its artifice distracts. But this opera is hypnotic and impulsive.
  • Four Songs to Poems by Thomas Campion (1951). A beautiful arrangement. (I could only find crappy recordings online though)

Erik Satie

Satie lived by his own secret rules. He created an elaborate religion, posted space for let ads in the paper for imaginary castles, developed refined gothic penmanship, wore identical velvet suits every day. He was “born very young in a very old world.” If you get the chance look at his musical scores because they have hidden messages for the performer. I find his first works best and most authentic. Later his music got more compromised to pay the bills. You can listen to his cabaret songs to appreciate how he suffered in life, being often broke and at once point evicted from his cramped Montmartre studio and forced to move to Arcueil.

Imagine him on his long walks (he walked everywhere) under lamplight watching the world and judging it by his internal rules. The works are often built in threes, and are designed to view the same musical material from three angles. Many of the song titles are absurd. Satie took refuge in irony and did not like to reveal his real emotions.

The music does reveal them, however, in a precise, odd, inspired, absolutely unique voice. His compositions might seem infantile to virtuosic performers and people with conventional minds, and Satie even took pains later in life to learn traditional composition at the Schola Cantorum. It simply didn’t suit him. He played what he played and wrote what he wrote, and thankfully kept true to himself.

  • Ogives (1886). Ascetic and stern. I eat this stuff up. youtube
  • Trois Sarabandes (1887). Notice the lack of musical development. The melodies are fragments in a typical Satie dreamworld. youtube
  • Trois Gymnopédies (1888). ★ This is Satie, this is what he sounds like, the perfect little tuning fork of his soul. youtube
  • Gnossiennes (1889-97). A mystical-contemplative dance. Later pieces have an elegant eccentricity. youtube
  • Le Fils des étoiles (1891). Dense, dry, tintinnabular. youtube
  • Trois Sonneries de la Rose†Croix (1892). Music for his mystic order, structured around the golden ratio. youtube
  • Uspud (1892). A “Christian ballet” with dark ritualistic undertones. youtube
  • Danses Gothiques (1893). Static eerie dances. youtube
  • Vexations (1893). He lost his love, a vivacious painter named Suzanne Valadon. He wrote her for thirty years thereafter but she never came back. This is his song about it. youtube
  • Dans de travers, No. 2 (1897). Patterns unfurl. youtube
  • Arrière-propos (1912). Like a jazzier Fils des étoiles.
  • Préludes flasques pour un chien (1912). Sedate and gnomish. youtube funny synth remix
  • Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (1913). Oddball waltz. youtube
  • Descriptions automatiques (1913). The first piece is like a tender soliloquy. youtube
  • Avant-dernières pensées (1915). ★ Mesmerizing ostinato. The score has a weird little story inside. What does it mean? youtube
  • Sonatine bureaucratique (1917). Balanced and self-assured. youtube
  • Carnet d’Esquisses et de Croquis (1919). Delightfully deranged ditties.
  • Nocturnes (1919).★ Haunting. youtube

Federico Mompou

Listening to Mompou is like discovering a secret attic you never thought existed. It’s full of mysterious shapes covered in fabric and dusty pictures in tasteful frames. The attic stairs behind you seem to stretch far away now, down into that impossible world of modern times. Or have you been up here all along and have yet to explore the world outside?

  • Pressebres (1917). Folksy and out of kilter. youtube
  • Scènes d’Enfants (1918). Expansive and sunny. youtube
  • Trois Variations (1921). Variations on a pure little melody. youtube, now watch the patterns: youtube
  • Charmes (1921).★ Magical sleepwalking. youtube
  • Paisajes (1960). Follow the secret footpath. youtube
  • Musica Callada (1959, 1962, 1965, 1967). ★ Written in four books. Inspired by the the mystic poet St. John of the Cross’ who wrote about, “La Música Callada, la Soledad Sonora” or “the silent music, the murmuring of solitude.” youtube

Claude Debussy

Debussy, the impressionist’s impressionist, master of lush webs of sound and of subtle orchestration. His music loses itself in a scintillating haze of colors and associations. It ushered in a freedom of composition and nuance lacking in the Germanic romanticism preceding it. As Satie remarked, “I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn’t the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own – if possible, without any Sauerkraut.”

Here’s a funny video that explains more about this musical transition.

  • Beau Soir (1879). Velvety. youtube
  • Salut printemps (1882). Composed for the Prix de Rome scholarship competition. Breezy, elegant, slightly pentatonic. youtube
  • Printemps, Suite symphonique (1887). richly orchestrated youtube
  • Deux Arabesques (1888). Charming and feminine youtube
  • Suite bergamasque (1890, published 1905). Overplayed easy listening, but why not? It’s graceful and good. youtube
  • String Quartet in G minor (1893). Memorable and lively. youtube
  • Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). ★ Languorous, kaleidoscopic youtube
  • Nocturnes (1899). ★ Sumptuous strings and a luminous choir. youtube
  • Danse sacrée et Danse profane (1903). A shimmering harp piece that contrasts the love of the spiritual and the natural. youtube
  • La Mer (1905). Subtle orchestration evoking a rather literary depiction of the sea. youtube
  • Images pour piano, Deuxième Série (1907). Ringing and chatty. youtube
  • Preludes book 1 (1910)
  • “Footprints in the Snow.” ★ Cold, delicate and resigned. Only the footprints remain, the person is never coming back. youtube
  • “The girl with the flaxen hair.” ★ An intimate gold-tinted memory. youtube
  • “The submerged cathedral.” A contemplative otherworldly dive. youtube
  • Première rhapsodie for clarinet and orchestra (1910). Meandering songbird-like piece. youtube
  • Douze Études, book 1 (1915). Hard-to-play studies in chords built of different intervals.
  • Étude 4, pour les sixtes. Like distinguished but tarnished jewelry. youtube
  • Page D’Album (1915). Smooth and clear. The left hand reminds me a little of Satie’s Gymnopédies. youtube
  • Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915). Melancholy, somewhat senile wandering. youtube
  • Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (1915). A dextrous and sinewy duet. Delightful! youtube

Toru Takemitsu

Takemitsu started out writing film scores and making experimental electronic music. As he became better known he combined traditional eastern sounds and melodies with the western avant garde. The result is rich orchestral haiku. He ranges from jazzy pop tunes to eerie alien soundscapes with plenty of good stuff in between.

  • Clouds at Sunset (1967). Lounge music with a Harpsichord! youtube
  • A Secret Post-Tokyo War Story Soundtrack (1970). Hippy bongos and vibraphone. youtube
  • Les Fils des Etoiles (1975). Satie remix.
  • Ballad of Orin Soundtrack (1977). Eerie and imaginative
  • In an Autumn Garden (1979). Beautiful intense droning. youtube
  • Rain Tree (1982). Translucent and mystical. youtube
  • I Hear the Water Dreaming (1987). Ambiguously restless. youtube
  • Rikyu Soundtrack (1991). Fascinating mix of baroque melodies and anxious strings. youtube

Bohuslav Martinů

Martinů is the shephard tone of composers. Listening to his stuff feels like climbing a mountain, it gets increasingly hectic and then makes a sudden “switch” to expose a broad vista at the top. Then it starts climbing again and you realize you haven’t reached the real peak.

That said, he does use a certain musical gesture compulsively. I’m fond of it but once you listen to a few songs you’ll know what I mean. Enough talking, get ready to be dazzled by an inventive and overlooked composer.

  • Three Czech Dances (1926). Frenetic, almost like a player-piano score. youtube
  • The Butterfly that Stamped (1926). Fluid and percussive, awash in combinations. Starts a little slowly. youtube
  • La Revue de Cuisine (1927). ★ Fresh and irregular. youtube
  • Suite Miniature: Seven Easy Pieces for Cello and Piano (1931). Tight, balanced duet. youtube
  • Les Ritournelles (1932). Nervous and cerebral. youtube
  • Julietta, moderato (1937). Quiet and kind of mind-bending. youtube
  • Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano (1939). Lively, with the surprising twists characteristic of Martinů’s mature style. youtube
  • Sinfonietta Giocosa, first movement (1940) ★ Soaring. youtube
  • Dumka No. 3 (1941). Matter-of-fact.
  • Piano Quartet (1942). ★ Rolling, boisterous. youtube
  • Symphony No. 1 (1942). Spacious and majestic. youtube
  • Fantasia for Theremin with Oboe, String Quartet and Piano (1944). ★ Spectral melodies with exciting piano/string accompaniment. youtube (pitchy recording)
  • Etudes and Polkas (1945). A river of whirling sounds. youtube
  • Toccata e Due Canzoni (1946). Stormy and suspenseful. youtube
  • Rhapsody Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1952). Full and passionate. youtube
  • Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano (1952). Twisting topsy-turvy. youtube
  • Oboe Concerto (1955). Buoyant. youtube
  • Chamber Music No 1, second movement (1959). A touch of almost Copland. youtube
  • Nonet No 2 (1959). Charming neoclassical work, written as a goodbye on his deathbead. youtube

Francis Poulenc

Aptly described as “half monk, half rascal,” Poulenc wrote music that is genial, suave, and funny. He kept his style melodic and accessible at a time when music was being vigorously “advanced.” While some people of the era thought it frivolous, you and I can smile and enjoy a good song when we hear it.

  • Trois mouvements perpétuels (1918). Like a little revolving machine. youtube
  • Novelette No. 1 (1927). ★ Warm, expansive and somehow heartbreaking. youtube
  • Suite française, 2nd mvmt (1935). (specificially Bransle de Champagne) Medieval harmonies. youtube
  • Nocturnes (1938). ★ Especially the creepy no 4, Bal fantôme: “Not a note of the waltzes and schottisches was lost throughout the house, and as a result the sick man was able to take his part in the festivities, and on his bed of pain could dream of the happy times of his youth.” pt 1, pt 2
  • Orchestration of Gnossienne No.3 (1939). Originally by Satie, of course. youtube
  • Française (1939). Playing with the theme in Bransle de Champagne of four years prior. youtube
  • Les animaux modèles (1941). Thickly textured, youtube
  • Intermezzo in A♭ (1943). Loquacious. youtube
  • Sonata for Piano and Cello (1948). pt 1, pt 2
  • Piano Concerto (1950). ★ Brilliant and suspenseful. youtube

Igor Stravinsky

I first heard his Rite of Spring and was eager to hear the rest of his works. I imagined more wild and savage ear battles, but I was surprised to learn that the Rite is unique. His other songs form a neat little garden of neoclassical topiary, often with saucy instrumental combinations and some fiery piano arrangements thrown in for good measure.

  • Pastorale (1907). ★ Mesmerizing. youtube
  • Rite of Spring (1913). ★ Primitive and strident. orchestral, piano duet
  • Ragtime for Eleven Instruments (1918). Like an hillbilly circus. youtube
  • Concertino for String Quartet (1920). Ornery. youtube
  • Pulcinella Suite (1922). A brisk classical composition. youtube
  • Prélude et ronde des princesses (1929). Lithe but suspicious. youtube
  • Petrouschka (1932). Hands are flying off the piano. youtube
  • Suite italienne (1932). It’s Pulcinella take two, 10 years later. youtube
  • Ebony Concerto (1945). Jazzy. youtube
  • Cantata on Medieval English Verses (1952). ★ Fascinating melodies. I find them hard to describe. youtube
  • Concertino for Twelve Instruments (1952). An arrangement of the quartet from 1920. youtube
  • Tango (1953). With verve. youtube
  • Greeting Prelude (1955). The most epic version of Happy Birthday ever made. youtube

Emmanuel Chabrier

Much of his early piano music is jaunty, almost ragtime sounding. He surpassed that old-timey style however and created some original and beautiful works. They have a repetitive lilt, like turning a page in a book and finding something brilliant on the other side.

  • Larghetto for Horn and Orchestra (1875). It’s starting to get interesting, including the horn arrangement. youtube
  • Pièces pittoresques (1881) ★ A sparkling invention. youtube
  • Suite pastorale (1888) ★ An orchestration of some of the above Pièces. Slower, richer, more amazing. youtube

Alfredo Casella

Casella sought to move Italian music beyond its operatic rut and onto the international scene. He studied in Paris and wrote brisk neoclassical music that often sounds to me like it’s encircling or twining around a theme.

  • Barcarolle et scherzo (1903). Fanciful. youtube
  • Sonata in C minor (1907). Repetitive but stylish. part1 part2 part3
  • Sicilienne et Burlesque (1914). Fragile. youtube
  • A notte alta (1917). Dismal and oriental. part1 part2
  • Concerto per Archi (1924). Strong. youtube
  • Menuet de la Scarlattiana (1926). Simple and happy. youtube
  • Serenata op.46b, 3rd movement (1930). Sentimental. youtube
  • Sonata da G.B. Sammartini (1934). Finely wrought baroque. youtube
  • Concerto for Piano, Strings, Timpani, and Percussion (1943). Mediterranean and passionate. part1 part2 part3

To be continued…

Check back for more great music.