Six Months of Nonstop Classical Music

Luigi Cherubini

My exploration of classical music quickly turned from whim to obsession, and a greatly rewarding one it has been. For the last six months, I’ve listened to nothing but classical music, probably 2-2.5 hours a day on average. Considering that I listened to rock music almost exclusively from grade school forward, you can imagine what a shock to the system this experience has been.

Compared to rock music — a great deal of it, anyway — classical is extremely complex, requiring you to listen attentively and possibly several times to get the most out of a composition. I pay particular attention to tempos, which vary considerably in many types of compositions; to melodies, which becomes very challenging in pieces with counterpoint, or two simultaneous and usually complementary melodies; and to orchestration, musicianship and quality of solo and choral singing. On top of all that, opera, ballet and other classical forms with acting and/or dancing cannot be fully appreciated without actually seeing a performance.

Here are a couple examples of classical music you might enjoy.

1. Getting a Handle on Handel

When I started listening to classical music, I couldn’t stand opera. Two minutes of any opera music was enough to send me running for the nearest Beatles album. This is no longer the case. Without even understanding the words, I feel the emotion and drama in arias that formerly sounded like screeching. I am moved by the beauty of an opera’s melodic themes, its profound and sometimes rapid changes in texture and dynamics, its wondrous expressivenesses communicated in every instrument and every voice at every instant. Some operas are certainly more appealing than others; at this point I could listen to Handel or Gluck operas all day long; Wagner, not so much. Here is a beautiful aria, Verdi Prati, from the opera Alcina, by Handel:

Heartbreaking, is it not?  To get a better handle on this piece of Handel, here is a helpful excerpt from this excellent analysis of Alcina.

“But this aria holds universal value, because it manifests Ruggiero’s farewell to the enchanted world that so deliciously seduced him: ‘Green prairies, lovely forests, You will lose your beauty. And when flattering appearance is gone, To your first honour, All will come back to you’. This farewell to the last pleasures of an enchanted world expresses all the regret of men in the face of the finiteness of beauty inexorably fades away. Nothing withstands the withering onslaught of time.”

2. The Mystery of Death Expressed in Music —Cherubini

One of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve come across is the astonishing final movement of Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem Mass in C Minor, Agnus Dei. The Requiem is a Mass given for the dead. Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is the final prayer of the Mass. What you will hear in this movement is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Translated:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest.

Let eternal rest shine upon them, Lord, with your saints for ever, for you are holy.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them.

The movement runs between about 6.5 – 7.5 minutes, depending on the conductor. It is haunting, in particular the conclusion, which is an unusual decrescendo that many years later Hector Berlioz described as being the best of its kind ever written. Here is the music, conducted by Riccardo Muti:

Muti, who knows the music of Cherubini inside and out, gives his fascinating interpretation of the Agnus Dei here. You will hear the word “terrifying” more than once in this interview.

One can imagine in the course of this movement a single human soul once blazing with life and now reduced to a flicker, growing fainter and fainter as it falls ever deeper into the earth.  As the music fades into nothing, Cherubini leaves us to imagine in cold isolation what is to come after the light goes completely out.

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

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