10 pieces of classical music that will 100% change your life

Hold on to your hats - if you haven’t heard any of these, your life is about to be changed 10 times in a row. Needless to say, each of these examples should be digested in a single sitting.

life-changing music

J.S. Bach - St Matthew Passion

What is it?
It’s one of two ‘Passion’ oratorios that have survived since Bach died (he could’ve written up to five), but it’s also become one of his most celebrated pieces. The original title is Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum (the ‘J.C.’ stands for Jesus Christ, which is maybe a bit familiar for someone he hadn’t met… but we’ll let him off).

Why it will change your life:
If you thought that Baroque music mostly dealt with plinky-plinky harpsichords paid for by wealthy and obscure members of Royal family, the St Matthew Passion will obliterate your puny mind. There are biblical proclamations of impending apocalypse littered throughout, and for each of them, Bach wangles in some sort of crushing atonality or strange chord, as if he’s wincing with pain each time it happens. This is such a human experience, composed at a time when human experiences weren’t chief among the aims of most Baroque composer composers.

 

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6

What is it?
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, nicknamed ‘Pathétique’. The premiere performance was given just nine days before the composer died.

Why it will change your life:
Tchaikovsky was surely one of the most personally troubled of the great composers - and this symphony was essentially the outpouring of many of his issues, in a way. Many initially thought it was a lengthy suicide note, others pointed to the hugely controversial homosexual leanings Tchaikovsky was known to have, while some thought it was just a tragic, sad, glorious and indulgent artistic expression. But the reason it’ll stay with you forever is that all of these contexts work in their own way, but it never detracts from how magisterial the music itself is. It’s a lesson in the very best ways of expressing emotions through music.

 

Mahler - Symphony No. 2

What is it?
Massive, that’s what it is. Ruddy massive. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (known as the ’Resurrection’) is a 90-minute attempt to put the whole nature of existence into a piece music. So pretty ambitious.

Why it will change your life:
If you think any bit of music over 3 minutes long is a bit indulgent and full of itself, this single piece will convince you that sometimes it’s completely worth spending an hour and a half on one musical concept (even if it is a huge concept). No other composer could’ve made it more entertaining (listen out for death shrieks!), or more rewarding. The epic final few minutes are a stupidly generous reward on their own, but getting there is half the fun.

 

Beethoven - Grosse Fuge

What is it?
One of the last pieces Beethoven wrote for string quartet, one of his celebrated ‘Late’ quartets. It’s a one-movement experiment in structure that was universally hated when it was first composed.

Why it will change your life:
It’s proof that not only can critics and audiences get it really, really wrong, but also that it’s all about interpretation. You can actually hear the struggle and the effort it must’ve taken to compose, which means it’s not always a relaxing listen, but few pieces in history have so nakedly shown how a composer can throw absolutely everything into a single work. And, in the end, it was hugely influential to serialist composers of the 20th century with none other than Igor Stravinsky proclaiming it a miracle of music. How about that for delayed gratification?

 

Mozart - Requiem

What is it?
The piece that Mozart wrote on his deathbed, in a furious fever. Well, if the movies are to be believed, anyway.

Why it will change your life:
From the opening Introitus, the mournful tone is set. It might just be us, but doesn’t it actually sound like Mozart is scared of death here? Aside from being spooky as anything, the Requiem is a haunting patchwork of things - completed by one of Mozart’s pupils, Franz Süssmayr, it’s become a legendary mystery and the perfect way to end the story of one of history’s most celebrated geniuses - i.e. not end it all. What an enigma.

 

Monteverdi - Vespers

What is it?
It’s beardy Baroque denizen Claudio Monteverdi’s defining work, a gigantic noise that some argue bridged the gap between the Renaissance and the early Baroque periods.

Why it will change your life:
It makes you realise that just because something’s really old, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically boring, or simply lauded because it was ‘groundbreaking’. Make no mistake about it - Monteverdi’s Vespers are hugely entertaining on their own terms. For starters, it’s simply enormous in scale. If you want to be crude about it (and we do) then you could describe it as Monteverdi taking church music to the opera, with all the drama that implies. Trumpets, drums, massive choruses, florid vocal lines… this really is the greatest hits of the early Baroque.

 

Elgar - Cello Concerto

What is it?
The only cello concerto that Edward Elgar wrote, and one of the most famous concertos of all time.

Why it will change your life:
It’s proof that intense emotion can come from the most unlikely of people. We don’t want to get all mushy on you, but there’s something spectacularly English about how the ultimate stiff-upper-lipped curmudgeon, Edward Elgar, was able to convey his emotions in music rather than in words or actions. His private life was surprisingly tumultuous (that’s another story), and in pieces like the Cello Concerto it’s as if the gasket has blown and Elgar is finally able to let out all the pent-up emotion in a focused blast.

 

Wagner - The Ring Cycle

What is it?
IT IS EVERYTHING.

Why it will change your life:
Realising for the first time that the world of opera could actually be this immersive is a very, very special feeling - if you don’t feel bereft at the end of the whole four-opera cycle, we fear for your ability to function in the real world. It’s got a terrible reputation among non-aficionados as ‘that really long opera that no-one likes’, and in a way it represents all the most exclusive, cerebral and faux-worthy stereotypes of the opera world. But we tell you: that perception is WRONG and the Ring Cycle is a fundamentally unhinged work of staggering genius. Ignore at your peril.

 

Max Richter - Vivaldi: Recomposed

What is it?
A radical, beautiful re-invention of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, by modern indie-classical composer Max Richter.

Why it will change your life:
Listening to Vivaldi: Recomposed is like discovering an old jumper that you used to love has magically, miraculously lost all its bobbly bits and is actually at the height of fashion despite everyone saying to you “mate, I’ve seen that jumper a thousand times and it offers me nothing new.” What Richter manages to do so incredibly well is to subtly sneak in delightful additions, tweaks and reinventions to a classic you already know extremely well, and freshen it up not just for the modern era, but for the eras to come too.

 

Gorecki - Symphony No. 3

What is it?
Possibly the most emotionally draining piece of music ever written.

Why it will change your life:
There’s a reason Polish composer Henryck Górecki called his third symphony the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Each movement features a solo soprano singing texts inspired by war and separation - but it’s the second movement that really stands out. The text is taken from the scribblings on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the Second World War and, as you can imagine, it’s pretty harrowing stuff - but Górecki makes it sound so transcendental that it’s hard to believe it was written in such dire circumstances. He said himself that he wanted the soprano line “towering over the orchestra”, and it certainly does that.

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