Sometimes you just need to sit back and be taken away to another world, to experience a transformation, be moved, transported, and music can do that. This guide presents music that is of a larger scale, the shortest of the selections below is a half hour or so, but it’s not just about playing time.
Another thing that makes a work ‘epic’ in my opinion is its internal structure, how it’s built and how it grows. A multi-movement, hour-long work like a Bruckner or Mahler symphony obviously qualifies, but so does an incredibly moving piano sonata below. It’s the bigness of the story it tells and the journey it takes us on, but sometimes it is nice to sit back and enjoy a long ride through an 60-80 minute masterpiece.
- Beethoven’s symphony no. 3, Eroica– a work that, for its time, was the longest symphony ever written, which record Beethoven would later break again with his ninth (to be written about eventually). The work was originally to be dedicated to Napoleon, but Beethoven grew disappointed with the man. The journey in this work, with a long, masterful funeral march, scherzo and sublime finale is one of the historical, great moments in symphonic writing.
- Liszt’s B minor piano sonata– what is double-function form? It’s like laying one pattern over another and seeing them both independently but also as interrelated. The piano sonata has distinct sections that seem to serve as the movements of a sonata, but the entire 30+ minute work also seems to be one giant sonata form. There is much discussion over this, but it’s a gorgeous, powerful, well-crafted masterpiece.
- Bruckner’s symphony no. 4 in E-flat, Romantic– maybe the composer’s first symphonic masterpiece, according to some, although I quite like the second. The fourth’s ‘Romantic’ title refers to a time of castles and knights and villages, including a hunt scene, romantic opening, and Bruckner’s characteristic heftily-structured finales.
- Mahler’s symphony no. 2 ‘Auferstehung’ – let me just say that all of Mahler’s symphonies are the epitome of epic, but I can’t list them all, so here are a few of my favorites. The second is what did it for me. Despite being a 90-minute work with choirs and soloists in five movements, it’s so epic, so grand, so catastrophic at times, but then so beautifully moving and glorious in the finale, that no one who listens to it end to end and pays attention could walk away not being moved. But it requires a vision, not of just what’s happening in the moment, but of the entire experience. That’s the keyword: you don’t listen to Mahler symphonies; you experience them.
- Mahler’s symphony no. 3- if you can believe it, even longer than its predecessor, a more terrestrial thing, craggy and earthy, but growing, expanding until it’s as if we’ve experienced the creation of the earth and risen to heavenly heights above all mankind to a beautiful, satisfying finish in only 100+ minutes.
- Mahler’s symphony no. 6, ‘Tragic’– One of Mahler’s most adventurous, wild symphonies presented in one of the most traditional packages. It’s a first movement sonata form with the two subjects, full exposition repeat, recapitulation and everything, interchangeable order of the middle two movements due to some uncharacteristic indecisiveness on the composer’s part, and a massive half-hour finale, like a hallucination with flashes of what came before, and the infamous hammer blows. I’ve listened to this work many times, but hearing it live is cataclysmic, terrifying.
- Mahler’s symphony no. 8 in E-flat, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’– while (extremely) rarely actually using a thousand performers, Mahler 8 is one of the most massive things ever written, with a typically huge Mahlerian orchestra, multiple choruses (4? 5?) and eight vocal soloists, offstage folks and all the rest, an enormous two-part cantata-like symphony, the first (shorter) part in Latin, the second (twice as long) in German. If this is a bit too much to handle at first, take Part 1 as is. Solti’s featured recording in the linked article is the best there is, hands down.
- Schoenberg string quartet no. 1- yes, a string quartet. Schoenberg’s first quartet comes around at a time when the Romantic bubble was about ready to burst. He was stretching the limits of any kind of standard tonality right to its breaking point, and you can hear it beginning to give way in this work. For only four instruments, this work produces a massive, towering sound, epic scope, akin to the double function form mentioned above in the Liszt sonata. It has its distinct sections, but take a step back and see that the finale also seems to recapitulate the opening movement, or section, casting this huge chamber work in a different, complex, unified light.
- Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder– it’s bigger than Mahler 3. Is there anything else to say? It’s a three-part cantata for a truly gargantuan orchestra, many choruses, vocalists, the whole shebang. The first two parts were composed at a time when Schoenberg, always a Romantic at heart, wanted to do the biggest Romantic thing that could be done. He became disillusioned and walked away, only coming back some years later. You can hear the new direction he began to take in the beginning of part 3. It’s just a massive work, often needing to be reduced in size for performances in most concert halls.
- Shostakovich’s symphony no. 7, ‘Leningrad‘- as with many of Shostakovich’s works, the story behind it is closely related to politics, to history, both his own and that of his country, or the country in which he lived. The seventh is a massive work, and one of his more successful symphonies, although a few criticize it for its length. For me, it’s a powerful, poignant accounting of one of the darkest periods in history.
- Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie– a very interesting work, a symphony including piano and Ondes Martenot, in ten movements, with key Wagner-like motifs that all come together to tell a galactic, Kubrick-ian love story. It’s another article I need to rewrite, from a number of years ago, before I really even warmed up to the piece, or had an ear for more modern music, but… there it is.