Pretty, Please

It may come as a surprise to some that not all music is meant to be pretty. To more than oversimplify matters, there was a time in history (do I sound like an old grandpa?) when music wasn’t to have the same kind of personal expressiveness that it does now, when it was to be a pursuit of perfection, of beauty in form, in structure, etc., and this was also a time, give or take, when the majority of music was religious, because when it’s difficult to get things like food and clean drinking water, music ends up not being a priority.

Anyway, beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but in the list below, I do my best to present works of easily-appreciated, instantly approachable beauty. Some of them are a bit lengthy, but if you’re looking for something more bite-sized, check out the Short and Sweet guide.

18th Century:

  • Bach’s first and second cello suites- solo music, for one instrument with only four strings, but it comes alive and unfurls in reserved but supreme beauty. You’ll likely be familiar with the opening of the first, a bright, sunny work, and the second is a strong contrast to it, being in a minor key.
  • Haydn’s string quartet no. 23 in Fm (op. 20/5)– an early example of a personal expression, especially dissatisfaction, in music. The composer and his ensemble are stuck in a hot, miserable climate, miss their family, and want to go home. The work is described as “a milestone in the history of composition; in them, Haydn develops compositional techniques that were to define the medium for the next 200 years.” The string quartet is one of the most intimate of forms, a conversation among performers, and Haydn is considered the ‘father of the string quartet.’ His works are special gems.
  • Mozart’s first string quartet– listen to what he was able to write as a young boy of only 14 years old, in a tavern on vacation in Italy.
  • Beethoven’s first published work, his piano trio no. 1 (op. 1 no. 1)– again, from the beginning, we hear an incredible talent and ‘touch’ in the man’s work. A piano trio is for piano, violin, and cello, and this was a landmark in the form. This was the first of three, and you may want to check out the other two in the set.
  • Beethoven’s first piano sonata– again, another first. It comes just on the heels after the above piano trio, and is a set of three sonatas making up his opus no. 2. They’re all wonderful, but have a listen to the first of the set and see if it’s not exquisite. He’s just getting started.

19th Century

  • Chopin’s first ballade– a form he himself invented, or coined, a poem, or story, told in music. I’d include this in the Tell Me a Story series, but it’s not so concrete, and is more beautiful than it is narrative.
  • Otto Malling’s piano trio in A minor– he’s a now almost entirely forgotten composer, but his little piano trio (for piano, violin and cello) is a really beautiful work full of charms at every turn.
  • Schubert’s piano sonata no. 4 in Am, D. 537- Schubert’s music is known for being exquisitely lyrical, melancholy, tender, but also very expressive. His first completed piano sonata is confusingly numbered the fourth, but it’s a touching work you’re sure to enjoy.
  • Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, op. 7– The first vocal work on the list, a song cycle that in total comes to about a half hour, and revolves around love, both current and lost. The piece is indeed a cycle, but each of its six individual songs can be enjoyed on their own, with or without translations of the lyrics, as the music itself is exquisitely gorgeous, and much more so with knowledge of the lyrics being sung.
  • Brahms’ first string sextet– don’t worry, it’s just a piece for six instruments (two violins, two violas, two cellos). It’s rich and intimate but also big and bold. Brahms’ chamber music is outstanding, and there’ll be more of it to come.
  • Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto– one of the most famous piano concertos there is, a work dripping with Russian Romanticism and shimmering, virtuosic piano parts backed by rich orchestral sound, incorporating bits of folk music the composer had come across.

20th Century

  • Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concertos- one of my starting points in classical music listening. They’re big and epic, incredibly challenging for the pianist, but some of the lushest, immediately attractive music you can hear.
  • Sibelius’ violin concerto– one of the most famous, and virtuosic, of all the concertos in the repertoire. You can practically hear how bad the composer wished to have been a virtuoso himself, but he immortalized that in one of the most iconic works for the instrument.
  • Ravel’s String quartet– You’ll come to learn if you haven’t already that just about everything from Ravel is supple, sensuous, magical, exquisitely written, and his only string quartet is no exception.
  • Scriabin’s piano concerto– an early work from the composer who would later go on to do synesthetic, theosophical things with his music. He writes a richly Romantic, expressive, killer concerto that is far too rarely played. You’ll love it.
  • George Gershwin’s piano concerto– maybe not ‘pretty’ in the standard way, but it’s a really beautiful, catchy, fun work, a commission he basically had to teach himself classical compositional techniques in order to fulfill. It’s jazzy and American and familiar, but also a very traditional classical piano concerto, just genius.
  • Sir Edward Elgar’s cello concerto– one of the most famous cello concertos in the repertoire, an introspective, melancholy work of a mature composer that sounds like he’s looking over the landscape of his countryside and his life. It’s a piece of captivating lyricism and beauty, as well as almost haunting depth.
  • Dag Wirén’s Serenade for Strings– from a Swedish composer who said his purpose in writing music was just to please people. It’s a serenade, a short-ish piece, but full of charms and good-natured beauty.

Obviously, there’s so much more to suggest, and there’s stuff that tons of people would say must be included or shouldn’t be, but I also don’t want to give too many options.Being spoiled for choice is a real struggle, so here’s a small smattering of wonderful bits of music you might enjoy, and if you do, go dig around for something else similar, or send me an email and ask!

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