A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!
This week, I share my own choices (and realize how cruel it actually is of me to limit people to only three pieces when I ask them this question)!
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor
Maybe it’s because I’m not a violinist who has heard this piece countless times in studio class, but I never seem to tire of this vibrant music. Each movement is so full of character: the first pulsates with irresistible, effusive Romantic angst and energy, declaring unabashed feelings through dark, dramatic melodies. The sparkling third movement is equally energetic, but in a completely unserious and adorable way–how can you not love music that teases and flirts and dances with you like that? My favorite, though, has to be the second movement, which has never failed to revive my spirit whenever I feel burned out or worn down by life. It’s simple, yet so plaintive and pure and gorgeous. It demands emotional vulnerability from the violinist, and when I hear it played with such honesty, I feel that someone has wiped the dust and soot from a window and allowed me to see more clearly the very essence of what music should be.
As cliché as it is to say, I don’t think I could be separated from Bach for a lifetime. There’s a reason he’s the patron saint of classical music, that larger-than-life figure whose shadow has been felt by nearly every composer after him. Some people think the Bach-Busoni chaconne is overblown and gaudy; I think it’s amazing. In the ornate architecture of Bach’s original violin chaconne, not a note is out of place, and Busoni’s adaptation for piano blows up this architecture to passionate, no-holds-barred Romantic scale. The chaconne’s opening chords–so simple yet so harmonically gritty and compelling–are something holy: hymnlike pillars of sound that remain steady and omnipresent as the chaconne journeys on without pretense or emotional wallowing. Just harmonies unfolding inexorably, chords spinning themselves out into ever-searching, ever-yearning threads, emotions disciplined by a stubborn, sacred rhythm that reminds you of your smallness in the face of the universe, in the hands of God. You can’t stop listening.
(Skip to 9:45 for the second movement)
Schumann Piano Quintet
Indisputably one of the best piano quintets ever written. The first time I heard this piece was when I was turning pages for my teacher as he played it, and despite the task at hand (just so you know, page-turning is an art in itself), I could not help but be transfixed by the second movement–transported, intoxicated, enthralled. The bipolarity of emotions in this second movement is so typical of Schumann–and it breaks your heart. The opening melody, so sorrowful, yearning, and bitter, marches on, resolute, despite its pain–and then gives way to an achingly tender and wistful violin melody that floats above shimmering broken chords, a smile through the tears before we return to the heartbreaking march of the opening (which becomes viciously stormy as we approach the nucleus of this symmetrically structured movement). Schumann has, in this short bit of music, captured the essence of life: the inherent and inescapable dichotomy of pain and beauty, struggle and peace–anguish and transcendent joy.