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 one of my closest friends, Lauren Tokunaga, shares her choices:
Whoever invented this hypothetical game is sadistic. I don’t know how anyone who has a deep, resonating love for classical music could possibly choose only three pieces, when there exists a multitude of works worthy of being placed on infinite shuffle for the next decade as you sit all alone on an island with your only friend being a volleyball named Wilson. I can barely get through the day without humming what seems like a shoddy mash-up of works spanning from the Renaissance to the 20th century. My future as a classical DJ is looking bright, I’d say.
Anyways, three pieces, she whined.
Ola Gjeilo: The Ground
Although I seem rather jaded by singers and their music due to accompanying duties, to be honest, most of the music that moves me on an intense, profound level is vocal music. I can specifically recall instances in live concert settings where I’ve felt moved beyond measure, and over half of them involved choir. There’s something quite universal about music (vocal music is a prime example) in that the text, the language, or the form it comes in does not determine its impact–it is still felt, and it makes every experience more visceral. If in it for the long haul, I would probably take some hour-long piece like Bach’s Passions or Mozart’s Requiem, but I am going to go against the grain and take this rather short and modern piece by Norwegian composer, Ola Gjeilo. I first heard this piece when a high school choir visited my university, and I was so completely and utterly moved by the blend of such a young choir. Taking a closer look, one can see that he uses third relations–starting in G major, moving to B major, and finally landing in E-flat (D#) major–to build intensity and indicate a sense of arrival, which is fitting since this chorale appears at the end of the Mass. I love that the text is set in Latin, “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Dona nobis pacem,” meaning “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, Lamb of God, grant us peace.”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
It’s easy to forget that between two grandiloquent outer movements lies this reflective, transcendent second movement. Grand heroism is so starkly contrasted in this E-flat major sandwich. One would normally assume we’d be in the relative minor or at least one that has flats in it, but nope–the unexpected key of B major! This particular movement cemented itself in my memory because it was used in one of my harmonic dictation quizzes. The chord progression is so straightforward yet stunning, and I think the true magic of this piece lies in its use of the deceptive cadence. The slow build and ascent of our expectations is skillfully evaded, time and time again. And we can’t forget the way in which Beethoven bridges the movements, with the introduction of the third movement’s theme in a soft, understated manner, with hints of exuberance to come.
Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61
This piece may come as no surprise to those who know me, since I have been trying to convince my teacher to allow me to learn this for the last year. The obsession is real: I learned the coda, the most technically difficult and unpianistic part, in my spare time. Upon first listen, this mixed-breed of polonaise and fantasy may appear perplexing and enigmatic, but my love for this piece has only grown tenfold as a result of its mystifying form. Most people I talk with find this piece hard to love, and that’s probably because it meanders from one theme to the next, constantly enduring in search of some kind of identity. It’s hard to feel grounded at any point throughout the piece, maybe arguably until the B major chorale or the climactic coda. But even so, I contest that the beauty of this piece lies not in its whole construction, but rather in the fleeting moments. The ones that wrench the heart for a second, then slowly but surely slip away. My favorite moment occurs in the coda, at around 12:20, with the descending octave bass line moving to cadence in A-flat major, followed by a galloping ending that almost fades into nothingness if not for the finality of that bright, first inversion chord.