In case you like the music on my 24 Preludes for Piano album, listed below are some of the dreamy, contemplative, and pretty-yet-dissonant pieces that inspired it. As I said in the liner notes to the album, the two things I love most about classical music are its peaceful, contemplative side, and the times when it merges consonance and dissonance into something sublimely beautiful. For me, that merging of simple, lovely sounds with complex, challenging ones occurred most exquisitely around the turn of the 20th century (late Romanticism and early Modernism), and also much earlier in the music of J.S. Bach. (For definitions of musical terms such as dissonance and consonance, see the very bottom of this blog.)
I've provided YouTube links for some of the the pieces listed here so you can sample them. You can probably find the rest of the pieces on YouTube, too. However, if you really want to get into this music, I strongly suggest you seek out actual albums or mp3s, so that you can listen away from the computer, internet, and other distractions, through headphones or good speakers. Because the real gifts in music are only available when we give it time and space, immerse ourselves in it, and allow it, for a while, to fill up and transform our worlds.
If you actually acquire music from record shops, online stores, or other sources, then you can build up a collection, create playlists, and really let it wash over you. I got most of this music originally from the public library, which allows me to peruse its city-wide system online, and then pick up my orders at my local branch. I'd take the CDs home, listen, and save my favourite pieces to my computer.
My favourite composers have long been Alexander Scriabin (Russian), Maurice Ravel (French), and Bach (German). And my favourite examples from these composers might be my three most beloved pieces of all time. They are all piano pieces.
If I had to pick one piece that has moved me more than any other, it would certainly be Scriabin's Prelude No. 15 in D flat major, from his 24 Preludes for piano, Opus 11. Written early in his career, before he ascended to unworldly heights of etherial dissonance, these miniatures spanning many moods, from serene to violent, mostly have a lovely balance of dissonance and consonance. Prelude 15, however, probably the most contemplative of all 24, has almost no dissonance at all. Its sublime simplicity and innocence take me to a place of deep wonder and reverence almost every time I hear or play it.
My favourite Ravel piece is probably Le Gibet, from his collection called Gaspard de la Nuit. Writing at virtually the same time as Scriabin, Ravel used a very different sort of harmony, which appeals to me just as much. Where Scriabin's dissonant edge is pointy or biting, Ravel's is more rounded or blunt. Le Gibet is as long and complex as Scriabin's Prelude 15 is short and simple. It is a dark, dissonant, and deeply meditative tour-de-force, with a single note that sounds again and again, throughout the piece, as all kinds of amazing stuff happens at the same time. We start with just the single note, and then other material slowly builds up around it with increasing intensity, complexity, and dissonance. Then it gradually calms down, returning again to just the single repeating note. It leaves me awe-struck and speechless every time.
Over 150 years before Ravel and Scriabin, Bach experimented with dissonance in yet other ways, that were grounded in, yet also far ahead of, his era. He had a fascinating way of daring the most beguilingly pungent combinations of notes, only to resolve them the very next moment, into something classically "right." His music thus offers a steady stream of affirmations – tension and confusion constantly giving way to balance and relief. And the variety of cleverness with which he accomplishes this is utterly delightful. His Three-Part Invention #9 In F Minor has so much dissonance, that when I heard it first, I could barely believe it was written before 1910. The harmonies are almost putrid, yet still become beautiful to me. Slow, bare, and haunting, this is Bach at his most ponderous, probably my favourite of his works.
So here is my list of recommended pieces. It's by no means exhaustive – a work in progress. There's a lot of piano music, yet also some for other instruments, voices, and orchestra. And while it's mostly pretty slow and gentle, due to my affinity for the contemplative, there are several fast numbers, too.
I've put the pieces by each composer, and the composers themselves, in rough order of my preference. However, such ordering is problematic, because I like some composers much more consistently than others. So while Bartok, for example, wrote one of my most beloved pieces of all time, nothing else I've heard by him appeals to me nearly as much, so I've had to put him close to the bottom.
Observe the whole name of each piece, because often it is just one part of a larger work or collection, sometimes the only part I like.
Scriabin, Alexander (Russian, 1872-1915). Scriabin's 24 Preludes, Opus 11, was the main inspiration for my own 24 Preludes for Piano. Like Satie's best music, the first two examples in my Scriabin list achieve great beauty through simplicity, humility, and innocence. This pair of pieces also use a similar compositional technique. They begin with a series of two-note chords played by one hand. Then, as this series repeats, the other hand comes in with a series of single notes (that is, a melody) that elegantly combines with the first series to create perfect triads – the three-note chords that are the building blocks of most Western music. I copied this technique for my Prelude in B flat minor (The Wizard King).
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 15 In D-Flat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGWDqSrJU4c&list=RDpGWDqSrJU4c
- Preludes Op. 16 No. 3 Gb https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3sb6LKKlTc
- Canon In D Minor
- Pieces For The Left Hand Op. 9 Prelude In C# Minor
- Pieces For The Left Hand Op. 9 Nocturne In Db
- Preludes Op. 13 No. 3 In G
- Preludes Op. 15 No. 1 In A
- Preludes Op. 16 No. 1 In B
- Preludes Op. 16 No. 4 In Eb Minor
- Preludes Op. 17 No. 3 In Db
- Preludes Op. 17 No. 4 In Bb Minor
- Mazurka Op. 25 - No. 3 in E minor
- Preludes Op. 31 - No. 4 in A-flat
- Preludes Op. 33 - No. 1 in E
- Pieces Op. 45 - Feuillet d'Album
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 3 In G https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pG818Zf1WZM
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 4 In E-Minor
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 5 In D
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 8 In F-Sharp Minor
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 13 In G-Flat
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 21 In B-Flat
- Preludes, Op. 11: No. 23 In F
Ravel, Maurice (French, 1875-1937). Scriabin actually wrote quite a lot I don't care for, whereas I love almost everything by Ravel. Particularly consistent is Le Tombeau de Couperin, perhaps the only suite by any composer of which I love every single part (I, II, III, and V are my favourites). The first part of Le Tombeau is is a rare example of music being fast and contemplative at the same time. Its rapid cascades meld into a shimmering texture that evokes light dancing on water, inspiring in me a calm, quiet state.A fugue is a tight and complex compositional structure from Bach's day, mostly avoided by turn-of-the-century composers, who broke with the forms of the past to find new freedom and originality. Ravel did write one great fugue, however, as did Scriabin. You'll surely recognize Ravel's Bolero, which is, I think deservedly, one of the most popular classical pieces of all time – not at all contemplative, and by the end, ecstatically fun.
- Gaspard De La Nuit - Le Gibet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7NKYvnjJcs
- Piano Concerto in G, 2nd movement.
- Miroirs : La vallée des cloches
- Le Tombeau de Couperin I. Prelude
- Le Tombeau de Couperin II. Fugue
- Le Tombeau de Couperin III. Forlane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Kx5zgfCJIE
- Le Tombeau de Couperin V. Menuet
- Le Tombeau de Couperin IV. Rigaudon
- Le Tombeau de Couperin VI. Toccata
- String Quartet
- Sonatine: Modere
- Sonatine: Mouvement de menuet
- Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme: i. Soupir
- Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte
Bach, Johann Sebastian (German, 1685-1750). Perhaps the most respected and admired composer of all time, he had a genius for elegant and logical musical architecture that, to me, seems totally unparalleled. His output was huge, and I've only scratched the surface of it. Like Scriabin's Prelude 15 op. 11 and Satie's Gymnopedies, I love Bach's Aria Da Cappo for its tender simplicity, although I don't much like the rest of the Goldberg Variations he based on it.
- Three-Part Invention #9 In F Minor, BWV 795 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAgdrnEV5DE
- Concerto In D Minor After Allesandro Marcello - 2nd movement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prrrQbISbaQ
- Well Tempered Clavier Book 1, BWV 853 - Prelude In E Flat Minor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WofIjuo0uI0
- Aria Da Cappo, from Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
- Suite in E minor, BWV996 IV. Sarabande
- Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme
- Lute Suite In E Minor, BWV 996 - Courante https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSUFNwNqo7g
Shostakovich, Dmitri (Russian, 1906-1975). If I had to pick a fourth favourite composer, it would surely be Shostakovich. He created some of the most dissonant music that I find deeply beautiful. Far from eschewing fugues like his modernist contemporaries, he wrote an astounding cycle of preludes and fugues for piano that bristles with creative ideas and spans a wide range of moods and colours. I only know a fraction of his work, and am excited to discover more.
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Fugue no. 4 in E minor
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Fugue no. 7 in A
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Fugue no. 10 in C# minor
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Prelude no. 5 in D
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Prelude no. 10 in C# minor
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Prelude no. 12 in G# minor
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: Prelude no. 13 in F#
- Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXBugKoo7L0
- Piano Quintet in G minor - first movement: Prelude
- Piano Quintet in G minor - second movement: Fugue
- Piano Concerto No. 2
- 24 Preludes, Op.34: No. 4 In E minor
Kabalevsky, Dmitri (Russian, 1904-1987). I don't know a lot of his music, but like Scriabin, he wrote a set of 24 Preludes for Piano which greatly inspired me.
- Prelude No. 8 of 24 Preludes op. 28. This beautiful prelude plus two others are here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjuvAsnMs_Y
- Prelude No. 1 of 24 Preludes op. 28. All 24 are here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swAvXjk13Yk
- Cello Concerto No. 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMU8KgazXEA.
Debussy, Claude (French, 1862-1918). Unlike his countryman Ravel, who is often compared to him, Debussy appeals to me very inconsistently. He seems to have been a real experimenter, whose dissonant risk-taking served a valuable purpose for the history of music, yet resulted in a lot of stuff that doesn't quite work or make sense to me. Yet when I love him, I really love him, and he made some supremely contemplative impressionist dreamscapes.
- Prélude Bk1 #8:. La Fille aux cheveux de lin
- Clair De Lune (From Suite Bergamasque) [Transcription: V. Coeur]
- Berceuse héroïque
- Images Livre 1: 2. Hommage a Rameau
- Images Livre 1: 1. Reflets dans l'eau
- String Quartet Op. 10
- Images Livre 2: 2. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut
- Premiere Arabesque [Transcription: H. Renié]
- Images (Oubliees) - 2. Souvenir du Louvre / Pour Le Piano - 2. Sarabande
- Preludes, Book 2 - 5: Bruyeres
- Six Epigraphes Antiques, L 131 - 1. Pour Invoquer Pan, Dieu Du Vent D'ete
- Les Soirs Illumines Pat L'Ardeur Du Charbon
- Douze Etudes Pour Le Piano, L 136 Livre 1 - 04. Pour Les Sixtes
- Six Epigraphes Antiques, L 131 - 5. Pour l'Egyptienne
Satie, Erik (French, 1866-1925). This quirky and influential composer is sometimes called the father of minimalism, because he wrote so much slow and technically simple music. I think he was just more interested in beauty, humour, and expression then he was in showing off. Like Ravel's Bolero, Satie's Gymnopedies are deservedly super-popular. Unlike Bolero, they are also deeply contemplative.
- Gymnopedie No. 1
- Gymnopedie No. 3
- Gnossienne No. 5
- Descriptions Automatiques - 1. Sur Un Vaisseau
Barber, Samuel (American, 1910-1981). I just love this guy, and want to discover more of his music. You'll recognize the contemplative Adagio for Stings from many movies. As much as I love it, I love its vocal version (Agnus Dai) even more. Shivers and goosebumps!
- Agnus Dei https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkObnNQCMtM
- Adagio for Strings
- Violin Concerto, Op. 14 - 2nd movement
Copland, Aaron (American, 1900-1990). Learning to play the first of Copland's Four Piano Blues was a big influence on my pop and classical writing. It's a gentle, searching piece that merges dissonance and great prettiness in a way that really moves me.
- Four Piano Blues, No. 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NskI2cR09H8
- Four Piano Blues, No. 2
- Four Piano Blues, No. 3
- Appalachian Springs, first movement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4E1JYP5Tgc
Villa-Lobos, Heitor (Brazilian, 1887-1959). In my opinion, a very underrated composer, much of whose work lives in the delicate nexus of dissonance and consonance that I love. His "Bachianas Brasieleiras" are pieces that bring together the music of Bach and of Brasil in different ways.
- Song of The Black Swan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvNjKlx6dhI
- String Quartet No.1, Third Movement: Canto lirico
- Bachianas Brasileira: Bach's Prelude in D minor arranged for an orchestra of cellos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1HNy0EJI-I
- Piano Trio No. 2 - Berceuse - Barcarolla
- Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL3rH0tCsJg
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (English, 1872-1858). Another composer I need to delve into further. His music combines uniquely tranquil consonance with subtle touches of dissonance.
- Two Hymn-tune Preludes - Eventide
- Suite for viola and orchestra (Group 3) Musette
Hindemith, Paul (German, 1895-1963). Yet another composer I want to know better. Can be simultaneously very dissonant and beautiful.
- Sonate pour piano No. 2 1. Mäßig schnell
Prokofiev, Sergei (Russian, 1891-1953). Much of his later work is too dissonant for me, but his Visions Fugitives (fleeting visions) is an exquisite early collection of miniatures that helped inspire my own 24 Preludes for Piano. Some of them, while dissonant, manage to also be contemplative and achingly lovely. Peter and the Wolf, his famous children's introduction to the orchestra, totally merits adult listening. I find it interesting, fun, and beautiful.
- Tales of an Old Grandmother
- Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, No. 1-Lentamente
- Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, No. 7-Pittoresco
- Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, No. 8-Comodo
- Peter and the Wolf
Rachmaninoff, Sergei (Russian, 1873-1943). I've loved lots of his music which I can't list here, because I don't know what it was. But this one prelude achieves a stellar perfection of loveliness.
- Prélude #11 In B, Op. 32
Boulanger, Nadia (Friench, 1887-1979). Unfortunately, all but one of the artists in this list are men. However, many distinguished 20th century composers, including Copland, Gershwin, and Philip Glass, were trained by the famous composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger. I am just beginning to discover her fantastic music. (Another turn-of-the-century woman composer I once liked is Amy Beach, but I've lost track of her music.)
- Three pieces for cello and piano https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfcUkVbyy9M
- Prelude in F minor (Organ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T12qCU-ZEp4
- Vers la vie Nouvelle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqnELfXTAe8
Tallis, Thomas (English, 1505-1585). He's the only really early composer in my list. Yet, as much as I like the late Romantics and early Moderns, the slow, reverent sacred vocal music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, sung in steady, devotional voices without vibrato, creates some of the most beautiful meditative moods I've experienced.
- O Salutaris hostia
- The lamentations of Jeremiah I
Bartók, Béla (Hungarian, 1881-1945). Like Prokofieff's, his later stuff is too dissonant for me, but this early work has an awesome dissonant/consonant balance, and uses the whole orchestra brilliantly, resulting in one of the most beautiful pieces I know.
- Two Portraits, Op. 5 - No. 1 "Ideal" Andante sostenuto
Chopin (Polish, 1810-1849). Scriabin's most important influence. I love his poignant harmony, especially in his slow, meditative pieces. Check out his nocturnes, which I have not yet sorted through for favourites.
- Prelude No.7 in A Major. Andantino, from 24 Preludes
- "Raindrop" Prelude
Nancarrow, Conlon (American, 1912-1997). I only know this one piece, but it is a totally fun, wacky tour-de-force.
- Prelude for piano
Messiaen, Olivier (French, 1908-1992). Again, I only know this single piece, but its haunting tranquility and unique, beautiful dissonance cast a spell on me. It inspired my own Prelude in D flat major (Manhattan Skyline).
- Louange a l'sternite de Jesus
Fauré, Gabriel (French, 1845-1924). A maker of harmonically interesting loveliness.
- Sonate No. 1, Op. 109: second movement
Grieg, Edvard (Norwegian, 1843-1907). Another late Romantic harmonic experimenter who produced many peaceful, poetic, little "Lyric Pieces." I haven't sorted through them for favourites.
- Lyric Pieces https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZceTnU6iQ4
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich (Russian, 1840-1893). I love this famous children's ballet from beginning to end, and the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy is a great example of how enchanting a bit of dissonance can be.
- Nutcracker Suite: Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy
- Nutcracker Suite: Waltz Of The Flowers
Beethoven, Ludwig van (German, 1770-1827). I actually find most Beethoven boring and gimmicky. But his "greatest hits," such as the 5th symphony's first movement, are pure gems. Here are two beautiful, contemplative pieces.
- Sonata No.8 c minor Op.13 Pathetique, second movement
- Moonlight Sonata, first movement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT7_IZPHHb0
Terms and abbreviations
- Harmony means combinations of notes.
- Consonance means harmony that's nice, simple, and easy to listen to.
- Dissonance means the opposite: harmony that's complex, spicy, and challenging, once considered ugly or even evil.
- A, B, C, C sharp (abbreviated C#), D flat (abbreviated Db), etc. These are single notes. Western music has just twelve different ones. Virtually all classical music up to the mid 1900s is made up of just low and high examples of these 12 notes.
- Major and minor are two basic flavours of music, not to be confused with consonant and dissonant (either can be either). Roughly speaking, major is happier and lighter, minor is sadder and darker.
- "in": when a piece is said to be "in F# minor", that refers to the single note the piece centres around, and the major or minor flavour it has. The piece's central note and major or minor quality, taken together, are called it's "key". Thus "in Eb major" is short for "in the key of E flat major", meaning the piece revolves around the single note E flat, and has a major flavour. The word "major" is often dropped, so "in G" really means "in the key of G major."
- "Op.": short for opus, simply a way of numbering composers' works.