It was only a matter of time before I’d submit western art music to the indignities of a top ten list. Some composers like Beethoven didn’t make the cut simply because I couldn’t choose one piece of music above the rest. Don’t even ask if the numbering means anything here; cutting things down to ten was painful enough.
1.Johann Sebastian Bach – The Art of Fugue
You can make the case that Bach’s final, incomplete work is his driest and most monotonous, but its always carried a fascination for me.
2.Franz Schubert – String Quintet in C major D. 956
Alternately idyllic and melancholic, Schubert’s quintet has haunted me since my teenage years.
3.Richard Wagner – Tristan und Isolde
The philosophy underpinning the libretto is bunk, and I tend to go through phases where the whole opera seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, it was another key musical experience of my teenage years that suggested to me the possibilities of the medium.
4.Olivier Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time
The story behind the quartet is interesting enough as it is: its unusual instrumentation (clarinet, violin, piano and cello) is due to those being the instruments Messiaen had on hand as a French POW in WWII. But it’s also one of the great Catholic works of the 20th century, expressing eschatological hope in a time of terror.
5.Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.2
Completely unsubtle romantic bloat and bombast at its best, and a good choice if you want something dramatic to listen to for Easter.
6.Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Don Giovanni
Only contrarians don’t like Don Giovanni, perhaps the greatest work of musical theater of all time according to people who like to make statements like that.
7.Igor Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress
With a libretto by W.H. Auden(!) and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s take on Mozartean opera complete with his characteristic rhythms and woodwinds is a delightful treat.
8.Bela Bartok – String Quartets
I’m cheating a bit by treating all six of these quartets as a piece, but everyone seems to already do that, anyway.
9.Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky – The Sleeping Beauty
I love it as much for its non-musical side as its musical one, but this is still some sumptuous stuff.
10.Alban Berg – Violin Concerto
If I’m gonna rep the Second Viennese School, this achingly beautiful, mournful concerto is probably as good as it ever got.