5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music

I posed a deceptively simple question to our writers and editors, as well as some artists we admire: What are the five minutes or so — longer than a moment, shorter than a symphony — that you’d play for a friend to convince them to fall in love with classical music?

A bit of agonizing later, here are our selections. It’s an astonishing array: the very old and the very new; some favorites, as well as things I’d never heard before and am delighted to now have.

Enjoy the listening, and please leave your picks in the comments. We’ll publish an assortment of them. — ZACHARY WOOLFE, Times classical music editor

This is one of the most perfect compositions I know. There are no superfluous notes. Every phrase has been crafted with the precision of a master jeweler. Ravel creates a paradox: A miniature musical form becomes a vast space. Every time this piece ends, I feel devastated, as I do not want to return to the physical world. I would be perfectly happy to stay in this garden forever.

Steve Reich’s “Duet,” for two violins and orchestra, is a wonderful distillation of his processes. There is a clear pulse, moving through a series of chords, each lasting just a few seconds. Each chord feels like it’s finding repose from the previous one, creating a sense of release without feeling repetitive. On top of this, two violins play politely interlocking canons and patterns. A minute before the end, he lands on a sort of jazzed-up F-major chord, which, after a brief move to a minor key, resolves itself back into F — a moment of deep structural satisfaction.

I’ve always had a thing for music that can make me cry, or at least indulge some serious melancholy. Is it any wonder that the soundtrack of some of my moodiest college days was the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with its sad and wintry string variations?

I love the lucid textures here, and how the lines twist around each other as they climb. As a string quartet junkie and evangelist, I’m always looking to lure new fans to this world.

My mouth fell open and tears welled in my eyes. I didn’t know what she was singing about; I didn’t know what harmonies were being played; I didn’t know the composer, or the poet, or the content, but I knew that it was affecting my body and mind in ways that I had yet to experience. I was overwhelmed by the power matched with the ease. I was overwhelmed by the constant and extreme, yet seamless, shifts. I didn’t understand what I was listening to, and I didn’t need to, but it made me want to listen on, and on and on and on. This album was my introduction to classical music, and the brilliance of the human voice.

It is a piece that to me exists in its own time universe. It helps the listener learn what classical music needs: to appreciate the sounds as they are, in a boundless sonic space. It was a meditative experience when I first listened to it at a sea resort with just steady waves of the ocean and peaceful fresh breeze accompanying it.

The first notes of “Lavender Rain” form a simple scale, but one that moves as haltingly as someone warily placing one foot in front of the other in pitch darkness. There’s a second voice here, trailing the first like a shadow. Then the sound grows, divided as if by a prism into many lines, and the music embarks on a reluctant, ineffably tender descent. Anna Clyne wrote “Lavender Rain” as she was grieving for her mother. In its somber beauty — somehow both weightless and heavy-hearted — it’s part of a long tradition of classical music inspired by loss.

This was the first symphony to teach me that classical music can be every bit as theatrical as Broadway and Hollywood. The work’s “story” — a tale of unrequited love and a hellish opium trip — is evocative, suspenseful and at times horrifying. The opening of the finale, the “Witches’ Sabbath,” lives up to its title: deranged and wild, with a Dies Irae so chilling it was later used by Stanley Kubrick in “The Shining.”

The deep, milky gongs of Lou Harrison’s American gamelan slowly chime as a violin soars among and above in tender elegy, singing just for you. Then light, lucid bell-like sounds enter, making this musical sky more and more densely starry, in an expansive yet deeply intimate meeting of cultural traditions that I find more moving by the day.

The five minutes or so I would choose to inspire a love affair with classical music are the closing moments of Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier”: the final trio. Here is a heartbreaking use of music’s essential instrument, the voice, giving each of the three singers the simultaneous chance to express herself with transparency and beauty. Using elegant and sophisticated strategies from the traditions of classical music, Strauss draws each listener into music’s capacity to inspire a personal recognition of the bittersweet transition from desire to fulfillment, and ultimately to loss.

Janacek, who wrote this in 1926, said the Sinfonietta was intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory.” That’s a pretty tall order. But Janacek was nothing if not full of chutzpah and ambition. And besides, I reckon he succeeded! What I love about his music — and what makes it feel still so modern and so approachable — is the raw, earthy quality of its sound world: It is completely uncompromising and individual. You don’t need to be a conservatory-trained musician to fall under his spell. He was a man of the soil and you can tell his love for his Moravian homeland in every bar of music he wrote.

“Consort of Musicke by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons” is Glenn Gould’s greatest record. These early English harpsichord pieces had no history of piano performance until Gould’s charismatic advocacy. Although not originally intended to be played as a set, Gibbons’s Fantasy in C and Allemande (Italian Ground) were clearly paired by him as antecedent and consequent. The solemn counterpoint in the Fantasy is glorious, and Gould marches so hard in the Italian Ground that he’s almost swinging.

In my early teens I was overwhelmed by Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet score “The Firebird” — in the recording conducted by Stravinsky — even before I knew what was going on in the fairy-tale story, about a wondrous firebird that helps a prince rescue the princess he loves from the realm of an evil sorcerer. The last scene still gives me chills. The villain’s death, depicted in jagged, fractured bursts, leads to a passage of shimmering, shifting chords. A consoling melody, first played by a horn, signals the lifting of the magical spell, then builds and builds to a blazing, brassy, rhythmically charged conclusion.

There is something so gorgeous and emotionally direct about this piece. Its harmonies are constantly swaying back and forth with subtle dissonances, a never-ending push and pull. And the arrangement by Thomas Adès makes the music sound like a wonderful conversation between these instruments, highlighting the unique character of each line. Hearing a modern composer arrange an early-18th-century piece is a sort of conversation itself: between Adès and Couperin, across 277 years.

“Tehillim” is one of Steve Reich’s seminal works, an uplifting and exuberant setting of Hebrew psalms. By the end of the first five minutes, we are engulfed in an optimistic, joyful rush of voices. In the early 1980s, I listened to the ECM recording constantly. It reminded me why I love music.

Great composers can quickly bestow an intense appreciation for an instrument that’s new to you. In Unsuk Chin’s “Su,” the beaming tones of the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, create delicate, droning chords at the beginning, often paired with strings. Minutes later, some edgier, stuttering exhalations precede a thundering percussion riff. Ancient textures, modernist orchestration: The work feels like something Duke Ellington might have called “beyond category.”

This is an example of music, text, expression, human voice and instrumental color blending together and truly elevating one another to generate such a powerful and emotional sensory experience. In moments like these, classical music shows that there is nothing else in the world quite like it.

You can’t listen to a recording of it, and the many YouTube renditions won’t give you a sense of what it really is. Instead, like all great musical works, “4’33”,” John Cage’s three movements of silence, must be experienced live in concert, where the transient energy and the perception of time becomes a collective and individualized event. The accidental and unintentional sounds of everyday life, from coughs to faraway sirens to the hum of an air conditioner, become the piece itself. A strong reaction is guaranteed — perhaps, like it did for me, it will awaken a sense of the still untapped potential in classical music.


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