I used to listen to the Bay Area’s most popular classical music station, KDFC (90.3 FM), on the car ride to my music-focused middle school. My drive was usually during the time when the station broadcasted song requests from listeners. It was always interesting to hear the backstories of why people chose certain pieces, or the personal significance of a special song.
Many requests were the first classical music piece a listener had been exposed to, leading them to fall in love with the genre. An example of this: the music director at my middle school, Eugene Sor, told me that the first time he heard Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 in concert, he knew he wanted to be a professional cellist.
When my viola teacher was a child, he was determined to play a piece that he was drawn to, even if he only heard a few seconds of it. The power of that mesmerizing snippet of music made him willing to put in the work to learn the entire piece because there was something enchantingly captivating about it.
Although every classical music piece is unique in its own way, audiences prefer certain pieces over others because of personal tastes. Preferences can and will change over time; one might hate Paul Hindemith as a teenager, unable to understand his music, but then grow to love him by one’s mid-40s. Yet, many believe that not all pieces are created equal, and though I hesitate to confirm this notion, there is much truth to it on a judgement scale. A Gregorian hymn by an unknown 13th century monk would probably not be put on the same pedestal as Beethoven’s legendary String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131. However, just because people don’t like a certain piece does not mean that it’s less wonderful, as the musical experience can be quite subjective.
There are a few pieces of music that I always come back to because of their immense beauty or jolting manner. Some of them are well-known, while others are hidden beneath the piles and piles of music from the last five centuries. I would like to highlight some of my favorites because I believe that people of any positionality can find solace and wonder within these three masterpieces.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, Opus 110
This string quartet is a truly raw piece of art. The haunting motif in the first movement carries through the raging second movement to the recoiling third movement. The fourth movement consists of foreboding drones of death and concludes with the original motif, leading to the fifth movement, which is strewn with the heavy recurring theme. Shostakovich’s intent with this quartet is, and always will be, debated. We will never know the truth behind the story it tells; the listener is open to have their own take on it.
The Borodin Quartet were actually in contact with Shostakovich throughout his life, receiving first hand instruction from the composer himself.
Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso No. 8, Opus 6
I listen to this beautiful concerto at least once a week because it never gets old. Since it was written in the Baroque Era (1600-1750), the harmonies and melodies incorporated so brilliantly into the different movements evoke nostalgia.
The interpretation by Alessio Miraglia & The Academy Strings Orchestra fully embodies the characteristics of the time period.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, Köchel 618
What a heaven-reaching, soul-gripping work! Written just half a year before Mozart’s death, this piece has captivated me ever since the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra’s music director Daniel Stewart introduced it at a rehearsal.
This version of the piece shows the original manuscript, adding an especially touching aspect.
If you find these pieces just as profound and spellbinding as I do, I’m glad for you! If you think you could do without them, don’t give up. Go out and explore the expansive world of classical music because someone out there wrote a piece that will speak to you.