My first love has always been classical music. Maybe cats. But probably classical music. A runner-up would be video games. I feel like I got pretty lucky once games started recording orchestral soundtracks.
I remember the first time I heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. I’m talking about the entire symphony, not just the first four notes or whatever. I’m talking about the super-awesome part between the third movement and the fourth movement, which happens without pause (a rare occurrence at the time). So the third movement goes BAM right into the fourth… and the entire time up until that moment, we’re in this dark, minor, serious place. But that fourth movement absolutely bursts with triumph and valor and courage, in C major and all its glory, and I thought, this sounds like movie music.
And every single time I hear the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th, I think of the imaginary scene that that music conjured in my mind in that moment more than 20 years ago.
This sounds like movie music.
For a while, I was a film soundtrack junkie. Randy Newman’s score for The Natural was one of my favorites, and that led me straight into the arms of Aaron Copland. John Barry’s Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves led me to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Jean Sibelius.
Fortunately for us in 2013, we also have game soundtracks to lead us into classical music. And I love classical music for many of the same reasons I love playing games – it takes me somewhere.
Here are some pieces I often think of when I’m playing games.
Gustav Holst – The Planets (1914-1916)
When Holst finished writing The Planets in 1916, Pluto hadn’t been discovered (or subsequently demoted to a dwarf planet) yet. And Holst was fascinated by astrology, which makes a difference in understanding how he put it together. Since astrology studies the impact of planetary bodies on our own Earth, Holst didn’t write a movement for it. That leaves seven planets, therefore seven movements, each of which had a subtitle indicating its astrological character.
Like Mars, the Bringer of War. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, etc.
Each movement has a unique character, inspired by these subtitles. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” features really fast scales up and down the orchestra. “Mars, the Bringer of War” is perhaps the most famous movement, in the unusual and unsettling time signature of five beats to a measure – lots of drums and brass… because war, that’s why.
“Neptune, the Mystic” not only featured an offstage female choir, but was one of the first pieces to feature a fade-out ending.
In many ways, Holst took musical paradigms and over-exaggerated them, or maybe he just perfected them. Regardless, The Planets will rock your world.
Also hear: Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
I mean, seriously. This piece. Just… just listen to this piece. Vaughan Williams was great at capturing one word into music – lush. Interestingly enough, Vaughan Williams was doing what many composers at the turn of the 20th century ended up doing – looking backward with the future in mind.
If that makes sense.
The theme Vaughan Williams used came from 16th century composer Thomas Tallis, but VW gave it the 20th century touch by writing it for a massive orchestra. Strings only, though; no brass or percussion parts in this one. The Fantasia is written for two orchestras plus a string quartet.
Normand Corbeil’s score for Heavy Rain is reminiscent of this style of composition.
Also hear: Maurice Ravel, Mother Goose Suite
George Crumb – Black Angels (1970)
Normally, I’d be really into the structure of a piece like Black Angels, but I’m more taken by the way it sounds.
And it’s kinda terrifying.
Written for electric string quartet (yep), the piece also requires the players to play gongs and crystal glasses. There’s chanting, too.
It’s an amazing example of the texture and color you can get from just four people, and if you like Garry Schyman’s BioShock scores, you’ll like George Crumb’s Black Angels.
Also hear: Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
“Needs more gong.”
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring changed music forever – actually, the anniversary of its premiere is right around the corner. The premiere on May 29, 1913 is famous itself for the riots that broke out in the audience, mere seconds into the performance.
Just listen to it, and tell me if you don’t think it sounds like a pagan sacrifice of a virgin. Probably would’ve freaked me out in 1913 too. In addition, he used a lot of weird instruments people weren’t familiar with, like bass trumpet, contrabassoon and alto flute.
Also hear: Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet
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Ottorino Respighi – The Pines of Rome
Respighi hit this one out of the park. He actually wrote two other pieces about Rome, but we mostly don’t care about those (Fountains of Rome and Roman Carnivals). Not that they’re bad, they’re just not as absolutely frickin’ perfect as Pines is.
Epic comes to mind when I hear this piece. It’s really epic. And the end… oh, man. The end of this piece is SUBLIME.
Respighi really was great at just about everything. One of the things composers admire about him was his ability to write just the right melody for just the right instrument – he was an excellent “orchestrator”.
Also hear: Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances Suites 1-3
To avoid overstuffing you, I’ll stop for now. But give yourself the luxury to listen. Take the time to listen. Let the music take you on a journey.
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.