In a new commitment to music education, the BBC has put together a presentation featuring ten pieces of classical music that every school child should hear. Not just a “Top Ten” list of all time greats, this list reaches across the whole spectrum of time and space in symphonic music. Let’s examine it…
1. Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams
A good, solid opener – an exercise in excitement, and an instruction in what happens if a burst of movement is allowed to simply move forward.
2. Symphony No.5 Op.67: Allegro con brio by Ludwig van Beethoven
Aside from being one of the most recognizable pieces of music in any genre, this movement is a great teacher of the power of motives – never before had a single motive – those first four notes of the work – dominated the whole of a work like this before.
3. ‘Storm’ interlude from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten
In the same vein as ‘Short Ride,’ this work tries to evoke an experience, and does so with some pretty powerful effects – right from the beginning, you can hear the waves tossing this way and that.
4. In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg
This work is instructive in its use of instrumentation – most sections in the orchestra get a moment with the tune, so it makes for a nice and easy guide to the orchestra.
5. Zadok the Priest by Georg Frederic Handel
Our only work featuring the human voice! This is also an opportunity to learn just how universal music is – the initial buildup to the entrance of the choir is similar to ‘Short Ride’ in that it starts simply enough, but builds that simple opening idea up to a great hight.
6. Mars, from The Planets by Gustav Holst
Iconic because of its asymmetrical rhythm (the most important beat comes every fifth beat) which evokes Wartime themes. Ever since then, composers have often gone to the idiom used here when depicting conflict.
7. Connect It by Anna Meredith
I can’t provide a YouTube link to this one because it was commissioned for this project, which makes it the most exciting inclusion on this list. By commissioning a brand new work – and by a woman no less – the BBC is making a statement to the children of the UK that classical music is much more than just music by dead white men, but that it is a living, breathing language that must continue to be nurtured.
8. Horn Concerto No.4 Rondo: Allegro vivace K.495 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Rondo form was one of the most popular classical forms, and was used regularly by Beethoven, Mozart, and others to provide a nice jaunty ending to their concertos and other light concert music. Additionally, this is the only work on the list which sounds in a compound meter – it can be counted either in two or in six.
9. A Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Another evocative quasi-tone poem, this time depicting a witches’ Sabbath. Lots of memorable themes here.
10. The Firebird Suite Finale by Igor Stravinsky
Another iconic work which has become a benchmark of music that came after it. Like other works on this list, it takes a single, simple idea, and takes it to great hights.
This list is very light on absolute music, and focuses more on less abstract music that tries to depict a specific, non-musical idea. There are only two works of absolute music here – the Mozart and the Beethoven – and even the Beethoven is absolute music in name only, as it is heavy with autobiographical themes. Also noticeably absent here are any chamber music works, and very few vocal works; this education project is less about “classical” music, and more about orchestral music. Actually, most of the music here is romantic, and for the big romantic symphony orchestra. There are some redundancies here too – Mussorgsky, Holst, and Grieg all sound similar enough. When one thinks of the styles that were left on the cutting room floor – Debussy, Wagner, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Strauss – one wonders why all three of the above were deemed necessary. Still, this is a good effort, and there is a lot to like here.