Second Anniversary – My Top 10 Composers

And so, my blog has reached the ripe old age of 2 years. I had a pretty busy year offline, and managed to finish my final year of postgraduate study, which involved writing a really, really long minor thesis. As a result, I wasn’t able to translate as much as I wanted to, but I still got some stuff done. I also released more albums, including the first Len’en arrangement album, and there are more albums to come…!

Like last time, I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to all the people who have supported me throughout the last year. That includes everyone who has requested translations, commented on my posts/videos, downloaded my albums, and inspired me to do my best. There’s too many people to list fully here, but you know who you are! Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Now, back to business – last year I wrote a list talking about my top 10 Touhou circles. I was thinking about how to follow on from that, and I decided to go for an unconventional list completely unrelated to Touhou. Since I am, after all, a music student at heart, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite composers, along with one or two pieces by them. Most don’t fit under the label of ‘classical music,’ but under the broader category of ‘art music.’ There are a lot of hidden gems out there, so I want to try and share them around! Each has a little blurb talking about how I first encountered the composer/piece, and perhaps some interesting facts about the composer/piece. I’ve also attached videos, taken from a variety of different artists.

Like always, leave a comment if you like them or have your own favourite composer you’d like to share – I’m always on the lookout for more good music to listen to!

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10. Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

a) Arabesque no. 1, from Deux arabesques (1888-1891)

Performed by: Stephen Malinowski

I was first introduced to this piece in my final year of high school, during a music class. We were discussing the different ways in which you can write about how music affects you, and a guest teacher played this for us on the piano in a variety of different styles. I remember the majority of the class said that it made them think of the ocean, and fair enough, it has that sort of a feel to it. I thought about it and realised that this piece makes me think of an oasis. It’s as if someone’s travelling through a desert, seeking a mirage in the distance that they’ll never reach. It’s a bit of a dark interpretation…

b) La fille aux cheveux de lin [The Girl With the Flaxen Hair] (1910)

Performed by: Lang Lang

When I was studying music at university, a friend of mine chose this piece as one of their end-of-year recital pieces, so it has a special place in my heart. The first few notes of the melody, which if I recall correctly spell out a major 7th chord, are captivating, and they draw you right in. I feel like it has an innocent, almost childlike quality to it; I guess that’s appropriate, given the title.

The version I’ve got here is performed by Lang Lang, who’s basically a superstar in the piano world.

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9. Erik Satie (1866-1925)

a) Lent et douloureux from Gymnopédies (1888-)

Performed by: Daniel Varsano

This piece has an especially important place in my heart, since it formed the basis of my first mashup, which is really the source of everything I’m doing now. I don’t think that I’d be exaggerating if I said that this is Satie’s most popular work – you can find it in a whole lot of places, even in video games!

I found out the other day that I’ve been pronouncing the title incorrectly my whole life. It’s meant to be pronounced ‘gym-nop-eddy.’ I’ve been pronoincing it ‘gym-no-pea-d’ this whole time…

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8. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

a) Étude Op. 10, No. 3 [‘Tristesse’] (1832)

Performed by: Valentina Lisitsa

I won’t lie – I was first introduced to the music of Chopin through a certain game called Eternal Sonata, released in 2007. The main character is Chopin, and it’s basically a JRPG with historical facts about Chopin thrown in there for good measure. I enjoyed the game, but it was Chopin’s music that really stood out.

The common name of this particular piece means ‘sadness,’ but I can sense a few moments of hope throughout. I almost feel like it’s more nostalgic that anything else – you’re looking back over the past, and that’s the reason why you’re sad.

[Writing this makes me realise that it’s been almost 10 years since I played Eternal Sonata. Perhaps I should go back and replay it…]

b) Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 [‘Heroic] (1842)

Performed by: Evgeny Kissin

I first heard this in Eternal Sonata, too. The name was given to it by Chopin’s lover, George Sand/Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, and it really lives up to it. It always makes me feel a little more inspired and motivated each time I listen to it. This piece is a polonaise, which is a Polish dance with its own distinctive rhythmic pattern. I’d love to arrange a Touhou theme in that style one day…! On an unrelated note, I’m also fond of Chopin because he was Polish, and I also have Polish ancestry (even though I can’t speak the language and haven’t been there before…).

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7. Percy Grainger (1882-1961)

a) Lincolnshire Posy – I. Lisbon (1937)

Performed by: The North Texas Wind Symphony

Unlike the other composers I have on this list, Grainger is Australian. I’ve been exposed to his music through playing it with the concert band I’m a member of. He wrote great music for concert bands! In particular, he likes to split the band up into brass and woodwinds, and make one get louder while the other gets softer. It’s quite unique. He also hated Italian terms, so most of his scores have English performance markings – it’s not odd to see stuff like ‘clingingly,’ and ‘to the fore’ written on your part.

This particular piece is the first movement of a series of folk songs that he arranged. A ‘posy’ is a bunch of wildflowers, which is an apt description for the work.

b) Irish Tune from County Derry (1911)

Performed by: The Dallas Wind Symphony

I played this piece with my concert band, too. Grainger wrote some really good music for concert band, and his main instrument was the saxophone. Like the other piece, this is based on a folk song – in this case, it’s ‘Danny Boy.’ Grainger was an early pioneer of music recording (bear in mind that he was alive over 100 years ago). He had a recording machine, and he liked to go around and record people singing folk songs into these little cylinders. He’d write them out, and apparently he’d write them out exactly as he heard them. So if someone coughed, he’d simulate that in the music. Likewise, if they sang out of time, the arrangement would also have weird time signatures. You don’t really see that in this one, though…

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6. Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

a) Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, from ‘The Planets’ (1914)

Performed by: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

I don’t remember how I first came across this, but I guess ‘The Planets’ is pretty well-known. ‘Mars’ in particular gets used in a lot of films and TV shows… Either way, I like Jupiter the most. Like the next piece, it has an adventurous feel to it, but it also feels noble. I guess that’s only appropriate, since Jupiter’s the largest planet in the solar system. I don’t think Holst ended up writing a movement for Pluto, and this was written before Pluto was demoted. Poor Pluto, always being left out of things…

b) St Paul’s Suite, I. Jig (1913)

Performed by: The City of London Sinfonia

I don’t have a sentimental story this time. I think I had to analyse this piece for an assignment at university, but I ended up really enjoying it. The first movement has such an adventurous spirit to it! I feel like I’m about to set off on a really important voyage!

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5. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

a) Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1862)

Performed by: André Laplante

This piece is an example of program music – it’s intended to describe a short section of ‘Faust’ by Nikolaus Lenau. He wrote a few different versions, but this piano arrangement sounds quite challenging. Well, Liszt was renowned for writing a lot of really hard music for the piano. He also played all of his works in public, and was quite the rock star – he was known for leaving behind a trail of broken pianos, and some of his fans fainted while they were watching him. Ironically enough, it was performers like Liszt who helped piano makers further refine the instrument, making it stronger and contributing to the pianos we use today.

b) Liebesträume (Dreams of Love) No. 3

Performed by: Daniel Barenboim

If you’re a fan of Pandora’s Tower, you’ll recognise this piece – it’s used as the game’s main musical theme. Unlike with Chopin, I discovered this piece before I played the game. I think it was played at a lecture or something like that…

Anyway, the melody is beautifully crafted. It’s nostalgic, poignant, full of melancholy at times… it has a bit of everything, really. It also demonstrates Liszt’s versatility when listened to alongside the above piece.

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4. Luciano Berio (1925-2003)

a) Sinfonia, Mvt. 3 (1968)

Performed by: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Berio is one of the more recent composers on my list – he only died in 2003. Either way, his works are renowned for their experimental nature. He was particularly involved in electronic music, too. The piece I’ve chosen here is one that I heard at a lecture whilst studying music, and it defies all explanation. Movement 3 is my favourite. Basically, it’s a mishmash of (1968) pop culture references, references to well-known pieces, and random talking. Come on, how can you not love a piece in which the singers themselves are instructed to tell the orchestra to “keep going!”? I love the craftsmanship that went into this.

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3. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

a) Symphony #5 (1937)

Performed by: The New York Philharmonic Orchestra

I was introduced to this work in my final year of high school – we had to talk about a small section of it as preparation for our final exam. Shostakovich ended up writing a lot of symphonies: last time I checked, he managed to write about 15 of them. This one stands out, probably because it was the first one I listened to, but it’s also really dramatic. The opening is probably one of the best openings to any piece of music I’ve ever heard.

This is the sort of piece you have to sit down and actively listen to. It’s quite the experience.

b) Piano Sonata #1 – 24 Preludes, #18 (1933)

Performed by: Evgeny Soifertis

This is only short, but it’s so charming! I had to arrange this for a small ensemble during my music studies, and it was a lot of fun. I managed to get quite a high mark on it, too! Shostakovich wrote a lot of music for piano, mainly preludes and fugues, so they’re worth looking into if you like piano music. Most of them are quite dark, but there are some lighter ones scattered in there, too.

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2. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

a) The Firebird – Infernal Dance of King Kastchei (1910)

Performed by: The Vienna Philharmonic

This ballet is basically the work that pushed Stravinsky into fame and fortune. It helped him transition from relative obscurity to a globally renowned superstar – perhaps the last composer to truly define an era. It also marked his first time collaborating with the Ballets Russes, a ballet company who would collaborate with him for later works including The Rite of Spring.

The movement I chose from this, as its name implies, is the theme of the ballet’s ‘bad guy.’ It certainly has that final boss feeling to it, and probably wouldn’t sound out of place in a modern video game. When he gets creative, Stravinsky does all sorts of weird things with time signatures, which is one of the things I like the most about his works. It’s particularly evident in the Rite of Spring, which I highly recommend, too!

If you’re interested in what this section looks like in the original ballet, feel free to check out this video (performed by the Kirov Ballet).

b) ‘Chinese March’ from ‘The Nightingale’ (1914)

Performed by: The Philharmonia Orchestra

This is a section from ‘The Nightingale,’ a lesser-known opera by Stravinsky. As a whole, the plot deals with themes such as nature vs. machinery. The titular nightingale is captured and made to sing for an imperial emperor, but it loses its position in favour of a mechanical bird. Humans aren’t the only ones losing their jobs because of machines…

This particular section was composed with the intention of making it as ‘Chinese’ as possible, a style of music called ‘chinoiserie.’ It ends up being a bit cliché as a result – like, come on, pentatonic scales can be used to refer to any country in that region, including Japan and Korea. Either way, I think it’s charming. The rest of the opera is quite nice, too – the ‘Song of the Nightingale’ is particularly haunting and beautiful.

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1. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Putting together this list made me realise that most of my favourite composers belong to the Romantic period… This brings me to Sergei Rachmaninoff who, in my opinion, is the king of Romantic music.

a) Piano Concerto #2 (1901)

Performed by: Nobuyuki Tsujii, an amazing Japanese pianist, at the BBC Proms

I don’t have any words to express how much I love this piece, and how much it means to me. I first learned about it when I watched Nodame Cantabile in 2010, but since then I’ve tracked down a bunch of different recordings, played it during some significant points in my life, and it’s taken on a life of its own for me. I was actually lucky enough to hear a student at my university play this whole thing live during a recital preparation class. Their performance was so passionate they managed to break a string on the piano…

Anyway, for me, this piece is a prime example of the word ‘romance’ in all of its various meanings. It takes you on a journey. For some reason, I think of a desert whenever I listen to this. Like… you’re struggling on through a desert, and every now and then there are just these oases of musical goodness. I guess it’s a fitting piece to end this list – the first one reminded me of a desert, too. Maybe I just associate music with deserts and oases too much… >_>

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And that’s it for another list! If you read this far, thank you. Here’s to another year of translations and music! I wonder if I’ll make another list next year…

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2 thoughts on “Second Anniversary – My Top 10 Composers

  1. Eiki December 5, 2016 / 6:54 am

    :O I didn’t know you had a Polish ancestors!

    Liked by 1 person

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