Thoughts on Playlists in Apple Music

And I've added the "New Listener" Playlist to Apple Music


I just updated my giant post “Don’t Know Where to Start with Classical Music? Start here” with a playlist made in Apple Music. If you’re – like me – an early adopter of Apple Music and want to try it out, then here’s the playlist link directly. Have fun!

A few thoughts on Apple Music playlists so far.

Their Curated Playlists are Great

In general, I like it. It’s a solid streaming service, and I’ve been able to find all the music I could want (absent a few notable exceptions). It’s very easy to find new music as well. As I write this, I’m listening to a curated playlist for people working. Right away, I’m being introduced to some new stuff, and because it’s human curated, there tends to be a logical and fun assembly.

I honestly think these playlists are Apple Music’s greatest strength. Integration with iPhones and Macs and our iTunes libraries is fine great etc., but we’ve been living with streaming services for a few years, and it’s hardly been a giant imposition to open a different application to stream stuff. But the playlists are very nice, and I’ve heard they’re what made Beats Music special.

Making Playlists in Apple Music: Too Hard

However – and it’s a big “however” – making playlists is way too complicated at this point.

For one, there’s no way to import playlists from other services. I recreated the above playlist myself, and it took about 45 minutes. There are public playlists on Spotify that are many times longer than that, which individuals have been creating for years. Do we expect their owner’s to actually recreate them by hand in Apple Music? No.

The question then arises; why is it so hard to move playlists? Here’s why. Songs that you find in Apple Music can’t be added directly to playlists. They must first be added to your library and then added to playlists. This is not how Spotify – for example – works. I can add music to any playlist in Spotify and not add it to my larger library. Because of this limitation in Apple Music, imported XML playlist files can’t just auto add songs to playlists because those songs aren’t in the user’s library yet.

If you do want to create a playlist, as I just did, then you have to navigate back and forth between the “My Music” and “New” tabs in iTunes. Using the search field while in “My Music” searches your library by default. You must then click the button to specify that you want to search Apple Music, which will then take you to a page with your results. The search field is then erased, so if you want to refine your search, you have to retype everything.

Banging your head yet?

Mutually exclusive

Once you find what you want, you must first add it to your library before adding it to a playlist (even though you are presented with the option to add it to a playlist!!!) by clicking the plus symbol. Then you go to the track and click the three dots (don’t right click, because you’ll get a different menu and different playlist options), and then you can add to a playlist.

Along the way, you might run into a few bugs, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, they slowed me down.

Once you have the playlist, you can share it with a link. There’s no embedding yet, which is a drag, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get that. I hope we do. I also can’t just “publish” it somehow within Apple Music for other people to stumble upon. That’s also a drag. I’ve found some really good playlists made by users in Spotify, and I’d like this to work a little more seamlessly.


I like the service. I really do. I like that my wife and I can have a family account that’s cheap. I’m glad I can mix my own recordings and the streamed ones. I love the playlists. I’m glad they’re paying musicians slightly better. There’s a lot of stuff to listen to. Metadata is decent (I want to write a post about this). I even dig the new icon. All good stuff.

But it has a ways to go yet, and I’m hoping they’re going to iterate it quickly.

Don’t Know Where to Start with Classical Music? Start here.


If you are interested in listening to classical music but don’t know where to begin, then this post is for you. I’ve made a giant playlist to which I’ll be adding more music over time, and below are annotations with little bits of information about each piece. If you don’t know anything about classical, then that’s ok. Just hit play, and I’m sure that you will find something that you like. Hopefully everything!

Here’s the Spotify playlist.

And if you don’t use Spotify, then here’s a YouTube version:

And finally for Apple Music listeners:

CLICK HERE to listen to “Ian’s New Classical Music Listener” on Apple Music

If you don’t care at all about how I organized it, then go ahead and enjoy listening to some great music. If you want to go ahead and jump to the annotations and skip all my explanations, then click here. The playlist should continue playing.

Still here? Ok, here’s how I put it together.

How the Playlist Was Constructed

Several other musicians and I were recently approached by On an Overgrown Path to inquire what we thought suitable for a new classical music listener. We were given some of this listener’s interests and a little bit of background, and this article and playlist are my attempt to answer that question.

I wish I could say with absolute certainty that my following ideas and musical suggestions will turn this person or you into a classical music lover, but I can’t. I’m certain that  he and you will like something, but perhaps you won’t like all of it. That’s ok. There’s a lot of good music out there, and maybe one or two of these pieces will lead you to something you really love.

With that in mind, I asked myself: why classical?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been involved in some way or another since childhood. I played a bit of piano, and I played a lot of clarinet, and I’ve always sung. My guitar playing was never classically tilted, but I enjoy classical guitar.

And from the beginning, I’ve loved story and place in my music. My first purchased albums were in fact movie soundtracks from Jurassic Park and Stargate. I liked the excitement of both scores but also the exotic rhythms and instrumentation. The only piece I remember playing on the clarinet (it’s been awhile) is Procession of the Sardar, which features a similarly strong sense of place. As a teenager, I fell asleep every night for months to the symphonic suites of West Side Story, and the instrumentation communicated the sadness of the tragic teenagers but also the conflict between the ethnic groups.

Story gives the music some context. It grounds it in something tangible. The listener, for whom we’ve been given this task, is a young-ish professional who likes Tom Waits and Joan Baez and the The Hunger Games, and right away, I sense a kinship with story being the overriding theme. So that was my first principle.

Second, I asked my wife what she thought the biggest hurdle to an appreciation of classical music was. She replied that the sheer length of the pieces is daunting. Obviously, this is true. The competing popular genres generally limit themselves to 3-5 minutes per unit, with rare exceptions. While not all classical pieces are long, many are, and a long piece of music is riskier than a short one; being stuck listening to an hour-long piece that you find dull is torture. Many people won’t risk it, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were cautious about your time.

Second criteria: brevity.

I also decided that novelty is important in a work. Novelty can be anything. Perhaps it’s interesting instruments or a unique style of playing or the intrusion of a strange and unexpected genre or something like that. Perhaps it’s foundational to the structure of the piece, such as Wagner’s “Leitmotifs”. Maybe it’s harder to pinpoint, but you know it when you hear it.

The fourth criteria is that it opens doors to more music. Great composers do this by default. Because they’re so influential, when you learn about a composer like Beethoven, it gives you insight into other composers. You can go forward in time or backwards with greater awareness of the context. But sometimes, even lesser known composers like Gottfried Huppertz can open doors that you might not expect.

Further, the pieces should be easily enjoyable without knowing too much theory about them. This is a subjective principle because some pieces I’ve included here have plenty of theory around them. But you as a new listener should be able to enjoy them without studying them in depth beforehand. For example, I’ve included some Leitmotif-heavy Wagner, but I think you’ll like it without knowing anything about Leitmotifs, while a piece utilizing 12-tone rows is probably a bridge too far for new listeners. You will probably like plainchant and even many of its descendants even not knowing the Catholic mass structure or modal theory, but the music of the ars subtilior movement might be too much.

That said, the sixth criteria is simply that the selections be quality music without condescension. There’s always a danger when exposing someone to something new that they be presented with dumbed-down versions of what they’re interested in learning. You probably like challenges, but nobody likes being condescended to. As Zoltán Kodály said:

Only the best is good enough for a child.

And so it is for you as well.

Those are my criteria:

  1. Sense of story or place.
  2. Brevity (as much as possible).
  3. Novelty.
  4. Opens doors to more music.
  5. Easy to enjoy.
  6. Quality without condescension.

Not all of the pieces satisfy all of my criteria, but they usually satisfy at least several of them. You can decide for yourself how successful they are.


I want the playlist to work even if you just hit shuffle. I think it’s successful at that with the exception of The Dharma at Big Sur or Appalachian Spring, both of which get chopped in half. Even then: I think you’ll like both halves even if they’re separate.

But if you just hit play, then it should also be entertaining. Initially I thought that a reverse chronological order was best, but I decided against that. The organization is mostly organic. I’ve paired pieces that sound good together and share some – often – vague idea with one another. Organization by era is bland and doesn’t offer enough variety.

Additionally, I want you to realize that the recordings themselves aren’t from the 1600s or 1700s. We all know this intellectually, but sometimes when listening to chronological classical music, it feels like the performers are further apart than they really are. We classical musicians are a large community who focus on different areas, and when you listen to live music, you’ll hear music from many eras placed side by side.

Now for an awkward question.

What is Classical Music?

You might think that this is an easy question, but it’s not. Even professionals have a hard time with this one.

When someone says classical music, this usually implies artistic music that has been composed specifically for artistic purposes using an orchestra or piano and/or opera voice and is performed in concert halls or recital halls or places like that.

The term, however, is much wider.

Classical music is an umbrella term for dozens of genres. It is distinct from the “classical” period, in which reside composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. As time passes previously distinct genres merge into the body of classical music. I believe that much of modern music will be labeled classical after some period of time because popular styles change. For example, the music of the troubadours was a popular style centuries ago, and now it’s studied almost exclusively by and performed by people with music degrees. Perhaps 400 years from now, it will be KISS or Jay Z.

Therefore, I believe that on an infinite time scale, all music will be labeled “classical” or the future’s equivalent term. The question is when. Some works are boldly classical from the start, of course. Classical composers exist right now. But in many cases, it’s difficult to make this distinction.

All of this is to make two points. First, some of the pieces in my list might sound remarkably non-classical to you. I don’t think their inclusion is too controversial, but I realize that you might disagree with my labeling.

Second, studying classical music invariably means running into genres like the symphony. Or opera. Or Lieder. Or concertos. Wait, which era’s concerto do I mean? Or sonatas? And how about the mighty motet and its centuries-long evolution across multiple periods of music and human development?

Whew. It can be overwhelming even for music professionals. A tip: just enjoy the music. All that other stuff will come with time. We’re just happy that you’re listening.

It’s Alive

Now, I consider both this post and the resulting playlist “living”. I will edit both later as I find more pieces that satisfy the requirements or discover that some pieces here just don’t work. I would also like to add more diversity of gender and race to the composers, and there are some major composers and periods that would benefit from inclusion.

The List and Its Amazing Annotations

Alright! Let’s begin with some pieces to get your blood pumping.

The Planets “Mars” and “Jupiter”: Gustav Holst

Pure fun. These two selections from The Planets (1916) are probably at least partially familiar simply through their own popularity or perhaps unconsciously familiar due to the emulation and adaptation by later composers, especially film composers.

Die Zauberflöte “Der Hölle Rache”: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The soprano voice is one that is unusual nowadays. The technique to sing soprano is one that’s the furthest from the speaking voice. In a world of female belters, the soprano can sound outright unnatural.

But what makes the soprano sound unnatural is what makes the voice type special.

So let’s dive in the deep end, with a piece that demonstrates this special quality. “Der Hölle Rache” (sometimes known casually as just the “Queen of the Night” aria) is fiery but requires incredible technique to execute it well. As such, it exemplifies the challenges that face Mozart singers: dramatic music that requires absolute technical discipline.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen,
so bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstoßen sei auf ewig,
verlassen sei auf ewig,
zertrümmert sei’n auf ewig
alle Bande der Natur.
wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, hört, hört, Rachegötter,
hört, der Mutter Schwur!
The vengeance of hell boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If not by your intercession Sarastro feels the pains of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Outcast be forever,
forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If not by your intercession Sarastro turns pale!
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, gods of vengeance,
hear the mother’s oath!

Symphony no. 5 “Allegro con brio”: Beethoven

The first movement from Beethoven’s fifth symphony provides a thrilling jumping off point for his music. It embodies many of the qualities that make his compositions special while not being especially long. I think you’ll recognize the first few notes from this, but I think you’ll be surprised just how great this piece is when you sit down to listen to it.

I’ve included the first movement only, but the whole symphony is, obviously, worth listening to.

String Quartet in F Maj “Assez vif. Très rythmé”: Maurice Ravel

Personally, I’m happy listening to any Ravel piece at any time mainly due to the sparkling orchestrations, charm, and creativity. This movement (the second) utilizes pizzicato to create its effect and contrasts this strongly with the more lyrical sections.

“Claire de lune” from Suite bergamasque: Claude Debussy

My mother introduced this to me and my sister as children, and I loved Debussy immediately. This is a touching gentle piece from France’s foremost composer at the turn of the 20th century. It borrows the title from a Paul Verlaine poem of the same name and is the third movement of the The suite bergamasque.

Metropolis: Gottfried Huppertz

The Metropolis score might be one of the most inventive in its genre. Listening to it now, it sounds remarkably fresh. Not only does its solution to the accompaniment of science fiction remain relevant today, but it also offers a musical pathway backwards to German composers such as Strauss and Wagner.

And at this point, I think this is fully classical music. Both it and the following Prokofiev have been played within a year of each other by the Dortmunder Philharmoniker in our lovely concert hall.

“Metropolis theme”

I can’t tell you just how much I love this brief musical moment. I’m not sure what other piece of music so effectively fills me with energy in so short a time. Triumphant and enormous.

“Im Dom”

This is a darker piece that features the famous “Dies Irae”, from which composers have been drawing for centuries.

(Currently not available in YouTube playlist)

“Im Laboratorium”

This piece made me suspect that Metropolis was heard by modern film composers or at the very least somehow unconsciously influenced them. See if you can hear what I mean.

Alexander Nevsky “Field of the Dead”: Sergei Prokofiev

Alexander Nevsky is an early black and white film with a score by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. He turned the score into a cantata for choir, mezzo soprano, and orchestra, and it is performed today in this format.

Following the violent “Battle on the Ice”, “Field of the Dead” is a lament sung by mezzo soprano:

I shall go across the snow-covered field,
fly over the field of death.
I shall search out my betrothed ,
and those glorious falcons ,
noble youths .
Here lies one hacked by swords;
here lies one pierced by an arrow.
Their blood has watered our beloved Russian land.
I shall kiss the dead eyes of those who died nobly for Russia,
and to the one who survived,
I shall be a true companion and faithful spouse.
I shall not marry a handsome man,
for earthly beauty comes to an end.
I shall be married to a brave man.
Hear this, bold falcons !

Translation quoted from The Horn

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Presto in moto perpetuo”: Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber is especially famous for his Adagio for Strings, which I routinely hear called one of the saddest pieces ever composed. Rather than include that here, I’ve added the final movement from his violin concerto, which is boisterous and driving and quite different from much of the composer’s refined and – sometimes at least – melancholy image.

Please listen to the entire concerto though, and while you’re at it, listen to the composers’ entire works, including his songs and the incredible Knoxville: Summer of 1915. And his Adagio of course.

Porgy and Bess “Summertime”: George Gershwin

Is this classical or not? That’s a hard question. Porgy and Bess is called an opera, but in many ways it’s very much American musical theater in its musical language. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is much more clearly classical, but many of his popular songs are not classical. How to define them?

I’ll call this classical with the idea being that one day classical music will probably claim all of Mr. Gershwin’s work under its ever expanding umbrella. If you called this musical theater though, you’d also be correct.

No matter what, Porgy and Bess is a brilliant work both lyrically and musically, and “Summertime” is excerpted regularly as a stand-alone piece.

and the livin’ is easy.
Fish are jumpin’
an’ the cotton is high.

Oh, your daddy’s rich.
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby,
Don’t you cry.

One of these mornings,
You’re going to rise up singing,
Then you’ll spread your wings,
And you’ll take to the sky.

But ’til that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you,
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

Three pieces from Eric Whitacre

These three pieces exemplify the trouble with certainty when labeling music as “classical”. Mr. Whitacre is a composer who sits at a piano and writes out his work for a chorus to perform under his leadership as conductor. But sometimes his musical language can reference pop music and might even be an arrangement of a pop song.

His “Lux Aurumque” is clearly a work that belongs in the classical vein of modern music. It demonstrates his use of attractive dissonance and deft harmonic control that characterizes much of his work. It along with many of his other works are performed by choirs around the world, and he himself commands a loyal fan following.

The second piece here “Enjoy the Silence” is his arrangement of the Depeche Mode song. Is it classical? If yes, then is the original also classical? If not, why? Regardless, his arrangement is hypnotic and inspires a very different response than the original.

The third “Sleep, My Child” is fully composed by Mr. Whitacre for his musical Paradise Lost. This utilizes, however, electric instruments in a way reminiscent of pop music next to standard orchestral instrumentation.

Helix: Esa Pekka Salonen

Described as a musical spiral, this is probably the most “difficult” piece in the playlist. But that’s ok. Just relax and go along for the ride. It’s basically one big build up and a sudden dramatic climax.

Turandot “Nessun dorma”: Giacomo Puccini

This particular aria came storming back into the public’s consciousness after Luciano Pavarotti sang it at the first concert he did alongside Placido Domingo and José Carreras (henceforth known as “The Three Tenors”).

No wonder too. It has a typically original and exotic sounding melody from Giacomo Puccini, and its final word “Vinceró” translates to “I will win!” Sung well, it’s a thrilling piece.

Rather than Pavarotti, who I adore, I’ve chosen the great tenor Franco Corelli for the playlist. Corelli was more likely to sing the role of Calaf – the character in Turandot who sings this – in a full production of Turandot than the more lyrical Pavarotti.

Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o Principessa,
nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelleche tremano d’amore,
e di speranza!Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me;
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, No!
Sulla tua bocca
lo dirò quando la luce splenderà!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà
il silenzio che ti fa mia!
Il nome suo nessun saprà,
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!
Dilegua, o notte!
Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò!
Vincerò! Vincerò!
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Even you, O Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watch the stars that tremble with love
and with hope!But my secret is hidden within me;
none will know my name!
No, no!
On your mouth
I will say it when the light shines!
And my kiss will dissolve
the silence that makes you mine!
No one will know his name,
and we will have to, alas, die, die!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!

West Side Story Symphonic Dances, “Dance at the gym”: Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein composed for many genres, but his best known work is West Side Story. It blends popular Latin styles with 20th century classical and the result is thrilling and beautiful.

This excerpt of the “Symphonic Dances” is drawn from “The Dance at the Gym” where the two gangs face off through dance in their own respective musical languages. Orchestras often throw in the word “Mambo!” when this is performed nowadays. Listen to how the musical style changes, and you can picture the two dancing groups trading dominance.

Missa pange lingua “Kyrie”: Josquin des Prez

The opening melodic rise hooked me immediately from this “Kyrie”, and it should hopefully provide an exciting entrance to the world of Renaissance polyphony. As you can hear, less emphasis is placed on the intelligibility of the words compared to the harmonic structure and flow of the work. Syllables are stretched out, and overlapping voices make it difficult to follow one thought.

But the musical effect is glorious, and Josquin is considered one of the greatest Western composers.

O magnum mysterium: Tomas Luis de Victoria

Sung regularly by choirs even today, this setting of the “O magnum mysterium” text exemplifies the smoother and more intelligible style of late Renaissance Roman-influenced polyphony. Syllables are limited to fewer notes, and all voices come together more often to state the words clearly using homophony.

Compare this piece to the Josquin “Kyrie” played earlier for the contrast. The musical effect is also gorgeous, so I make no claims to say which style is better. You can decide that for yourself.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

Tristan und Isolde Overture: Richard Wagner

Described as a “Giftschrank” (poison cabinet) by top Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann, Tristan und Isolde is an emotional and anxiety-inspiring work that heavily influenced composition in the late 19th century and remains a dominant work today. It tells the story of the knight Tristan and the kidnapped Isolde, who is to marry King Mark. The two of them – intending to drink poison – drink a love potion instead.

What follows is a descent into a mad love that consumes them and ultimately destroys them.

The overture introduces the major themes – “Leitmotifs” – of the work, and it does so in a way that evades musical or dramatic resolution. The Leitmotifs arise, vanish and reappear in an overlapping style that associates characters and ideas. Within the overture, we don’t know what they mean yet, but over the course of the whole opera, they form conscious and unconscious associations for the listener.

Anxiety inspiring, yes, but brilliant and moving.

Le nozze di Figaro Overture: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart is so often hailed as a genius that we forget that his music could be a lot of fun, which we need after Tristan und Isolde. The Overture to Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is one great example of this quality. Within the fun, of course, are the qualities that are considered great today, but that’s ultimately beside the point for the audience. Le nozze is performed regularly today, and – as a whole – it’s a long work. Audiences wouldn’t waste their time if the piece didn’t actually entertain them.

The overture, however, zips by.

Cello Suite no. 1 in G Maj “Prelude” & Toccata and Fugue in D minor: Johann Sebastian Bach

Rather than jumping into Bach’s many choral and vocal works, which are brilliant but often very weighty with religious meaning, we’ll start with his instrumental works.

You will probably recognize one or both of these pieces. If not, then great! Welcome to Bach. They exhibit two sides of the composer. The cello suite is light and charming while the toccata and fugue is complex and stormy. Both are immensely popular.

The Four Seasons Concerto no. 1 Spring “Allegro”: Antonio Vivaldi

The Seasons is one of the most instantly recognizable works in the classical world, and I include it here because it’s also charming, full of nuance and exciting.

Sonata-fantasy no. 2 in G# minor “Presto”: Alexander Scriabin

Scriabin’s music is very daring, beautiful, intense, and experimental. However, I can picture someone listening to one of his later more experimental works and finding themselves in a foreign musical world where little makes sense and deciding that all of his music must be like that.

Give this one a try and see how it goes. I bet you’ll think it’s as cool as I do.

A Lover’s Journey “Will you, Nill You”: Libby Larsen

Libby Larsen is a current composer, who writes for a wide variety of genres. Her art songs have a conversational quality to them, and the selection from A Lover’s Journey exhibits that only somewhat, opting instead for a playful rhythms and repetition. It’s a fun piece.

She writes of A Lover’s Journey:

Four Valentines: A Lover’s Journey is a set of four pieces which chronicle the extraordinarily commonplace yet supremely elegant story of love and valentining.

A Ceremony of Carols “Balulalow” “This Little Babe”: Benjamin Britten

Rather than diving into the rich but dark world of Britten’s operas, we’ll stay with something lighter. His Ceremony of Carols is meant for boys’ choir and harp and alternates between the reflectively beautiful – including plainchant passages – and the exciting.


O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.
But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow.

“This Little Babe”

This little Babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;
of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Finlandia: Jean Sibelius

(Recommended by Dr. Rundell)

Finlandia is a rousing celebration of the will of the Finnish people and was written at least in part as a protest against Russian oppression. Originally the final “tableau” of a larger piece called “Finlandia Awakens”, it is performed as a stand-alone piece nowadays.

Although it sounds like fully programmatic music, it’s much more general:

Finlandia was certainly not composed to describe these various stages in any precise way. What Sibelius wanted was to portray Finland’s awakening and its fighting spirit in more general terms


Near the end, a hymn-like tune appears. It was never intended to be sung, but it has since been set to words several times since its original composition. Both playlists have the unsung version in them, however, here is one performance with the choir:

The Dharma at Big Sur: John Adams

A piece resembling an improvisation, this is played by electric violin with orchestra. It sounds very similar orchestrally to many of Mr. Adams’ other works (the continually stacking brass at dramatic moments for examples), but this takes on a meditative quality as it bobs and weaves and builds to its climax.

About the work, John Adams himself writes:

I wanted to express the moment, the so-called “shock of recognition”, when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass. On the Atlantic coast, the air seems to announce it with its salty taste and briney scents. Coming upon the California coast is a different experience altogether… For a newcomer the first exposure produces a visceral effect of great emotional complexity. Many writers have tried to describe it directly, but Jack Kerouac did it best. In both his poetry and his novels he comes the closest to evoking my own sense of liberation and excitement, an ecstasy that is nevertheless tinged with that melancholy expressed in the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: “All life is sorrowful.”

This is one of the longer in this list, but it should be easy to latch onto and float with. It’s technically two movements, but it really functions like one piece.

Appalachian Spring “Very slowly” and “Allegro”: Aaron Copland

Appalachian Spring is famous for a number of reasons. What draws me – and has since I first heard it – was the sense of spaciousness within the work. It captures my own feelings when driving through rural Appalachia very well.

However, there is a great variety within this single work, and you might find something else that you love.

Three pieces “Halt!” “Ständchen” “Der Leiermann”: Franz Schubert

It’s hard to think of a composer who composed in such varied moods with such extremes as Franz Schubert. His happy-sounding Lieder are exuberant and wildly joyful while his sadder pieces plunge into a dusty bleak landscape.

These three selections (from three different song cycles) try to capture some of that contrast. You can hear tone painting – using music to imitate literal ideas –  that Schubert uses to illustrate his stories with the piano. In the first, the piano emulates the grinding of a mill and the flowing of a brook, the second a guitar, and in the last the grinding of a hurdy-gurdy.

The first is sung by a young man coming upon a mill where he divines some kind of fate awaiting him, since he believes that his brook “Bächlein” has led him there. The second – “Ständchen” – is a love serenade sung in a minor mood that suggests aching desperation. The singer demands more and more from his beloved. However, at least that person still has someone for whom to sing; the singer of “Der Leiermann” has finally lost everything, including –  potentially – his sanity.

“Halt!” from Die Schöne Müllerin

Eine Mühle seh ich blinken
Aus den Erlen heraus,
Durch Rauschen und Singen
Bricht Rädergebraus.,Ei willkommen, ei willkommen,
Süßer Mühlengesang!
Und das Haus, wie so traulich!
Und die Fenster, wie blank!Und die Sonne, wie helle
Vom Himmel sie scheint!
Ei, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein,
War es also gemeint?
I see a mill looking
Out from the alders,
Through the roaring and singing
Bursts the clatter of wheels.Hey, welcome, welcome!
Sweet mill-song!
And the house, so comfortable!
And the windows, how clean!And the sun, how brightly
it shines from Heaven!
Hey, brooklet, dear brook,
Was this, then, what you meant?

“Ständchen” from Schwanengesang

Leise flehen meine Lieder
Durch die Nacht zu dir;
In den stillen Hain hernieder,
Liebchen, komm zu mir!
Flüsternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen
In des Mondes Licht;
Des Verräters feindlich Lauschen
Fürchte, Holde, nicht.
Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen?
Ach! sie flehen dich,
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich.
Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen,
Kennen Liebesschmerz,
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz.
Laß auch dir die Brust bewegen,
Liebchen, höre mich!
Bebend harr’ ich dir entgegen!
Komm, beglücke mich!
My songs beckon softly
through the night to you;
below in the quiet grove,
Come to me, beloved!
The rustle of slender leaf tips
whispers in the moonlight;
Do not fear the evil spying,
of the betrayer, my dear.
Do you hear the nightingales call?
Ah, they beckon to you,
With the sweet sound of their singing
they beckon to you for me.
They understand the heart’s longing,
know the pain of love,
They calm each tender heart,
with their silver tones.
Let them also stir within your breast,
beloved, hear me!
Trembling I wait for you,
Come, please me!

“Der Leiermann” from Winterreise

Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er, was er kann.
Barfuß auf dem Eise
Wankt er hin und her
Und sein kleiner Teller
Bleibt ihm immer leer.
Keiner mag ihn hören,
Keiner sieht ihn an,
Und die Hunde knurren
Um den alten Mann.
Und er läßt es gehen
Alles, wie es will,
Dreht und seine Leier
Steht ihm nimmer still.
Wunderlicher Alter,
Soll ich mit dir geh’n?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier dreh’n?
There, behind the village,
stands a hurdy-gurdy-man,
And with numb fingers
he plays the best he can.
Barefoot on the ice,
he staggers back and forth,
And his little plate
remains ever empty.
No one wants to hear him,
no one looks at him,
And the hounds snarl
at the old man.
And he lets it all go by,
everything as it will,
He plays,
and his hurdy-gurdy is never still.
Strange old man,
shall I go with you?
Will you play your hurdy-gurdy,
to my songs?

Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Saint Hildegard has one of the largest surviving outputs of the Medieval composers and was influential in a variety of fields outside of music.

De Patria

De patria etiam earum et de aliis regionibus
viri religiosi et sapientes ipsis adiuncti sunt,
que eas in virginea custodia servabant,
et qui eis in omnibus ministrabant.
From their homeland and from other lands
religious men and sages joined them,
keeping them in holy care,
and ministering to them in all ways.

Translation quoted from

Nunc gaudeant materna

Nunc gaudeant materna viscera,
quia in superna simphonia,
filii eius
in sinum suum collocati sunt.
Unde, o turpissime serpens,
confusus es,
quoniam quos tua estimatio,
in visceribus,
suis habuit
nunc fulgent in sanguine,
Filii Dei,
et ideo laus tibi sit,
Rex altissime.,
Now let the womb and heart,
of Mother Church rejoice!
For in the starry symphony,
her children
are gathered to her bosom.
O vile snake,
you are,
for those your hollow jealousy,
had thought,
it clutched within its guts
now sparkle in the blood,
of God’s own Son—
praise be to you,
the highest King!,

O frondens virga

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Translation quoted from Fides Quaerens Intellectum

“Song for Athene”: John Tavener

Beginning quietly, the piece is organized around several utterances of “Alleluia” and interspersed with text taken from an Orthodox hymn and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although not written for the event, it became instantly famous when it was performed at the funeral for Princess Diana.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Thank you

If you’ve made it this far, then thank you for listening. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below or or by using the contact button. If you have any suggestions for additions to the list, then let me know either here or on Spotify and I’ll take a listen.

Happy listening!

Moving, Deep Listening, and Creation

Can we listen deeply while moving?

Fingers in a city map

While jogging last week, I perceived a new quality to the album Absolution by the band Muse. It matched my movements to such a perfect degree so much of the time, that I wondered if the music was deliberately created to for exercise junkies. At times, I felt pushed by the music, and at times I felt great happiness as my participation with it.

This got me thinking. I do not argue against the value of deep listening, as advanced by On an Overgrown Path. I have had deep meditative experiences in concert halls and in other settings where mindful listening was required. Music such as Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti or John Adam’s The Dharma at Big Sur does seem to loosen the unconscious and connect us with a sense of unity, but even less experimental music (by modern standards) as Beethoven symphonies can do this to me under the right conditions.

When I picture this kind of deep listening, I think of concentrated silence and restraint of movement. I wouldn’t immediately think about music-inspired movement as “deep listening”. I associate the idea of deep listening and meditation, which lines up with what – I would guess – many people perceive meditation to be: mindfulness while sitting still and being quiet.

However, there are meditations on movement, and perhaps we can say the same about deep listening. I’ve found much music benefits from simultaneous movement. No, I can’t listen to Tosca while exercising (though I, regrettably, tried once), but some music opens like wine that’s been allowed some time to breathe when the listener moves in reaction to it. The music accents and compliments the movement, and a virtuous cycle emerges of co-creation of the moment.

Most powerfully, this happens in live settings where the “musicians” and the “listeners” engage in an energetic back and forth of giving. I’ve experienced this both as musician and audience, in commercial settings and spiritual settings.

But even recordings can do this when paired well. Last night while riding my bike in an empty street, I listened to some plainchant, and the ride was transformed from transportation to a kind of dancing flight. The music changed my perception1. I’ve had many similar experiences, and I’m sure many other people have.

When music connects like this, the line between listener and musician becomes ever more blended, and together they creatively alter experience itself. Yes, the musician creates the music, but they together make the moment. The dancer does this. The jogger does this. The driver. The dishwasher. The walker. The person sitting with their eyes closed. It’s hardly glamorous, but it is relevant to them and to anyone who wants to find new musical and life experiences and deepen their love of music.

  1. I don’t, naturally, recommend listening to headphones while biking where there’s much traffic of any kind. Just thought I’d throw that disclaimer out there. ↩

Eric Whitacre Singers in Koblenz

The  Rhein in Koblenz
My wife and I took the train down to Koblenz, Germany on Sunday to catch the Eric Whitacre Singers concert with Eric Whitacre conducting. My thoughts?

Totally cool. Totally totally cool.

Somehow in my choral studies at the University of Arizona I never had the chance to sing his works, even though his work was very much present in the minds of choral enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, and I’ve always appreciated his apparent efforts to blend concepts like dissonance with a certain amount of accessibility. You don’t need to be a theory expert to enjoy Eric Whitacre’s music, but musicians versed in theory enjoy it as well.

On Saturday, I saw this Tweet:

I asked my wife if we should go, and voilà. Off we went the next morning.

I’m not going to write a whole review of the concert, but I will call out a couple things. First, I appreciate the casual atmosphere but nevertheless meticulous nature of the concert. Besides the Eric Whitacre Singers themselves were a chorus of 200 amateurs who’d rehearsed the day before and were joining for a few numbers at the beginning and ending of the concert. They were totally solid. In addition, Mr. Whitacre always had enough interesting backstory to provide compelling illustrations for every piece and keep us entertained while the larger choir entered and exited.

Second, I love his arrangements of others’ pieces. Seriously; love is not too strong a verb. The Bach, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails arrangements manage to remain true to the sources while adding new dimensions to them. I’ve purchased and have been listening to his “Enjoy The Silence”
recording continuously since the concert. It’s haunting. Additionally, his description of the Bach sounding like a smeared painting was dead-on.

I’ll take any chance I can get to hear his “Hurt” arrangement. I’d heard bits of it online before, but it’s a special experience to hear it live. Being familiar with the NIN original and the Johnny Cash cover lends further context to this piece, which has always hit me in the gut. I’ve always loved the song, and Whitacre’s arrangement deepens that. Again: the arrangements don’t replace the originals but deepen them.

Third; what a terrific group of singers. It’s just wonderful watching such a well-oiled machine at work, especially when they’re singing music that requires such precision. Lots of colors, interesting phrasing, great dynamic range and whatever special sauce is required to make those ideas more than just musical concepts but emotional realities for an audience.

Besides the concert, Koblenz is a really cool town. Seeing two great rivers come together is humbling and inspiring and simply beautiful, and I snapped up photos greedily.

Great trip. As I’ve said, I still feel very “abroad”, and getting to visit places like this with my wife still feels lucky. Especially since we also got to see the Eric Whitacre Singers.