A bit over a year ago I published a list of 10 rousing classical music numbers for lovers of rock ‘n’ roll music. It generated quite a surprisingly large number of hits. So here I go again with another selection of adrenaline racing tunes from the classical music world for those of us who enjoy good music wherever we can find it. Click on the name of the tune to go to a sample clip on Youtube.
1. 3rd movement from Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint
Ha! Didn’t know that there is ‘classical music’ composed for the electric guitar now, did you? Have a listen and hear how hypnotizing a couple of guitars playing a couple of simple cords on repeat can be. It is something of a musical butterfly effect…
2. Sabre Dance from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane
This is the final movement from Khachaturian’s ballet depicting a traditional sabre-whirling Armenian dance. You have probably heard bits of it in various films and television show. Fans of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres will also know this as their team’s anthem. Listening to this thing I always have the mental image of being chased by a bunch of swashbuckling looking Slavs wanting to turn me into fresh steak… The pesky little xylophone wants to mince me to bits while the more moderate timpani is content with the idea of wider strips of smorg meat. All while the trumpets and trombones salivate all over me in their lip-smacking slides. A definitely uncomfortable thing to hear just before dinner time!
3. 4th movement (allegro con fuoco) from Antonin Dvorak’s 9th Symphony
Known more for its lilting melancholic 2nd movement (the famous largo), Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World boast a blistering closing movement that is to be played as if the orchestra is sitting on a really hot seat (allegro con fuoco). A heavy duty rage aria for an entire orchestra that still somehow manages to retain the Slavic sense of melodic melancholy, fully capable of feeling the gamut of human emotions in less than 15 minutes. It is a musical whirlwind of real life and fantasy meshed together and mashed into your comprehension by a slew of timpani and seared into place by the heat of the violin strokes. A kind of musical suffering that endures many re-listening without really threatening the health of your eardrums or sanity.
4. 2nd movement from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony
A classical music depiction of a bloody bludgeoning of an individual by a big brassy bully that could very well stand in for the deservedly unloved Soviet state. The earth shakes with each blow delivered as the violins scream in horror. This is a musical equivalent of a bloody train wreck you can’t turn your ears away from. Where else can you get inside the head of both the beaten and the beater all at once?
5. Aaron Copland’ Fanfare for the Common Man
The only one of the 18 fanfares composed at the request of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Eugene Goosens to set off concerts during WW II that is still being regularly performed. Since the concert the piece was composed for was to be played a few days before tax deadline, Copland dedicated it to the common man… who pays tax, of course1. The melody was also reused by the composer in the 4th movement of his 3rd symphony.
6. ‘Hoe Down‘ from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo
No other bits of classical music captures so vividly the galloping wild horse in the open range than this rowdy instrumental romp by Aaron Copland does. In a way, it also aptly inhabits the spirit of the American West in its acoustical tones and carefree changes in tempo and dynamic. The main theme of this thing was actually lifted straight from an American folk tune called Bonaparte’s Retreat depicting the French warrior’s defeat by the unforgiving Russian winter in 1812. Don’t ask me how that relates to the Americas. Apparently Copland chanced on the tune one day and decided to give it a twist.
7. ‘Act II Vorspiel‘ from Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie
Since I had already covered the famous Ride of the Valkyries in my previous article, I am very grateful that Richard Wagner’s opera has many more musically rousing numbers to choose from. This 2nd act prelude sees the chief god Wotan in a meeting with his daughter Brünnhilde (the lead Valkyrie) in a wild rocky mountain pass, where he commands her to defend her half-brother, Siegmund, against Hunding, the rowdy man whose wife had ran off with the former. If it seems rather immoral to you, it is… but then this is from the Ring Cycle opera full of morally anemic schemes, intrigues and even incests (yes, with an ess to denote plurality). So the music is naturally on the sledge hammer side of the subtlety scale. But then we are covering adrenaline rush-inducing music rather than the stereotypically relaxing to the point of causing spontaneous narcolepsy side of the classical genre, aren’t we?
8. Les Toreadors from Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1
Actually taken from the overture to Bizet’s one hit wonder opera, Carmen, this theme is now so associated with the Spanish bullfighting that even baby bulls are now born familiar with the music.
9. ‘Danse Macabre‘ by Camille Saint-Saëns
This devilish tonic dance was set on an Henri Cazalis poem depicting a French superstition where Death conjures up the dead to dance with him at the stroke of midnight each Halloween:
“Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack-
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.2″
Spooky music, this, with goosebumps-inducing fluttering flute followed by the self-indulging sneering solo violin directing the dried out skeletons’ steps, terrorizing the neighborhood until dawn arrives to discourage the diabolic ensemble.
10. ‘Dopo notte‘ from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Ariodante
Really, you didn’t expect me to go the whole article without including a real singing operatic number, now, did you? When it comes to rowdy beat vocal music, there is no better composer to turn to than George Händel. After having spent much of the opera in various states of distress Ariodante finally reaches the light at the end of his operatic tunnel and celebrates the happy ending of his tale in this jubilant aria of delight. The language is poetic, but the meaning is quite universal: what doesn’t kill you make you stronger!
And… if you had managed to listen to all these bits of classical music without nodding off, then perhaps this whole music genre isn’t as one-dimensionally pulse-quieting as you may have thought it was!