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Playlist: Sophia Bacelar Favorites

Curating a playlist of classical music is a daunting task. First of all, the question of what is and isn’t classical music begs to be posed. While the term “classical” is typically loosely used to describe all music rooted in the Western European tradition, there is such a wide variety of style, texture, and sound within the canon that the use of a blanket term for the entire genre leaves room for confusion and disorder.

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Even to a novice listener, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, written in 1785, will sound drastically different from Franck’s Violin Sonata, composed a mere 100 years later. Then there is the polarity between the intimacy of a solo piano work, as illustrated in Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and the dynamic power of a full orchestra and chorus in a work such as Bernstein’s fast-paced, energetic “Mambo” from the opera West Side Story.

To speak of all classical music as falling within one single category does it a disservice. There is a piece for virtually every mood, setting, and listener: not every style or composer will be everyone’s favorite and I always encourage people to explore widely within the literature in order to find what they both like and dislike before forming an opinion on the genre as a whole.

My goal in this playlist was to choose a varied selection of my favorite classical works in the hope that each track will give a preview of the composer’s style of music. If you like a piece, an artist, or musical formation, you can click through to the full album and discover more of the composer or performer’s work. If not, you can simply move on to the next piece and discover something else. Enjoy!

Claude Debussy

Inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name, Debussy’s Clair de lune is the  most famous movement of his Suite bergamasque and was written when the composer was 28. Although Debussy, feeling that it was not representative of his later, more mature style, eventually grew to detest the Suite, the work remains one of his most popular pieces and is a quintessential representation of the French Impressionist style of Debussy’s time.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Korngold was one of the first classical composers to become a renowned Hollywood film composer. His Violin Concerto in D Major is filled with the lush, textural landscape characteristic of his film scores and borrows from many of the thematic materials used in his movie soundtracks. The rich lyricism throughout the work takes its listener on a theatrical journey bound to elicit highs, lows, and tugs at one’s heartstrings.

Jules Massenet

The “Méditation” from Massenet’s opera Thaïs follows the scene in which Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, confronts the beautiful and hedonistic courtesan, Thaïs, and urges her to leave her life of luxury and pleasure. This pensive intermezzo illustrates the inner turmoil in our heroine as she reflects upon her life. The climax, marked poco piu appassionato (a little more passion) is followed by the return of the main theme before continuing onto the second act, in which Thaïs agrees to follow Athanaël into the  desert and seek salvation in God.

César Franck

Although originally written for violin and piano, the Franck Violin Sonata has made its way into the cello repertoire as one of our most beloved works. The lyrical first movement is tinged with a bittersweet melancholy and evokes a sense of both pensiveness and serenity.

Claudio Monteverdi

I first discovered this work in my Music Analysis course at Le Conservatoire de Paris. The three-hour class was held late in the evening, and I was typically exhausted and unfocused by the end of the period. I was drifting off one night when I distinctly remember our professor putting on a recording of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa (The Nymph’s Lament) and immediately arousing. I don’t think I’d ever truly appreciated the purity and beauty of the human voice until I heard this piece of music and experienced its emotive power.

Maurice Ravel

Adapted from an ancient Greek novel by Longus, Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé tells the love story between a goatherd and shepherdess on the island of Lesbos. Often considered one of Ravel’s greatest masterpieces, the work is full of rich, impressionist orchestrations and was later rewritten to make two orchestral suites. The opening sighs of the “Danse suppliante de Chloé” from the second act are one of my favorite motifs   in music history and are sure to entice any listener.

Giacomo Puccini

Puccini’s classic La bohème follows the lives of several young Bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s and remains one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. The aria “Quando me’n vo’” from its second act (“When I Go  Along” in English) is sung by Musetta, who hopes to capture the attention of her love interest, Marcello, and tells of how passersby stop and admire her beauty as she walks the streets.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Despite his premature death at age 35, Mozart wrote 23 piano concertos in his lifetime. Of these, Piano Concerto No. 21 remains one of his most popular and performed works. I discovered it when I was ten years old from the cello section of the Juilliard Pre-College Chamber Orchestra, who accompanied it in a performance. The charm and grace of the Andante movement exemplify all the elegance of the Viennese Classical style, and the work remains one of my favorites from this period of music history.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Although Piano Sonata No. 14 is popularly referred to as the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven himself never made the analogy. Five years after the composer’s death, a music critic compared the ethereal effect of the first movement to the glimmer of moonlight upon Lake Lucerne. Thenceforth, the name stuck and the meditative Adagio movement has become nearly universally known by the name as well as one of the most recognizable works in classical music.

Johann Sebastian Bach

For me, Bach’s Goldberg Variations have always represented the path of a lifetime. The birth begins with the “Aria” movement, a simple, unadorned introduction to our main character. With each following variation, the original melody is transmuted into various moods and personalities until we finally conclude our journey with a return to the first theme in the closing “Aria da capo” movement (Italian for “Aria from the beginning”). While living in Paris as a teenager, I would listen to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording nearly every morning and evening. Coincidentally, Gould recorded the work twice in his life: in 1955 and 1981. The two versions of his interpretation of the piece are drastically different and perhaps reflect the changes throughout the journey of his own life.

Frédéric Chopin

Another timeless piece in the piano repertoire, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major is arguably his most famous work. The elegant melody, which reappears throughout the piece with differing embellishments and variations, evokes a sense of introspection and nostalgia and is perhaps the most stylistically pure representation of Chopin’s writing. I’ve played the piece in its original on the piano as well as a transcription for the cello and personally find it to be one of my favorite and most enjoyable works to perform.

Sergey Rachmaninov

After the failed premiere of his first symphony, Rachmaninov fell into a period lasting several years of deep clinical depression during which he suffered from severe writer’s block. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, dedicated to the physician who helped him in his recovery, marked a triumphant return. The turbulent, smashing, grandiose work is widely considered one of his greatest and a masterpiece of the romantic repertoire.

Sergey Prokofiev

Prokofiev was torn throughout his life between his ambitions of becoming an internationally acclaimed composer and his status in the Soviet Union as one of the beloved ambassadors of their culture. Politics played a large role in his music and the balance between the boundaries he pushed in his musical language and the aesthetic of his traditional training at Russia’s famed St. Petersburg Conservatory is evident throughout his works. In his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, which he began in Russia but finished while living in France, we hear elements of this struggle. Although stylistically a highly universal, progressive work, Prokofiev was still governed by the pressure to please a society lead by Stalin, a sentiment emphasized by the underlying sense of confinement and urgency throughout the piece.

Dmitry Shostakovich

If Prokofiev was the crown jewel of the Soviet Union’s composers, Shostakovich was the undisputed bad boy. Although he outwardly conformed to the government’s policies and was frequently employed to read speeches and condone articles in favor of the political regime, his personal rebellion against the party was through his music. The sarcasm, irony, dark humor, and occasional terror frequently expressed in his works are scattered throughout his Piano Concerto No. 1. I also discovered this piece as a young student playing in the accompanying orchestra’s cello section and recall being both riveted and haunted by its clandestine themes and melodies.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

This Russian composer’s ballet hardly requires an introduction. Swan Lake, which tells the story of a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer, has been adapted into and referenced by numerous films, theatrical productions, musicals, television shows, computer and video games, and more. However, the original ballet was an initial failure and was poorly received by both critics and the public. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece has triumphed in the test of time and is one of the most easily recognizable works in classical music.

Léo Delibes

The “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé holds a special place in my heart as I first discovered it when one of my dearest friends was going through rehab. He was known to have a particular love of flowers, and I listened to the track often during the weeks of his recovery. We were virtually inseparable since we first met while I was a teenager living alone in Paris; at the time, he adopted me as a sort of younger sister and eventually gave me a key to his apartment into which I unofficially moved. After his treatment in New York, where we were both living at the time, he returned to his hometown in South Africa. The morning of his departure, I saw him off before his flight and walked three hours back to my apartment in a daze as I internalized the loss of my best friend. All the while, I listened to two tracks on repeat: Amy Winehouse’s “Round Midnight” and Léo Delibes’ “Flower Duet”.

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla was an Argentine composer credited with blending the traditional tango of his native country with elements of jazz and classical music into a new style called “nuevo tango”. Oblivion, written in Rome for the soundtrack of the film adaption of Luigi Pirandello’s play Enrico IV, is tinted with the wistful nostalgia typical of his works. As a Latina, this is one of my favorite pieces to program in performances and play.

Georges Bizet

Bizet’s opera Carmen is full of passion, romance, and drama. It initially shocked and scandalized its audiences but has since remained one of the most highly acclaimed operas for both its musical achievement and storytelling brilliance. In this scene, the young and beautiful Carmen is surrounded by flirtatious suitors but spurs their advances, singing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (“Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame”).

George Gershwin

There is perhaps no composer more representative of America, New York City, and the jazz era than George Gershwin, and there is perhaps no more representative work of his compositional style than Rhapsody in Blue. While living abroad in Berlin and plagued with homesickness, I would listen to this piece repeatedly late into the night and dream of returning to the city I’ve always considered home, New York.

Leonard Bernstein

I wanted to pay homage in my last selection to both my Cuban heritage and one of America’s most beloved musical figures, Leonard Bernstein. Following the success of his popular musical West Side Story, Bernstein arranged the symphonic dances from the show into an orchestral suite. The “Mambo” movement is inspired by traditional Cuban dance and rhythms and is full of the excitement and energy rooted in the spirit of the small Caribbean islands from which my family comes.

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