Four pieces of classical music to power-up your day

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
August 29, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Does your day need a power-up? Choose one of these four classical compositions to play in your earbuds: within an hour, you'll be raring and ready to face whatever life throws at you.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 ("Pastorale")

This symphony's title makes it sound relaxing — but though it's inspired by nature, Beethoven knew that the great outdoors aren't always quiet and peaceful.

The symphony — one of Beethoven's few instrumental compositions to explicitly tell a story — begins with an evocation of a bucolic rural scene, with a flowing brook and happy townsfolk, but it builds to a stormy interlude that will cause you to sit bolt upright, then rejoice along with the music when the clouds part and the entire orchestra celebrates.

You can't listen to this symphony and not end up feeling a little more optimistic about life, the universe, and everything.

R. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie

When I saw the epic BBC nature series Planet Earth, I thought, "I hope Strauss's estate is getting royalties for this."

Not to slight the achievement of George Fenton, who wrote the score for the series, but every composer who tries to write music in a majestic mode (particularly when mountains are involved) is in debt to Richard Strauss.

If you're moved by the strains of Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra that famously open 2001: A Space Odyssey, you'll really dig this tremendous tone poem. Close your eyes and you'll feel like you're flying above the alps, a virtual Superperson. (John Williams also, of course, stole a few tricks from Strauss.)

Copland: Appalachian Spring

Perhaps the most majestic interpolation of folk music in the history of the classical tradition: Copland never gave such eloquent voice to the aspirations of his beloved, conflicted home country. (It's worth noting that the Brooklyn-born composer also wrote music for the city: check out his jazzy Music for a Great City.)

If you only know Copland from beef commercials (and Bob Dylan concerts, which have often featured Rodeo as entrance music), take a listen to this lucid, inspiring score. If you're familiar with the orchestral suite, get a fresh perspective by trying the chamber orchestra arrangement or the complete ballet.

Whichever version you play, you're certain to be moved by its rousing conclusion, a thrilling arrangement of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts."

Reich: Drumming

You thought I was only going to pick orchestral chestnuts, didn't you? Not at all: here's a contemporary classic from the early oeuvre of living legend Steve Reich. Like other "minimalist" composers, Reich has expanded his palette over the years — but this entrancing score for percussion demonstrates the genius of the minimalist impulse.

Influenced by the percussive traditions of Africa, Drumming begins simply, with bongo drums beat slowly and steadily. Other voices (both percussion instruments and actual human voices) quickly join the mix, and over the course of an astonishingly inventive hour, the ensemble build to a complex, entrancing set of interlocking rhythms.

Whatever might be dragging you down, Drumming will leave you confident that you can navigate the day's challenges with aplomb — indeed, with flair.

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