When I write, I can’t listen to music with words. Something about it just throws a phonological spanner in the works and hijacks my train of thought. I’ve always had a fondness for classical music, especially piano music, because my dad and grandad both play(ed), but I’ve since explored further and now it’s my go-to writing soundtrack.
Because I think the general anxiety level is a little higher these days I thought I’d put together a wee list of pieces that help me relax my brain muscles. Some will be familiar to most, others maybe not. In any case I hope there's something on here that brings a bit of peace to your day.
‘Traumerei’ – Robert Schumann
This is from a set of 13 pieces called Kinderszenen or 'Scenes from Childhood' and they have titles like ‘A Curious Story’ and ‘At the Fireside’. This one’s called ‘Dreaming’ and is among the most beautiful and delicate things ever written for the piano. The set was a favourite of Vladimir Horowitz, quite possibly the best pianist ever to live, so it's only right I give you his performance. Watch the full recital here; given in 1987, two years before he died aged 86.
Sonata No. 8, Op. 13, ‘Pathetique’ Mvt. 2 – Ludwig van Beethoven
2020 is Beethoven year, as it's 250 years since his birth. The full three movements of this sonata reveal much of his emotional range, from towering and tempestuous to serene and spacious, as in this second movement.
Consolation No. 3, S.172 – Franz Liszt
The name Liszt is synonymous with the kinds of unrestrained virtuosity and bravura that breaks piano strings. He was a composer who pushed the piano to its physical limits, and was in many ways a proto-rock star. He revolutionised not just piano playing, but performance. In this famous encore piece, we hear him at his most contemplative and calm played by the elder statesman himself, Daniel Barenboim.
Impromptu No.3, Op. 90, D899 – Franz Schubert
From one Franz to another, and a piece that reminds me a lot of Liszt’s Consolation. The long melodic line in this is gorgeously lyrical piece can take on the sense of so much more than notes on a piano. The gently shifting accompaniment props up the simplest of melodies that always leaves me feeling introspective.
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 Mvt. 3 – Sergei Rachmaninov
I’m not well-versed enough in musicology or theory to quite define what it is about Rachmaninov’s music that makes it so heart-achingly, face-wincingly beautiful. Whatever it is, it’s likely what has made his work, and especially his piano concertos, so enduringly popular. In this slow movement of his second symphony it's impossible not feel the tug of the Romantic era.
Prelude No. 15, Op.28 ‘Raindrop’ – Fryderyk Chopin
This was the first piece I ever learnt all the way through on the piano and novel nuances still appear as new pianists record their interpretations. Thenickname ‘Raindrop’, added later, comes from the repeated note in the left hand that mimics the drumming of rain (though Chopin himself would hate the idea). The middle passage comes on like a fitful nightmare until, as a storm is broken by sunlight, the dreamy introductory melody returns. For a piece prone to overly sentimental playing, this performance by Daniil Trifinov perfectly balances the rigid and reverential aspects.
Sonata No. 16, K.545, Mvt. 2 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This is the second movement Mozart’s ‘Sonata Facile’, or sonata for beginners. The first movement is one of the most instantly recognisable pieces in the repertoire and it’s playful, bright opening in C major gives way to this delightful andante. This is a study in simplicity, performed here by Mitsuko Uchida, one of the foremost players of Mozart alive today.
‘Clair de Lune’ – Claude Debussy
The first time I heard this piece was in Ocean’s Eleven. It plays after the heist, as each character walks off one-by-one, silhouetted against the fountains of Las Vegas. I don’t if that’s why, but I feel an immense relief with this piece, a sort of unclenching. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but you can’t really leave it off a list like this. To break with versions you might have heard before, here it is arranged for violin and played by the incomparable David Oistrakh.