We hear constantly that classical music is, by nature, relaxing. Not always true. An Amherst gent was reminded of this recently when, ready to undergo the nerve-racking experience of an MRI of his foot, he was given his choice of music and opted for Beethoven.
Mistake! The selection the medical provider chose was – you guessed it – the Fifth Symphony. As the machine roared into action, the symphony’s unsettling opening blasts only added to the shock.
No, not all classical music is relaxing. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an excellent pianist, once explained that to Vogue magazine. Vogue congratulated her on her musical pursuits and said it must be relaxing.
Rice’s wry reply: “Playing Beethoven and Brahms is not relaxing.”
With these cautions in place, there certainly are classical pieces that are wonderfully relaxing. You just have to look for them. Here are some suggestions.
1. Gregorian chants
The ancient music of the Catholic Church is, by nature, soothing. It is designed to quiet your mind and allow you to focus on what is important. The horizontal melodies gently rise and fall – no wonder these chants have been on best-seller charts off and on for the last 30 years. Listen to the monks of the Cistercian Abbey Stift Heiligenkreuz or Santo Domingo de Silos, for starters. It’s all good.
2. The creations of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
The Italian Renaissance master’s works are simultaneously uplifting, soothing and amazing. The “Pope Marcellus Mass,” for starters, will surround you with beauty. Don’t try to think too much – just let it wash over you. It will make you feel as if you’re floating.
3. Bach, Goldberg Variations
This music is a masterpiece, and thorny for the performer. But it is like the herb eleuthera – invigorating but soothing. The melody you hear at the start is repeated over and over, each time differently. There is something calming about its logic, its imagination. There must be, by design. Bach wrote the music for a nobleman who was having trouble sleeping. Give it a try. What worked for Goldberg can work for you.
4. Mozart, Wind Serenade
Mozart is like Beethoven in that you have to watch it. His music has the reputation of being relaxing but, depending on the piece, it can move you deeply, make you cry or nerve you up in weird ways. Try the transcendent Adagio from the Wind Serenade in B flat, K. 361. You hear it in movies, including “Amadeus” and the movie about John Keats, “Bright Star.” Or try some of his sacred music, like “Laudate Dominum” (from his Vespers K. 339) or “Ave, Verum Corpus, K. 618, easily found on YouTube. The sheer loveliness of the music will remind you that the universe is in good hands.
5. The Romantic era
The opening movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is beloved for a reason, because it is so peaceful. Chopin’s Nocturnes, for the most part, also evoke a beautiful and restful ambiance. Mendelssohn’s music has a peace and a beauty that can calm you and lift you. Try the “Nocturne” movement from his music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or the middle movement from his violin concerto.
6. Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” for piano
Relaxing by intent. The title itself – I learned this from News Arts Editor Jeff Simon – means “barefoot.” They can sound simple but are extraordinarily crafted. If you play the piano a little yourself you can try working on the first piece. Otherwise just listen and enjoy.