Our Playlist column features music curated by our faculty, students, and staff around an interesting idea or theme. For the latest column, we invited conducting student and jazz composer Jaelem Bhate to share some of his favourites. You can listen to the tracks below via Spotify (if you have an account) or YouTube (if you don't). The full playlist is also available here.
By Jaelem Bhate
I’m in my final year of the graduate conducting program here at the School of Music, so I spend a lot of time thinking about big, important pieces of music. The ironic thing about masterpieces is that, over time, they grow so familiar to our ears that they actually become hard to appreciate. We begin to lose sight of what made them so great and so influential in their own time. So even as we celebrate them, we take them for granted.
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun and illuminating to put together a playlist of music that in some way changed how we listen to and experience music. These are works that were pivotal in the evolution of music through the ages, and in many cases were also landmark works for the composers themselves. It has been more than difficult to narrow down this list to only a few works, but here are some tracks and artists in my regular rotation.
You can listen to the songs via Spotify (login required) or YouTube, below. (You can also access the full playlist in Spotify — subscription also required).
J.S. Bach — Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BMV 1049
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos hold a special place in the development of early music as traditions developed from Renaissance to truly Baroque, foreshadowing the Classical era. These six works pushed apart independency between string instruments further than it had ever been pushed before and are notable for their written out, virtuosic lines. In the past, these types of lines may have been left to a soloist to improvise, but the practice of fully notating these melodies for an entire section opened up a new front of musical possibilities.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K 550
There are so many revolutionary pieces to pick from when talking about Mozart. His symphonic output arguably shows the most maturity and growth of any composer. His First Symphony was deeply influenced by Haydn, whereas later works like Symphony Nos. 40 and 41 truly showcase the maturity and forward-thinking nature of an adult Mozart. Symphony 40 is only one of two in a minor key and totally reimagines symphonic form and harmonic structure.
Ludwig Van Beethoven — Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, Op. 55
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, many say, was the point where Beethoven came into his own and broke away from the traditions of the past. It defines the transition from the early to middle period of his creative output and was the longest and most complex symphony ever composed at the time. Beethoven famously scratched out his dedication of the symphony to Napoleon after he crowned himself Emperor of France, and instead rededicated it to the true heroes of Europe—an unheard-of social commentary in a musical work.
Hector Berlioz — Symphony Fantastique, Op. 14
When Beethoven died in 1827, the musical world was at a loss for an answer to the question of what would come next for Western music and the symphony. Beethoven had only premiered his game-changing Ninth Symphony in 1827, and composers in 1830 were struggling to live in his shadow. Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique was totally off the wall for its time. A hugely expanded orchestra with never-before-seen instruments and two sets of timpani, along with the codification of programmatic musical elements in symphonic form, meant that Fantastique was to forever serve as a marker for the evolution of music.
Richard Wagner — Act III, Scene III of “Die Walküre” from The Ring
Wagner wasn’t a great guy, and indeed his politics and morals were ugly by the standards of today, as well as of the time he was writing in. However, his music was undeniably groundbreaking, and his Ring cycle, featuring very long operas that tell an epic story, paved the way for not only how we experience opera and classical music, but how we consume entertainment. He wrote the libretto as well as the music, and laid the foundation for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and almost every modern movie that tells a hero’s tale.
Igor Stravinsky — “The glorification of the chosen one” from The Rite of Spring
In many ways, having a riot break out at the premiere of your work is a composer’s dream. It means you moved folks in such a profound and strong way that they responded in the strongest way they could. This ballet score changed so much about how music is written, and liberated rhythm from the bar line.
George Gershwin — “Rhapsody in Blue”
The invention and development of jazz introduced the possibility of cross-genre composition in ways that had not even been attempted. “Rhapsody in Blue,” while not the first instance of jazz making an appearance in an orchestra in the 1920’s, certainly was one of the most influential, and remains so even today.
Duke Ellington — “Tell Me It’s the Truth”
The big band era, at least as popular mainstream entertainment, was essentially over by the end of WWII. However, this opened the door for large ensemble jazz to be developed as concert music meant for listening, and not just background music for dances. Near the end of his career, Ellington wrote a concert of sacred music, intended for listeners of all religions, and considered it one of the most important works he ever completed. His sacred music cemented jazz as a genre of serious, concert music.
Elvis — “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Need I say more about Elvis? Elvis in many ways resurrected the renaissance tradition of the troubadour— the singer-songwriter who performed at popular events and festivals. He was a cultural sensation and helped to pave the way for the huge popular music stars we enjoy today in stadiums around the world.
The Beatles — “Come Together”
It is difficult to find a more iconic or more recognizable group, not only in music, but in history. As the Beatles progressed musically, their cultural status allowed them to expand their listeners’ tastes and introduce them to compositional techniques that were completely novel in rock music.
Miles Davis — “So What”
Miles Davis was his own person and his own artist. He didn’t let anyone tell him what to do or how to play. While this may have hindered him in his early career, he forged a sound that was innovative and even shocking for the time. He is considered one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever live, and his album Kind of Blue remains the top selling jazz album of all time. “So What,” an iconic track from that album, is notable for its use of modal modulation and progression to advance the composition, rather than traditional ii-V-I harmony.
John Coltrane — “Giant Steps”
Just like Miles, Coltrane was a legend both musically and as a person. Nobody could ever accuse him of being unoriginal. His mastery of the saxophone was and remains unparalleled, even with all the innovations in instrumental technique, the improvement of the instrument mechanically, and an influx of young jazz musicians whose sole purpose is to learn Coltrane solos. Beyond his saxophone skills, he was also a devout student of harmony. “Giant Steps” shocked the jazz world for its bold harmonic changes, utilizing the entire circle of fifths in a relatively short melody—along with a famous, blazing fast solo from Coltrane himself, handling incredibly difficult chord changes.
Thad Jones — “Groove Merchant”
Whereas Ellington took jazz and big band from a dance genre to one of high art, Thad Jones made it popular again and resurrected the sounds of the big band era in an updated and exciting setting. Without the innovations of Thad Jones as a composer and bandleader, the many jazz inspired theme songs of famous TV shows of the 1970s would not have existed. One of Jones’s legacies is his reimagining of how to write for a saxophone section.
Bruce Springsteen — “Born to Run”
The Beatles represented the start of the British invasion — the influx of British artists into mainstream United States and global culture, and the domination of bands from the UK. As the 1980s and 90s progressed, the world saw the age of the American rocker — the hair bands, the Midwestern guitar-slinging aching hearts, and the great American rock movement. Bruce Springsteen was a main figure of this movement and helped craft the soundtrack of America and the world into the 21st century.
John Adams — “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”
America had always struggled in the 19th century and early 20th century to forge a true, national sound. Leonard Bernstein made vast inroads, introducing jazz and other American musical calling cards into older European forms of symphonies and operas. After Bernstein passed away in 1990, there was an absence of an obvious heir, similar to the period after Beethoven’s death. John Adams has arguably filled that void more successfully than anyone else, forging ahead with his distinctive new sound and unique approach to composition.
Kaija Saariaho — Asteroid 4179
As scientific discovery and research accelerates in the 21st century, composers have begun to reflect these topics in their work. Harkening back to the programmatic elements that were so revolutionary in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Saariaho has a knack for producing music that represents scientific themes in her music.
Esperanza Spalding — “I know you know”
Spalding has shattered barriers in the jazz world, becoming one of the most popular and best-selling jazz artists in the last decade. She has performed all over the world, including at the White House as a guest of President Barack Obama, and has spearheaded a more inclusive era. Beyond her popularity, she has also changed the tradition of how to compose for small jazz ensembles, bringing new attention to her instrument, the bass, as a melodic voice rather than strictly a harmonic one.
Adele — “Rolling in the deep”
Adele burst onto the scene and shaped a sound that was distinct from the heavily edited pop music of the 2000s, and harkened back to the time of Elvis, in a way — a singer with a song, presenting it in a simple and unassuming setting. She helped revitalize the power ballad, selling out stadiums with just her voice and a small, primarily acoustic band.