Friday, 27 January 2012

Inspirational Classics

I'm not the world's biggest expert on classical music, but I know what I like, and I know what's good inspiration for a D&D DM. I don't generally like to have music on during game sessions, unless it's just in the background, but during planning or setting creation some pieces can really get the synapses firing. Here are a few favourites:

  • Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, and his symphonic poem The Song of the Nightingale (the latter not to be confused with his opera, The Nightingale, from which it was born). The first is famous because of its use in Fantasia, but the performance is terrible and the piece cut up and bastardised. In its original form it is a stunning, brutally rhythmical musical depiction of a human sacrifice, which makes it pretty D&D in my book. The Firebird is a gorgeous and exotically alien piece, starring an evil and immortal sorcerer-king called Kaschei the Deathless. The Song of the Nightingale is perhaps not for everyone - it's discordant and extremely strange, like an opium-fuelled vision of the orient. But it's one of the most genuinely 'fantastical' pieces of music ever written.
  • Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, which is a very popular piece - for a reason: it's beautiful, exciting, uplifting and mysterious, and it draws on the 1,001 nights, one of humankind's great artistic achievements. Here's Rimsky-Korsakov's own description of the story it depicts: "The Sultan Schahriar, persuaded of the falseness and faithlessness of women, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in tales she told him during 1,001 nights. Pricked by curiosity, the Sultan put off his wife's execution from day to day, and at last gave up entirely his bloody plan." 'Nuff said.
  • Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor. It is the very essence of Scandinavian cold: icy, exotic, dark, brooding - like what a fjord would sound like if you put it to music. The Lord of the Rings would be set to this.
  • The Paris Quartets, by Telemann, for a slightly different feel: if you want the sound of 17th/18th century Europe, this is it. The kind of chamber music that, used in a film, is a lazy shorthand for "the court of a monarch in an indeterminate post-renaissance age". 
  • If you ever need something lithurgical, mournful, awe-inspiring and like it sounds as if it comes from the heart of some huge temple, you can't go wrong with J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor. Conjurs images of heaven, but also of weird magickal cults who worship the chaos gods.
  • Bartok's String Quartets, especially numbers 1 and 2. Forget death metal. If you want a disturbing, unsettling listen that will give you nightmares, put these on your Spotify.
  • Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead, based on this picture. Again, 'Nuff said:


  1. So this is how I found out about Arnold Bocklin. A Google image search for his name comes up like a collection of art for a DMG/Monster Manual that never was. Gorgeous! PCs, welcome to your next quest, which will take place accompanied by the violin concertos of Sibelius, apparently!

  2. You really can't go wrong with the Russians. They gave us that "strings build tension, then triumphant horns release it" thing that is the cornerstone of movie soundtracks these days.

    I'm a big fan of most of what you listed there. I also use Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and various bits of Wagner. Vivaldi's good, too, but he doesn't have that dark edge you seem to be going for here.

  3. To keep with the Russians, there's Shostakovich's 8th and 3rd, both of which are Mahler- and Stravinksy-influenced wild swings between insane bombast and doomed melancholia. Great for big battle scenes, especially if things are not going well.

  4. Jesse: He did a humanoid embodiment of the Black Death, which was in an art history book my parents used to own. As a little kid I was so terrified of that picture all my mother had to do to shut me up was to threaten to get out "the art book".

    trollsmyth: Yep. Love the Russians. Stravinsky is probably my all time favourite composer, though I love Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov too. Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain would be an obvious choice for this list, but I felt it was maybe a little bit too obvious.

    Thomas: I've never been able to get into Shostakovich, but that might just be because I've never had a 'way in'. I'll give those pieces a go on Spotify and see what I make of them.

  5. I can understand that. Are you familiar with his self-portrait, the one with the skeleton whispering into his ear? I'm no art expert but I'm pretty sure that's not a common style.

  6. You must consider the artist/conductor too when it comes to classical music as there are many indifferent performances.

    Markevitch on testament for Stravinsky RoS, and Stravinsky himself on Sony. Also consider the Symphony of Psalms, Ancerl on Supraphon.

    Have you heard this:
    Extraordinary stuff and some pieces here are how I imagine Elves singing in Rivendell.

    Bartok string quartets are top of the tops. The Vegh quartet or the Takacs are best imv. Get Reiner's famous disc

    and thisók-Bluebeards-Castle-Kertész-Ludwig/dp/B00001IVQX/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1327716252&sr=1-2

    The most accessible shostakovich symphonies are 5, 10 and 15. Mravinsky, Karajan and Kondrashin respectively. The best versions of his quartets are from the Fitzwilliam quartet on Decca.

    The Jackson LotR music was at times a pale imitation of Bruckner whose symphonies are magnificent particularly 5 and 8. Welsor-Most and Karajan.

    Beethoven and Bach are the greatest composers but their music does not allow for wallowing in a fantasy mood.

    Actually this is pointless I could spend a day, and often do, talking about and listening to classical music and barely scratch the surface!

  7. Kent: Thanks for the recommendations. I'll have a stab at Bruckner and the Shostakovich.

    I'm by no means as knowledgable as you, so I generally try to stick to the famous names when it comes to conductors - like Karajan, Barbirolli, Bernstein, etc., on the basis that if they're famous they must be at least more than competent. I really like Esa-Pekka Salonen's Rite of Spring.

    I recommend the Belcea Quartet's Bartok's string quartets, which are great. They recently came to my local Philharmonic Hall and did some Beethoven, and they were stunning.

  8. Often whichever recording you hear first becomes a favourite! Also hearing a quartet perform Beethoven live is awesome and deserves loyalty if it was a good concert. I will check out the Belcea qt.

    Karajan recorded way too much material and phoned in a lot of it but has recorded some good stuff.

    I can't help myself so...

    Furtwangler the greatest conductor; Sviatislov Richter the greatest pianist.

    The six Mozart string quintets on philips.
    Vegh Qt for Beethoven
    Glenn Gould for Bach
    Knappertsbusch for Parsifal

    Anyway its always great to hear someone else has a taste for good classical.

  9. Kent: Yes, Glenn Gould's Bach is something very special. Although actually I like Barenboim too - you can't get much of a different interpreter, though.

    My 'local' is the Liverpool Philharmonic. The conductor, Vasily Petrenko, is kind of a young starlet - he's really revolutionised the place, and made it one of the best concert halls in the country. This is why you get to hear some pretty special stuff there.

    Anyway, I'm slowly educating myself about it. I recently got an 'unlimited' Spotify account, and the classical library is very impressive - so I'm working my way through in a meandering sort of fashion.

  10. How bout some Queen of the Night for your evil sorceress?

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  12. Youre lucky having a good conductor locally. It won't last so make the most of it while he's there; these guys are like footballers.

  13. Kent is absolutely right -- I'm quite lucky in that my "local" is the San Francisco Symphony, which has the fantastic Michael Tilson Thomas and an impressive array of guest conductors -- I've gotten to see The Firebird with Dudamel and Shostakovich's 8th with...Petrenko.

  14. Great to hear he's gone all the way to San Francisco to perform. He's really popular in Liverpool and has totally revitalised what was a moribund institution. (The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the oldest and most storied in Britain, but was a fading force since the 80s.)