20 Musical Nuggets to Calm, Rejuvenate, and Inspire

Transformative selections from 1741 to today.

Posted Apr 04, 2018

James St. John, CC 2.0
Source: James St. John, CC 2.0

Especially in our stressful times, music is essential: as balm, as inspiration, as healing.

So, here is a trip through the centuries with the music that most moves me and I hope you. Each title embeds a link to a premier performance of it.

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Aria. Glenn Gould is the unquestioned king of Bach pianists. He recorded this soon before his death, which seems apparent from this performance.

Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, first movement. Along with Clair de Lune, this is as ethereal as it gets.

Peter and the Wolf. This is an enjoyable way to learn what each orchestral instrument sounds like.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto, 1st movement. This recording by Isaac Stern was what first hooked me on classical music. I still love it 50 years later.

Grieg Piano Concerto. Disparaged by critics as “accessible,” I consider that a plus. More important, the Grieg Piano Concerto would probably win a popularity contest as the most loved piano concerto.

Gaspard de La Nuit by Ravel.  The most surreal, inventive, yet listenable, no, compelling, music I’ve ever heard. I think that if I were on a desert island and could only bring one track with me, this, performed by young Lucas Debargue, would be it.

Debussy's Clair de Lune. Per my comment regarding the Moonlight Sonata, this is ethereal. I add here that it’s an excellent anti-anxiety drug and it has no side effects.

Night on Bald Mountain by Moussorgsky. The opposite of Clair de Lune: invigorating. I could picture this as the monster theme in a Disney movie.

The Moldau by Smetana. This recreates the feeling of a river; swaying, then roaring, finally peaceful. It could be viewed as reflecting many people's life arc.

Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein. He was not only arguably the 20th century’s most famous conductor but an innovative composer. For example, he wrote the score for West Side Story but that pales in innovativeness compared with the raucous overture to Candide, yet it's a mind-expander to listen to.

Maple Leaf Rag. This is the ragtime era's iconic song. At the risk of hubris, I listened to its composer Scott Joplin play it and I think I play it better. HERE is his version and HERE is mine (and because of a hand condition, I played it with seven fingers:)

My Funny Valentine. This is my favorite old standard. Again, I’m the pianist.

Over the Rainbow. Everyone knows and is comforted by this song, perhaps because it speaks of dreams attainable without straying far from home. Daniela Innocente Beem sings, I accompany. 

Buddy Rich Band: Love for Sale. The Rich band crushes more famous big bands, for example, Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s.  For people who like this sort of music, it's quite a mood lifter.

Autumn Leaves, performed by Frank Sinatra. This was my mother’s favorite song and this is my favorite arrangement of it. It's touching, especially as we get older.

The theme from Schindler's List.  I am the son of a Holocaust survivor but this would be moving even if I weren’t.  

I Dreamed a Dream. The song has become almost a cliche but not when Anne Hathaway performs it as she did in the movie version of Les Miserables

Defying Gravity. This is the intersectional anthem from Wicked. Its message: I’m loud and I’m proud, and even though I'm a green ugly witch, I can, without any "wizard," do whatever I want, even defy gravity.

Hunting Wabbits 3 by Big Phat Band. This is up-to-date big-band at its best. This is a tribute to cartoon chase-scene soundtracks but taken to a higher and more entertaining level.

The Finale from Book of Mormon. The lyrics are a monument to political correctness but the lyric/music package is irresistible no matter your politics.

My Shot from Hamilton. Consistent with the current trend of Have-Nots calling for The Revolution, this six minutes of hip-hop is the most popular song from the most popular play of the 21st century.

Is it now your turn? Creating music can be comforting, uplifting. In hopes they will inspire you, here are two of my creations: HERE  and HERE.

P.S. As I reviewed this list, I noted, with a certain amount of horror, the lack of rock 'n roll. In retrospect, that's because, in my view, much rock suffers from being jarring to the ear or having lyrics incomprehensible because of poor diction or the mixer's decision to let the accompaniment obfuscate them. In addition, the quality of the music and musicianship, in my judgment, at the risk of alienating the masses, is usually not great. But completely omitting rock seems somehow wrong or at least fuddy-duddy.  So I reviewed lists of the best rock songs of all time, and while that review pretty much vindicated my belief, there are a few exceptions, especially Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. It combines excellent musicianship across genres with painfully honest if occasionally impenetrable lyrics. And more progressive, The Dance of Eternity is a virtuosic mindblower. If I  used mind-altering substances, that music might well accompany the experience.