I’m a city kid, raised in two of what you’d call noisy sections of Boston, but, honestly, I was never bothered by the noise. The beeping of horns, and police, fire, and ambulance sirens were a daily occurrence. I lived on the T’s “Green line” and took street cars and buses everywhere I wanted to go in the city. Nothing like the squeal of subway wheels when slowing down or rounding a corner. Dogs barking, street vendors hawking, kids playing, church bells ringing.
Even if you live in the quietest of suburbs, you’re not 100% shielded from noise, what with the neighbor’s lawn mower/leaf blower/snow blower, coyotes and owls, amiright?
So, whenever you’re ready to curl up with a cup of comfort and practice some self-care, here are some peaceful music selections to help calm the nerves and lower the blood pressure.
Jules Massenet’s “lyric comedy” opera, Thaïs, has a showstopper called “Meditation,” but it wasn’t meant to be a showstopper! The “Meditation” was simply an entr’acte between the scenes of Act 2. It took on a life of its own, having been orchestrated as a stand-alone piece and arranged for several different instruments. This is a lovely version is with Joshua Bell:
“Meditation,” which has been arranged for numerous instruments, including cello, flute, trumpet, and saxophone, is one of the most popular pieces for soloists’ encores to this day.
One of my favorite pieces by Franz Schubert is his Ständchen, D 957, translated to English simply as Serenade. It was one of his final fourteen pieces that were all inspired by the poetry of three contemporary poets. This was the only serenade in the collection. Here is violinist Itzhak Perlman with pianist Rohan de Silva.
Schubert’s publisher gathered the 14 pieces under one umbrella title, Schwanengesang, or Swan Song. The collection was published just a few months after’s Schubert’s death.
Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies (also known as Trois Gymnopedie) have been borrowed countless times for use in everything from a TV commercial for Alka-Seltzer to movies, such as Woody Allen’s Another Woman. Although the title is odd, and there is no consensus as to what Satie meant by it, the slow and steady rhythm becomes instant calm. French pianist Anne Queffélec seems to capture her countryman’s soul in this recording:
Fun fact: The rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears also recorded their own version on their eponymous Blood, Sweat & Tears album in 1968, “Variations on a Theme by Eric Satie.” When I lived in a Boston apartment a little over 20 years ago my downstairs neighbor said the BS&T version got him through his college finals!
Frédéric Chopin wrote many beautiful pieces that could be listed here as contemplative music. One of my favorites to play on the piano is one of his prettiest, and well-known, the Nocturne in C minor. Jan Lisiecki plays it here.
Just like Satie’s Gymnopedies, Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor has also been used in a movie, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. But it’s the story of a concentration camp internee, pianist Natalia Karp, that defines the music for me. It is documented that she was ordered to play this piece for the birthday of the camp Commandant, Amon Göth. It is said that he was so impressed by her playing of this piece that he spared her life and the life of her sister.
The Air from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 is one of the most recognizable pieces of orchestral music, and many refer to it as “Air on the G string.” It’s no wonder since the gentle piece has been played everywhere from TV commercials to weddings. An arrangement by August Wilhelmj made over 40 years after Bach’s original is what popularized the piece, although he changed the key so the violins could play the piece on the G string, thus creating a new nickname for Bach’s Air. Although Wilhelmj’s version is rarely played anymore, his nickname lives on. Here’s a cello version with Hauser.
As if the piece as originally written weren’t enough, we have CDs of this in the WCRB music library recorded on just about every instrument imaginable, including violin, piano, guitar, flute, and organ.
“Peace and quiet” aren’t usually top of the mind when one says “Mozart,” but the composer of many uplifting, cheery pieces also wrote some beautiful movements that definitely fall under this category. For example, the second movement, Andante, of his Piano Concerto No. 21, qualifies. Here, pianist Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic from the keyboard:
The Andante was used so beautifully in the 1967 Swedish movie Elvira Madigan that, ever since, the concerto has gained the unofficial nickname, “the Elvira Madigan.”
And one more from Mozart, this time from his Clarinet Concerto. The 1791 piece was written for his friend, the virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler. The second movement, Adagio, here is played by clarinetist Sabine Meyer, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
The piece was written for Stadler’s basset clarinet, which was a custom-made instrument, and not for a conventional clarinet. After Stadler died, the piece was adapted for the regular clarinet, and although there were some objections, that’s how it’s most often performed these days.
And how about a piece with the word “peace” in the title? Gustav Holst’s The Planets includes “Venus, The Bringer of Peace.” He started composing the seven-movement orchestral suite in 1914, inspired by a conversation with a friend about horoscopes, and later, a book about horoscopes. As he continued to write, the focus changed from planets’ meanings with regards to horoscopes to the inclusion of ancient civilizations’ characteristics assigned the planets. This 2015 Proms performance of “Venus” features the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki:
One of my favorite pieces of “peace” is one that the composer never got to name or hear performed in a concert. Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue began life as a part of a piano concerto he started in 1929. He was never happy with the concerto and abandoned the idea but decided to work the slow movement into a piece for piano and strings. Off and on-again revisions took him into the 1950s. After his death in 1956, his family and some musical friends agreed to the title Eclogue. The first time I heard it I was moved to tears. It’s now my go-to piece as my heart's serenity prayer. Pianist Peter Donahoe joins the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Howard Griffiths.
The word eclogue, from ancient Roman times, meant a poem that depicts rural life, especially as a conversation between shepherds. Whether Finzi ever had a pastoral conversation in mind, it seems to me that the piano and strings here are having a conversation, a peaceful conversation.
Even just one “moment of peace“ is hard to find in these days of never-ending “To Do” lists, work, family, and social obligations, and any ‘spare time’ (what’s that?) filled with scrolling through social media. I hope this little collection helps define the atmosphere for you when you can carve out a little “me time.”
CODA: Have you ever heard the expression, “One thing led to another?” In 1958 jazz composer and pianist Bill Evans started playing Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” (from the Broadway musical On the Town) and said, “...and it started to get much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I’ll keep going.” It eventually became what he titled “Peace Piece.”
Peace, my friend.