Pieces of classical music chosen to help you zone out and relax
We’re all trying to find ways to stay calm and relaxed in these trying times. Something I always do to take myself out of the moment is listen to classical music. Classical music has a bit of a reputation for being elitist (not entirely without justifications), but it can be so soothing and distracting, and can easily take your mind off the world around you. Access to classical music has never been better, with performances on YouTube, thousands of albums available on Spotify, and plenty of radio apps. So even if you wouldn’t normally listen to it, I recommend popping your headphones in and giving these pieces a go next time you’re feeling a little frazzled.
Normally I try to listen to pieces in full as the composer intended, but in this context I’ll include single movements as well. If you’ve not listed to much classic before, these are a great way to dip your toes into the enormous and rewarding lake that is classical music.
Mozart, Gran Partita, Adagio
To start you off on a winner, this is maybe my ultimate calming piece. A seemingly simple arrangement for chamber group, with a small number of instruments, this lulls you into a peaceful state. Each instrument plays its role, leading you through the piece. As with much Mozart, there is a hint at disturbance – storm clouds approaching – only for you to be lifted up and back into happy harmony. Bonus points if you listen to a recording on baroque instruments – you’ll be getting as close to how Mozart would have heard it as possible. The recording below, from the Zefiro Ensemble, is one of my favourites.
Frederic Chopin, Nocturne No.2 in E Flat
One of 21 pieces for solo piano grouped as the Nocturnes, No. 2 is disarmingly cheerful, and has an ease and breeziness to it which is hard to resist. It is only four minutes long, but in that time you’ll encounter arguably one of the greatest pieces written for piano. The Nocturnes are generally thought of as melancholy, but this one has a hopeful tone, appropriate to lift your spirits. Below you can watch a wonderful performance by Valentina Lisitsa.
Gregorio Allegri, Miserere Mei Deus
The title of this pieces translates to ‘have mercy on me, o God’, from Psalm 51, of which the piece is a setting. I am not a particularly religious person, but the words of the psalm are quite moving. Nonetheless, even a militant atheist could appreciate the beauty of Allegri’s music. There is some mystery surrounding its history, and there are numerous different versions. What stands out in all of them is the peaceful clarity and simplicity of nine voices coming together. It is thought to have been composed around 1638 for exclusive performance in the Sistine Chapel. So listen with your eyes shut and imagine yourself ensconced in those hallowed halls in the Vatican City, to give yourself a total escape from modern life, and all that comes with it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending
This one is perhaps a little more emotional that the others I’ve included on this list. Originally written for solo violin and piano, it has a strong narrative feel, and is a highly escapist piece. Written in 1914, based on the 1881 poem The Lark Ascending by George Meredith, it was not performed until after the First World War, by which time Vaughan Williams had re-written it for violin and orchestra. Noted for its ‘deceptive simplicity’, it is a deeply expressive piece, reflecting the lark’s rising song and fluttering flight. Interestingly it was dedicated to a woman violinist, Marie Hall, who Vaughan Williams had worked with before, and whose talent he greatly admired. She performed at the piece’s premier.
Both the most modern and the longest piece on my list, The Lark Ascending will provide some much needed respite from life indoors, and leave you yearning for springtime walks on English hills.
In honour of Marie Hall, here is another performance by a woman, Janine Jansen, recorded at the 2003 BBC Proms.
Camille Saint-Saëns, The Swan (Carnival of the Animals)
Composed in 1886, The Carnival of the Animals is a humorous piece which transforms different instruments in the orchestra into their animal equivalents. It was always a bit of a treat to listen to this when we were little (yes, I am from that nerdy a household), and we used to love the silly donkey and the creepy fossils. The whole piece is well worth a listen if you need cheering up. The Swan, the penultimate movement, breaks the tone slightly, as if can’t really be said to be funny. It is just a simple and relaxing musical interpretation of the grace and elegance of a swan. Saint-Saëns composed the piece whilst almost in hiding in an Austrian village, after a catastrophic concert tour. He was surely in need of a little relaxation. Usually performed by cello and piano (as intended), The Swan is widely acknowledged as one of the most peaceful works every composed. Perhaps it holds a special place for me, as my mother is a cellist. I can certainly see why it has earned this reputation. Treat yourself to the performance below, by the legendary Yo-Yo Ma, accompanied by Kathryn Scott.
What pieces of music do you turn to when you need a bit of relaxation? Are you a classical music fan, or is it a type of music you haven’t really explored much? I’d love to hear your recommendations for what pieces I should give a listen.