7 BRUTAL CLASSICAL PIECES FOR METALHEADS
Some studies suggest that fans of classical music and metal have very similar traits, and many argue that the latter takes elements from the former. Intricate compositions, over-the-top sometimes even theatrical performances, and aiming to be as loud as possible — are metal and classical so different? Like metal, classical has been divided into several sub-genres that can be difficult to navigate, especially if you're not sure of what you're looking for.
If you're curious to find out but never dared to take a plunge into the varied and sometimes very confusing world of classical music, I have compiled here a list of some of my favourite pieces that may appeal to a metalhead's ear. That is not to say that a metalhead can't enjoy a minuet every now and again — I myself have a soft spot for Haydn on the right day — but if you are looking to find the missing link between classical and your beloved metal, this list may be for you.
PS. I've saved you the perhaps painful experience of listening to a full opus just to find a portion that may be what you enjoy, and have broken it down to movements for most of my picks. If you enjoy the movement, I suggest giving the full piece a try so you can enjoy it in its entirety, as it was intended.
Franz Lizst A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy (Symphony 109), movement I: Inferno
Many classical composers lived the rockstar life way before Mötley Crüe, and Franz Lizst is probably one of the most infamous. In the early 1840's he was a touring pianist filling concert halls all over Europe by himself. It is said that he would violently whip his hair while playing (the ancestor of headbanging?) and it would work the audience up into a frenzy. Fans would wear cameos to his effigy (definitely the ancestor of the band shirt), and the more hysterical ones fought over his broken piano strings (a tradition that's alive and well in the metal community except we traded for guitar picks and drumsticks) as well as his handkerchiefs and gloves, even his cigar butts and tea bags. Women threw themselves at him — literally.
Lizst composed his Symphony 109 in homage to Dante Alighieri's classic poetry, The Divine Comedy. This first movement, Inferno, depict's Dante and Virgil passing through the 9 circles of hell. It starts as a very ominous piece as they enter the Gates of Hell, and progresses with quick mini-climaxes as they pass through the various levels over the 20-or-so minutes of this movement. It's easy to imagine Lizst at the piano headbanging while he rips through this track, although this was composed for a full orchestra, and after his rockstar virtuoso days.
It's a great, dark, sometimes uncomfortably creepy piece of classical music, and I highly recommend it for people who like the subtly darker side.
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition: II: Gnomus
Pictures at an Exhibition was written in 1874 after the death of Mussorgsky's friend, artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. A posthumous exhibition of hundreds of his work (drawings and watercolours) was held in Saint Petersburg in February–March 1874 and Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition shortly after. The suite is meant to represents a walk through the galleries of this exhibit, with each movement (except the Promenade movements which depict Mussorsky's walk between pieces) based on a single work of art by Hartmann. Sadly, many of these are lost so we cannot see what exactly inspired each piece, including this one, known as "The Gnome". It is rumored that it depicted an especially large-toothed nutcracker.
I recommend this piece for fans of Finntroll especially, as it has this same imp-ish quality to it.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony no.4 in F minor, IX: Finale
Perhaps one of Tchaikovsky's most famous works other than his "1812 Overture", Symphony no. 4 is to this day one of the most played symphonies of the 20th century. The Finale is more of a fanfare than a climax but it's also broken apart by beautiful dramatic segments. The coda is particularly loud and vigorous, and you might actually find yourself headbanging.
Fun fact: Tchaikovsky integrated a famous Russian folk song, "Во поле береза стояла" or "Beriozka", in this movement. So it seems classical composers were mixing popular folk tunes with their own works before Chrigel Glanzmann started doing it to metal. That is still one more thing the two genres have in common.
Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps, Pt.2 Le Sacrifice
When Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) debuted in Paris in May 1913, it was so brutal and unusual for its time that the audience started throwing things across the concert hall and almost rioted as the ballet and orchestra went on playing; one could argue the ancestor of the mosh pit was born.
Le Sacre Du Printemps tells the story of a pagan ritual celebration of spring, and while part one is rather inoffensive, Part 2 isn't called "The Sacrifice" as a metaphor. No no. It tells the story of a young girl (L'Élue, or the Chosen One) who dances herself to death for the god of springtime, Yarilo. Any Arkona fans in the room? Stravinsky told this story first, but once again you see the worlds of traditional folklore and music meet in both classical and metal and becomes inspiration for both genres.
Sergei Prokofiev Scythian Suite Opus 20, movement II : The Evil God and the Dance of the Pagan Monsters
Is this not a metal song title? Originally, Prokofiev was approached by the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, to compose the music to accompany a ballet called Ala i Lolli. The story takes place in the Scythian world, hence the name — history inspires all music genres it would seem. Prokofiev, inspired by having just seen the aforementioned Rite of Spring, started working on the score but it was turned down by Diaghilev before it was even completed because it was too loud and aggressive. The composer then re-worked it into a concert performance piece, which requires a very large orchestra.
This particular movement depicts the Scyths making a sacrifice while an evil god performs a violent dance surrounded by monsters. Very metal!
I recommend this piece for fans of Turisas; it has all the epic, military horns and percussion that make this piece as close to battle metal as classical can get.
Gustav Holst The Planets Opus 32, movement 1: Mars, The Bringer of War
Holst's The Planets suite is an interesting work, and worth listening to in its entirety in the dark or (even better) while stargazing. If you're only looking for the boisterous son, the first movement of the suite is where it's at: Mars, Bringer of War. The title says it all. It is ominous, deep and powerful. Symphony X alludes to it in "The Divine Wings of Tragedy", and it is said to have also inspired John Williams when composing none other than "The Imperial March". It's a majestic piece that will definitely remind you of Lord Vader. I especially recommend it for fans of Septicflesh's intense orchestrations.
Jón Leifs Hekla, Opus 52
Called the "loudest classical music of all time", Hekla was written by Jón Leifs after he witnessed the Icelandic volcano of the same name in action. It truly is a massive piece reminiscent of one of our planet's most violent phenomena. A single performance of Hekla requires not only a large orchestra, a choir and an organ, but also the less orthodox use of steel plates, sirens, metal chains, cannons, and even rocks being hit with hammers!
I feel like this piece might appeal most to fans of booming death metal, especially Amon Amarth, for its loudness and grinding tempo.