Five Famous Pieces of Classical Music for Metal Heads

Now that we’ve recently revisited nu metal, it seems like a list about so-called “classical” music is in order. I mean, it just makes sense, right? Okay, maybe not, but I’ve been wanting to do this one for a while. Let me explain.

It’s pretty much a commonplace to say “the Internet changed everything.” Having been born in the late eighties, I’m part of what is probably the last generation to experience life on both sides of the great divide: before and after the Internet. Every future generation, barring some near extinction-level disaster, will never know what it’s like to live offline.

“What does this have to do with classical music?” If you’d quit interrupting, you’d find out. Musicophiles have long prided themselves for listening to “everything.” In the 21st century, however, listening to “everything” is becoming more of a more mainstream listening habit than ever before, and why not, when even the most obscure, underground recordings are just a click away? Once upon a time, music listening entailed digging through bin after bin at physical CD stores. You found what you liked and generally stuck to it if you didn’t have the time or resources for extensive music research. Then came Napster and Amazon, and the rest is history.

Still, “classical” music remains a relatively unappreciated corner of the musical world, which seriously sucks, since “classical” music pretty much represents the entire history of music in general. That’s like loving books but never picking up “the classics.” I mean, if that’s your thing, I’m certainly not one to tell you you’re wrong. I’m more the type to congratulate you for your decision then wonder “but why?” silently to myself.

My personal theory is that the term “classical music” carries bad vibes. It brings to mind the popular sections of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, Viking-helmeted fat ladies singing opera to crowds of suited aristocrats wearing monocles, or memed versions of Beethoven you keep hearing in movies. This really isn’t fair, since music lumped under the “classical” misnomer includes a vastly diverse and versatile body of work spanning the length of civilization from the medieval period onwards. If it were up to me, we’d be calling this stuff “formal” music or something, which admittedly sounds worse, but at least it would shake up those nasty stereotypes a bit.

So that’s my soapbox lecture. This list presents some “gateway” pieces of classical music that might appeal to metalheads, since classical music, believe it or not, tends to be a closer relative to metal than pop. If you, like me, identify as a metalhead but are curious about the world of music outside, this is a great place to begin your deep dive into… ugh.. “classical” music.

The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi

It may be surprising that a baroque composer heads this list. Born in the 17th century, Antonio Vivaldi composed during the era that would be forever associated with his more famous colleague, Johann Sebastian Bach. The baroque era is the quintessential center of “classical” music in the popular understanding of the term, even though the true classical era was technically contemporaneous to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (see? I told you the word “classical” sucks). Consequently, many listeners associate this era with pretentious, stuffy complexity. If “baroque” brings to mind something like Bach’s The Art of Fugue, perhaps you’re doubting that I have any clue what metal sounds like.

If, in the early days, metal aspired to new horizons of aural darkness, it also sought a revival of a baroque sensibility. After all, “baroque” is a French word originally used to describe rough or flawed jewelry. When the term gained cultural currency, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined baroque music in the famous Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts of 1768 as “that in which the harmony is confused, and loaded with modulations and dissonances. The singing is harsh and unnatural, the intonation difficult, and the movement limited. It appears that term comes from the word ‘baroco’ used by logicians.” Although baroque music doesn’t strike us this way now, Rousseau’s definition certainly indicates a remarkable similarity between cutting-edge music of the seventeenth century and extreme metal in the 21st. I challenge you to imagine a more precise definition of metal than that.

While The Four Seasons, particularly the “Summer” section, doesn’t strike us today as “dissonant,” it’s definitely heavy. The rapid strings are meant to recapture the rumble of thunder, and the following arpeggios of rain sound like the signature “pick sweep” guitar solos that would pepper future melodeath albums by bands like The Black Dahlia Murder.

Thanks to metal covers of Vivaldi, such as Children of Bodom’s (I know… vomit, but they admittedly cranked out some decent albums in the late 90’s) 2012 dual guitar rendition of “Summer III. Presto,” linked above, The Four Seasons is the first piece everyone mentions in comparisons between classical and metal music. While there’s definitely heavier classical music out there (as you’ll discover as this list progresses), it’s a wonderful piece, and every open minded, classical-curious metalhead is bound to find much to appreciate in Vivaldi’s masterpiece, as well as in baroque music in general.

The Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is another favorite for lists like this, although it’s a completely different beast than The Four Seasons. The Rite is a ballet–yes, one of those dance performances absolutely at odds with your general extreme metal aesthetic and stereotypically associated with tutus and tights–that shocked, excited, and forever changed the world of music in 1913.

The 1910’s was an interesting era for music. What happened with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would go on to inspire composer Arnold Schoenberg to write the “Emancipation of Dissonance” in 1926, which called for a new movement of harsh and violently atonal music that would characterize what we misleadingly call “classical” music in the 20th century. Dissonance had been in the air for a while before Stravinsky; Nietzsche was inspired by Richard Wagner’s music to write about it in The Birth of Tragedy, and Richard Strauss’ opera, Salome, which debuted in 1905, featured it prominently in the then-scandalous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Nothing, however, had prepared the world for Stravinsky’s Rite.

The Rite of Spring’s first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris is one of the finest examples in history of the stir music can make. The performance erupted into what was later called a “riot,” although that description seems rather dubious. The theater was packed with a volatile mix of upper class audience members who expected a traditional piece of “classical” music, and advocates of the avant-garde, who reveled in the shock The Rite’s orgiastic music and bizarre dancing provoked.

The Rite of Spring is still heavy today, featuring a rhythm heavy attack at the opening that metalheads will be tempted to headbang along to (but it’s “classical” music! Fine, keep your dignity and nod). And unlike The Four Seasons, The Rite is weird as hell. Woodwinds slither eerily up and down throughout the mix, rhythms change, and things stay consistently dark. The Rite recalls Nietzsche’s descriptions of Bacchanalian frenzies in The Birth of Tragedy; what’s more metal than that?

The Manfred Symphony
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Let’s backtrack to the romantic period for a spell. Although Tchaikovsky hated The Manfred Symphony after he composed it in 1885, we shouldn’t take his opinion into account. Tchaikovsky hated all his compositions, which turned out to be a good thing since it gave him a consistent drive to better his consistently ambitious and groundbreaking work. He ended up composing some of the best music in history, and Manfred, for me, stands out among his greatest.

“Wait… Tchaikovsky? The dude who wrote The Nutcracker Ballet?” Yes, the same. If you’re unconvinced that The Nutcracker Ballet is amazing, I blame the fact that it’s generally the only ballet most people see in their entire lives, and even then only for the sake of scoring their children culture points.

The Manfred Symphony doesn’t deal in children’s stories, however. Based on the poem of the same name by Lord Byron, Manfred is a darker version of Goethe’s Faust (which, in turn, gleaned inspiration from a play of the same title by Shakespeare’s so-called “rival,” Christopher Marlowe, but that’s another story). Instead of making a deal with the devil in exchange for a series of whimsical, surrealistic, and often pointless displays of the hilariously less-than-impressive power of Mephistopheles, Byron’s protagonist, Manfred, summons demons and then intimidates them with his fearless, self-annihilating display of human will. If Byron’s Manfred is dark, oppressive, and delightfully melodramatic, Tchaikovsky almost exceeds him in the raw power of his composition.

Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write Manfred, and he tried to hand the job off to his famous colleague, Hector Berlioz. I’m glad he didn’t, since who else but Tchaikovsky could’ve combined pure heaviness with such an expressive, controlled sense of beauty. This thing is crushing (just check out the supermassive crescendo in “I. Lento lugubre”), furious, and heartachingly melancholic. While quieter, more tranquil moments punctuate Manfred, there is certainly much here to reward the adventurous metalhead.

Symphony No. 7
Allan Pettersson

If you’re looking for something downright nasty, I suggest beginning with Symphony No. 7.

In my head, I call this “The Blood-Soaked Symphony.” That should give you some idea of what you’re getting into here. Pettersson was the Swedish son of a violent alcoholic blacksmith; his childhood sufferings seem to have transposed into a dark and turbulent worldview that informs his bleak and horrifying compositions. While Symphony No. 7 was introduced, in 1968, to a world of music grown tolerant and even welcoming of experimentation, it’s no less shocking than The Rite of Spring in terms of sheer violence. Just listen to that crescendo about 7 minutes and 40 seconds in! No, better yet, get a good pair of headphones, turn out the lights, light a candle, crank up the volume and just start at the beginning. There will be goosebumps.

It’s unfortunate that you can easily go your whole musical existence without discovering Pettersson. I haven’t seen him featured on any lists like this, and he doesn’t figure prominently in either a formal or casual musical education. Only my penchant for seriously dark music led me to him, and I strongly urge you to check him out.

Metalheads shouldn’t expect to get their love of technical chops satiated in Symphony No. 7. This ain’t no Vivaldi–not even close. Instead, fans of black metal drone, sludge, or doom, represented by bands like Sunn o))) or Khanate, should make this their crossover “classical” album. Fortunately, Symphony No. 7 relies on more traditional structures to accomplish its bleak and oppressive atmosphere rather than twelve tone composition approaches utilized by composers like Schoenberg. While the latter tend to be dark, they’re difficult listens that may ward newcomers away. Symphony No. 7 has the unique distinction of achieving twelve-tone-levels of darkness while remaining in the realm of listenability. If nothing in this list has convinced you that metalheads can appreciate “classical” music yet, give this one a spin.

By the way, I strongly recommend the Leif Segerstam & Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra recording (1993) if you want to get the most out of this listening experience (linked above). This deserves special mention in regards to Symphony No. 7, because the first recording I heard of this work many years ago was horrid, ultimately delaying my appreciation of this masterpiece. Worse, now I can’t remember what recording it was. Just be advised.

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
Krzysztof Penderecki

If you find yourself curious about the twelve tone compositions I mentioned above, I’m glad to hear it. While the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima isn’t exactly what is known as a twelve tone composition, the end result is close enough, and you should feel encouraged to move onto the likes of Schoenberg if you find yourself enjoying this. Penderecki composed this using the sonoristic technique for Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, which focuses on exploring unconventional sounds using traditional instrumentation. When Penderecki heard this piece performed, he was struck by the emotional power he had generated. Yes, it really is that incredible.

A threnody is literally a “wailing ode” to the dead. Given that 90,000 to 146,000 people died in the first wartime use of an atomic bomb, you would expect their threnody to consist of a multitude of voices, calling out in despair from a void in the middle of the scar Hiroshima would come to represent in the history of civilization. Penderecki delivers just that in this composition for 52 instruments (it sounds like a lot more than that). While the harshness of the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima generates an acute discomfort in relation to its subject matter, there’s no denying the aptness of such a horrifying piece of music to represent such a dark event.

The Threnody is short–only 8:37 in its written form–but it packs one hell of a punch. Metal fans accustomed to Deathspell Omega’s swirling vortexes of unremitting sonic chaos will find themselves right at home here. Strings wail and chitter over a cacophonous roar of percussion, climaxing in moments of pure fury that equal even their harshest counterparts of the metal genre. The band Portal comes to mind here as well, although things are a bit more moody and atmospheric throughout the Threnody.

I recommend listening to this one on Penderecki’s album with Jonny Greenwood (yes, that Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist of Radiohead and a brilliant composer in his own right). Greenwood’s work, presented here side by side with Penderecki’s to demonstrate Penderecki’s influence on contemporary composers, magnificently compliments Penderecki’s, and the whole album thrives on the dark, otherworldly aesthetic introduced by Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

-Justin A. Burnett