Playlist (with listening guide)

Bedtime (or anytime) listeninga playlist curated by Dr. Jane Stanley

I curated the following playlist with the intention of playing it to my children each night at bedtime as a means to stealthily introduce them to the world of contemporary classical music. But this music can be played at any time of day, and adults may find it interesting as well. Below you can find a commentary I’ve written for the pieces, and this is designed primarily for the interest of parents/carers who are listening.

If you are keen to discuss the music with your children, here are some very basic questions. This can be a way to develop critical listening:

  • What do you imagine as you listen to this piece?
  • How does this music make you feel?
  • Does it sound like a story, or a picture?
  • Would you like to draw/paint a picture of what you hear? (let them draw/paint while the music is playing)

I’ve made this playlist using Spotify. But don’t worry if you don’t have access to this. Most (but not all) of the pieces below are available via Naxos Music Library, so if you have access to that, you could re-construct the same list of pieces as shown below. And I’ve also built the playlist in YouTube (the only downside is that some of the videos start with an ad which would be disruptive at bedtime, but not such a problem if dipping into individual pieces).

Here’s the Spotify URL:

Here’s the YouTube URL: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAcbjHuF8Uz1fU7zG7fwlG6b4YX2axeji

  1. Préludes Book 1 L. 117: 6. Des pas sur la neige. Claude Debussy (1909-10).

The title — Des pas sur la neige — translates into English as Footsteps in the Snow. It’s from a collection of pieces called Préludes by Claude Debussy which were composed between 1909 and 1910[1]. You can easily identify the short recurring “footstep” motive at the start, and this runs throughout most of the piece.

2. I Lie for small women’s choir, by David Lang (2001).

The stepping theme continues in the next two pieces on this list, starting with a piece by David Lang, a New York-based composer. This piece is called I Lie, and in this Lang sets a poem by Joseph Rodnick.[2] I heard this song for the first time only in the last month or so on radio late at night. It’s so arresting and striking in its apparent simplicity and sparseness, with phrases built from fragments of an ascending minor scale. What’s most important for the purposes of this playlist is the atmosphere that Lang creates, especially at the start, which just seems to signal that it’s time to slow down and calm down, to listen and to reflect.

3. Études, Book 1: No. 4. Fanfares. György Ligeti (1985).  

Next up is a piece for solo piano by György Ligeti. A bit like Debussy’s collection of Préludes, this piece comes from a collection of pieces called Études (or studies) which he started to compose in 1985.[3] This is one of the more active and energetic pieces in my list, which is why I placed it earlier in the order of things. It’s really cleverly constructed, because throughout the whole piece is a rapid scale run that works as an ostinato. This ostinato gets “dressed up” in different ways. For example, at the start, the left hand plays the scale ostinato, while the right hand plays major chord, then the right hand takes over playing the scale while the left hand plays minor chords.

4. Durme, durme, mi angelico – traditional (Balkans).

The Renaissance Players is an Early Music ensemble based in Australia. This song is from the second of their Sephardic Experience CDs. It has all the sonic hallmarks of a beautiful lullaby, but it’s really quite a sad song if you consider the lyrics (which are in Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish), which of course a toddler isn’t going to do. But once children are older this could be a good gateway into talking about Sephardic history and culture. Another ensemble who play this is Trio Sephardi, and their website includes a translation into English of the lyrics.

https://triosefardi.com/text-and-translations/durme-durme-mi-angeliko/

5. Quatuor pour la fin du temps: VIII. Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus (In praise of the immortality of Jesus). Olivier Messiaen (1940-41).

Quartet for the End of Time is a piece that is often taught to students in music history classes as a “key” piece composed in the middle of the twentieth century (1940-41).[4] I’ve selected the final (8th) movement for this playlist. The instrumentation is interesting, being a combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Messiaen composed this while he was interned in a prisoner of war camp during WWII, and he wrote for the instruments that were available and performed by other prisoners. This movement features just the violin and piano. The piano plays chords using a short-long, slowly pulsating rhythm, which reminds me of a heartbeat. Messiaen had a very personalised approach to harmony. He is known to have been synesthetic (hearing colours as sound and vice versa), and his harmonic language was informed by associations with visual colour. His chords tend to be very rich, often using 5-8 notes. As this piece draws to a close, there is a gradual ascent in both the violin and piano.

6. Potrceno (Macdeonia). Performed by The Renaissance Players.  

This is another track from The Renaissance Players. I like this because it is quick and pulse-driven, providing some contrast with the preceding tracks, but it’s still gentle. It’s in 7/8 meter, so you can feel the long, short, short beats (3+2+2) of each bar.

7. Fin Like a Flower. Anna Meredith, text by Phillip Ridley.  (2010)

This is a song for countertenor and harp. Flowing notes in the harp are set against longer, sustained sung tones. The exact duplication of recurring note patterns played by the harp is frequently disrupted, which creates a pleasing sense of rhythmic unpredictability.  The overall atmosphere is hypnotic.

8. Darn That Dream. Bill Evans. (1962)

This jazz number radiates warmth, calm, and reassurance. It’s a duet for piano and guitar from Evans’s and Hall’s album Undercurrent. This piece was recommended to me by one of my work colleagues who specialises in jazz. I listened to this piece prior to knowing much about it, and I was actually surprised when I found out that there are just two players involved – there’s so much going on texturally, in the exchange and layering of melodic lines/chords.

9. Sonatas and Interludes: Sonata 5 (1946-8). John Cage.

(see below)

10. Sonatas and Interludes: Sonata 3 (1946-8). John Cage.

I’ve included two of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes in the list, because they are a great introduction to the sound world of prepared piano. John Cage modified the sound of a traditional piano by inserting all sorts of objects, like nuts and bolts in between the strings of the piano so as to radically change the resulting sound. The first of these pieces has a mesmerising quality which makes it perfect for setting a bedtime mood.

11. Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)/ Part 3: 18. Der Mondfleck.

As suggested by the title, a nocturnal theme runs through this song cycle. Twenty-one poems in all by Albert Giraud have been set. The song selected here is no. 18 in the cycle (The Moonfleck). In it, Pierrot is convinced that moonlight is stuck on his coat, and he chases his own tail in an attempt to flick it away. Consequently, the musical material conveys a strong sense of frantic agitation. This is a very short but concentrated piece (brevity is a characteristic of music that Schoenberg composed at that point in his career).

Pierrot Lunaire is an example of musical Expressionism. Painters were exploring similar themes in their work at this time. Throughout Pierrot Lunaire the soprano voice uses a technique called sprechstimme, which is basically a combination of singing and speaking voice.

12. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Anne Boyd (1975)

This is one of several pieces on this playlist themed around dreams. It’s one of my favourite pieces for choir, composed by Anne Boyd who I studied with in Australia.

When I was playing this to my three-year old he commented that it sounds like “Frozen” (the movie). In particular I think he is thinking of the coronation scene where a choir sings.

13. In a Landscape (solo piano). John Cage (1948).

I didn’t deliberately set out to feature so much John Cage (!) but while I was searching for pieces I came across this and thought that the dream-like character, which is sustained for nearly 9 minutes would be ideal for my playlist. I’ve placed this near the end of the list, as by this stage in my children’s routine I hope that they are settled enough to start drifting off to sleep.

The pieces make significant use of the sustain pedal (allowing notes to ‘ring on’), and this contributes to smooth and resonant musical character. Moderately-fast flowing middle-register notes are punctuated with periodic bell-like tones in high and low registers.

14. Spiegel im Spiegel (version for cello and piano). Arvo Pärt (1978).

If you’re a regularly listener to stations like Classic FM (in the UK) you’re likely to have heard this piece. I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most performed contemporary classical pieces out there. Pärt’s style is very minimal and paired back, and in this piece you can hear the very simple broken triadic chords played on piano which accompany the cello’s very slow lyrical melody.


[1] Lesure, F., & Howat, R.  (2001). Debussy, (Achille-)Claude. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2 Jun. 2020, from https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000007353.

[2] https://davidlangmusic.com/music/i-lie

[3] Griffiths, P.  (2011, October 26). Ligeti, György. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2 Jun. 2020, from https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000016642.

[4] Griffiths, P.  (2001). Messiaen, Olivier. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2 Jun. 2020, from https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000018497.

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