Classical Music for Spiritual Seekers: A List by Larry Borok

Thank you to everyone who joined the fireside chat on Saturday, May 11, hosted by Gaile R. Afterwards I was asked to recommend some classical music pieces and performances and post it here on the RMS blog.

The best classical music, as I know it, is about giving the listener journeys into the “other side,” as Rama called it. I’m only knowledgeable about music composed mainly in Europe between 1700 and 1950 that developed large musical structures, such as symphonies, tone poems, concertos, quartets and sonatas. Among the handful of truly great composers, they achieved that transcendence only a handful of times, though many of their compositions often touch those realms.

The words of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius sums it all up. While working on the first movement of his 5th Symphony in 1918, he wrote to a friend that, “God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”

Some tips on listening to classical music:

  • Don’t expect to “get it” the first time. It’s virtually impossible to hear and understand everything that’s going on, or even its general outline, the first time. Most classical compositions are from 20 to 60 minutes long, in multiple movements.
  • There are dozens of recordings of most classical compositions, all by different soloists, quartets, conductors, and orchestras, and each musician filters the piece through their own attention field. They all may be playing the same notes, but each performance feels quite different. That’s because the musicians’ minds are present, too. How much did they impose themselves on the piece? Who lets the composer come through the most? For a spiritual seeker, especially a Rama student, that’s the real question in classical music.
  • Listening to classical music is no substitute for meditation, but it is one of the few experiences in life whose intent is to bring you into higher dimensions. In that sense, it is tantric—something in this world that takes you to the other side.

I recommend these compositions and specific recordings, but of course there are many more for you to explore:

1. Rama said that his favorite piece of music was the “Grosse Fugue,” Op. 133 by Beethoven. It was originally the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet, but it so overpowered the rest of the piece that he was persuaded to separate it. However, the 5 late quartets (Op. 127, Op. 130, Op. 131, Op. 132, Op. 135), the last things that Beethoven composed, are all tremendous and very sensitive journeys into the unknown. I strongly recommend the Guarneri Quartet set on Philips. The complete Guarneri set of all of Beethoven’s string quartets have been re-released in a box by Brilliant. They recorded some of these at SUNY Purchase in the same theatre Rama often used for our seminars.

2. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a 30-minute journey through the power of the higher mind. It is uniquely compelling. The Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic recording on Deutsche Gramophone (DG) definitely brings forth the mind of the infinite. If you want to enjoy the ecstasy of dancing with light, listen to the Beethoven 7th Symphony. It is paired with Kleiber’s Beethoven 5th on the DG disc.

3. If you want to meditate to a glorious sunrise, listen to Suite #2 that Ravel created from his “Daphnis and Chloe” symphonic poem. Sergiu Celibidache conducting the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra as part of a set on DG captures the mystery. He studied Zen for many years and that stillness really comes through. The Debussy “Nocturnes” on the same CD are also other worldly. Leopold Stokowski, one of the greatest conductors of all time, has a heartfelt performance of the Ravel with the London Symphony on Decca.

4. If you want to hear light descend from heaven, listen to the first movement of the Sibelius 6th Symphony. All 7 of his symphonies also are completely in high dimensions, his 5th and 2nd in particular. I like Vladimir Ashkenazy’s performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Decca, which have more sweep and color than most other recordings.

5. If you want to spend 13 minutes in a gorgeous heaven realm, listen to the 3rd movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2, composed in 1908. By far the best is the one on RCA with Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. For that matter, listen to the entire, hour-long piece and take a vacation in this deeply loving loka.

6. If you want to hear a 45 minute tribute to Rama and the battles he fought, listen to Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Ein Heldenleben,” composed in 1898. The Guiseppe Sinopoli recording with the Statskapelle Dresden, on Deutsche Gramophone has the necessary power and clarity. Highly recommended as well is Sergiu Celibidache conducting the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra as part of another set on DG. Celibidache played many pieces more slowly in his final years with the Munich Philharmonic; these from the 1970’s are at his peak.

7. Rama described the pathway to enlightenment as a process of “increasing your momentum,” as he put it, to spin up and off of the Circle of Life. This experience is best captured in the 1st movement of the Bruch violin concerto #1, on Sony Classical with Cho Liang Lin (violin) and Leonard Slatkin conducting the Chicago Symphony, and in the 2nd movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto #2 on RCA Red Seal Classic Library with Sviatoslav Richter (piano) and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Chicago Symphony. Richter is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time, and brought a transparency to everything he played.

8. Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas (3 each) are cornerstones of beauty. It is amazing what he produced from a single violin over 200 years ago. The incomparable Nathan Milstein recorded them for DG in great sound in 1975. The 2nd Partita and 3rd Sonata are the best. The “Chaconne” movement at the end of the 2nd Partita is justly famous. Stokowski’s orchestral transcription of it, on RCA, is huge.

9. If you want to become one with purely happy humor, listen to the first movement of Haydn’s string quartet Op. 71, #2. His Op. 76 set of six quartets are wonderful. Haydn basically invented the string quartet in the mid-1700s. My preference is for the Auryn Quartet, on Tacet.

10. If you want to know deep inner balance, listen to Leonard Bernstein’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic of the third movement of Beethoven’s 9th, which I think no one else has come close to. The entire Beethoven 9th is one of the greatest “other dimension” transmissions ever composed. This Bernstein/Vienna recording (not the one recorded at the Berlin Wall with a group of orchestras) on Deutsche Gramophone is the one.

11. Most of all, just keep listening to all 4 Brahms symphonies. They are very special states of mind, they are like journeys through the mind of God. There is no perfect set of them together, but the one that comes closest is Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in an inexpensive Sony Classical box in very good stereo. Walter was born in Berlin in 1876 (and died in Los Angeles in 1962), so he studied music while Brahms was still alive (who died in 1897). These were among the last pieces he recorded, in 1960. Stokowski’s recordings of the 2nd and the 4th in excellent stereo, are great.

12. Franz Schubert was a younger contemporary of Beethoven who wrote the loveliest and deepest music of all. If you want to feel pure innocence, it’s his piano sonata In A major D.664. Sviatoslav Richter’s performance on EMI (now Warner) is priceless. For the experience of powering through life, it’s his “Wanderer Fantasy” for piano; Richter’s performance is acknowledged as the pinnacle for that work. If you want to spend half-an-hour swimming in the ocean of light, it is his famous “Unfinished Symphony” (#8). Leonard Bernstein’s with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on DG brings it to life like no one else, and the CD also has Schubert’s 5th Symphony, which is full of joy and innocence.

13. If you want to watch the lila, the infinite’s mind’s play with life, Mozart’s 21st through 25th piano concertos embody it, especially the Murray Perahia/English Chamber Orchestra set on Sony Classical. As a famous musicologist once said, “While Beethoven struggles to reach heaven and does, Mozart always sounds like he is coming down from heaven.”

14. If you want to fly, listen to the Bach 4th Brandenburg Concerto. For that matter the complete set of 6 Brandenburg Concertos are like facets on the same diamond. Raymond Leppard with the English Chamber Orchestra have a special swing to them, on Universal Classics. Another Bach masterpiece is the “Easter Oratorio,” especially the recording conducted by Karl Munchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra on EMI/Warner.

15. Camille Saint-Saens’ 3rd Symphony, subtitled the “Organ ,” was written in 1886 and is pretty amazing. You go right up and don’t come down. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s recording with Lorin Maazel conducting, and Anthony Newman on organ, has spectacular sound on Sony Classical.

16. In the 20th Century, American composer Samuel Barber wrote beautiful music that emanated from very high realms. His Symphony #1, and his Violin Concerto, both written in the 1930’s, just let you live there for a while. The recordings on Naxos by Marin Alsop with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are the best; she really gets the big scale of the dimensions. My only caveat is that on the First Symphony CD she includes Barber’s 2nd Symphony, written after World War II, which he removed from publication, that isn’t very happy and a bit rambling.

17. British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony was written at the end of World War II, and literally takes you above it all to a world of peace. The recording by Sir John Barbirolli, who was a good friend of the composer, with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI/Warner captures a special transcendence.

18. Antonin Dvorak’s 7th Symphony has a unique combination of beauty and forward propulsion. I especially like the performance with Colin Davis conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips, which also has Dvorak’s 8th and 9th symphonies, both of which have tremendous sweep and melody.

19. The richest and most gorgeous sounding recording on this list has Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings” and Vaughan Williams “Thomas Tallis Fantasy” with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, on EMI/Warner. These two pieces have a special atmosphere; you’re on the other side immediately. Frankly, anything conducted by Stokowski is worth having, he’s that great. There’s a remarkable video on YouTube of him rehearsing the American Symphony Orchestra in Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” He was 86 at the time.

20. Sviatoslav Richter playing Book I of Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier” is something to live with. I’ve been listening to it since the 1970s and still hear new things in it. The sound quality isn’t crystal clear but is still very good. It is available on RCA Red Seal Classic Library. Richter put it best when he said that the performer, “If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.” Rama would certainly agree.