When Classical Music Sends Chills Down Your Spine

>This is the sixth in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Catch up on the first five parts of the series here, here, here, here, and here.

Since I was a teenager, certain songs have been sacred. I only play them at epochal moments, when life lifts off the track: breakups, departures, reunions, deaths. These pieces have gravity not just by association, but because of profound qualities in the music itself. They tend to be the work of composers at the end of their lives, who transcended youthful exuberance to something more meaningful. Overwrought as this sounds, it's true: if I tried to listen to late Beethoven on a carefree, spontaneous day, it would sound off-key. Conversely, turning to Outkast for deep solace rarely satisfies.

So what is it that makes "deep" music—Beethoven's Opus 110 and 111 sonatas, for me—deep? Here, I don't simply mean intense music. Instead, I am referring to that abstract quality that two centuries ago we might have called sublime, or transcendental, or any one of a variety of outmoded neurological terms. But if you've ever felt chills down your spine at a song's blasting finale, or had the hair rise on the back of your neck at a rug-pulling key change you understand. The music fills and electrifies every pore. For a fleeting moment—some of the only ones we get—everything merges. Life makes sense.

These ineffable feelings are what I love most about music, but their precise ingredients elude words. In my experience, a few qualities stay consistent. Sublime music is melodic, haunting, and dense; it sustains delicate tension in a structure designed to break expectation; it sets up a battle against itself and triumphs. In all, it has an otherworldly, even religious feel. As always, the examples speak better than my words. My taste here is personal, tending toward Beethoven and the piano. Others might find ecstasy in Messiaen, Palestrina, or Mahler. They are the reason I love classical music, so it seems fitting to end this series by sharing them.

A Suspended, Eternal Feeling

This massive, deep-rooted sonata comes from the end of Schubert's short, 31-year life. In Richter's hands, the melancholy piece becomes almost a piece of fixed architecture. The full version lasts 23 minutes, but in this 9-minute clip you can hear the ailing composer look out calmly beyond death.

Self-Battling and Triumph

If you can, start by listening to the first two parts here and here. This finale from Beethoven's second-to-last piano sonata is a fugue that keeps searching for a way out of itself, straining and even turning itself upside down. At last, the theme explodes free around 6:30. The pleasure is a bit like squeezing through a fence to find pastures on the other side.

Beethoven fights himself again in this string-quartet finale. (I told you he was my favorite, right?) Composed during his stone-deaf final years, the piece is arranged for full orchestra here, and conducted by the great Leonard Bernstein. Listen how bitterly the instruments battle. Two minutes in they try to outrace themselves only to plunge back into violence at 2:50. Liberation comes in the final seconds.

High-Pitched Ethereal Delicacy

This piece is, for me, the most "sacred" of all. I listen to it only at important or poignant moments in life, which in some ways is a shame. Beethoven's 18-minute theme and variations is a piece of celestial poetry, as though composed through the eye of a telescope. Start listening here to fully appreciate the rapture that begins around 3:00 below.

Bach does something similar here. He uses extremely high pitches, trills, and overlapping voices for a heavenly effect. Glenn Gould hammers the keyboard a bit, but you can still appreciate the beauty when he hits 8:10.

Building, Pounding Jubilation

Finally, this is perhaps the most common way to encounter that sublime spine-tingling feeling. Pieces such as this virtuosic Wanderer Fantasy by Schubert build straightforwardly, increasing in violence and volume, escalating beyond where it seems possible until the nerves are joyfully pummeled. Better to let Lang Lang show what I mean beginning at 3:05.

And, of course, the best of all: the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th symphony.

This post ends my six-part series introducing new listeners to classical music. Thanks for coming along. I hope you found something to take with you.