Young composers are always curious about what music I listen to. And I always respond that I try to listen to everything. But I think the purpose of their question is to find out what inspires me, so that it might inspire them as well.
To cut directly to the chase, I thought I would list a few of the orchestral pieces that inspired me when I was starting to learn music composition. (My pop, rock and jazz list would be way too long to print here.)
The very first orchestral score I ever studied (at age 13) was The Planets by Gustav Holst. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve certainly heard the music before. It’s been copied so many times by other composers – especially film composers – because it’s such descriptive music. This piece contains battle music, romance, grand majestic themes, comical mischief and celestial choirs. It’s a great introduction to the concept of imagery in music.
After The Planets, the next large scale piece that I studied was Daphnis and Chloe by Maurice Ravel. This was probably the orchestral piece that had the biggest influence on me as I was learning to compose. For the sheer beauty of the music and the unbelievably colorful orchestration, this piece will be near the top of your list as well.
Speaking of orchestral color, one of the rare composers who could rival Ravel’s genius for orchestration was Ottorino Respighi. As soon as you hear the first few seconds of his Pines of Rome, you will hear how Disney got its sound. His other famous pieces, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals, are also worth a listen.
And finally, what can anyone say about Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before? Simply stated, action/adventure soundtracks – as we know them – would not be the same had this piece never been written. Its jagged rhythms and disturbing sonorities changed the face of twentieth century music. And almost 100 years later, this piece still sounds just as fresh and daring.
I can guarantee young composers that these pieces will educate and inspire you. And remember, all of these composers absorbed the music of their predecessors and peers for their inspiration as well.