So far, by pure coincidence, I have only discussed relaxing pieces of classical music written for the piano. The amount of existing literature for the piano is immense, and it just so happens that the most famous relaxing pieces of classical music happen to be for piano.
But the piano isn’t the only instrument with tons of relaxing music. In order to truly curate a playlist of relaxing classical music, we need to consider all instruments.
So today we are discussing the top five most relaxing pieces of classical music for the violin.
Criteria and Considerations
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the four criteria that can make classical music relaxing:
- Instrumental only
- Simple form
- Consistent “calm” tempo
This brings me to my next point: even with these criteria, what makes classical music relaxing is subjective. I try to center my discussions on fact or objective elements. But in music, this only goes so far.
When I select pieces to discuss with you, I make sure they fit the above criteria. From there, the pieces I choose are selected based on my personal interpretation of what is relaxing. My personal definition of relaxing may differ from yours. You may have a higher tolerance for rhythmic intensity than I do, or you may not like listening to music in a minor key for relaxation.
The point is that even with relaxing criteria, there is still a subjective element to all of the music I discuss. My goal is to choose music that is as widely acceptable and relaxing to the most amount of people.
The final considerations I had to make before selecting these pieces were necessary since there is so much violin literature to sort through. For this list, I decided to leave out any music by Bach, as well as any movements from a violin concerto. I had to limit the amount of literature to go through in some way, and both Bach and violin concerti deserve their own lists.
In no particular order, here are the top five relaxing pieces of classical music for the violin.
1. Massenet: “Méditation” from Thaïs
Arguably the most recognizable piece on this list, “Méditation” is one of the most popular encore pieces and has been performed by world-class soloists, including Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, and Maxim Vengerov.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) was a French composer most known for his operas. Thaïs is one of his operas, and it premiered in 1894. “Méditation” is an instrumental entr’acte, or music between the scenes, that takes place in Act II. It is written for a solo violinist and orchestral accompaniment. When played for an opera production, the concertmaster plays the solo; however, when played in a concert setting, a guest soloist will usually play the solo.
The piece is written, essentially, in ABA form, so we become very familiar with the main melody. The orchestral accompaniment is very simple, and the harps play an eighth note pattern which is very soothing, especially at the beginning of the piece.
An important thing to note about this piece is its tempo marking of Andante religioso. This definitely indicates a slower tempo, but it also suggests that the piece should be played with a religious, possibly prayerful, sentiment. Most soloists perform the piece in an overly romantic style, but the suggested religious aspect is fascinating and perhaps not explored enough.
2. Elgar: Salut d’Amour
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was a British composer who is most famous for his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which is played at almost every graduation ceremony.
Salut d’Amour is also extremely well-known, though its French title was a change made by the publisher. Elgar originally gave the piece a German title, Liebesgruß, which means “love’s greeting.” The piece was written in 1888 as an engagement present to his future wife, Caroline Alice Roberts.
The piece is originally written for violin and piano, though many arrangements for other instruments and ensembles have been done. The piece is also in, essentially, ABA form.
The piano part plays a similar role as in Brahms’ Lullaby, where the piano plays a rhythmic syncopation which gives a swaying feeling to the piece.
3. Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F Minor, Op. 4 – 1st Movement
This piece is arguably the least-known on this list, but it is a hidden gem. Of Mendelssohn’s three violin sonatas, this is the only one to be published during his lifetime.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a German composer, pianist, and conductor who revived interest in the music of Bach. His violin concerto, piano concerti, symphonies, and piano works are all cornerstones of the early Romantic era.
This Violin Sonata was composed in 1823 when he was a teenager. Since this is a very early piece in his career it lacks many of the typical qualities we associate with Mendelssohn’s music, such as his whimsy. Understandably, this piece is less mature than his later works, and strongly resembles the music of Beethoven. But this still doesn’t detract from its overall quality, and shows how incredibly talented Mendelssohn was to have written this at such a young age.
This piece is very rhythmically repetitive. Additionally, the melodies tend to move in a downward motion, meaning they get lower in pitch. This is not necessarily a quality that makes music relaxing, but in this case I think it does. The constant downward motion has a lulling effect, and adds to the piece’s repetitive nature since we can expect what will happen musically.
4. Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 – 2nd Movement
The last violin sonata Brahms wrote, this sonata was premiered in 1888. The entire piece is often considered a must-learn or holy grail piece for advanced violinists, as it presents numerous musical and technical challenges.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) composed this piece during the height of his fame, and dedicated the work to his longtime friend and colleague, Hans von Bülow.
The second movement is a lyrical song, and the piano is simply an accompaniment for the violin, rather than equal partner. The piano accompaniment is simple, often only playing one note per beat.
The movement, while definitely lyrical, has a melancholy feel to it. It sounds sad, like the composer is longing for something (which makes sense, considering he often had unrequited love). This sadness is also unique since the movement is in a major key, which seems to go against the age-old saying: major is happy, minor is sad.
Like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, listening to this piece and recognizing that you are letting go of your troubles from the day is a good way to approach this piece for relaxation.
5. Franck: Violin Sonata – 1st Movement
César Franck (1822-1890) was of German-Belgian descent, but worked in Paris most of his life. The Violin Sonata is one of his most famous pieces, and is often cited as a reason for why he is considered a major composer. This is also one of the most performed and recorded violin sonatas.
Written in 1886, the Violin Sonata is a cyclical work which, as the name implies, means that the themes continually return throughout the entire piece.
The first movement is relaxing not only due to its beautiful melodies, but because of its rhythmic structure. The first movement is written in a 9/8 time signature. Time signature tells the performer how many beats are in a measure, and what rhythm value gets a beat. I won’t go into any more detail than that, other than to say that 9/8 is known as a compound meter.
Compound meters divide their beats into divisions of three. This is opposed to simple meters, which divide their beats into divisions of two. The reason this is significant for our purposes is because compound meters have a natural lilting feel to them, due to the beat’s three divisions.
As a comparison, a waltz is written with three divisions. In other words, there is a strong accent on 1, with beats 2 and 3 being weaker. If you’ve ever danced a waltz, you are very familiar with this. If you haven’t danced a waltz before, just by listening to a waltz you will understand this feeling. Your body will naturally begin to sway to the rhythm, and you will feel a waltz’s swaying, lilting feel.
This swaying, lilting feeling is naturally very soothing to us, and it is beautifully highlighted in Franck’s sonata. This rhythmic consistency is soothing since it imitates a rocking motion.
I am not a violinist, and while I am generally familiar with the repertoire, there is much I am unfamiliar with. These pieces may be the most famous, but they are certainly not the only relaxing violin pieces out there.
Let me know in the comments which violin pieces you think are relaxing. There is enough literature out there to make another list, and your input will be very beneficial.
I hope these pieces will be good additions to your relaxation playlist.