I got the idea for this post sitting in the pews at a church in Montreal listening to my friend’s orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. I’m not big into classical music and wouldn’t listen to it alone. I find it too meandering and unstructured and usually end up falling asleep. But I’ll always go to a live concert to watch the ecstasy on old peoples’ faces as they drink in the notes with their eyes closed. And their eyes are always closed—this is true for all old people at every classical concert everywhere. It’s an acquired level of unselfconsciousness, the same force behind the stark naked old men and women in your gym locker room. It’s a rare and beautiful superpower of old age.
Anyway, sitting next to me was my friend Katie, a classical music aficionado. Unlike going to an art gallery with an art buff, going to a classical concert with an aficionado doesn’t make you want to slowly stab yourself to death with that slightly sharp clip-on tag you get at admission. It is straight up useful and informative. She would lean over and tell me to take notice of the harpist during the Waltz of the Flowers, or to point out the conductor’s technique.
In that moment, at what was probably the life-long peak of my appreciation for classical music, the ghost of my childhood piano teacher Stella popped into my mind. She’s probably still alive but I’ll imagine her how I want to. While I hated piano lessons, I loved the Italian words in the sheet music that let you know the tempo, the mood, and the technique. Adagio — at ease, Prestissimo — very ready, Tremolo — trembling, Crescendo — growing.
If the word crescendo is making you hungry, that’s because it’s also a brand of frozen pizza. Sitting in church, I realized we are living in a crescendo-starved era of music. Most electronic songs today are built around a drop. Yes, there’s a build-up to the drop: the rising windy whine accompanied by the trappy drum that doubles in speed until it sounds like a revving engine or a condensed fart. It’s about as good an excuse for a crescendo as the rising crust on a frozen pizza.
The crescendo is the anti-drop. It’s the crock pot your aunt gave you for Christmas that will go unused. Still, there are some artists across all genres (electronic included) who have not forgotten the power of a masterful build-up. Here are my top five musical crescendos.
5. Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky)
This one’s a shout out to my boy Tchaikovsky for inspiring this piece. While the Nutcracker is mostly gay and fluffy violin and flute action, Swan Lake is a punch to the gut. A single faint flute opens with the rising melodic theme to allow for maximum build-up, then the violins pick up out of the background and pick up the tempo before the brass instruments (4 french hornts, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a fucking tuba, to be clear) pound out the epic crescendo.
4. Vomit (Girls)
“Vomit” is the standout track on one of the best albums of the past decade in my opinion (Father, Son, Holy Ghost), and the crescendo over the last minute and a half of the song is why. The song starts with a repeated eight note melody picked on a bare guitar. Over the next four minutes, Christopher Owens’ voice is slowly buried under layers of distortion and effects before the crescendo climaxes with an earth-shattering organ solo and powerful gospel vocals.
3. Sometimes (My Bloody Valentine)
In the every other song on this list, the basic formula is to start out super quiet to allow room for a long and satisfying build-up. You have to leave room in the oven for the crust to rise. In this shoegaze masterpiece, the guitar kicks in at maximum volume + gain and stays constant throughout the whole song. The beauty is that the crescendo is already baked in, occasionally shining through the electric wall of noise. At the 3:20 mark the vocals fade out and the keyboard bursts to the foreground, falling one note and rising three until it reaches a haunting high note.
2. Cello Sonata In G Minor Op. 19 (Rachmaninov)
The magic in this piece lies in its simplicity. It’s just two instruments—a piano and a cello—for the whole thing. They alternate in soft responses (with short, teasing overlaps) before combining at the 2:43 mark for a beautiful crescendo highlighted by a falling cello scale that ends on a resounding low note as the piano is forges up to its highest tinkling reaches.
The cello is my favourite instrument because of how different it sounds depending on who is playing it. You need meaty yet neat fingers that have the strength to pull and push the thick strings into the fretboard while staying safely apart. My favourite rendition is the one with Michael Grebanier on cello and Janet Guggenheim on piano.
1. Silver (Caribou)
Caribou is my favourite artist right now for so many reasons, and the crescendo in “Silver” (on the album Our Love) is one of them. The crescendo lasts just 10 seconds (3:24-3:34), and it feels like an airplane taking off with no pilot and you are the only passenger. It feels like a clean puncture through rainclouds and into clear blue sky. Listen to the song because I’m clearly trying too hard to describe it.