Top Five Drug-Inspired Classical Pieces

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The Colorado Symphony's planned "Classically Cannabis" fundraising concerts have sparked a bit of controversy, but mostly amusement in the press and late-night shows. The orchestra announced on Tuesday that the three concerts will be invitation only in an attempt to address concerns by Denver city officials that audiences would be breaking the law by smoking weed in public.

We aren't so naïve to believe that drugs don’t have a place in classical music; in fact, they've played significant roles in several pieces. Here are the top five:

1. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Perhaps the most famous hallucination in all of classical music comes courtesy of Hector Berlioz, an opium user whose Symphonie Fantastique was described by Leonard Bernstein in his Young People’s Concerts as “the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first ever musical description of a trip.” It wouldn’t be the last. The Symphony follows the dream of a lovesick young man who unsuccessfully attempts suicide by opium overdose and instead experiences a series of visions, from ecstatic scenes of love to a nightmarish witches' sabbath. In doing so, the composer set the bar for music written under the influence. [YouTube]

2. La Monte Young: Trio for Strings

Being at the center of 1960s counterculture, it's expected that avant-garde composer La Monte Young would experiment with various narcotics. Keith Potter writes in his book Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass that Young was particularly fond of cannabis, which led him to discover underlying connections in Stockhausen’s Gruppen and also helped him compose his breakthrough Trio for Strings. However, he warned that smoking up was not as helpful when it came to less creative tasks, such as counting. [YouTube]

3. Leibowitz: Marijuana: Variations non sérieuses

The French conductor, composer and author Rene Leibowitz (1913-1972) is probably best known for his Beethoven recordings – which were the first ones to adhere to Beethoven’s metronome markings – along with helping to revive 12-tone writing in post-World War II Europe. But he makes this list with his lesser-known composition, Marijuana: Variations non serieuses, a rather plodding and comical (or non-serious) six-minute quartet for piano, violin, vibraphone and trombone. [YouTube]

4. Lyapunov: Hashish: An Oriental Symphonic Poem

The title of Sergei Lyapunov’s orchestral work, Hashish: An Oriental Symphonic Poem, pretty much speaks for itself. A student of Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev, Lyaponov (1859-1924) also owes much to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade for this romanticized depiction of the East. Hashish is a bit of a departure for the composer, who spent much of his career collecting 300 Russian folksongs and incorporating the themes into his works. [YouTube]


5. Cage: Fontana Mix

In his book of conversations For the Birds, John Cage says, “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom." As the winner of an Italian game show about mushrooms and the co-founder of the New York Mycological Society, Cage had more than a passing appreciation for fungi. Michael Prime, a so-called sound ecologist, referenced this passion in his recording of Cage’s “Fontana Mix,” a graphic outline of a work that could be performed on virtually anything that emits sound. Prime’s version uses bioelectrical recordings from a mushroom. Irrespective of their psychedelic properties, that’s pretty magical. [YouTube]