Early this fall, I asked friends to tell me which pieces of classical music they believed to be “the all-time sexiest.” I promised there were no wrong answers. I wasn’t being disingenuous—though I was thinking about how erotic classical music playlists on Spotify and elsewhere, if not “wrong” or “bad,” are full of famous pieces so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine them actually arousing desire in the 21st century. If you search “erotic classical music” on any music streaming platform, you’ll find Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and many other pieces that should make you spit out your coffee laughing. Yes, you’ll find less awkward examples of “erotic,” such as Ravel’s “Boléro” and “Daphnis et Chloé,” Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” These works are singular and bewitching, but I don’t see why they should repeatedly be singled out, at the exclusion of everything else, for their eroticism. Are they really that hot?
For this reason, I’ve created a playlist that offers alternatives and new ideas. The ten pieces I’ve chosen do reflect some of my biases. You won’t find anything manic (à la “Flight of the Bumblebee”), funereal (like Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”), or composed by Philip Glass (whose music, according to my three-year-old, sounds “a yot like ambulance sirens”). I steered away from famous pieces already enshrined on erotic classical playlists, but I didn’t avoid classical music’s preeminent composers.
If you’re unhappy with what you find here, please: Make your own public playlist.
Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F Major: II. Assez vif, très rhythmé, Cavani Quartet
Ravel’s “Boléro” is spectacular, but if you want erotic music that piques your curiosity and defies your expectations, you might try listening to works by Ravel that we all hear less often, like this String Quartet in F Major. The second movement is tantalizing from the start. The four instruments play syncopated cross-rhythms pizzicato for several measures, and then the first violin begins quivering at a middle frequency before sliding up to a higher pitch and quivering some more. Then there’s an unexpected shift to a smooth, sensuous melody Ravel marked “bien chanté” (“well sung”). Here the song sounds almost wistful, though it keeps driving forward. The tension in these bars and throughout the rest of this piece is seductive and thrilling.
Gabriella Smith, “Carrot Revolution,” Aizuri Quartet
I listened to “Carrot Revolution” for the first time two years ago after Joshua Barone raved in The New York Times that Smith’s provocatively titled stunner contained “stylistic juxtapositions as unruly as an English garden.” After reading Barone’s blurb, I expected “Carrot Revolution” to set my brain ablaze, but I didn’t anticipate feeling the music through my body. Smith uses spellbinding percussive techniques—she calls these “crunchings” and “tappings”—that jerk and whip you around in an ecstatic flow of energy, both playing into and confounding your expectations. An emanation of Smith’s ecological convictions, this propulsive, strangely ravishing music conveys the physical touch of sound.
Claude Debussy, “Danses,” L. 103: II. Danse Profane, Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra
Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” “Rêverie,” and other atmospheric piano pieces constantly appear on lists of erotic classical music. A man friend once told me that’s because “women love Debussy.” I’ve somehow been immune to Debussy as an aphrodisiac; however, I’m completely enamored of “Danse profane,” with its glittering harp swirling at intervals amid a string orchestra’s majestic, lilting waltz. It evokes a tranquil ocean dreamscape—gentle sunlight, undulating waves—somewhere near the center of beauty.
Iannis Xenakis, “Psappha,” Steven Schick
Milan Kundera once observed that Iannis Xenakis located “an earthly ‘objective’ sound in a mass of sound which does not rise from the human heart, but which approaches us from the outside, like raindrops or the voice of wind.” Xenakis’s “Psappha,” however—a homage to Sappho’s incantations—sounds remarkably intimate. While still an attempt to express rhythm in its purest form, it seems to evince a raw subjectivity. Alex Ross perceived “something lonely and questing” in it during a 2009 performance in New York City, “as if those ever-changing pulses were coded messages of the soul.” This solitary, personal quality makes “Psappha” unexpectedly moving and intoxicating. Xenakis’s only other multi-percussion solo piece, “Rebonds,” also throws heat (I particularly love “Rebonds B”).
Johann Sebastian Bach, “The Art of the Fugue,” BWV 1080: Contrapunctus II – Version for String Quartet, Juilliard String Quartet
Whenever Bach appears on an erotic playlist, you see the same two pieces beside his name: “Air on the G String” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” These are beautiful works, but I think Contrapunctus II from “The Art of the Fugue” is infinitely more suggestive. It’s the simplest variation on the work’s principal subject which makes it feel hauntingly private, and the modifications it introduces—a French tail at the end of the theme and a syncopated tonal answer—change the character of the counterpoint from formal and dignified to urgent and just a little bit kinky. If you’re into borderline indecorous polyphony, this fugue is for you.
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Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Chanson,” from “BTTB”
People often find classical music erotic when it captures complex emotion in a seemingly simple, unobtrusive form. Ergo, music composed by Erik Satie repeatedly shows up on Spotify lists like “classical music for sexy bitches” and in films like Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” (adapted from André Aciman’s beautiful novel about desire). But there’s plenty more “furniture music” out there for the taking. Sakamoto’s “Chanson” is one present-day example. It’s stripped down, moody, and delicately distorted, reminiscent of Satie’s piano works while feeling notably fresh. In 2018, The New York Times wrote about Sakamoto creating a playlist for one of his favorite Murray Hill restaurants, where the food was “as good as the beauty of Katsura Rikyu” but the music was “like Trump Tower.” Makes you wonder what Sakamoto would say about the “erotic classical music” catalogued on streaming platforms.
Caroline Shaw, “Plan & Elevation”: V. The Beech Tree, Attacca Quartet
“Plan & Elevation” is an enchanting string quartet commemorating the 75th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks, a historic garden in Georgetown designed by the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (Stravinsky composed a concerto inspired by this garden in the 1930s). “The Beech Tree,” the fifth and final movement, examines the garden’s tree of note, condensing seasons in its life into two and a half magical minutes. You can hear leaves sprouting from buds on the tree’s branches. Beechdrop blooming amidst the roots. Leaves elongating as flowers and fruits burst into being. Just about every list of erotic classical music includes Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which evokes a rustic, sun-dappled landscape (and the masturbatory memories of a mythical man-goat). I’d rather keep company with “The Beech Tree,” which is contemplative and informed by history while also alive and adventurous in the 21st century.
John Tavener, “Ikon of Eros,” Paul Goodwin and the Minnesota Orchestra
When I asked my online book group for “classical music that’s erotic,” one of the women suggested I listen to Tavener’s “The Veil of the Temple.” She wrote, “The Tavener lasted all night. Really. I spent the night at Lincoln Center, and it was magic.” After reading this endorsement, I listened to Tavener’s oeuvre, immersing myself over several days in his eerie, mesmerizing, religious music. Eventually, I gravitated toward “Ikon of Eros,” which takes inspiration from the Holy Fathers and Hindu scriptures, because it’s all about longing and our relationship with the divine. In an interview about this transcendent work, Tavener said, “One longs for a person. One longs for a landscape. But in the end, what you’re longing for—and what you see in the landscape and see in that person—if you believe in God, is God.”
John Adams, “Shaker Loops,” Ridge String Quartet
This isn’t music to play on your wedding night, but it’s certainly a churning, emotional release of carnal energies. The title alludes to how string players in this piece exert tremendous physical energy to “shake,” or move their bows rapidly across strings, producing tremolos or fast buzzing sounds. At the same time, the title conjures the ecstatic worship ritual once practiced by Shakers: spontaneous shaking, trembling, dancing, singing, shouting, and speaking in tongues to induce visions and revelations from God. The third movement of this ecstatic work, “Loops and Verses,” builds to a rapturous climax, but for me, the fourth movement, “A Final Shaking,” is the real peak experience.
Astor Piazzolla, “Estaciones Porteñas,” arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov for violin & strings, Curtis Chamber Ensemble
“The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi is often labeled “sexy.” It appears on several erotic playlists, including one on Spotify with the title “classical is sexy, steamy, sensual, spicy, stimulating, seductive, arousing, titillating, hot, erotic.” That’s nice for Vivaldi, but I’m listening to Piazzolla’s “Estaciones Porteñas.” Piazzolla, known as the Duke Ellington of Argentina, references Vivaldi’s famous work but depicts the seasons and moods of Buenos Aires in four alluring tango compositions. In lieu of percussion, he gives you back-of-the-bass-slapping, violin-scrubbing (to emulate the sounds of a guiro) and -sliding both slow and whipped. Desyatnikov’s arrangement incorporates additional fragments from Vivaldi’s version while still preserving Piazzolla’s passionate, yearning voice. ¶
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