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Thread: A Beginner's Guide to Classical Music

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Lightbulb A Beginner's Guide to Classical Music

    A Beginner's Guide to Classical Music

    Often people unfamiliar with Classical music will ask advice on how to approach it. Where do you start?



    Frankly, many already are familiar with a lot of classical music.

    Cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s are loaded with it.

    And anyone who's a fan of theatrical films will have heard a great deal of it, even though they may not have realized it: For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey used a great many classical pieces for its score. From the impressive opening of Richard Strauss' Also Spracht Zarasthustra, to Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube, the use of already composed works helped give the film the impact that made it so very successful.

    Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange used Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

    Apocalypse Now used Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from his massive operatic suite Die Walk?re.

    Even Ferris Bueller's Day Off used music from Boccerini's String Quintet in E.

    So . . . I compiled a collection of some of the most compelling and accessible classical works for novice listeners.

    Originally it was to be a Top Ten, which quickly grew into a Top 20, then a Top 25, and so on.

    One of the problems with getting folks to come over to "the classical side" will be familiar to Prog Rock lovers . . . the length and complexity tends to just chase folks away.

    CAUTION: This list is NOT really a “ranking”, although works I feel are better are more likely to appear in a higher position. The list is more of an “ordering” to introduce the uninitiated to Classical Music, in a sequence that in my opinion is more likely to entice one “into the fold”.

    But the 1st piece is

    The Planets
    Gustav Holst, an 8 movement symphonic work that clocks in at well over a half hour.
    1916

    This piece is #2 on the Parker Symphony Orchestra's List of 10 BADASS PIECES OF CLASSICAL MUSIC. Here's THAT full list.

    Orff – Carmina Burana / “O Fortuna” (#18)
    Holst – The Planets, Mars (#1)
    Verdi – Requiem “Dies Irae” (#79)
    Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries (#31)
    Vivaldi – The Four Seasons: Summer Mvt. 3 Presto (#6)
    Bizet – Carmen Overture / Les Toreadors (#62)
    Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain (#19)
    Verdi – Il Trovatore / “Anvil Chorus”
    Khachaturian – Sabre Dance
    Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra, Prelude (#24)

    . . . and their “Honorable Mentions”:

    Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture (#5)
    Shostakovich – Symphony No 5, Mvt 4 (#153)
    Bruckner – Symphony No 1, Mvt 3
    Grieg – In The Hall Of The Mountain King (#11)
    Dvorak – Symphony No 9, Mvt 4 (#2)
    Mozart – Requiem in D minor, Dies Irae (#35)
    Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suite No 2, Mvt 4 (Farandole)
    Saint-Saëns – Symphony No 3, Mvt 3 and 4 (#408)
    Beethoven – Symphony No 9, Mvt 4 (#39)
    Glinka – Overture from Ruslan and Ludmilla (#231)
    Holst – The Planets, Jupiter (#1)
    Mozart – Symphony No 25, Mvt 1
    Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor (#90)
    Smyth – The Wreckers (Overture)



    Ah, but The Planets is a great look at orchestration and variety. And several film composers have used Holst's techniques to great success. John Williams has paid great tribute with his scores to Star Wars and others (he's pretty damned prolific).

    Of course, the best way to experience Classical music is in a live setting. Unlike rock music, which sometimes suffers in concert, Classical music is exacting . . . it's important to the players and conductor that it be perfect. You won't find fall-down drunk singers or guitarists on acid here.

    Here's a great and spirited live version by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

    This version also has a new movement, to include Pluto, discovered after the suite was written.

    Mars, the Bringer of War 0:00​
    Venus, the Bringer of Peace 7:15​
    Mercury, the Winged Messenger 15:09​
    Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity 18:58​
    Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age 26:42​
    Uranus, the Magician 35:32​
    Neptune, the Mystic 41:20​
    Pluto, the Renewer 49:17​


    Proms 2016 – Gustav Holst – The Planets



    .

    This extensive work has popped up in popular music as well, especially the 1st movement.

    Sinfonia, a large group of electric guitarists covered it, as did King Crimson (retitled "The Devil's Triangle"), and eventually, Emerson, Lake and Powell.

    Jimmy Page adapted part of 'Mars' in the song 'Friends' on Led Zeppelin III.

    Yes quoted a few sections of Jupiter in the song "The Prophet" from their 1970 album "Time and a Word".

    Isao Tomita did an electronic version many years ago, and Jeff Wayne and Rick Wakeman teamed up as well in 2005 with an album Beyond the Planets.

    Many artists, such as Frank Zappa, have "quoted" licks from the suite in instrumental sections of songs.

    John Williams used the melodies and instrumentation of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the Star Wars films (specifically "The Imperial March")

    Hans Zimmer closely used the melodies, instrumentation and orchestration of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the movie Gladiator to the extent that a lawsuit for copyright infringement was filed by the Holst foundation.



    In presenting this in serial form on a blog, there will be a continual problem with videos becoming "inactive". Due to the settings of Talk Classical, I cannot easily go back later and find an active link an simply insert it, as the editing feature becomes inert after a very short period of time. I'm not complaining, mind you, that's just the way it is.

    Generally, the specific video I choose will be live, with decent sound and video. I'll usually give a title and artists (the players, conductor, name of the orchestra, etc), so if the link goes dead, one can generally search for it, or a replacement, fairly easily.

    I think that being able to watch the performance adds to the enjoyment somehow. So most of these videos are live, even though there are often "better" (subjectively) recordings. "Better" sometimes just means that the studio recording has better production value, and no audience coughing during the quiet sections.

    I welcome comments and suggestions. In general, given that this is a blog format, that is likely to happen anyway. Suggestions for entry-level Classical works will be met with bemusement, as it's very likely I'll already have that work on my list. But possibly not. As I mentioned, the list was started quite some time ago, and grew from humble beginnings to a completed list of 200 finished blurbs of specific works, to a projected list of over 600.

    I've actually been compiling this on a different vblog, a band fanpage, but as the band and its fans age and leave (in some cases they "transition"), the membership has dropped drastically, and has been in danger of simply "closing shop" several times. The Admin there has moved to a smaller server after "dumping" a good portion of its archives, and is in the process of doing that again.

    So, it's already put together for people to follow along and listen as I drop a post.


    Last edited by pianozach; Mar-06-2021 at 04:10.

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    You should include a smattering of piano, modernist, and chamber music, too-- some people may like that more than the orchestral music that draws most people in.

    Piano:
    Dvorak: Complete Humoresques
    Chopin: Ballade No. 4
    Brahms: Hungarian Dances
    Beethoven: Moonlight, Hammerklavier movement 1

    Modern:
    Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
    Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, Ebony Concerto
    Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

    Chamber:
    Mozart: Clarinet Quintet
    Brahms: String Sextet no. 1 movement 2
    Ravel: String Quartet
    Schubert: String Quartet no. 14, Trout Quintet
    Dvorak: Dumky Trio
    Last edited by ORigel; Mar-06-2021 at 05:04.

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    Initial works I recommend:

    Mozart, Piano concerto No. 20
    Beethoven, Symphony No. 5
    Bach, Cello suite No. 2
    Brahms, Violin concerto
    Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture
    Schubert, Piano sonata No. 21
    Debussy, String Quartet
    Handel, Messiah
    Puccini, La boheme

    .
    Last edited by Brahmsianhorn; Mar-06-2021 at 08:01.

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    Moderator Art Rock's Avatar
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    For a general introduction I don't think very long works like the Messiah or an opera would work. What might be best is works that
    [1] have some melodies that the newcomer already knows, but serve to show how much more there is to a work than that melody;
    [2] are not too long (ideally not much beyond half an hour to keep their attention)

    Some candidates (incidentally, these were among the ones that helped me get into classical music):

    - Beethoven's 5th symphony
    - Vivaldi's Four seasons (just one of them for starters)
    - Mozart's piano concerto 20
    - Grieg's first Peer Gynt suite
    - Bach's first cello suite
    - Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto

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    Senior Member Ethereality's Avatar
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    A beginners guide to Classical should open with a 400-page thesis on the merits of subjectivity vs objectivity. With breaks of course, like frequent trending videos such as this:




    Remember, great music is often about the beard. Whatever you define music to be, the beard seems to have the final say.
    Last edited by Ethereality; Mar-06-2021 at 10:21.

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    Senior Member Ned Low's Avatar
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    Mozart,Dvorak and Tchaikovsky are great composers to begin with. Not only do they have mesmerising melodies but their compositions are not complicated as the likes of Mahler though my exposure to classical music was initially Beethoven and then Schubert.
    Last edited by Ned Low; Mar-06-2021 at 19:10.

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    Or just read or review Martin Bookspan's 1968 book "101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers"

    bookspan.jpg

    You can buy it for as little as a half dollar here

    https://www.amazon.com/101-masterpie...s=books&sr=1-1

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    Senior Member HenryPenfold's Avatar
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    My new year's resolution is to buy less new music and listen more to the absolutely STUPID amount of music I already have.

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    Senior Member Chilham's Avatar
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    ........................
    Last edited by Chilham; Mar-06-2021 at 13:13. Reason: Moved to a pm

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    Senior Member mbhaub's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by larold View Post
    Or just read or review Martin Bookspan's 1968 book "101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers"

    bookspan.jpg

    You can buy it for as little as a half dollar here

    https://www.amazon.com/101-masterpie...s=books&sr=1-1
    That is a terrific book. How good is it? Well, many of the recordings the author recommended way back when it came out are still among the most highly recommended. That says something. Bookspan knew his music and was no snob.
    "It is surprising how easily one can become used to bad music" - F. Mendelssohn

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    Senior Member joen_cph's Avatar
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    I'd take stuff that is catchy but not so well known, thereby less burdened by any prejudices regarding 'classical music', and spanning from medieval times until contemporary. Say like Respighi's War Dance from the Belkis Suite, medieval Carmina Burana and Ventadorn original stuff, a Bruckner Scherzo (9th?), Schubert's Moments Musicaux, a V-Williams pastoral work, and so on.

    But another key question would be the existing taste of the new, interested person. If the person likes smurf songs, Xenakis probably isn't the way to go. If the person likes jazz, there's a lot of say 20th century music to bring up. If it's heavy metal, some Shosty might be relevant, for example.

    And then I'd bring in some lasting, basic repertoire stuff. Bach's Brandenburgs, Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven symphonies and piano sonatas, etc.
    Last edited by joen_cph; Mar-06-2021 at 15:25.

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ORigel View Post
    You should include a smattering of piano, modernist, and chamber music, too-- some people may like that more than the orchestral music that draws most people in.

    Piano:
    Dvorak: Complete Humoresques
    Chopin: Ballade No. 4
    Brahms: Hungarian Dances
    Beethoven: Moonlight, Hammerklavier movement 1

    Modern:
    Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
    Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, Ebony Concerto
    Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

    Chamber:
    Mozart: Clarinet Quintet
    Brahms: String Sextet no. 1 movement 2
    Ravel: String Quartet
    Schubert: String Quartet no. 14, Trout Quintet
    Dvorak: Dumky Trio
    Mostly excellent suggestions.

    For the most part I've attempted to stay away from collections, at least near the top of the list. Enticing someone into loving classical means fighting a century of pop music conditioning, where people tend to lose focus after 3 minutes.

    Of course, first off, I've broken my first rule by including The Planets Suite, and it won't be long before I'll have to mention Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (or 9th), or The Nutcracker, or WTC.

    But I'll be spreading the love around; and most of your suggestions ARE on the list, though not necessarily near the beginning.

    I love me some Brahms and Schubert as much as the next guy, but their complexity may chase folks away. You mentioned Brahms twice, and he's got many spots on the list, just not near the top. I suppose it's daunting that there is so much great music, and to create a diverse list is a challenge. But in the Top 100 Brahms' Piano Trio No. 1 (Eroica) is the only work from him I've included, although there's some other great chamber works that are easily more accessible. Expand that to my Top 200, and Brahms does much better: Symphony No. 4, Academic Festival Overture, Symphony No. 3, and Piano Concerto No. 1. Like I said, the competition is fierce. Top 300? Four Songs for 2 horns, harp, and Women's Choir, Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Piano Concerto No. 2, and Symphony No. 1.

    And after that Brahms is still well represented:

    Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
    German Requiem
    "Brahm's Lullaby"
    Symphony No. 2
    Tragic Overture
    String Quartet No. 1
    Piano Quartet in C minor
    Waldesnacht
    Waltz in A flat Major


    But I'll tack the Sextet on the back of the list (it just keeps growing). Occasionally I'll discover that I've made duplicate entries, and that was actually the case with Brahm's 2nd symphony, so I slid the Ebony Concerto in the duplicate's place. Woo-hoo!

    And Dvorak gets plenty of love, with the Dumky listed at #149

    I'm unfamiliar with Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, but I've got it playing right now and loving it. It seems like a great suggestion. Somewhat modern, incorporating some big band sensibilities, phenomenal orchestration technique. I'll find room for it, as my list is quite modern-phobic at first. The noise-makers of the 20th Century tend to drive people away until their ear is ready for it. I daresay that Beethoven would have enjoyed some Stravinsky far more than Mozart would have. I don't know, if Mozart were brought back from the dead, would have be a Kanye fan? Would he love Gentle Giant? As for his Clarinet Quintet; as great as it is, almost EVERYTHING Mozart composed is great. I'm betting that Mozart is the MOST represented composer on the list so far.

    Here's the Mozart I've included in my Top 100 (and the only composer with TWO works in my Top 10):

    Jupiter Symphony
    Overture, Marriage of Figaro

    Symphony No. 40
    Requiem in D minor
    Piano Concerto No. 20
    "Elvira Madigan" Piano Concerto (No. 21)
    Symphony No. 35
    Symphony No. 36
    Overture, Magic Flute


    And, after that, in the Top 200

    "Michael Haydn" Symphony
    Symphony No. 38
    Symphony No. 39
    Horn Concerto No. 3
    Don Giovani
    The Marriage of Figaro
    The Magic Flute
    Concerto for Flute and Harp
    Clarinet Concerto in A Major
    "Alla Turca" Piano Sonata (No. 12)


    . . . And as I'm digging this information out, I've just discovered that Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 was listed twice, at #60, and at #170. I've rolled out this list elsewhere, and it was a year between the two listings, yet I chose the same video clip with Yeol Eum Son for both entries!

    Which means I have room for the Clarinet Quintet.

    What can I say? Mozart's a monster. Imagine if he'd lived as long as Haydn; Would we be talking about his Symphony No. 150? Piano Concerto No. 99?
    Last edited by pianozach; Mar-06-2021 at 20:26.

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Art Rock View Post
    For a general introduction I don't think very long works like the Messiah or an opera would work. What might be best is works that
    [1] have some melodies that the newcomer already knows, but serve to show how much more there is to a work than that melody;
    [2] are not too long (ideally not much beyond half an hour to keep their attention)

    Some candidates (incidentally, these were among the ones that helped me get into classical music):

    - Beethoven's 5th symphony
    - Vivaldi's Four seasons (just one of them for starters)
    - Mozart's piano concerto 20
    - Grieg's first Peer Gynt suite
    - Bach's first cello suite
    - Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto
    Excellent suggestions. On the list in prominent positions. I like the way you're thinking.

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by joen_cph View Post
    I'd take stuff that is catchy but not so well known, thereby less burdened by any prejudices regarding 'classical music', and spanning from medieval times until contemporary. Say like Respighi's War Dance from the Belkis Suite, medieval Carmina Burana and Ventadorn original stuff, a Bruckner Scherzo (9th?), Schubert's Moments Musicaux, a V-Williams pastoral work, and so on.

    But another key question would be the existing taste of the new, interested person. If the person likes smurf songs, Xenakis probably isn't the way to go. If the person likes jazz, there's a lot of say 20th century music to bring up. If it's heavy metal, some Shosty might be relevant, for example.

    And then I'd bring in some lasting, basic repertoire stuff. Bach's Brandenburgs, Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven symphonies and piano sonatas, etc.
    Yeah, I'm going with the "One Size Fits All" approach, which allows for a wide breadth of diversity for the list, although it naturally will be biased towards my own tastes and experiences.

    I've got a few by Respighi on the list, but failed to include War Dance fr. Belkis Suite. I'll find a place for it.

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    After only one entry I'm surprised that no one yet mentioned Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition".

    Mr. M would've been a rock & roller had he lived in this era, and Pictures is, perhaps, the closest thing in the classical world to rock, and since most people are fully acquainted with rock, it makes sense to recommend it as a starting point.

    But as it is, it's relegated to spot #13 (so . . .still in the Top 20), as there are some other heavyweights that pushed him out of the Top 10. Given the volume of really accessible "Great" classical works, that's actually pretty damned good.

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