Five First Steps Toward an Exploration of Classical Music

posted by Tom Moon on August 04, 2008 at 8:57 pm
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The great composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote that "the trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it instead."

That's an important distinction, with particular resonance for classical music: Many people acquired a lifelong aversion to the classics enduring classroom lectures about the great composers who toiled and suffered endlessly to produce their masterworks. The "high canon" approach makes everything seem fearsome and monolithic, downright unapproachable; in fact, much of this music is heart-meltingly gorgeous, filled with astounding riches, requiring nothing more than an open mind.

Here are five suggestions for beginning an exploration.

Satie: Piano Works; Reinbert de Leeuw, piano. (pg. 475.) The rhapsodic short suites "Gnossiennes" and "Gymnopedes" that bookend this disc are unlike anything else in music - agonizingly slow music-box melodies that lure listeners into a deep internal place. Marvels of concision, Satie's melodies carry mystical overtones and a profound, heart-heavy sadness; they've influenced Brian Eno and Radiohead and many, many others.

Strauss: Four Last Songs, Jessye Norman. (Pg. 750). Of the many classical pieces that explore death, Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs stands among the most engrossing - a shadowy song-cycle organized around epic melodies that yearn for, yet never seem to reach, a final resting place. This 1982 recording features a transfixingly understated performance from Jessye Norman, and will enchant those who gravitate toward music that trends toward the dark side.

Bach: A State of Wonder: The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould. (pg. 321). Glenn Gloud, one of the most original pianists of the last century, brought a keen emotional edge to this set of labyrinthine Bach variations - it's as though he's seeking an ecstacy that goes far beyond the notes on the page. Gould recorded the piece twice, at the very start of his career and near its end; this release, which contains both versions, reveals how temperment and time can change an artist's approach.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto: Yehudi Menuhin, Philharmonia Orchestra. (pg. 496). Written around the time of his Fourth Symphony, this is one of Beethoven's shining melodic marvels - it's got themes that dart along like fast-moving river rapids supported by counterlines that are even more inventive, and often interconnected in diabolical ways. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin treats the piece as a musical expression of the heroic: When he reaches one of the many climaxes, he makes sure you know it. An ideal next stop after the Beethoven symphonies.

Debussy: La Mer. Berlin Philharmonic (pg. 634). The undulating pastel chords that define Debussy's La Mer are the essence of musical impressionism - they conjure a vast oceanic ambience, a sense of general motion that becomes more engrossing than any specific wave. Approach this piece with a calm mind, and marvel at the way Debussy allows the scene to become the star - anyone who's ever been enthralled by Pink Floyd will find much to savor here.

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#1 from jc - 08/07/2008 5:21

I’ll throw in the piece that first got me to pay attention to classical: Henryk G√≥recki’s Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). That part 16 minutes in where Upshaw’s voice trails off and the violins begin to cry is such a beautiful, sad, and almost scary transition. Love it.

#2 from Tom Moon - 08/21/2008 4:07

thanks for posting that…the Gorecki is a breathtaking piece of music!!!

it’s in 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, pg. 319….

#3 from John Spinks, Moab, Utah - 08/25/2008 2:12

To novice listeners, be not afraid.  Sample everything!  So much of classical music takes us to that invisible, magical place we all seek.  For lush orchestration try the works of Maurice Ravel.  Leaving Bolero aside, I would recommend “Le Tombeau de Couperin” or “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”  For headier stuff, take on the piano sonatas of Beethoven or Schubert.  Most of all, enjoy the aural trip.  It’s a good thing that classical music is a long, and winding road!!! There is something for every taste…and the bonus, eventually you love it all as Stravinsky recommends.

#4 from Lisa R. Ragsdale, Mpls, MN - 08/25/2008 7:26

For sheer excellence of orchestration I still recommend (either / or) Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” or Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite #2 (or the entire ballet). If neither one of those hook you on symphonic repertoire then I can’t help you!
For the adventurous toward chamber music, I recommend Brahms’ (take your pick) Piano Quintet Opus 34 in f minor or String Quintet Opus 111 in G major.
Just my opinion.

#5 from Bruce Eggleston, Caldwell, Idaho - 08/25/2008 8:25

I resort to various “best of” lists for classical and other types of music with which I’m unfamiliar, not unlike Tom’s book. I have found an extensive list produced and published by “Stereo Review” magazine to provide excellent guidance for classical music. I don’t know if it is published any more, but I last saw it about 1989, or later, which is well into the digital age. They made recommendation of several recordings for each of the hundreds of works listed, unless there seemed to be one convincing performance. They also published another list of opera recordings.
I find lists of this sort very valuable, as I do not have the time or resources to sort out the dozens of recordings of any given work. I have never been disappointed in following the buying recommendations of this nature, given, of course, my own predilections and experience to narrow down the options.

#6 from Dr. Sanjay Dhawan, New Delhi, India - 08/26/2008 3:42

Dear Tom,

Congratulation on writing a wonderful book ! What I find most amazing is the different genres of music mingled together in beautiful orchestration - as though just made to suit my “promiscuous” musical taste. I bought the book the moment I saw it in a store in New Delhi.

For an initiation into classical music, I also recommend that one should attend a live concert beside the great “First Fives” mentioned above. The high you get from a live music has to be experienced to believe.

Once again - great book !

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