I'm looking for a simple route to discovering the key works of classical composers.
June 17, 2009 3:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a simple route to discovering the key works of classical composers.

I'm working my way through a music history book and listening to what I can on Spotify.

Though I like the way the book is structured, the alphabetical lists of composers for each era, whilst covering more than the usual suspects, doesn't readily suggest essential listening or key works for each, preferring to talk in general terms about style.

There are a range of online sources, but again most of them are biographical. What I'd like is something that puts the music of the composer up front with background information for the work as a bonus.


Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry
Key work: The Caravan of Cairo (1783)
posted by feelinglistless to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Alex Ross's book The Rest Is Noise has good listening suggestions (with excerpts online), albeit for 20th-century composers only.

Also, just to get it out of the way: Wikipedia is really not bad for this sort of thing. Entries for composers usually list or link to a list of key works. And most entries are quite good about linking to key works from within the biography rather than just talking in generalities about style and so on (although those are often in there too).

Frex: GrétryList of operasLa caravane is one of the dozen or so works with its own link (but on that page, it does explain that it was the "most successful of Grétry's large-scale works that are lighter in tone").
posted by No-sword at 3:52 AM on June 17, 2009

All Music Guide should help. After bringing up the composer after search, click on the 'Works' tab and select 'Highlights' from the drop-down menu e.g. Gretry (La caravane is not listed though)
posted by Gyan at 4:41 AM on June 17, 2009

The Rough Guide to Classical Music is very useful and lists 'reference recordings', i.e. those recordings of a work which are generally accepted to be the best example of that particular piece.
posted by mooders at 4:44 AM on June 17, 2009

David Dubal's book does exactly what you want.

Phil Goulding's book lists "the 50 greatest composers." For each composer, he lists their top compositions and recommends recordings. He has a lot of fun gimmicks, but he leaves out important composers (no Schoenberg, no minimalists, no American composers) while including inessential ones (Donizetti).

Jan Swafford's book is a lot more thoughtful and well-written than Goulding's, but it has less emphasis on rankings and fewer recording recommendations.

I haven't read the NPR Guide, but it looks like what you want.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:56 AM on June 17, 2009

BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week has some playlist archives up that ought to point to key works. You can also get the programme as a podcast (but they only leave the archives up for a few weeks at a time). Still, this can point you to some of the canonical stuff.

They also have Building a Library as part of their CD Review programme, but this is more comparative and not necessarily focused on the master works.
posted by sagwalla at 5:11 AM on June 17, 2009

You might try Kickass Classical.
posted by aheckler at 5:29 AM on June 17, 2009

Why not read what most music majors in US colleges read: The Norton Anthology of Western Classical Music, by Burkholder, Grout and Palisca? It's got an excellent online supplement.
posted by billtron at 5:49 AM on June 17, 2009

Back in the day, I'd go to Coconuts music store and buy the classical compilations that were in the $4 bin. Lots of good stuff there, and it gave me a good overview of the stuff that's out there and what I liked and didn't like.

Also, if your area has a classical music station, give that a listen.
posted by gjc at 5:54 AM on June 17, 2009

Thanks all, lots to work through there.
posted by feelinglistless at 7:26 AM on June 17, 2009

posted by caddis at 7:38 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, and every time you come across a title in any kind of context, switch to youtube and see if you can find some folks actually playing the piece. Makes a great difference, seeing people play.
posted by Namlit at 11:52 AM on June 17, 2009

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