March 26, 2011 4:15 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to encourage a friend to give classical music a chance and am trying to put together a list of pieces that he'd find inspiring and interesting, particularly when performed live. Can anyone suggest any?

We recently had a conversation where it emerged that he thought of classical music as a lesser form of music because it has 'all been done before'. I want to take him to see some live performances of things such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Brandenburg 3 as these are pieces that seem to go down well with everyone but obviously, these aren't performed every day. What other pieces should I try and find performances of?

Please note that I'm not looking for 'nice' or 'pretty' classical pieces. I need pieces that would encourage someone who has said that they don't like what is commonly thought of as all classical music (I'm assuming Mozart, Beethoven piano pieces and symphonies etc) to listen to more.
posted by joboe to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
A little 1812 Overture?
posted by parmanparman at 4:42 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bolero by Ravel
posted by Flood at 4:43 AM on March 26, 2011

Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. A bit long, but just incredible in the way it tells a story. Also way ahead of its time but it's hard to realise that without some knowledge of Beethoven, Mozart etc (Berlioz wrote the piece just after the death of Beethoven, if I recall correctly). Opium plays a major role in the piece.
posted by altolinguistic at 4:54 AM on March 26, 2011

How about Classical music and politics? Here's Cziffra's 1956 live recording of Bartok's second piano concerto (last mvt.). Read the accompanying text.

(As an aside, Classical Music of all styles is defined by that it has been done before. This has nothing to do with quality. In fact, the theory of the advancement of the arts is an early nineteenth-century construct, so even that argument "has been done before". Your friend should, simply, learn to listen to the kind of music that appeals to him.)
posted by Namlit at 4:59 AM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not historical classical but I love John Adams (and Steve Reich and Phillip Glass) and found that through listening to Minimalism and other contemporary compositions I grew to appreciate more-traditional classical music to a greater degree. Also, maybe Mahler (2nd symphony), Shostakovich (5th) or Bartok (Concerto for Orchestra)? Again, mostly 20th century, but certainly not at all boring.
posted by mlle valentine at 5:31 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Listening for the theme in all the different variations makes this piece engaging, even for Classical Newbs. And your friend will probably (maybe?) recognize the 18th variation. It's the inverted melody that is so achingly beautiful that Hollywood uses it. Good luck!
posted by Acton at 6:13 AM on March 26, 2011

You might also refer him to Benjamin Zander's fantastic TED talk on classical music. It's a passionate discourse on classical music that has the power to inspire a genuine "a ha!" moment of understanding and appreciation.
posted by itstheclamsname at 6:16 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Eric Satie!

Gymnopédie No.1 rocks me to sleep.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 6:16 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in High School band, we (naturally) did the 1812 Overture. What brought it to life was that our band director, as we were running through it one of the first times, told the story of it. "Now the peasants are dancing, now the French troops are freezing, now the Russians are winning". Etc.

(Also, our insane fathers' club provided cannons via shotguns loaded with blanks and shooting them into steel drums. Dust and paint flakes from the gymnasium ceiling covered everyone. Success!)

I would avoid modern classical music as an intro, I find it confusing. By its nature as "classical" music, the genre has sort of been solidified and perfected. Modern derivations of it must either be derivative or somehow break the rules. This can be interesting if the listener has a good background in classical, not so much if they don't. (Very much like modern jazz- it only works if you know what they are trying to do, and you can only know this by knowing classic jazz.)

I've always liked Dvorak as an intro, in addition to the other good suggestions.

Another way to go about it would be to look at the technical or the auditory nature of symphonic music. Go to a "primer" concert in a hall with decent acoustics. Modern music has its positives, and hearing a live performance is fun, but classic music is literally a whole different thing when heard live. Marvel at how the various sounds of the instruments combine to create this sheer force of music. The wonderful dynamics of it, where the same group of people and instruments can create a delicate sound, and then switch gears and blow the toupees off the front row. Listen to the timbre of the instruments, how a bassoon can have such an impossibly rich sound. At the technical accuracy of the players, how they don't just play the notes, but how they bend, tweak and modulate them. (Very much like a good rock guitarist.) And how the composer plays with a theme, changing keys and adding a little discordance to completely change the tone. The peasants are dancing, and suddenly the violins get a little fidgety and maybe the second or third parts of the different sections start to get discordant, and your hair stands on end and you can *feel* the troops galloping through the forest. Listen to how they play with tension and building and releasing.

Understanding classical music will make you a better lover.

Even try some big band music- for someone who is more familiar with rock and roll or even techno/trance/pop-dance music, the combination of the classic instruments with music that is a little more relatable to the modern ear.

Here is an example of what I mean
. The things they do to bend the music, swinging until it almost breaks, is just awesome.

Also, and this is a completely serious suggestion, watch the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons. They use the sounds and feelings of classical music to add to the plots. Listen to the music as Elmer is sneaking up on Bugs. It tells you what is happening. And the Rabbit of Sevile is just a timeless masterpiece.

Classical music is a universal language of sorts. You might not know the details of the story, but you can darn well feel like you were there by listening to the music.
posted by gjc at 6:31 AM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing you might do is try to turn him on to film scores for movies he likes. For example, the score to Gladiator, by Hans Zimmer, is pretty good and it will help him understand how classical music can tell a story.

It would be helpful if you told us what kind of music he enjoys now. Off the top of my head, though, these works are interesting, accessible and short, which is probably the magic combination for a new listener...

Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man or the Hoedown from Rodeo
Gustav Holst's The Planets, particularly Mars or Jupiter
Prokofiev's Lt. Kije
posted by carmicha at 6:41 AM on March 26, 2011

Namlit, we had quite a long discussion about just that, as well as pointing out the various links and influences with various other styles of music. I'm trying to bring him (and a few other people) to classical music as a whole rather than just from the Classical period and think I'll have more luck approaching it from a different angle to get them to agree to listen to it in the first place.
posted by joboe at 6:56 AM on March 26, 2011

All of these are great suggestions. Thanks everyone - keep them coming!

Carmicha, I think film scores would be a great intro. I wasn't really into Gladiator myself but you have just reminded me of all the John Williams scores. Ironically, I performed in an orchestra playing Indiana Jones about three days ago, so that should have been first in my head.
posted by joboe at 7:04 AM on March 26, 2011

I second using film scores. If your friend is into rock music, than the Hans Zimmer scores are a good starting place. The scores to Battlestar Galactica (the newer TV series) are amazing, and very percussive with some world elements. John Williams is always good, and much closer to traditional classical music than many of the current big name composers.

The one that you should really give a try is the score to UP, since that one seems to have the magical powers of sticking in your head and never letting go. The more your friend is thinking about the music while not listening to it, the more he will probably be interested in hearing more.

Once he has absorbed enough good film music, he can start to explore the influences behind it.
posted by markblasco at 8:10 AM on March 26, 2011

My husband and I have been discussing classical vs rock after we sat through part of a modern classical showcase at SXSW (I enjoyed it; he was kind of bored). One of the places where we met in the middle was "string metal" as practiced by this band: Judgement Day. The presentation was more rock-like and there are drums, but it's not electrical instruments, just drum kit, violin, and cello. This might be helpful in sorting out what your friend likes and dislikes about classical music.

(Also seconding the classical-soundtracked cartoons like The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera, Doc?. My love for opera can be attributed in part to "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!" If you hear that as Wagner, Looney Tunes has worked on you.)
posted by immlass at 8:26 AM on March 26, 2011

In case your friend has an unduly homogeneous impression of classical music, one reason might be that the image of the classical music audience is such that we all listen to 'classical music' as a whole and we basically like everything the genre has to offer. This, at least, was my rough impression before I happened to get better acquainted. After all, differences of opinion among the audience aren't exactly on much of a display in popular culture.

You might convey to him that it's entirely possible to, say, absolutely love violin concertos of the Romantic period (try Sibelius) while also getting absolutely bored to death by all things Mozart and other music of the Classical period.

The impression of 'all having been done' may arise from the fact that much of the classical music that most people listen to really is quite old; pre-Modern. I would argue though, that the reasons for this are in the politics of art and not a matter of the old styles themselves being artistically exhausted. The progress that was being made just was not fast enough for the Modernists who began to dominate the art institutions in the following decades. Unfortunately, the music they created has generally not touched listeners, and thus there's a gap of about a hundred years in mainstream popular classical music.

As for how to introduce good pieces to your friend, I might suggest, as an initial alternative to live concerts, just spending an evening or few with him, doing whatever you like to do, with your selected pieces playing in the background. One aspect of classical music I hold very dear is that it does not demand your attention like popular rhythm music, especially if it has prominent lyrics, tends to do. It can support an atmosphere without dictating it.
posted by Anything at 8:52 AM on March 26, 2011

For another suggestion: Bach's Chaconne.
posted by Anything at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2011

I knew almost nothing about classical music, beyond the ones in cartoons, my husband knows a lot. I just listened to some of what he was listening too, and I found I like just about anything by Mozart, some baroque and early music/medieval, and some of those much overdone cliche pieces like the Pacabel one. Also some of the Masses and other church music as I am in a church choir.

I still do not like opera in any of its forms, nor much of Romantic composers of the 19th century, and I really can't take modern atonal music at all.

I admit I have no class, but at least it is a start for someone who nothing at all about classical music to begin with.
posted by mermayd at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

This Saint Saens album is amazing. I love Danse Macabre and Suite Algérienne in particular. There's incredible power in those pieces.
posted by quiet coyote at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2011

Last Night of the Proms - get a DVD. It is good fun and stirring to see all these people joining in - it has humour, crowd participation and some classical music that he will definitely have heard before.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:20 PM on March 26, 2011

Beethoven's 9th and Carmina Burana. Also, Dvorak's New World Symphony. These are powerful pieces with a lot of drama and a "modern" sensibility.

Film scores, for sure. My symphony has done performances of the music from LOTR and Star Wars; also the Final Fantasy music. I kind of scoffed at these because I have an unfortunate tendency to snobbishness, but when I was on stage for the first Star Wars rehearsal and that big brass "dum dum dum dum! DUM! dum dum dum DUUUUM dum!" started, I spontaneously burst into tears from the sheer awesomeness of it.
posted by KathrynT at 4:10 PM on March 26, 2011

Get your friend to watch Fantasia, preferably on a nice HD set. Like the best Warner Bros. and Looney Tunes shorts, it expertly melds orchestral music with animation and story in a way that brings out the best in both. The infernal glee of "A Night On Bald Mountain", the famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence, even the modern charms of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (from Fantasia 2000) are all fine introductions.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:32 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

In keeping with the Fantasia theme, Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor won me over.
posted by troywestfield at 2:16 PM on March 27, 2011

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