I want to start listening to classical music but have no experience of this genre / form whatsoever. Where to start?
November 9, 2011 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I want to start listening to classical music but have no experience of this genre / form whatsoever. Where to start?

What should I start with and how should I progress? What are the absolutely seminal pieces of music? Please list specific recordings or performances of pieces, rather than just composers. Thanks.
posted by FuckingAwesome to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Allow me to introduce you to the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music's Rosette Selections.
posted by carsonb at 3:57 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh man; that's a big question.

Honestly, the classical list over at 1000 recordings to hear before you die is pretty good, fairly comprehensive, and robust. I'm sure many will disagree with me, but it's a pretty good place to start. It features recordings of all the 'major' works as well as a good number of seminal 20th and even later 20th century pieces.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:59 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know that I can answer the question the way you want, as I grew up listening to lots of classical music as my dad has played classical piano since he was a kid. My experience hearing classical music often goes like "Hmm, no idea what that's called, but I've heard my dad play it many a time -- sounds weird with a full orchestra." That being said, if you're starting from ground zero, plugging in "Johann Sebastian Bach", "Mozart", "Brahms", and "Beethoven" into Pandora probably isn't a bad way to go.

Some piano stuff:

Beethoven's piano sonatas by Ashkenazy.
Rachmaninoff's 3rd piano concerto by Evgeny Kissin
Most any piano stuff by Vladimir Horowitz (though some of the older recordings are not very good quality -- the recording part I mean, the performance is fine of course.)
Glenn Gould playing any Bach.
posted by smcameron at 4:00 PM on November 9, 2011

And now looking over that list again - it's a damn good list, actually. Everything from all nine Beethoven symphonies and the late quartets to the Haydn London symphonies to Charles Ives and finally up to George Crumb's Black Angels (one of my favorite works of all time) and John Adams' Harmonium. I really do think it's a great place to start.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:02 PM on November 9, 2011

Stravinsky: Rites of Spring and Oedipus Rex. Bartok: Bluebeard. Go to the symphony near where you You can get huge discounts if you are young or a student. Smoke a joint first. That really helps. Seriously.
posted by shushufindi at 4:04 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd start with something simple, to get you into the feeling of what Classical music is about. I think a great entree would be something like Vltava, the second movement of Smetana's Ma Vlast. This is a piece that attempts to describe musically the action of a mountain stream becoming a river. The composer's own words describing the action are in the link.

From there, give a listen to Simple Gifts on its own, and again in Copland's Appalachian Spring. Notice how he takes this calm little traditional melody and plays it against itself, giving pieces of it to the various instruments in the orchestra and creating something so much more powerful than the original tune.

Then maybe Gustav Holst's The Planets, which explores the mythological aspects of the seven planets (no Earth or Pluto).

I seem to recall a pretty interesting intro to the orchestra in Disney's 1940 film Fantasia. There's also a description of the various instruments of an orchestra in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
posted by gauche at 4:33 PM on November 9, 2011

ABC Classical 100 lists. Symphonies, opera, Mozart, chamber, concerto...or just start with the Original Classic 100. Some caveats, though:

The survey carried out in 2001 revealed that Australians have a strong preference for music composed by the "big three" - Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Although Mozart received the most votes for the Clarinet Concerto, Beethoven was the most popular composer overall.

Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending came in second place followed by four Beethoven works - the Choral Symphony (Symphony No.9), the Emperor Piano Concerto (Piano Concerto No.5), the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.6).

Marian Arnold, presenter of Your Requests on ABC Classic FM, noted that the results were a fairly accurate reflection of Australia's musical tastes.

"The list holds no real surprises for me. Everything on it I've been asked for, some many times over," she said. "There's no favourite Medieval, Renaissance or serialist music, very little un-Romantic 20th Century music and nothing hard hitting by composers such as Shostakovich."

"So it seems the music we can't live without has to be classically beautiful, passionate or romantic!"

posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:40 PM on November 9, 2011

I really got into classical music when I found Classic FM, so perhaps you could find a classical music radio station to listen to?

It was mind blowing to me, who had thought I had listened to all the classical music out there, (HA!) that there was so much I would never hear.
posted by titanium_geek at 4:48 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some of the music lectures from the Great Courses will help structure your learning of classical music. Start with a few of the "Great Masters" courses, then "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music".
posted by Homo economicus at 5:01 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Stravinsky: Rites of Spring and Oedipus Rex. Bartok: Bluebeard. Go to the symphony near where you You can get huge discounts if you are young or a student. Smoke a joint first. That really helps. Seriously.

This is just about the strangest way to introduce classical music I can think of, about the same as learning to paint by dropping acid in a roomful of open paint cans.

When I introduce people to classical music, I like to do it somewhat chronologically: I tend to begin with Bach, starting perhaps with Glenn Gould as suggested above, (like this) and then move on to Haydn, (perhaps a cello centered work like this), Mozart (maybe here), then Beethoven (try this performance of his 7th Symphony here for some interesting contrasts with the previous), Brahms (maybe the clarinet quintet here) Tchaikovsky (say, maybe this piano concerto) and finally Rachmaninoff (Kissin is excellent, as is the composer himself).
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:11 PM on November 9, 2011

Second Post: Here are the music selections from the newest Great Courses music lecture course. They are listed chronologically and should provide a good idea how "classical" has changed over time. And I swear that I'm not affiliated with the Great Courses, I just really love their stuff.

Vivaldi—The Four Seasons
Bach—Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
Bach—Violin Concerto in E Major
Haydn—Symphony No. 104
Mozart—Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor
Mozart—Symphony in C Major, “Jupiter”
Beethoven—Symphony No. 3
Beethoven—Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven—Symphony No. 9
Schubert—Symphony No. 9
Mendelssohn—”Italian” Symphony
Schumann—Symphony No. 3
Brahms—Symphony No. 4
Brahms—Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky—Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky—Violin Concerto
Bedrich Smetana—Má Vlast
Dvorák—Symphony No. 8
Dvorák—Concerto for ’Cello
Richard Strauss—Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Mahler—Symphony No. 5
Rachmaninoff—Symphony No. 2
Debussy—La Mer
Stravinsky—The Rite of Spring
Ives—Three Places in New England
Holst—The Planets
Copland—Appalachian Spring
Shostakovich—Symphony No. 5
Shostakovich—Symphony No. 10
posted by Homo economicus at 5:24 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you'd like to learn more about classical music in a general way, I second Peter and the Wolf and Vltava as great introductory choices. I myself really enjoy Baroque period music, so I like adding composers like Vivaldi and Handel to the list above.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:26 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

...and on preview, before I stop, the Great Courses list is a good list!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:31 PM on November 9, 2011

this wfmu article, which connects ambient music and Brian Eno back to Erik Satie, was my entry point. There's a fantastic album by Teodoro Anzellotti playing accordian renditons that frequently sounds like bits of post-rock, circa early Tortoise. Anne Queffelac does Satie great on the piano.

Also, Carmina Burana by Orff - instantly recognizable vocal music - sounds great when played really loud.
posted by unmake at 6:32 PM on November 9, 2011

I want to second or third the recommendation to check out the How to Listen To And Understand Great Music lecture series. I've listened to literally every lecture that I could find from Professor Robert Greenberg and it's helped me tremendously to get my head around basic structures (sonata form, theme and variation, fugue). I still remember quite clearly listening to his lecture on Beethoven's Eroica in the series on Beethoven's symphonies and how it all suddenly clicked together for me, that dissonant note in the first theme of the exposition, the weird syncopations in the development, the uber-long (by the time's standards) coda, all of that. I wouldn't have picked up on any of that if I had just left the music on in the background and listened to it passively and with no frame of reference.
posted by alidarbac at 6:32 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

you could also watch Bill Bailey's Guide to the Orchestra, which will introduce you to classical music, the component instruments of the orchestra and first-rate British comedy, all in one. (Bill Bailey is a multitalented British musician and comedian, and plays instruments nearly as well as he plays the funny bone).
posted by idlethink at 6:40 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've spent some time this year trying to enjoy classical music and learn more about it. Jumping in can be overwhelming - we're talking hundreds of years of music, from dozens of countries, performed by hundreds of different orchestras, directed by a small army of conductors. At some point, I typed the name of a few songs that I liked into Pandora, and started from there. The channel became more and more refined to my own preferences as I gave the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to different tracks. You can also see a listing of tracks that you've liked, so you can research them later. It's been as useful as anything else.

And, here are a few threads to get you started:

1. 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?

2. If you were to give someone a 25-track crash course on classical music (a "mix-cd/playlist"), what compositions would you include?

3. ClassicalMusicFilter: I know very little about classical music, and I was just thinking how nice it would be to have some playing whilst I'm sitting here reading. What'd be some nice chilled evening classical music?

4. What classical music is complex, more intense, or moving?

5. Help me develop an ear for classical music.

6. Looking for enchanting, obscure works of classical music.

7. I'm looking for some hardcore heart-wrenching classical music.

8. I'm looking for stirring, uplifting, poignant orchestral music.

9. Please guide me toward more classical music...
posted by barnone at 6:45 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm a big fan of Rob Kapilow and his What Makes it Great podcasts.

Lots of great recommendations here, I would add some of Vivaldi's sacred music and Mozart's requiem. The links are to the CDs I would recommend.

Vivaldi: Glorias - Dixit Dominus, Magnificat, Beatus Vir

Mozart: Requiem / Tomowa-Sintow, Müller Molinari, Cole, Burchuladze; von Karajan

And for an excellent compilation of Bach's music, this one is worth trying to get a hold of:

Bach J.S: World of Bach
posted by Bokmakierie at 6:56 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started with Bugs Bunny.
posted by ovvl at 7:26 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started with Bugs Bunny.

You could do a lot worse, honestly. Some of the old cartoons featured some seriously good music (in terms of being performed by good orchestras) and it was generally stuff that was meant to be recognizable and carried a certain amount of cultural relevance.

If what you're looking for is basically a baseline level of 'classical music literacy,' I'd suggest that you cannot go wrong with Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky, just as a baseline. Obviously that leaves a lot out, but I'd say it's a good grounding and would let you branch out into what you're really interested in from there.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:40 PM on November 9, 2011

My mother was a classically-trained, semi-professional musician, so I attended her concerts from the time I was about four. Still, she bought a series of classical albums (vinyl LPs, OMG, I'm SO OLD!) for me that rangwed from Bach to Rachmaninoff and included their most famous works and a brochure with biographical and program notes. So I like Homo economicus' suggestion, although the problem there is that you kind of get a canon which leaves out other critical works.

Mom says she learned to appreciate classical music from watching Mighty Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

My husband grew up in a decidedly non-musical family. Starting around the age of nineteen, he bought lots and lots of cassette tapes out of the bargain bins at music stores. Just random ones, but they tended to be essential works. You can probably pick up a lot of classical CDs for a song (no pun intended) these days. Naxos is a pretty good label.

Here is an arbitrary, somewhat chronological list of good, important works. But I don't know that proceeding chronologically is the only way to do this. Wikipedia will probably provide excellent program notes for the vast majority to start with.

Bach -- Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5, 6; Goldberg Variations (someone mentioned Glenn Gould as performer, I think; my recording is by Murray Pariah)

Vivaldi -- The Four Seasons; Gloria in D

Handel -- Water Music; The Messiah

Mozart -- Concerto no. 10 for two pianos; Piano concertos 23, 24, and 25; Symphonies no. 39, 40, 41 ("Jupiter"); Horn concertos 1 and 4; Mass No. 17 in C minor ("Great"); Requiem Mass in D minor; Overtures (at the very least) to Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, The Magic Flute

Beethoven -- Symphonies 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9; Kreutzer violin sonata; Piano sonatas (Moonlight and Pathetique (op. 27, no. 13 and 14), Waldstein (op. 53, no. 21), Appassionata (op. 57, no. 23)); Violin concerto in D Major; Missa Solemnis in D Major

Mendelssohn -- Symphony no. 4 (Italian); A Midsummer Night's Dream (incidental music); Violin Concerto in E; Elijah (oratorio)

Berlioz -- Symphonie fantastique; La damnation de Faust; Te Deum; Grande messe des morts

Liszt -- Poemes symphpniques no. 3, 5, and 6 ("Les Preludes," "Prometheus," "Mazeppa"); Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat; Totentanz; Hungarian Rhapsodies

Schumann -- Papillons; Piano Concerto in A minor; Violin Concerto in D minor; Symphony no. 3 ("Rhenish")

Grieg -- Peer Gynt Suite; Piano Concerto in A minor

Brahms -- A German Requiem; Symphony No. 3 in F major; Symphony No. 4 in E minor; Violin Concerto; Second Piano Concerto; Academic Festival Overture

Tchaikovsky -- Symphonies no. 4 and 6; Ballet suites (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker); Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor (I love Van Cliburn's performances best); Violin Concerto; Romeo and Juliet; 1812 Overture and Marche Slave; Serenade in C for String Orchestra; Eugene Onegin (opera), especially Tatiana's letter scene aria

Mussorgsky -- Pictures at an Exhibition; Boris Godunov (overture, at least); Night on Bald Mountain

Wagner -- Overtures to the Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tannhauser, and the operas of the Ring Cycle; Tristan and Isolde--overture and Liebestod

Dvorak -- Symphonies 7 and 9 ("From the New World"); "American" String Quartet; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor

Stravinsky (incredibly important--ushered in 20th-century music) -- Rite of Spring; The Firebird

Rachmaninoff -- Piano Concertos 2 and 3; Variations on a Theme of Paganini; Preludes; Symphony No. 1

Elgar -- Enigma Variations; Symphony no. 2; Cockaigne overture; Pomp and Circumstance marches; Cello concerto

Shostakovich -- Symphonies 5 and 10; The string quartets (all are important, but especially 8 and 15)

Copland -- Appalachian Spring; Rodeo

Barber -- Adagio for Strings; The School for Scandal (Overture); Essays for Orchestra

Holst -- The Planets; St. Paul Suite

Verdi -- Requiem

Debussy -- Suite bergamasque; La mer

Chopin -- Polonaises; Preludes

Rimsky-Korsakov -- Scheherezade; Russian Easter

Ralph Vaughan Williams -- Symphony no. 3 ("Pastoral"); Symphony no. 4; Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Serenade to Music

Schubert -- String Quartet in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden"); Piano Quintet in A Major ("Trout"); Symphony no. 8 in B Minor ("Unfinished")

Gorecki -- Symphony of Sorrows

Arvo Part -- Fratres

John Cage -- Sonatas and Interludes; Number Pieces (not for the faint of heart)

Satie -- Gymnopedies (Satie was adorable. Supposedly a critic complained that his compositions lacked form, so he published a piece for piano in the shape of a pear.)

OK, that's all I'm going to write.
posted by tully_monster at 7:50 PM on November 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot Carmina Burana, dammit.
posted by tully_monster at 7:53 PM on November 9, 2011

We have a local classical music radio station. I love it because I don't really have to make any choices, they play stuff, I like it or love it, then they tell me who it is, and I may/may not look for more of the composer's stuff.

Look for a radio station, or maybe use spotify or pandora to guide you.

some of my favourites:

posted by Tarumba at 7:55 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

totally impossible question to answer, it's sort of like asking "i'm thinking about getting into reading. what should i read?"

in any case, i would recommend you start with a few great performers and listen to any of their records. anything by any of these people will blow you away. seriously, go on amazon and pick something at random.

carlos kleiber (orchestral conductor)
arturo benedetto michelangeli, sviatoslav richter, martha argerich (piano)
glenn gould (piano - anything by bach)
jacqueline du pre, mstislav rostropovich, pablo casals (cello)
jascha heifetz, gidon kremer, nathan milstein (violin)

that should hold you for about 5 years. you cannot find a less than outstanding record by any of these people.
posted by facetious at 7:58 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Classical.net's basic repertoire is a pretty good list too—click through the links on the left nav bar to the different periods for recommendations of important works, with the starred ones being the most important. I'd begin by focusing on the baroque, classical, and romantic periods. (Confusing bit you should be aware of: classical music is divided into different periods, and one of those periods is called "classical," but that doesn't mean the other periods aren't also classical music.) Clicking through to the entries for individual composers gives recommendations for specific recordings.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:00 PM on November 9, 2011

Tully monster's list is excellent, he gets almost all of the prominent composers and a good selection of their best works and the ones that most exemplify them. My list would be almost identical to his, although I'd add:

Joseph Haydn - Piano sonatas
Gabriel Fauré - Requiem, Pavane
Chopin - Nocturnes
Camille Saint-Saens - Carnival of the Animals

A few additions to the list of best performances:

Beethoven Piano concertos - Murray Perahia
Debussy piano - Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Chopin nocturnes - Daniel Barenboim
Just about anything on violin - Itzhak Perlman, I cannot stress this enough. The guy's astounding.
Vivaldi - I favour the performances by The Academy of St Martin In The Fields
posted by fearnothing at 10:53 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll reiterate what I said in an earlier thread: Make use of the recommendations but trust your own ears. You may find yourself loving some styles and composers and being quite indifferent to others, even ones considered highly canonical. You're not listening it wrong; different styles do very different things to different people.

Here are some of my favorites, which happen to be Romantic and Baroque string works.

Bach - Chaconne
Sibelius - Violin concerto
Brahms - Violin concerto
Bach - Cello suite 1
posted by Anything at 12:19 AM on November 10, 2011

There's a lot here already. Are there any performances you know you like already? Would like to hear more of? What sort of music do you like? Dark and heavy? Light and cheerful? Cerebral? Lyrical? If the music you wanted to listen to were used in a movie scene, what movie would it be?
posted by Busoni at 4:10 AM on November 10, 2011

Like Busoni, my answer would start with "what other things do you like?", in terms of art, pop music, TV, books, films, drugs, school subjects... Let us know and perhaps some more personalized starting points will come out. You should anchor your grounding in personal connections, not a todo list.

Here's a quote from Douglas Adams, whose favorite composer was Bach: "Mozart tells us what it's like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it's like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it's like to be the universe."
posted by cogat at 4:29 AM on November 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Homo economicus' advice to listen to one of Robert Greenberg's courses is spot on. "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" kept me company on an hour-long car commute for weeks and it was really terrific. Funny and insightful, not dry at all. In some places it was a bit cursory, but as an introductory course there was obviously LOTS to cover. (My additional advice is to see if your library carries them as they're pretty pricey.)
posted by bcwinters at 4:36 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another radio station I'd like to recommend is BBC radio 3.
posted by foxjacket at 8:14 AM on November 10, 2011

Go to YouTube and search on "classical" or, maybe, "classical -guitar" (yes, minus). Listen to some of them. You may not like that kind of music. Many people don't. However, if you like, say, Bach, then search on Bach. YouTube is a superb resource for finding music.
posted by RichardS at 8:43 AM on November 10, 2011

Most of these answers address great pieces to listen to, but I'd suggest learning more about the music itself. For example, most symphonies (into the early 19th century, at least) are much more enjoyable if you understand sonata form. It's fun to listen to music and identify the primary and secondary themes, and then see what's being developed in the Development section (I love the 1st movement of Schubert's 8th for this reason -- he develops the introduction, which is somewhat rare and very cool).

Of course, you can enjoy the music without understanding it, but you'll always be missing something. The reason this music seems so inaccessible to modern audiences is that, to the layperson, it's just a bunch of notes. They may be pretty, but they still seem somewhat random. Once you know what's going on and understand why the composer made the choices they did, it becomes so much more enjoyable (especially when the rules get broken and something wonderfully unpredictable happens).
posted by coolguymichael at 8:45 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having had a few minutes to think about this, I'll add: Music is a language. You may LOVE listening to people speak in French or German, but you'll never appreciate their wit or intelligence or hatefulness or culture until you learn at least a little vocabulary.

Someone who speaks of the "genius" of Bach is either musically knowledgeable or parroting people who are. Don't be a parrot.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:26 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I didn't really get much into performances, which is what you were asking for (sorry). Jacqueline du Pre was probably the greatest cellist ever, in my opinion. This recording is a revelation--it's a live performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, with her husband Daniel Barenboim conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Also includes great performances of Elgar's Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance no.s 1 and 4, though I think not with du Pre.) Also see "Hillary and Jackie" if you can--great movie about a difficult woman who was also a genius.

And the historical and personal context of the works--so important. Shostakovich's later string quartets are reflections on his impending mortality (he suffered from polio and other debilitating health problems, and died of cancer) and the devastation suffered by the Russian people as a result of Hitler's atrocities and Stalin's purges. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is based on his obsessive passion (bordering on creepy stalking) for an actress he had met--it's wild and scary. And Elgar's Enigma Variations are called that for a reason--read about it.

Vaughan Williams (my favorite composer) was an ambulance driver in the Great War, and his Symphony no. 3 is dedicated to the dead of WWI, while his Symphonies no. 4 and 5 are reactions to the encroach of fascism across Europe and a kind of elegy for the dead of the London Blitz; Barber's Adagio and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man were also responses to the Second World War.

Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was so primal and brutal and avant-garde for its time that the premiere audience rioted and tore up the seats in the concert hall. It was really seminal to the whole Modernist movement in European and American art, music, and literature. Knowing these kinds of things lend such depth to one's appreciation of the music.

I am so stoked about your question and this thread! Sometimes I worry that classical music lovers are a dying breed.
posted by tully_monster at 9:30 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

t_m reminded me of something else: It can be really interesting listening to multiple versions of the same piece -- particularly pieces you're already familiar with.

I remember about 15 years ago I heard a live, outdoor recording of Beethoven's 5th (it was just a freebie CD that came with some classical magazine) that was recorded horribly -- the woodwinds were WAY louder than everything else. It was awesome! Despite having heard that piece a million times, I heard stuff I'd never heard before.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:30 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Coming very late to this, I know, but OP, you used the word "seminal", and I don't think anyone has specifically addressed that. I take it that by "seminal" you mean pieces that changed the way musicians think, as Beethoven did, or that like Bach summarise a whole musical way of thought. I'll try, at serious risk of being shot down in flames by someone who knows a lot more about this than I do.

First, Bach. The end and completion of music as an intellectual activity, in a way. Much of Bach is a kind of crossword puzzle, but it's hard for us, at the end of the romantic and post-romantic transitions and what came after, to hear the intellection in it without a lot of work. Untrained me gets glimpses of it. For god's sake if you begin with Bach don't start with the Art of the Fugue. Begin with the Brandenburg Concertos or the Orchestral Suites, or the keyboard works.
I see a couple of recommendations above for Murray Perahia--fair enough.

Joseph Haydn. Symphonies, particularly the late ones. Haydn may have invented sonata form (mentioned above) and did so working in a nobleman's household in a swamp in Hungary. He and Mozart between them basically invented most of the instrumental music of the 18th and19th centuries. For Haydn, any recording with Nikolas Harnoncourt's name on it. Mozart. All of it.

Beethoven. Hard for us to understand now how revolutionary his symphonies must have sounded to the Vienna of the early 19th century. But try playing a recording of Haydn's 104th and then Beethoven's 5th straight after. And yet they were composed only ten years apart. So try Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies, recordings by Carlos Kleiber if possible.
Chopin. I can't speak even remotely knowledgeably about him but he was certainly influential. Liszt likewise. Others can recommend recordings. Wagner too.

As far as I know, the next big upheaval came in the early 20th century with Stravinsky. Try the Rite of Spring music, which is supposed to have caused a riot in Paris when first performed.

After that, Schoenberg and the 12-tone school. This takes some getting to know, but is worth the effort. Start with the less aggressive earlier pieces like Transfigured Night (which is not actually 12-tone) and sort of ease yourself into the later, less accessible works.

You'll note that I mostly haven't recommended recordings. I don't have the trained ears to do this well, and I notice that you can generally get several recommendations for "best recording" of a piece. (The only exception is Jacqueline du Pre's recordings --she made several--of the Elgar cello concerto.) Basically, anything that is really crap won't get released. Anything you find on iTunes or in a decent record store will be OK. Have no truck with the people who insist on authenticity--it's your ears. In particular, baroque keyboard music, which was written for the harpsichord or clavichord, is OK on the piano.

It's a huge, beautiful, sometimes terrifying world. Make the most of it.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:46 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

And seconding coolguymichael about hearing several versions of the same piece. I have several recordings of the late Brahms piano pieces, and while all the pianists are playing the same notes all the performances are a little different--a bit like looking at the same scene at different times of the day or different seasons, say.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:51 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're very new to it, I'd recommend taking a music appreciation course through your local university, community college, or even online. Understanding the background really helps, I feel, and hearing a new piece or type of music with other people around and a professor who an explain what's going on can really help you grasp the nuances more quickly. Also, the text often comes a CD of recommended (or required) listening, so it's a great way to start your library with some classics!

Also, universities are a great way to check out inexpensive live performances. Try orchestras, wind ensembles, chamber music, etc.

Good luck! Classical music (a massive, varied genre) is so rewarding and exciting, and something you can enjoy your whole life!
posted by SuperErin at 10:33 AM on November 18, 2011

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