And I like the part that goes, "Dum-dum-dum-DUN-DUN-TAH!"
July 22, 2013 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Classical music (and opera) for a beginner! Where to start with hundreds of years of music?

Last Friday Shepherd and I won tickets to see the Vienna Piano Trio perform a recital. (They played Haydn, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky pieces.) We quite enjoyed it.

Insofar as these types of music is concerned, what are good composers and/or pieces to get your feet wet? I listen to BBC Radio 3 sometimes during the week for sleepytime music, but I'd like to listen and familiarize myself more with the genre. This goes for opera as well as I'd like to start going to the occasional opera during the year because it sounds fun and interesting.

I realize this is a total numpty question, but a little help?
posted by Kitteh to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I think Mozart is a great composer for beginners and Bergman's film of The Magic Flute is an easy and delightful entry point.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:31 AM on July 22, 2013

The first opera I ever saw was Pagliacci, which has been pop-cultured enough that I kind of knew what to expect. (I now get season tickets.)

If you can manage it, seeing things in person is fantastic. It makes it more of an experience than just listening to it on your phone.

I also really recommend thoroughly reading the wikipedia entries before listening/watching an opera. Knowing the plot ahead of time helps you follow the story a lot better, even in places where they throw up English subtitles.

Speaking of pop culture, maybe listening to the "real" versions of stories and music you've heard before would be a good way to get started. Lots of opera in Bugs Bunny. And I think the evolution act of Fantasia has a lot to do with why I like Stravinsky.

I think Mozart is a great composer for beginners

A note on this...I really don't care for Mozart. I find him twee. Just saying, in case you listen to some Mozart and don't enjoy it--it's OK to dislike Mozart. It doesn't mean you won't love other classical music.
posted by phunniemee at 8:45 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

For opera, most of Puccini is highly accessible. Also Bizet's "Carmen." Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" is a lot of fun. Middle-period Verdi might also suit you ("Rigoletto," "La Traviata"). And yes, seeing an opera in person is an entirely different experience than listening to a recording.
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:46 AM on July 22, 2013

Honestly, a great way to dip your toes in the classical ocean is to start with a compilation album like this. My grandma gave me this one when I was in grade school, and I still listen to it. It's a great selection. Obviously, there are tons of albums like this. Starting with a wide selection will allow you to decide what you like, and you can then explore your favorite composers further.
posted by rensar at 8:47 AM on July 22, 2013

If you like, a list of pieces to start with. The composers all have a lot of great/famous/frequently performed music. This includes some chamber music as well as some orchestral works.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Wolfgang Mozart: Piano Concerto 21 in C K467
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony 9
Franz Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D956 Op. 163
Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony 4
Claude Debussy: "La Mer"
Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E minor "From The New World"
Richard Strauss: "Also Sprach Zarathustra"
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major

There's a lot of great music before Bach, there's a lot of great music after Sibelius but this could get you started. Something will grab you then search for more by that composer, or more of that form (quartet, symphony, etc.) by other nearby composers.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:52 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recommend using Pandora. Just plug in a composer you like and you'll get other composers (sort of) like that one, as well as all the accompanying biographical, etc. information. Best way to discover new music IMO.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:52 AM on July 22, 2013

Also, for decidedly non-twee Mozart, consider his Requiem in D minor.
posted by seemoreglass at 9:10 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

See if your local library has access to The Learning Company's Great Courses Series. If they do, How to Listen to and Understand Classical Music and How to Listen to and Understand Opera are great introductions to classical music. They give you a chance to listen to bits of lots of pieces. They also help to give you a bit of vocabulary, to better identify what you like, and why you like it.

(I had a moderate classical music education but almost zero opera beforehand, and learned a lot in both, and found them equally accessible knowing something and knowing nothing.)

Aside from that, I'd probably start with music featuring instruments you like. Did you enjoy the piano music? Do you like the sound of trumpets and brass? Setting aside the lullabies and occasional mis-filed jazz (all obvious from the covers), it looks like Amazon's best sellers by instrument is a fair place to start.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The CBC has a vast music site with an extensive classical section. They even have a selection of ' 10 pieces of classical music everyone should know'.
You could also check out CBC's excellent classical morning radio program Tempo on Radio 2.
posted by islander at 9:54 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here are my own faves in case they are of interest. The list covers most of the bases: baroque, classical, romantic, modern and you might say postmodern.

Baroque: Bach: St. Matthew Passion, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations

Classical: Beethoven's Sonatas (Beethoven was a proto-Romantic, just to pre-empt that debate.)

Romantic: Chopin's Nocturnes, Schubert

Modern: Debussy, Erik Satie

(Post?)modern: Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi, Einstein on the Beach

Kerman's Listen is a great resource as well if you want to actually study music.
posted by seemoreglass at 10:19 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Listen to your heart: what was it that you enjoyed most in that piano trio recital?

1) try to listen to more music by the same composer

2) try to listen to more chamber music with piano

3) start trying out other composers from roughly the same time period, i.e.:

Haydn: try Mozart (if you agree with phunniemee and find some Mozart too sweet-cute-jolly, try the piano concertos K.466 and 491, the G-minor piano quartet K478, or the G-minor symphony, Known From Your Cell Phone, for example in this interpretation), or early Beethoven.

Beethoven: try Schubert, perhaps C.M. von Weber, perhaps even Schumann.

Tchaikovsky: try Dvorak, perhaps Brahms and post-Tchaikovsky Russian composers such as Rachmaninoff.

In short, you should create a "network" based on your personal tastes. This method brings quicker results than randomly picking and dropping great composers and whatever they wrote (also: use wikipedia to read about what you just heard. music and stories belong together, no matter what some musicologists have tried to preach).
posted by Namlit at 10:25 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You know, I can't say enough good things about The Great Courses course on "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music," by Professor Robert Greenberg, which illuminated classical music and opera for me and got me listening to additonal courses about Bach, Mozart, the Symphony, etc.

And if you can't swing the cost (and I'll note this course often goes on sale, like all the course offerings from this company) memail me about perhaps getting my copies of the course (on CD) via snail mail. A friend of mine is currently listening to it but he's already worked his way through the first two segments of the course.
posted by bearwife at 11:09 AM on July 22, 2013

I think you have to at least try to listen to Gould's interpretations of the Goldberg Variations (1955 or 1981) or else you aren't allowed to live here any more.

Seriously, I fell into classical music just by leaving CBC Stereo on all day, and found everything was quite approachable for the beginner. CBC 2 is very different now, so maybe just try the CBC Classical online station as you move about the house during the day. The right sidebar lets you into specific genres.

Some of my newbie faves:

- Tartini's The Devils' Trill Sonata, which I later purchased on an album that included Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. (If you ever saw The Right Stuff, you know the latter piece, because it was generously borrowed from for the theme.)
- Dvorak's From the New World. You probably know a lot of this, too. This is an approachable little guide to the movements and how the themes build and repeat, if you feel analytical. It's terribly lo-fi, though, so listen to a good performance of the real thing first.
- If you know Bugs Bunny, you know The Barber of Seville, some Wagner, and much more.
- August Schram gives a unique and ribald (NSFW, those of you in uptight offices) interpretation of Habanera from Bizet's Carmen, but he does a lot more that shows what a lovely voice he has. Here's Carmen in its entirety, played straight by the Vienna Opera in 1978.
- Chopin's mazurka's are sweet and brilliant little pieces, just a few minutes long each. Op. 63 No. 3 (one of my favourites). Op. 7 No. 2. Op. 33 No. 4.

Oh, yeah, Glass! Some choices for beginners:

- Facades (from Glassworks)
- Japura River
- Evening Song from Satyagraha, performed by the brilliant Douglas Perry. The whole opera is very, very worth it.
- Mishima soundtrack: This is the Closing.
posted by maudlin at 11:21 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

For opera, there's a wonderful recording called "The Weekend Puccini" that has the most famous arias from his operas. I bought it after hearing "Nessun Dorma" on the original Three Tenors show years and years ago. I was smitten and had to hear it again (and again). Fortunately, this was the recording I randomly chose, and it introduced me to Puccini and opera. It's a great way to get your feet wet, as Puccini's music is wonderfully melodic and accessible.
posted by Dolley at 11:38 AM on July 22, 2013

If you can manage it, seeing things in person is fantastic. It makes it more of an experience than just listening to it on your phone.

I also really recommend thoroughly reading the wikipedia entries before listening/watching an opera. Knowing the plot ahead of time helps you follow the story a lot better, even in places where they throw up English subtitles.

This is really great advice. Opera can greatly reward concentrated interest.

I love listening to instrumental excerpts/transcriptions/pieces from operas such as overtures, suites, etc. but opera is theater. The drama on the stage is what holds it together and explains why so and so is that forlorn, etc. You can get some of this from reading synopses or reading the libretto while listening but you're still missing the visual element.

Attend live performances when possible, but also there are DVDs you can buy/check out from a library, opera companies/festivals/etc. like The Met, Glyndebourne, Bayerische Staatsoper and many more stream productions to theaters and/or online, sometimes live, sometimes archived. Some productions will be traditional, others will have varying levels and types of intervention; some of the richness of opera is that there can be value in many different approaches.

As for composers try Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss. That only scratches the surface but you should find much to like.
posted by mountmccabe at 12:04 PM on July 22, 2013

Hmm. I'm probably a bit strange, because nothing discussed above (except 'see it live') really worked for me, indeed much of it is what put me off classical music for a long time until I went to university in London. The this is a list of the pieces you might like approach works pretty well for rock music, perhaps also jazz, but the more sizeable time investment demanded by most classical music meant it did not work for me. I went for at least twenty years of my life never listening to classical music as a result.

Then, while in London, I was very fortunate to be able to go to the Proms over the summer between academic years. I would pick approximately one concert per week at random, pay my five pounds, stand through it until the end and then go off and listen (on spotify or youtube or perhaps just by using the listen again feature on the BBC's website) to what I had heard a couple of times. Optimistically, I guess I immediately liked maybe 10-20% of what I liked, and listening again got that up to 20-30%. In the end I maybe bought recordings of 20% of what I had heard live, and still listen to much of that.

As we are right in the middle of Proms season, and you are already familiar with Radio 3, this is definitely where I would start. It's a bit hard to replicate the experience of being at the Proms, needing to stand up and pay attention to the music while crammed in like on a tube train, but if you can devote your attention to a whole Prom on the radio - great! The varied programming at the Proms helps, too.

To corroborate what was said above, I think experiencing classical music live and performed well is the best way to get into it though you will, if you're anything like me, find it is a lot of effort for modest reward.

Personally, despite many attempts, I cannot get my head around opera. I am sure it can be done, but it might just not be for me. I wish you the best of luck in that direction, as I have no doubt that it is deeply rewarding.

The one (and only) "guide to music" book that gave me useful directions for my own listening was Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise. He writes engagingly; his columns in the New Yorker are also to be commended.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 12:39 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you liked a concert where they played Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Haydn, then I think the best place for you to start would be to listen to (drum roll, please) more Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Haydn.

Get a set of Beethoven's symphonies and his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and his Swan Lake Suite. Haydn, I don't know much about, because I'm not a big fan, but Brahms wrote something called, "On a Theme by Haydn" which is quite lovely. And it it turns out you like Brahms, buy his symphonies 1-4.

Really the best thing you can do though, I think, is start going to concerts more regularly. It is frequently not as expensive as you assume it would be. I've lived in several cities where you could regularly get a ticket for $15 or less. Sometimes orchestras give Sunday afternoon concerts that are cheaper. Also, if you can go during the week, Thursdays are often good days for cheap seats.

So here is your mission: you scan the calendar and find out when your local orchestra is playing something by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Haydn. Then you get the cheapest seats you can get for that concert (when the hall has good acoustics, it doesn't matter one bit if you're up by the rafters). Then you go to the concert, and you'll hear something you'll probably like (by one of your three composers), and you will also hear whatever else the orchestra is playing that night. Maybe you'll like the other stuff and maybe you won't, but either way, you'll know more than you did at the beginning of the evening. If you like it, go find more music by that composer. If not, put him/her on the list of: not worth pursuing right now. Do this for a while, and you'll have learned quite a bit about classical music.

I also reccommend going to concerts, because sitting and listening to a piece of music intently--without doing anything else--teaches you how to listen to music better, I think. It's like running or baking: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more you notice the subtleties. That's easier to do in a concert setting, I think, than telling yourself: "Okay, I'm going to listen to this piece of music now." If you drive, I find the car is the second best place for listening (as long as you already know where you're going).

And don't feel bad for being a beginner; everyone has to start somewhere! This is something else you learn by doing.
posted by colfax at 12:42 PM on July 22, 2013

In my humble opinion, full albums are better than compilation CDs. You'll get an idea of what different composers and eras sound like from a compilation, but you'll miss out on the scope and breadth of a great symphony or quartet. I think you could do worse than starting off with a box set like this one (or plugging the titles in this box set into Spotify or whatever). I have the vinyl version of this set and like it a lot.

And don't shy away from modern and contemporary work, either. In San Francisco, there are lots of opportunities to see smaller ensembles playing work by living composers. And many of them are very cheap, since you don't get the same upper-crust crowd that the opera and symphony are priced for. I'd imagine that it's very similar in Montreal. Of course, look it up on Youtube before you go into something like that blind, or you might be spending three hours listening to something really abrasive.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:45 PM on July 22, 2013

Okay, so the question is kind of broad and we're going to need some more information to narrow down good answers for you. This is the equivalent of saying, "I am interested in sportball. Please let me know which sportball players I should be following!" It's just... vague. We need to narrow you down to a sport or two before we can really get you going on which players to follow. Opera is a good start, because it is a narrower genre. But what parts of opera have you enjoyed so far? Did you come to opera via the Diva Dance in The Fifth Element, which starts with a section from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor?" Or did you come to opera because someone sat you down and made you fall in love with Cecila Bartoli's performance of "Agitata da due venti" from "La Griselda." Or are you just vaguely aware of some nice pieces that you've heard throughout the years? Basically - what have you enjoyed?

Do you like fast, or do you like sleepytimes? Do you like light and happy or do you like dark and brooding? Do you like things that challenge your ear or things that you could hum along with instantaneously? Are you interested in hearing things that you "should" hear or are you willing to dive down a couple weird and narrow rabbit holes to find curiosities that are outside of the mainstream? Also, do you feel like you just don't know enough about classical music to answer these questions? That's also a totally reasonable place to start.

Learning to listen to classical music can be very much like a trip to the optometrist. Click. In go the lenses. Now is the third row clearer when I do *this* or *this*? Click. New lenses. Okay, now how about when I do *this* or *this*? Click... And so on. It's possible to really develop a good sense of what you like listening to just by following the thread of something that you've enjoyed. So even if you have somewhere to start (Beethoven, Haydn & Tchaikovsky, for example) you can start there. Which did you prefer? Which parts of them did you like best? Was there one instrument in the trio that stood out to you as having a particularly pleasant timbre/sound? Basically, anything you can give us to go on will help us point you in the right direction.

For a listening list, you can go through the different musical periods in classical music to start with. Naxos has a nice explanation of the different periods, and which composers typify those eras. Just by plugging some of the recommended tracks into something like Spotify, I'm pretty sure you can get a good idea of what is going on in each era and which ones are more to your taste.
posted by jph at 1:26 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and just because, you should listen to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden."
posted by jph at 1:36 PM on July 22, 2013

Beethoven's piano concerto #4. Best!
posted by gardenbex at 3:54 PM on July 22, 2013

Response by poster: Fair point in terms of broadness. Here's what the Trio we saw played and what I liked best:

Josef Haydn -- Trio avec piano en do majeur, Hob.XV:27

Not bad. Perfectly pleasant, but nothing mindblowing.

Ludwig van Beethoven -- Trio avec piano en mi bemol majeur, op. 70, no. 2

Better, interesting, and Shepherd's favorite of the evening.

Petyr Tchaikovsky -- Trio avec piano en la mineur, op. 50

Absolutely loved this. It was dramatic, yet playful. It was just the right shade of bombastic but also had some lovely comedic and tender moments.
posted by Kitteh at 4:26 PM on July 22, 2013

Tchaikovsky has a well-deserved reputation as being a "gateway drug" into the classical music world; his works along with Wagner's overtures were what first got me interested in classical all those years ago. Here's a previous thread on where to go from Tchaikovsky, although note that the questioner was a fan of his symphonies rather than his chamber music. I love Tchaikovsky's symphonies myself, but they're definitely higher on the bombast scale.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:38 PM on July 22, 2013

I recommend Radio 3's Discovering Music series for understanding more about specific composers and pieces which, in turn, will help you identify which composers and pieces you really enjoy.
posted by Lotto at 1:56 AM on July 23, 2013

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