You know that one that goes ba ba baba baba ba ba bam?
January 27, 2006 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me appreciate classical music.

I like classical music. I live in Canada, and usually when I am driving my radio is tuned to CBC 2, which plays copious amounts of classical. Yet I remain woefully ignorant. I have no idea what baroque means or any of that stuff.

What I'd like is something that will let me figure out exactly what it is that I like, because there are some genres that I do enjoy immensely, and others, not so much. The trouble is I don't know names of composers or anything. I have vague recollections from playing in various bands and orchestras in high school, but little else. I seem to remember enjoying the selections we played from Dvorak's New World symphony, and I liked a piece called Russian Easter Overture, but aside from that, I am clueless.

Ideally what I'd like is some sort of website, or even a sampler CD, that would let me pick a type of classical music and listen to some "typical" samples, and maybe recommend some composers, kind of like what AllMusic does (which I have been exploring, but I have trouble with the sound samples on my Mac for some reason).

Any tips? I think that I tend to like (and here I show my ignorance) minor-y sounding music, and some heroic sounding music. Oh, and I also like the 1812 Overture, if that helps. :)
posted by synecdoche to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

There's a lot of useful info in this previous AskMe thread, which asked a very similar question. I'll repeat what I said in my answer to that thread: get Jan Swafford's book.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:54 PM on January 27, 2006

I remember reading Bach, Beethoven and the Boys as a kid and enjoying it a lot. It's a good mix of music history and trivia with a healthy dose of humor. It's not comprehensive by any means, but it's a good starting place... it should give you an idea of who the major players are as well as some fun anecdotes to regale people with. Then you can further pursue the music of composers that sound interesting to you!
posted by speicus at 5:11 PM on January 27, 2006

If you don't like Vivaldi, then Jim Svejda is your guy.
posted by hortense at 5:13 PM on January 27, 2006

Pick a piece (Beethoven's Fifth is not a bad place to start) and listen to it over and over again.
posted by kindall at 5:16 PM on January 27, 2006

I read The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening and listened to the accompanying 8-CD set of the Norton Recordings. It was expensive, but worth it.
posted by GoatCactus at 6:49 PM on January 27, 2006

I suggest you also look at the art of the time. Baroque music (Bach, for example) has complex interwoven themes that are also found in the architecture of the period. Look at the work of the impressionist painters when you listen to Debussy. Don't try to put it all into words. Let it seep in as if it were the landscape in a foreign country.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:19 PM on January 27, 2006

Synecdoche. I was raised by Classical music geeks. I had to learn to like popular music, so I am sympathetic. I didn't know the name of a single band I liked until the end of high school, though I had a favourite orchestra, favourite conductors, and a dozen favourite divas. (Okay, I'm gay, so that came kind of naturally).

I don't want to patronize you, but you might want to think about picking out instruments that you like and exploring them. You probably already have likes and dislikes, so you might want to begin identifying them and searching for things you might like, but don't know yet.

I don't want to imply you are childish, but there is a classic child friendly piece that was modernized by Dame Edna, a young person's guide to the Ochestra. It's cute, and at times a little precious, but you learn to identify many of the pieces of the orchestra in a matter of minutes.

I also think that Saint Saens' Carnival of the Animals is a good place to start vetting your taste. It's nominally for children but it isn't dull or pedantic. I recommend it because S.S. captures something beautiful about the tember of a bunch of different instruments.

One other note. Just like in popular music, the performers and directors of classic music are really important. Naxos is a budget lable that buys up old classic performances. Until you identify perfomers you like, Naxos is a good bet. It's not necessarily the best, but it is affordable, and very dependable.

Just don't let snobs turn you off. The world of classical music is a wonderful one.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:39 PM on January 27, 2006

Here's something to appreciate.
posted by jne1813 at 7:40 PM on January 27, 2006

p.s. Write down the performers and composers of pieces you like. CBC hosts are very responsive to questions and requests for recommendations. They are a great resource.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:43 PM on January 27, 2006

Kind of a non-answer, but if you have a record player consider buying classical music on vinyl instead of CD. If you really get into classical music, you can go to a second-hand record store and get whatever you want for practically nothing.
posted by apple scruff at 8:15 PM on January 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies. I've been listening to some samples online as well as a couple of Classical online stations, and have a list of composers that I have been enjoying.

Also, I should clarify, in case it helps at all. I play(ed) trumpet, and I like loud, bombastic anthems. I like Wagner, except I am not so into opera (in the same way I am not into vocal jazz- I love instrumental jazz but I don't like most vocal jazz. I appreciate it, I just don't enjoy listening to it that much). I mean, I do love Ride of the Valkyries. :)

Anyway, if it helps, here's a cursory list of some of the things I've heard thanks to iTunes samples and online stations and such:

Barber (Adagio for Strings)
Chopin (Nocturnes)
Richard Strauss
A. Bruckner

I get the impression I am more into Romantic / 20th century orchestra than anything.

Reading the other thread (linked above) I have decided to avoid compilations. Makes sense, since I hate compilations of artists or periods or whatever in my pop music tastes, as well.
posted by synecdoche at 8:23 PM on January 27, 2006

You'd probably dig Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. And Rossini's overtures.
posted by Rash at 10:09 PM on January 27, 2006

Also, like hortense said -- Jim Svejda. If you're really lucky your public radio station carries his weekly "Record Shelf" program.
posted by Rash at 10:13 PM on January 27, 2006

Don't necessarily avoid all compilations -- there are a bunch of 'sampler' style compilations out there which will give you a good taste of a range of popular composers' works. Once you've found something you like, THEN get the entire piece by a quality orchestra! ;)

You sound somewhat similar to me, in that you like loud, bombastic sorta music. From the list you've given, you're right in saying that you're leaning towards Romantic / 20th Century stuff. Beethoven was the first Romantic (well, he was transitory) leading into Brahms and the rest. In fact, of the list you have there I'd just dive in and start grabbing copies of whatever is at your local CD store. Those are usually the most popular works, and Naxos'll stand you in good stead.

I'd also recommend Shostakovich -- grab a copy of his 10th Symphony, his 5th, and hell go for his 11th as well. Great works, nice and loud and brassy and whatnot. If you like the Barber Adagio, grab a copy of the "Chamber Symphony" (actually his 8th quartet reorchestrated, so you could just grab that). Brilliant stuff, very powerful and moving.

I know less Bruckner, but he is _definitely_ the man when it comes to big brass sound. A couple of his symphonies require an expanded brass section, AND an additional brass section off-stage.


But don't write off the earlier composers, either -- I'm not a huge Baroque fan, although you'll pry Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites from my cold dead hands -- get the YoYo Ma or Steven Isserlis versions for 'pure'-ish interpretations. Jacquiline du Pre or Cassals will do you a more Romanticised (read: messy) rendition, which is not to my taste for this music.

Vivaldi is probably the other Baroque composer you'll most commonly come across, so grab a copy of the Four Seasons. You'll have heard Spring any number of times, and to my mind it's the least impressive -- the other three seasons are, however, very good indeed.

Actual "Classical" period you're talking about Mozart, Haydn, the first half of Beethoven. Mendellsohn also starts off very classical, but does some interesting things towards the end. Schubert is another who starts off more Classical than Romantic, but he has some positively sublime works. Grab a copy of the Trout Quintet, and the "Death and the Maiden" quartet. His 'Unfinished' Symphony (Nr 8) is a blast, too. Schubert could give you a nice segue into vocal works if you end up deciding to go that way (I haven't yet ;) -- he's considered the Man when it comes to German Leide (well, unless you bring up Mahler).

Which brings me to Mahler. Romantic. Very, very Romantic. Some would say the ultimate Romantic symphonist. Get his 5th, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (on the Deutsche Gramaphon label). There's no question, you need this piece of music, and this recording.

It will blow you away.
posted by coriolisdave at 10:21 PM on January 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Um. Yes. ::cough::
Sorry about the frothing there. Forgot myself for a moment ;)

posted by coriolisdave at 10:21 PM on January 27, 2006

Jim Svejda. If you're really lucky your public radio station carries his weekly "Record Shelf" program.
posted by hortense at 11:30 PM on January 27, 2006

posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:39 AM on January 28, 2006

synecdoche, there's a whole world for you to explore--the best thing to do is to buy inexpensive CDs (Naxos, for instance), and when you find a piece that you like, buy more stuff by that composer. Find any easy online resource on music history, and you'll see what composers are similar in style and from about the same time period as the one you like.

Sometimes you'll discover more of the same that you like, sometimes something completely different that's not to your taste at all--that's art for you.

I'm a music professor (conductor, in fact), so I make this music for a living. I'm teaching a (more or less) comprehensive instrumental music literature course this spring, and would be happy to send you my full listening list for the course--it's a fairly comprehensive survey of the major ideas in instrumental concert music, arranged to show the evolution of different fundamental ideas about making sound. Email me (in profile) if you'd like the list--happy to share.

If you like big music, the usual suspects mentioned above are great, but I bet you'd like some lesser-known 20th century masterworks, too. My specific recs, off the top of my head, loosely in order from oldest to most recent (warning: the works on this list will vary WIDELY in the kinds of sounds in them):

-Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5, & 9
-Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
-Brahms, Symphony 1, 2, or 4. (#4 especially, but the last movement of #2 will blow you away.)
-Bruckner, Symphony 4
-Dvorak, Symphony 9
-Scriabin, Poem of Ecstasy
-Sibelius, Symphony 5 (last movement will blow your mind!)
-Tchaikovsky, Symphony 4
-Mahler, Symphony 1, 2, 5 (to start)
-Strauss, tone poems--start with "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel".
-Respighi, The Pines of Rome (the last movement will blow you and your speakers away.)
-Prokofiev, Symphony 5
-Holst, The Planets
-Vaughan Williams, Symphony 4
-Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements, and of course the ballets, esp. Rite of Spring and Firebird.
-Copland, Short Symphony (No. 2), and Fanfare for the Common Man
-Shostakovich, Symphony 5
-Hindemith, Symphony in B-flat
-Messiaen, Turangalila-Symphonie
-Adams, Naive & Sentimental Music

There's so much more...a lifetime's worth. My best advice: don't be afraid. Sound makes people uncomfortable (or comfortable) really quickly, I think, and when you're trying to listen to and enjoy, and understand, something complex like instrumental concert music, it can feel confusing and intimidating. Just dive in and listen and listen and listen--it'll start to make sense.

Some reading that may be fun, too:

-Copland, What To Listen For in Music (lays out basic elements, important concepts to understand when making sense of music)
-Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (outstanding comprehensive introduction to all music, not just classical)
-Adolphe, Of Mozart, Parrots adn Cherry Blossoms in the Wind (great essays, very accessible, about music, composing it, etc.)

Hope this helps--have fun!
posted by LooseFilter at 1:46 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another thing you may want to look into also is chamber music. I'm a huge string quartet fan, because I love how you can hear each individual instument. You can almost get into the personality of each player, if the recording is good. 4 string instuments hardly qualifies as "bombastic," but it's a really powerful sound. Romantic-era-and-beyond quartets don't have the kind of thin triteness that, say, Haydn's have (not to bash the father of the string quartet, but it can just be so booooring...) Anyway, more modern chamber music really utilizes the full range and abilities of the emsemble. I have a couple current faves that I think anyone would enjoy (and I'm sorry I don't have the opus numbers on me, because I'm getting all this from my iPod):

Quartet No 12 in F ("American")--the 2nd mvt is quite sad and beautiful, and the 4th literally makes me dance around the room.
Piano Quintet in A and String Quartet in Eb (more of a soft sound, but lovely)

Ravel and Debussy's string quartets (only one apiece). These were one of my first introductions to impressionism, and they are gorgeous and very powerful.

Tchaikovsky: Quartet No 1. Thye 2nd movement is said to have brought Tolstoy to tears, if that's your kind of thing.

Now that I think about, most of my favorite chamber recordings are done by the Emerson 4tet. I really like their style and their "mesh"

If you like really modern (to most people "modern" reads as "weird") music, check out the Kronos String Quartet and others like it.

I also recommend, since you're looking for samples, that you browse Amazon and iTunes before you purchase, to get a feel for what each work really sounds like. And at the end of the day, buy what you like, not just what's recommended by others. Enjoy!
posted by folara at 2:36 AM on January 28, 2006

Beethoven's late string quartets are some of the best Romantic quartets around.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:03 AM on January 28, 2006

Classical Music for Dummies is (surprisingly?) good.

I was in your shoes 7-8 years ago and decided on a chronological study of classical music. I have The Lives of the Great Composers and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, both of which I recommend highly. I learn one composer at a time. I use the public library and mostly buy the cheap-but-good Naxos CDs.

The first few major composers, in a more-or-less chronological order, are: Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.

When I started out, I found KPAC's Basic 88 list of pieces to be very helpful.
posted by neuron at 11:00 PM on January 28, 2006

I might recommend Naxos Web Radio (subscription fee for high-quality streaming music = $20, lower-quality = $10, and that's per year!) -- They stream music by genre/channel (there are 72 different streams available). Naxos also tends to have some more obscure works on their recordings -- I like that the Orchestral:Russian channel plays Tchaikowsky, etc., but also Scriabin and other composers I don't know as well. Disclaimer: I have no personal/professional affiliation with Naxos, just that I really like their CDs and now the web radio service.

Go for some recordings, sure, but definitely keep listening to CBC radio whenever you can. You'll hear works you wouldn't have known you might like. I'm always hearing something new from the radio (often at about 2am . .) and then trying to scribble down the composer's name so I can find a recording later.
posted by oldtimey at 8:28 AM on January 29, 2006

Nice guys. lets get some free streaming music hear too. encourage listening instead of buy buy buy, the classical music. Which is my love, and was quite exspensive in the mid 90's, (whole cd's 14 bucks) but now free(how it should be).
On a further note. KIDS love classical music(1 year to 8) I don't know why we loose this group????
posted by highgene at 2:09 AM on February 2, 2006

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