I’m going to tell you a bit about my background with classical music; some of my early touchstones, how I educated myself and explored options, and some of the favourite pieces I’ve collected and my go-to composers. That sort of thing. And then you can do the same. Seem reasonable? Otherwise we’ll be here all day just trying to decipher the way to write an introduction to classical music, what that introduction to classical music is trying to say and most importantly when that introduction is going to end. Having just been through that – trust me – we don’t need to further frustrate ourselves and prolong the torture.
That’s the trouble with classical music.
I grew up listening to the classic rock music and blues my parents loved. I learned about jazz – that came from being played a Buddy Rich record when I expressed an interest in playing the drums and then hearing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – worthy of the cliché of being a life-changing experience. But classical music did not figure largely. Not as I was growing up.
And I came to see that this was because I never learned the piano – as was the original plan. I never progressed past this on the recorder. I did not study music at school. I did not take any theory lessons and never learned to read or write music – and those are all easy in-roads to learning about and appreciating classical music.
My brother arrived home from university with a double CD of Tchaikovsky pieces – the big-name stuff: Swan Lake, 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty…
I loved hearing this – I fell deeply under its spell. I was not concerned with checking to see which versions were being performed, who was doing them, what label this was on – just the sound was enough.
But this was no first taste. What I realised, immediately, was that I had been listening to classical music my whole life. Every episode of The Smurfs! So many cartoons (especially) and movies, TV shows…
This was an important realisation – I’ve never worried about any snob-factor attached with listening to classical music. Sure there’s a lot of information to disseminate and decipher; there’s a near infinite set of recordings and pieces – but you get to opt-in, you get to decide where you want to be on the scale. It’s really no different to any level of involvement in any other musical genre – or any other hobby for that matter. I came to realise, very early on, that any snob-factor was often projected on to classical enthusiasts by insecure neophytes.
My classical music of choice – for many years – was film scores. Arguably, that’s still the case. Okay, strictly speaking it’s not classical music; not always. But I took from film scores what I assume a lot of people take from other classical music forms. It was my relaxation music, my study music – but I shy from calling it background music. Not only is that disrespectful, it’s inaccurate. So much of the music I was listening to, film scores and the basic Greatest Hits-equivalent compilations of the obvious big-name composers had such emotional resonance.
I learned a lot from Woody Allen movies. In fact I learned a lot about, well, a lot of things from Woody Allen movies but his soundtracks are lovingly filled with choice selections of jazz and classical music.
The next main gateway for me was reading Nigel Kennedy’s autobiography. Ma and Pa are most definitely fad classical music buyers. They purchased Nigel Kennedy’s version of The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) and it was something the whole house responded to, before that stallion with a bank account galloped along to the main theme on TV ads and ruined it. I had my dubbed copy of the Four Seasons that I played from time to time. It never did a lot for me actually, but it was a crucial piece of music to discover at a time when Kennedy was playing up his “rock star of the classical world” persona. I bought his autobiography in a chuck-out bin and thoroughly enjoyed it – particularly a series of chapters near the end where he told stories about the key composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, Bach…
Armed with some new information I started buying up some tapes and then some CDs – the obvious things still. Naturally. The Brandenburg Concertos and, back to movie tie-ins, a version of Orff’s Carmina Burana (I still really like this work even though there was a time when it was the soundtrack to every second action film trailer or in fact used during a sequence in a film where the actors and target audience looked like they probably couldn’t spell classical music much less listen to any).
The other fad classical piece that had a lasting impact was Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.
Before I knew it I had the beginnings of a collection. I read a few books, watched a few documentaries and biopics – attended some concerts, kept collecting up film scores and I had gone from no idea to (I guess) some idea.
I’m far from any kind of expert when it comes to classical music. But the collection is growing – and in fact a quarter of my entire CD collection now is what I would term classical music. I even started to dabble in opera. That had, for the longest time, frightened and baffled me in equal measures.
Some of my favourites then:
Sandrine Piau singing almost anything but especially Mozart and Vivaldi.
Beethoven’s symphonies – one of the first things I bought was a box-set of the nine symphonies; so many famous cues there. You’ll know more of this music than you at first thought if you’re still new to it.
Mozart for almost any occasion and any time of day – to me he’s the greatest melody writer that ever lived.
Glenn Gould playing Johann Sebastian Bach, especially The Goldberg Variations (and from there anything by Gould).
The cartoon music of Carl Stalling – it was formative then, it’s amazing to listen to on CD now. Other important “gateways” for me were the film score work of John Zorn, the music of Danny Elfman and Frank Zappa’s excursions in classical music; his compositions for ensembles outside of rock. And all of that music – from those three players – owes a debt to Stalling.
And I’ll take something stirring with a huge swell of orchestra to propel it (Stravinsky) or something contemplative; gentle (Satie’s Gymnopedies).
I’m a sucker for classical guitar.
And I love Handel’s Messiah.
So that gives you some idea of where I’m coming from. We’ll talk more about classical music another time. I’ll try not to leave it so long. But that’s the trouble with classical music – so hard to start the conversation and then even harder to stop.
It’s a journey I’m on and will continue – so much to learn, so much to take in. Please leave me suggestions below of what to check out. And if you haven’t heard some of the things I’ve mentioned here give them a go and let me know how you get on.
Now, tell me about your introduction/s to classical music. Is it something you’re passionate about? What are your favourite composers/pieces/styles? What would you recommend for any beginner – what do you think is the perfect entree for this wide, broad genre? And what piece of music has moved you the most, blown you away, provided that life-changing moment either as an actual soundtrack to something in your life or as a constant; a piece you return to perhaps?
Or is it simply not for you? Maybe you’ve tried but you were unable to find what you were looking for. Perhaps you’re not interested at all.