Saturday, October 31, 2015

Classical Music for Beginners

I see over at the Guardian they are having various people put up their lists of classical-for-beginners. This is a really laudable project! Go over and have a look at their lists. I rather like Jeremy Denk's attitude: "Let’s not start with the mistaken notion that classical music is polite, safe or pretty." And he starts off with Pierrot Lunaire! Good for him. Then he continues with Stravinsky and ends up with Beethoven by way of Bach. This list will either turn you on to classical music or scar you for life! The only piece that seems to appear on more than one list is Fratres by Arvo Pärt:

Now for my list. This is an activity I engage in with friends sometimes and those friends range from people who have hardly heard a note of classical music in their lives to people who have been professional musicians their whole lives. But I still find myself digging out pieces to play for them that they may not have heard. One friend, who has played violin and viola in professional orchestras for more than forty years, I was able to turn on to the Turangalîla Symphony by Messiaen because she had never heard it! Another professional musician, a guitarist, I was able to turn on to C. P. E. Bach with one of his Orchestral Symphonies. But I did recently make the attempt with someone who has only listened to pop music. I played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, then the beginning movement of the Schubert Unfinished, then part of the Rite of Spring and some Messiaen. Interestingly, she liked the Stravinsky most of all. This underlines my view (which seems to be shared by Jeremy Denk) that using the Top Pop Classics approach is wrong and will just confirm newcomers in their unconscious bias that classical music is boring music cranked out by Dead White Guys. If you want to reach people, you have to challenge them a bit.

The problem with doing it in a public forum is that you can't shape it to the individual, which is what works best. But I'll give it a try anyway. Here are five pieces that, if you are a beginner to classical music, you might find open a door for you.

Let's start with some sparkle. This is disc 11 from Scott Ross' complete Scarlatti sonatas, but I just want you to listen to the first one, K173 in B minor. This was very popular in a transcription for guitar duet with Presti and Lagoya and for good reason. It rocks:

Jumping to the 20th century, this is the opening movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 1913 for himself. It starts very peacefully, but that doesn't last long:

Now something completely different. This is an unaccompanied vocal piece from the Renaissance by Cipriano de Rore titled "Calami sonum ferentes" and it is nearly expressionist in its chromatic intensity.

We need something by one of those Viennese classicists that tend to top the great composer lists, and it is hard to avoid Mozart. This is one of his greatest accomplishments, the finale to his last symphony, that blends together several different themes in a truly celestial way. They say that when the angels in heavens want to praise God they play Bach; but when they want to please themselves, they play Mozart:

And finally, something by Beethoven, one name that nearly everyone has heard. Here is the first movement of his Piano Sonata in D major, op 28, nicknamed the "Pastoral":

If none of these pieces win you over, then we need to talk!


Anonymous said...

Wait! You've called Wang's playing dull, facile, and predictable in the past... And now you feature her! What gives? Hey, maybe the sexy appearance serves its purpose after all... :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

You have been reading ALL my posts, haven't you? Yuja Wang may not be my favorite pianist, but she is darned good in this concerto. Plus, I just wanted the first movement and this seemed the best option. Maybe I am getting to like her a bit more--and Khatia Buniatishvili too, for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Since you're a Beatles fan (as I am), it'd be cool to see your top-10 list of their songs (and why).

Bryan Townsend said...

I always welcome suggestions for posts! This sounds like it would be a good one. In the meantime, check out my post on what I call the "Lennon Trilogy".

Anonymous said...