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Are you dipping your toe into the classical music waters, not sure if you’re up for the full swim, but willing to wade around a bit? Hop in—the temperature is just right! Here are 10 tips for you…

I love when people contact me to express their interest in classical music. And 2018 is already turning out to be a banner year for such requests. I think it’s fantastic. It’s as if all these fine minds of ours, regardless of creed, political slant or affiliation, are seeking out new vistas and perspectives, discovering something that is unequivocally beautiful, soulful, thought-provoking, and can be discussed in ways that don’t divide us. Or at least allow for discourse like the following: “Okay, you think the elegance of the Classical Era can’t be beat, but you have to admit that my favorite, the Mainstream Romantics, allow for gorgeous emotion to arise. And we can both agree that classical music isn’t as stuffy or boring as we’d once thought!”

So this essay is devoted to all of you out there, dipping your toe into the classical music waters, not sure if you’re up for the full swim, but willing to wade around a bit. Hop in—the temperature is just right! So without further ado, here are…

10 Tips for the Fledgling Classical Music Lover

  1. Buy compilation CDs. Or borrow them from your library. Or YouTube them. There are so many opportunities to hear classical music for cheap these days, it’s amazing. Go to your local music store; I guarantee you there will be a few dozen CDs with prices $2.99 and below. Don’t regularly go to a local music store, or your town doesn’t have one? Find one. Go to it. Do it. They are great places to browse and are a slice of a disappearing Americana. That said… On Amazon, I found this. It’s a 10-disc box set of classical compilations; I own three of the CDs and I had no idea there was a ten-disc set. For a good used copy, several of which are priced around $8.00 with shipping, it’s a staggering deal. It has both the ultra-familiar pieces and unique ones, many of which are simply movements from a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. So, once you decide which one you really like, look for the longer version. And did I mention that this is a really good bargain? Seriously, check it out.
  2. Get a classical music reference bible. I can’t tell you how often I consult mine, and what a pleasure it is. I bought mine a long time ago; it’s called Building A Classical Music Library by Bill Parker. Some of the recordings the author suggests are likely dated now, but since classical music is rather timeless, it’s all still largely relevant. The author has a very easy-to-read style as he talks about the composers, dividing them into their respective eras. This alone has been a great reference tool for me. Before reading it, I wouldn’t have known whether Chopin, say, or Dvorak or Debussy were Early Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, or Late Romantic. (The answers: yes, yes and yes, respectively.) So, you get a fun little story about each composer, the pieces that made them famous, and recording suggestions.
  3. Go to freebie classical music events, often done at lunchtime within a city’s civic center area, or in a church with nice acoustics. And for any performance you plan to attend, do a little research in advance. Wikipedia is great for learning quickly about any composer, any piece of music. It’s easy, and it will allow you to better appreciate what you’re hearing. And you’ll get to impress your friends with your knowledge.
  4. Bookmark an HD digital or online classical music station on your devices. There are dozens, if not more. I listen to KAZU HD classical. Classical music 24/7, no commercials. On my car stereo, I just rediscovered a classical music station broadcast by a university nearby—what a win! Alas, there are fewer and fewer radio stations that broadcast classical. But in an increasingly wired world, you’ve got all of the Internet. And for offline time, you have…
  5. Podcasts. Most include a few minutes or more of talk, followed by a music excerpt or longer work. A great way to learn and listen while driving/walking/tuning out noisy people in public. A few to check out include Classical PodcastsClassical ClassroomBBC Radio3 (scroll down from the landing page).
  6. Buy a season subscription to the symphony. Not just one ticket–make the investment of one season. It might feel extreme at the time, but you’ll be glad you did it. You sorta need to sit through something you wouldn’t have otherwise cherry-picked for your listening experience. (Speaking from the voice of experience here, having done both.) Granted, you’ll want the subscription series to include the works you prefer to hear. But chances are, there will be one concert you might not have otherwise attended, and that usually means three music selections new to your ears. (San Francisco Symphony allows you to switch around concerts during the season, as well, so you can cherry-pick and have a subscription experience. I’m guessing a good number of professional orchestras work that way for their subscribers.)
  7. Read the Amazon reviews of classical music CDs. These days, when I want to research a composer or a specific work, I first get the scoop via two sources: Wikipedia and Amazon reviews. Most of the people who leave reviews on classical music CDs at Amazon are amazingly well-educated on classical music and specifics of the work in question. Quite a few are former classical musicians, I sense. Others just really, really know classical music. I don’t always agree with their opinions, but I learn a whole lot, and that’s what matters to me.
  8. Listen to the basic classical music favorites that are, face it, overplayed. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Pachebel’s “Canon in D,” et cetera. Then move on. Don’t stop there. Frankly, those classics are…boring. Well, let’s say this: No one becomes a classical music lover from hearing those. Listeners are sucked in by hearing Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” or the first movement of the Korngold Violin Concerto, or the soundtrack of the movie AmadeusWhich is why I will make a pitch again for that most excellent CD compilation set.
  9. Figure out what eras are your favorite. Examples might be Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, Late Romantic, Modern. (That book I suggested buying makes learning this so much easier.) Now, check out composers from that era you’ve maybe never heard of before. I myself have discovered new composers this way, like Reinhold Glière, Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen. There’s a good chance you’ll like their stuff. It’s always worked for me.
  10. Challenge yourself from time to time and listen to an era you’re not familiar with. (Perk: It will make you love your preferred era even more.) Once again, a symphony subscription is great for this. It’s where I first heard the work of composer Alban Berg, even though I’d thought I’d prefer the other two musical works presented. And, almost forgot to mention—read the program notes while you’re waiting for the symphony to begin. They are delicious little stories that will make you appreciate the work even more. Case in point, the Berg Violin Concerto.)

All right, there you go. Ready to start your journey? To get you pumped up, here are a few compositions or symphony/concerto excerpts I think anyone would love. If the title is hyperlinked, I’ve written about it, and clicking the link will send you to the other essay and embedded music.

  • Claude Debussy: Clair de LuneBeau Soir, Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Afternoon of a Faun
  • Dvorák: Romance in F-minor. “Klid” (Silent Wood)
  • Mozart: anything from the film Amadeus. Get the CD. What, you’ve never seen the movie?! Get the DVD along with the CD
  • Anything by Frederic Chopin
  • Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat major
  • Violin Concertos: Brahms, Korngold, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky
  • Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s DreamTchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”), Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, (“Rhenish”).
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”
  • Saint Saens: “Danse Macabre”, Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”, “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso”
  • Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

It is excruciatingly hard to pick only one or two of the above suggestions to embed. And, interestingly, I’m choosing one that has grown overfamiliar to me, but was undeniably a piece of classical music that had me swooning with delight, utterly transporting me. So, here you go…

And finally, one that haunted me after hearing it in an art-house movie theater, decades ago, and I only re-discovered it by chance, two years ago. My idea of sublime.

Republished with gracious permission from The Classical Girl (January 2018). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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10 replies to this post
  1. The 2002 Director’s Cut of Amadeus added some unnecessary lascivious scenes. The original 1980’s version required no changes, but unfortunately it is difficult to find.

    Speaking of finding things, I am looking for an article where someone left a wonderful comment listing several rules for judging a work of art. One rule was that identity markers are incidental to merit, and another was that art created from harming animals is not art. If an editor could direct me to the article and comment in question, I would be so grateful.

  2. Another excellent resource would be a subscription to “BBC Music Magazine”. You receive a classical CD with each issue (if you subscribe to the print edition) to expose you to various composers/genres/pieces and help begin to build your library. In addition the articles are a good education on classical music with one column every month on “Building a Library.”

  3. I feel for ya re Amadeus. I have wanted my children to see the normal version for years. I think my patience has paid off. Xfinity now offers the pg version. I wrote xfinity years ago to complain… we can only stay strong.

  4. Amadeus is great for the music, but I hope people realize that the plot is Fiction. Salieri was a far better composer than he is portrayed in the movie, and was a friend and supporter of Mozart, not his enemy.

  5. I would also suggest The Record Shelf hosted by Jim Svejda. It is syndicated, but it originates with KUSC in Los Angeles. Also I would suggest Karl Haas’ “Adventures in Good Music” the book, and especially the radio show if you can find it.

  6. Thanks for the memory of Karl Haas, Wayne. I listened to his radio programme tor many years. What an Adventure!
    Must find the book

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