Classical music aficionados: Go away. This article is not for you. Instead, it is for everyone who sees classical music as a private club and who feels they’re standing outside the clubhouse. It’s for those who have been to one or two orchestral concerts but are still not quite sure what they’re supposed to be getting out of the experience. It’s for those who like the sound of a few classical pieces but want to move beyond Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the flower duet from “Lakme” - trust me, you’ve heard it; look it up - and take a deeper dive into the repertoire.
But concert programmes list unfamiliar names, without much guidance into how to choose between them, and when you type Mozart into Spotify you get a wall of tracks, many of them different versions of the same thing. For anyone who relates to any part of this description, here’s a field guide with a few points to keep in mind as you exercise your classical muscles and seek out which territory, in this wide-ranging field, feels most like home.
1. Classical music offers something on a large scale. Not many art forms offer you something as big as an orchestra concert: 100 people playing pieces that can last half an hour or more. These pieces offer an experience of time you don’t get in many other art forms; music that starts in one place and finishes in another, bathing your ears in big sounds along the way. To start with, just try identifying some of the different things you hear.
There are a lot of journeys to choose from. Pick one of the nine Beethoven symphonies (I love the third and the less-popular fourth), and add to your plate gradually, choosing from the smorgasbord of the Western canon: Brahms’s Second; Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Mahler’s Fifth; Bruckner’s Seventh, and into the 20th century with Shostakovich’s Fifth. Or, start from the 21st century and work backward: from Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra to Bartok’s; from Philip Glass’s Fifth to Gloria Coates’s First.
Remember that this field isn’t just about white men, either. If you name Dora Pejacevic, whose Symphony in F-sharp minor sounds like a Croatian cousin of Strauss; or William Grant Still, whose Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” shows where Gershwin got a lot of his ideas, you might even catch aficionados by surprise.
2. There’s a lot more to classical music than orchestra music. Don’t think you’re stuck with orchestras, though, if that’s not your thing. The term “classical music” is an inaccurate catchall for everything from solo piano works to Gregorian chant to contemporary instrumental sextets with electric guitar.
For orientation purposes, start with some of the traditional smaller ensembles - three or four musicians playing together, classical music’s equivalent of a rock band. Most familiar is the string quartet: You can spend hours with canonical works such as Beethoven’s set of 16 and Shostakovich’s of 15, or dive into sets by living composers such as Elena Ruehr and Jefferson Friedman.
Then there are trios: string trios, like Mozart’s stunning Divertimento in E-flat; or piano trios, written not for three pianos (a common misconception) but for a piano and two stringed instruments. Schubert’s two are among my favourites, and I bypass Robert Schumann’s in favour of the nice one by his wife.
Or check out the instrumental configurations in some of the seminal works of the 20th century: the septet Stravinsky used in “L’histoire du soldat;” the quartet of clarinet, violin, cello and piano that Olivier Messiaen used in “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940; or Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” which both helps define and explode the term “minimalism.”
3. Classical music is relaxing. I don’t actually agree with this statement, but because a solid 75 per cent of my friends who aren’t classical aficionados espouse it, I’m going to cede the point and offer you a few options for background music that take you beyond Vivaldi and Mozart. For some time in my 20s, a CD of Erik Satie’s piano music was the only thing I listened to in the morning: languid and quirky, drifting across the ear and subtly challenging preconceptions about musical form with artless simplicity. More conventional are the once-popular piano works of Cecile Chaminade, another early 20th-century French composer; or Lili Boulanger’s beautiful Nocturne for Violin and Piano.
You’ll find different musical timbres and textures in Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, premiered in 1974 with percussion instruments built to be an approximation of the original Indonesian percussion ensemble. And to revert to convention for a minute, buy a set of Bach’s unaccompanied suites for solo cello, because those are pieces you can return to throughout your life, in a wide range of contexts; and if relaxing is your thing, they can do that for you too.
4. Classical music does amazing things to the human voice. Classical vocal music is a particular niche: People either love it or really, really hate it. If you’ve heard Beethoven’s Ninth or Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and liked them, there’s a lot more where they came from. Mahler took Beethoven’s license to stick a chorus into a symphony and ran with it: His “Das Lied von der Erde” is, in effect, a symphony of six songs based on Chinese poetry and is one of my personal desert-island tracks.
Two other essential symphonic songs/cycles are Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” written after World War II as an old man’s aching cry for a lost world, and Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” (the early recording with Leontyne Price is a treasure of Western art). Another gem is John Adams’s “Harmonium,” luminous settings of poems by Emily Dickinson and still my favourite work by that composer.
Not all classical choral works involve an orchestra: Check out two recent Pulitzer Prize winners, David Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion,” a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story with a Bach-like structure; or “Partita for 8 Voices” by Caroline Shaw, who at 30 was the Pulitzer’s youngest-ever winner; she has since collaborated with Kanye West.
5. You can make classical music with only one instrument. The piano is the classical instrument par excellence, and the keyboard literature will take you all over the map, from Bach’s Goldberg Variations (insiders will debate whether these are better on piano or harpsichord) through Beethoven’s 32 sonatas to Frederic Rzewski’s masterful contemporary variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” You can spend hours bathing in Chopin’s piano works (mazurkas and waltzes and nocturnes), and if you like his set of 24 preludes, go on and try the set by Shostakovich, or, even more recently, Lera Auerbach.
But there are plenty of solo works for other instruments, with Bach’s unaccompanied violin and cello suites towering at the top of the list: Paganini’s 24 caprices and Ysaye’s six sonatas for solo violin; Philip Glass’s “Songs and Poems” or Tania Leon’s “Four Pieces” for solo cello.
6. Classical music isn’t just about the composers. As is true in any area of music, audiences are drawn to the magnetism of great performers. Following a magnetic, gifted artist might be an even better way to get into the field than seeking out performances of masterpieces. The pianists Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang; the violinists Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Jennifer Koh; the singer Julia Bullock are just a few of the artists with particularly distinctive viewpoints, whose concerts are almost always memorable.
Or, notice who’s the music director of your local orchestra, and see what you think of his or her approach.
7. Classical music can do things that no other music can. I don’t buy that classical music corners the market on feelings or emotions. But classical music does make a particular kind of musical statement, often immersive, often longer than other forms and often in a particularly complex manner that involves the juxtaposition of different voices. Like a novel, it’s not something that can be apprehended quickly or conveyed in any other form; like a novel, you have to meet it halfway and think about what it is or isn’t saying to you, listening to the different sounds it offers, recognising the re-emergence of earlier themes, weighing the pauses and the crescendos - and, rather than worrying about what you’re supposed to get, thinking about what you do get.
Comparing and contrasting, and debating preferences, is a big part of any music-lover’s experience, and as soon as you’re comfortable enough to do that in classical music - to notice that you liked one piece, one approach, one performer more than another - you’ve taken a big step toward making it your own.
This article was written for The Washington Post by Anne Midgette