An Introduction to Classical Music
Maybe you've never really listened to Classical Music but are curious about whether you'd like it, or what type you'd like. This list of some of my favorite works includes different styles of Classical Music from different periods, so you can get an idea of what you might like. Each has a YouTube link so you can listen to the work for free online; I don't necessarily think very highly of all of these performances that have been posted to YouTube, but they're a decent introduction to the work. Each work also has an Amazon link to my favorite performance of that work, which I highly recommend. You would be amazed just how different various recordings of the same piece of work can be. There might be cheaper choices or more easily available choices, but believe me, I have compared several dozen performances of many of these works and the ones I've linked to on Amazon are my highest recommendation based on artistic interpretation and sound quality. I link to Amazon only for convenience; I gain no benefit if you buy there. If you're going to buy, you can buy it from wherever you like, just be sure to get the performance I've linked to if you intend to trust my recommendation.
The names in the Amazon link refer to a soloist (if any), then the name of the orchestra, the name of the conductor, and the date of recording. Any comments in the text which follows the line of links refer to the version in the Amazon link; remember, the YouTube link is only there to give you a free sample of the music, best versions are typically not available there, and even if they are, sound quality is often poor, and sometimes there are commercials jammed right in the middle of the music.
When you sit down to listen to classical music, you really should commit yourself to the total time of the work, which is typically between 30 and 60 minutes. Classical music isn't like popular music, made up of unrelated 3- or 4-minute tracks of which you can listen to a few today, then the rest tomorrow. That would be like trying to watch a movie over a 5-day period, 20 minutes per day. A work of Classical music is typically made up of 3 or 4 parts called movements, each between 5 and 30 minutes. The movements of a work are related to each other, though that might be difficult to perceive when you first listen. My primary request here is that to give Classical Music a decent chance, you close yourself off from the rest of the world and just listen to a work from start to finish. If you find you like that first hearing, then after you do this a few more times and have grown accustomed to the melodies and themes of the music (after all, 60 minutes of music is a lot to absorb), you might find you really love a work and decide to acquire the recommended performance of it.
Please bear in mind that music is an extremely personal thing. It is certainly more likely that you will dislike my favorite music than like it; otherwise all that music which I dislike would never have been listened to or even made. But that's OK, if only a few readers find something they really like then I'll have accomplished something good. By way of introduction, I favor melodic tonal music, and enjoy complex harmonies.
If you'd like a more comprehensive list, see Jeff's Favorite Classical Music.
If you find any broken links or items that are no longer available to buy, please send me an email so I can fix or update the link.
The Baroque Period (1600-1750) (I don't enjoy this period of music, but here's a popular sample in case you do.)
The Classical Period (1750-1820) (I don't enjoy this period of music, but here's a popular sample in case you do.)
The Romantic Period (1800-1910) (now we're into the good stuff, in my opinion. The music becomes emotionally charged.)
- Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 [YouTube] [Amazon: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn, 1970-71]
Ashkenazy has a tremendous feel for Rachmaninov, and communicates him perfectly. There are better versions of the 1st, 3rd and 4th Piano Concertos, but none better than Ashkenazy/Previn's for the 2nd, which is Rachmaninov's best. And nobody has a better cycle of all 4 concerti, in case you only want to buy one set to obtain all four concerti at the lowest price. I'm pointing you to the superb 2014 remastering of these four concerti because the sound improvement is significant. This is a desert-island set of these four best Piano Concerti ever written.
- Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 [YouTube] [Amazon: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, 1982]
Ashkenazy had now transitioned from concert pianist to conductor, and still has that tremendous feel for Rachmaninov. This is a superb performance; the one against all others are measured. The tempi are perfectly judged, the climaxes are superb, the sound is excellent, and the pure velvet sheen of this most Romantic symphony of all is gorgeous to listen to. The chocolate will just drip down your eardrums.
- Mahler: Symphony No. 1 [YouTube] [Amazon: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Sept 26-28 2008] or [Amazon: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, Oct 20-23 1967]
Mahler is my favorite composer, his 9th symphony is my favorite, and the 4th and 8th are my least favorite. His first is an exciting, easily accessible symphony to start with. The Kubelick performance was the cream of the crop for 40 years until Honeck's came along, but Honeck's is also overly expensive. No matter which you listen to, I think you'll find Mahler's first symphony to be full of the mystery, raw excitement, and the brash enthusiasm of a young musical genius with ideas that overflowed onto his written pages.
- Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor [YouTube] [Amazon: Davd Shifrin (clarinet), Emerson String Quartet, 1999]
A beautiful piece of Romantic chamber music (music performed by only a few musicians).
- Schafer: Piano Quintet in D-Flat Major [YouTube] [Amazon: Jacob Bogaart (piano), Orpheus String Quartet]
Another gorgeous piece of Romantic Chamber Music to give you a feel for the genre. This one has piano and strings, which is probably my favorite type of ensemble for chamber music.
- Suk: Serenade for Strings [YouTube] [iTunes: Suk Chamber Orchestra, Josef Suk, Oct 6-16 1985]
One more chamber work, this one with strings only.
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) [YouTube] [Amazon: Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, 1960s]
This is the symphony which, in my opinion, ushered in the Romantic Period in which emotion was injected into the formerly-dry-and-formulaic world of Classical Music.
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (Fate) [YouTube] [Amazon: Vienna Philharmonic, Karlos Kleiber, 1975]
This is probably the most famous Romantic symphony of all time, so how could I omit it? The recordings of Beethoven's 5th and 7th symphonies with Karlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic are unparalleled, and both are great symphonies. As far as I know, there was only one recording of these, so if you can find a digital version or a cheaper one you should be fine.
The Post-Romantic / Modern Period (1890-1960) (this is my wheelhouse)
- Barber: Violin Concerto [YouTube] [Amazon: Joshua Bell (violin), Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman, Jan 1996]
This music just melts my heart. Another nearly-as-good performance is Gil Shaham (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn, Jun 1993.
- Bloch: Concerto Groso No. 1 [YouTube] [Amazon: Eastman Rochester Orchestra, Howard Hanson, May 1959]
The first movement is so powerful, and I love the emotion and the jazz-like harmony in the second movement.
- Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem [YouTube] [Amazon: New Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Britten, 1969]
This is quite an unusual piece of music, it's probably the most difficult on this list to "get", but if you have 20 minutes of your life to spare, put on a pair of headphones and see whether you enjoy this creative plea for peace targeted to the Japan of 1940.
- Copland: Appalachian Spring [YouTube] [Amazon: New York PO, Leonard Bernstein, Oct 9 1961]
- Hanson: Symphony No. 2 (Romantic) [YouTube] [Amazon: Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwartz, May 26 1988] or a very close second [Amazon: St Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, 1987]
Howard Hanson knew how to create a simple Romantic Symphony which was easy to understand and would appeal to the masses. I just love it. Schwartz is my top recommendation; it just feels perfectly paced. Slatkin is very slow-paced, but after a few minutes I find myself accepting his leasurely stroll through the music and enjoying the way he wrings out each honey-soaked phrase of this music.
- Khachaturian: Violin Concerto [YouTube] [Amazon: Itzhak Perlman (violin), Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, July 1983]
Very lively first and 3rd movement with a touching central movement.
- Korngold: Symphony in F sharp [YouTube] [Amazon: Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Marc Albrecht, March 2010]
Korngold wrote a lot of music for movies. His symphony reuses many of his best ideas from various movies, and features modern chords and bright well-developed melodies
- Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 [YouTube] [Amazon: Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Jan 31 - Feb 1 1984]
Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is one of the masterworks of the 20th century. The first movement sounds like the fear of imminent war and the ensuing horrors of it. The second is a romp through music from his ballet Cinderella. The third is a gorgeous depiction of terror and war. In the fourth movement, all is OK. Slatkin handles this symphony masterfully. Every tempo seems proper, the orchestral balance is perfect, and the climaxes are well judged and powerful.
- Respighi: Roman Trilogy: Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome [YouTube] [Amazon: Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome), Daniele Gatti, Oct 14-16 1996]
You might know that I love Rome, so it might not surprise you that this is one of my favorite pieces of music. The Roman Trilogy is actually 3 works of music (Roman Festivals, The Fountains of Rome, and The Pines of Rome, in the order I prefer), each composed of 4 movements. Each of the 12 movements (about 5 minutes each) is a musical depiction of a place in or near Rome. I've listened to each at the specific location it purports to describe, at the time of day that several of the movements call for, and I can tell you that Respighi was an unequivocable genius at painting these pictures of Rome in music. But on a simpler level, this is just fun extremely colorful music to listen to, especially in a set of earbuds or headphones which are really required since the music is so soft and peaceful one moment, then a rambunctious romp the next. The performance led by Gatti that I'm recommending is an absolute best. He nails this music perfectly, and in superb sound quality, with a local orchestra (in fact, Respighi had connections with the National Academy at Saint Cecilia). I've written a bit more about this work in my Tourist in Rome diatribe.
- Scriabin: Symphony No. 3 (Divine Poem) [YouTube] [Amazon: London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Apr 13 2014] [Alternate Amazon: Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, April 1988]
Scriabin was an absolute nutcase; at the time of his death he was composing a work named the Mysterium, which would end the world as we know it and herald the birth of a new world. Yikesereenies! But lucky for us, he composed his 3rd symphony before going off the deep end and left us with this emotionally intense music.
- Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 [YouTube] [Amazon: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, 1980]
Be careful here, my recommendation is for the 1980 recording, which is becoming hard to come by. You'll also find a 1979 recording made in Japan (that's the YouTube link), and a famous 1959 recording, both of which are great, but not as superb as this 1980 recording, IMHO. Shostakovich wrote this symphony in reaction to criticism of his earlier symphonies by the Soviet Government, which at the time was Joseph Stalin. Just try to imagine what you'd do if Joseph Stalin said your work was sub-standard. Maybe keel over? Maybe chatter your teeth while biting your fingers off? Maybe just take an early retirement? Nyet, instead Shostakovich wrote this 5th symphony which was simple enough to understand and clear enough in its expression to be considered a masterpiece which Stalin couldn't easily criticise. The people loved it (and so do I)! But listen to the music and you can hear that it's really Shostakovich thumbing his nose at the Soviet regime and telling things like it was during the late 1930's. Shostakovich was a dissident. Listen to him telling us the depair of the Soviet people in the first half of the 3rd movement, and what it was like when the KGB knocked on your door in the second half. That third movement communicates the depth of despair and fear to me. The fourth movement sounds to me like the celebration of the Soviet people right after the revolution, followed by the realization of the transformation into a totalitarian state, followed by the authorities forcing the people to pretend to acknowledge and celebrate the greatness of the state during the last few minutes.
- Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 [YouTube] [Amazon: Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, May 22 1970] or a close second [Amazon: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, 1976]
Sibelius was one cool dude; each of his symphonies was totally different as he never stood still in one musical place for very long. This sunny symphony has a very dramatic first movement, suggests terror in the second movement, healing in the third, and dramatic victory in the fourth, especially when the sun breaks through the bleak clouds about half way through.
- Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 [YouTube] [Amazon: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Leif Segerstam, 2000-2005]
Consider how far this last symphony of Sibelius has taken us from the 2nd symphony above. The 7th symphony is only 21 minutes long, washing us in a continuously changing stream of musical ideas, never going back to repeat, but always keeping us interested. BTW, if you liked the 2nd and the 7th symphonies of Sibelius, you need to hear the others; the whole set is top notch, and it's a fascinating journey the entire way from the simplicity of the 1st, through that intense 2nd, a tentative 3rd, a ferocious 4th, a gorgeously sunny 5th which I probably should have included in this list, a compact 6th full of the questions of life, to this joy of life in the 7th. Sibelius was one cool dude.
- Strauss: Metamorphosen [YouTube] [Amazon: Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, 1970s]
Oh my, the extremes of emotions in Classical Music. From the sunny optimism of Sibelius' symphonies to the ultimate despair expressed in this work by Richard Strauss when he realized that his Fuehrer had misled everyone and taken Germany down a path that led to its total destruction. Especially the concert halls and other symbols of the high culture that the Germans were once most proud of. Everything was in ruins; everything good had been destroyed by the actions of this leader who had promised them everything and won them over. Dresden, a city dear to Strauss since its opera house had premiered many of Strauss' works, had been obliterated. This music expresses the depths of despair of a man whose life revolved around these institutions. And how fitting that the best performance of this work is by the resurrected orchestra of Dresden, 30 years later. Thank goodness the tenacity of the German people has overcome this abberation in their history to rebuild their culture and become prominent and responsible members of our world society again.
- Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 [YouTube] [Amazon: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley, Sep 1986]
The opening of this symphony doesn't introduce you to anything; instead it puts you right in the middle of the world that Ralph Vaughan Williams has create for you. It's like a hymn of variations that wash over you for the 12 minutes of the first movement. Then another 5 minutes of English countryside wash over you in the second movement. Vaughan Williams pulls out all the stops in a heart-stopping 3rd movement of intensely beautiful music, then brings a hushed peacefullness in the 4th movement. The entire symphony is an understated stream of beauty. I don't know why music can have such an effect on me, but this one does it unquestionably. I'm proud that once, during a meeting of German, Canadian, Czech, Japanese and American software engineers outside of Toronto, Canada, I was able to lure many of them into the 40-minutes of serenity that this symphony can deliver. I think this music reached a few of them, as I hope it might reach you and touch you with its beauty.
- Walton: Symphony No. 1 [YouTube] [Amazon first choice: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bryden Thomson, Feb 23-24 1990] or [Amazon second choice: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn, Dec 1-2 1985]
I've always thought that this symphony is the perfect introduction to Classical Music for someone who loves Rock and Roll. The first two movements are filled with intensity, loud, lots of brass. Then the 3rd movement takes everything down and exposes some of the beauty possible in Classical Music. The fourth movement starts by saying "Ha, just kidding, back to the excitement, this'll be a fun ride", and indeed it is a lot of fun in my humble opinion, building to a tremendous rock-and-roll climax.
The Contemporary Period (1950-present)
- Arnold: Symphony No. 5 [YouTube] [Amazon: National Symphony of Ireland, Andrew Penny]
With this symphony and this composer, we're definitely past the Romantic period and even the Post-Romantic period. The harmonies are modern, the ideas are fresh, and regardless of the shift away from the structures we've become comfortable with, this one's a fun romp.
- Diamond: Symphony No. 4 [YouTube] [Amazon: Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, May 22 1990]
Completed in 1945, I quite enjoy this still-tonal symphony.
- Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna [YouTube] [Amazon: Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton, April 3 2004]
This is some of the most beautiful music I've ever listened to. Apologies to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the YouTube link just doesn't do justice to the beauty of the performance I've linked to in Amazon by the group named Polyphany, but if you listen to the YouTube link and consider the beauty of the music at 10:20 into that performance, then multiply it by at least two, you can get a feel for the performance by Polyphany. You can hear a sample of this moment in Polyphany's performance by clicking the track 3 sample at Hyperion's site. I told you I listened to a lot of music while I was working as a software engineer; the very first time I listened to this music and reached that spot (it's 10:50 into the Polyphany performance) I was stunned by the purity of the angelic voices and just closed my eyes to listen. Sorry, boss, but you lost quite a bit of work you paid for over the years when I listened to this music. I'm sorry, I just couldn't help myself. The album might be less expensive on iTunes than Amazon.
- Reich: Different Trains [YouTube] [Amazon: Kronos Quartet, Aug 31 - Sept 9 1988]
I enjoy listening to this melding of recorded voice and string quartet, which transitions from innocence through terror to normalcy. And come on, if my hero, Pat Metheny, is also on the CD with a performance of Electric Counterpoint, then this one's a no-brainer.
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