The Cultural Omnivore’s Introduction to Classical Music


Gone are the days when a taste for classical music had to be backed by a six-figure salary, an old-money social circle, and season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House. Today’s culture vultures consume widely, albeit not indiscriminately, and while you might not put Beethoven at the top of your pump-up mix, we know you’ve all grooved out to Hungarian Dance No. 5 and wish you played the cello every now and then. With indie idols like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens playing shows accompanied by orchestras, genres have never been more permeable; but the classical-light instrumentals that cameo in the pop tracks we love are only palate teasers. If you like what you’ve heard so far and want to explore where it all came from, enjoy our four-course primer on classical music, after the jump.

Step 1: Get with the orchestration

One of the most intimidating aspects of classical music to the ears of a pop consumer is that it often lacks the thing we pick out first in a song: lyrics. Sure, there’s also the entire structure of the piece, bearing no likeness to the AABA configuration of a pop song, but we’ll put that aside momentarily. Where are the words?

That singing along is an integral part of the listening experience is so hardwired into our contemporary mindset that when we can’t, we feel detached from what we’re hearing. The mainstreaming of electronic genres has changed that a bit, but head banging doesn’t work as well with Mozart as it does with Skrillex, so get on board with active listening. While a pop song is usually comprised of a sung melody line and backup instrumentals, a classical melody is tossed between instruments, octaves, and timbres. Isolating it can be an aural challenge, one that brings to light the textures of an arrangement.

But we believe in baby steps. In order to ease your ear into classical orchestration, try listening to something you’re familiar with rewritten for orchestral instruments. There are plenty of compositions within an indie lover’s comfort zone covered by bands that replace guitars and basses with violins and violas. We like the gorgeous mainstream rearrangements by the Vitamin String Quartet, the harder rock covers by the long-haired, eyeliner-wearing, cello-wielding men of Apocolyptica, and, most of all, the alternative favorites reinterpreted by the Jingle Punks Hipster Orchestra (pictured above), who recently released their Nirvana Sessions in honor of the 20th anniversary of Nevermind. Listen to their rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit below.

Step 2: Start listening

People sometimes lump all of classical music together, conceptualizing it as a singe, giant genre — which is a little ridiculous considering its corpus spans over 400 years, while the music we know as pop is under a century old. Just like the rock produced in the ’50s sounds vastly different from rock produced today — and, for that matter, from contemporary country and dance and hip-hop — classical music encompasses multiple eras, each with subgenres of their own.

But the only way to figure out which ones you like best is by listening, so we’ve put together a playlist of delicious appetizers from the four major eras that constitute the colossal body of classical music: Baroque (c. 1600-1760), Classical (c. 1750-1830), Romantic (c. 1810-1910), and 20th Century. Listen to the whole playlist on Grooveshark.

1. Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy (late Romantic) 2. The Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach (Baroque) 3. Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms (Romantic) 4. Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat Major by Frédéric Chopin (Romantic) 5. Dance of the Knights by Sergei Prokofiev (20th Century) 6. Symphony No. 40 in G Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Classical) 7. Suite for Cello Solo No. 1 in G by Johann Sebastian Bach (Baroque) 8. Serenade by Franz Schubert (Classical) 9. Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven (Classical/Romantic) 10. Water Music by George Frederic Handel (Baroque) 11. Un Bel Di by Giacomo Puccini (Romantic) 12. Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland (20th Century)

Step 3: Expand your playlist

Now that you have a taste of what you like, and dislike, use that as a stepping stone to pad your playlist. Tools like Pandora and Grooveshark have extensive classical libraries, and NPR’s classical station streams music for free 24/7. Go at them with a sense of what you’re looking for — classical genres form loosely based on era and, in folksier compositions, geography, so if you liked Debussy’s Clair de Lune, check out other late Romantics like Maurice Ravel; if you liked Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, listen to Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. A few more recommendations, by era:

Baroque: Johann Pachelbel, Arcangelo Corelli, Henry Purcell, Antonio Vivaldi

Classical: Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald von Gluck

Romantic: Robert Schumann, Camille Saint-Saens, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Giacomo Puccini, Maurice Ravel, Edvard Grieg, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Niccolo Paganini, Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi

20th Century: Paul Hindemith, Dmitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gyorgy Ligeti, Leonard Bernstein

As you may realize, the 20th century is over. But classical music isn’t. Post-20th Century composers are making interesting strides forward in composition, particularly in what has become known in recent years as New Music, an experimental and malleable genre that’s gained the attention of some of today’s most talented avant-garde musicians. Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass have worked on projects that fall within the realm of New Music, turning to mixed media and alternative venues to produce classical music with an edgy, underground flavor.

Step 4: Go live

If you’re a fan of the older genres, your shot at hearing their works live didn’t come and go with the 18th century; most performing pianists function as classy cover bands, playing the works of greats from every era, so a performer’s repertoire might include pieces by Bach and Barber in one evening.

And there’s no need to take out a second mortgage in order to attend. Plenty of venues and festivals sprinkled across metropolitan centers around the country offer cheap, discounted, or even free admission to concerts. Teaching institutions like the New England Conservatory in Boston regularly hold free concerts to promote interest in classical music, and large orchestras like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, LA Philharmonic, and New York Philharmonic offer various deals like student rush tickets and affordable second-rate seats. Series that host up-and-coming artists, like the Bay Area incubator Old First Concerts, are a great source for cheap tickets and the possibility of discovering something new, and cultural centers looking to grow interest in the arts, like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, showcase amazing performers from around the world for extremely low costs.

But classical music doesn’t only live in stuffy music halls. There’s also been a burgeoning classical music scene in clubs, bars, and alternative performance spaces within the last few years, with Manhattan and Brooklyn serving as early epicenters. (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Bleecker Street club that acts as a model for many such spaces, hosts everything from dubstep to spoken word but is also well known for its impressive classical calendar, while Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Galapagos Art Space, and ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn are on the cutting edge of the New Music world. Slowly, other cities are coming around to the idea of a relaxed classical music scene, too; this weekend in LA, the Da Camera Society will hold its next installment of its Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, bringing chamber music to hidden historical places around the city.