How to Love Classical Music in 17 PiecesCategory: Music   Nov 8th 2015  01:05PM   0

I've been asked more than once for an introduction to the subject of classical music. I've only ever really been able to look back, overwhelmed by the size of the request. Here is an answer though. These 17 recordings take a listener through the four periods of what we commonly call "classical" music, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century.

I thought about calling this “My Intimate 17,” since these are all pieces I know intimately and love dearly. Each one has a story connected to my life that I’ll happily tell you over a drink sometime. They aren’t each “The Best Of" but they each are “A Great Example Of" whatever type of work they are. This is by no means an exhaustive guide and is, of course, heavily dependent on my tastes. It’s also a chance for us to get acquainted in a way that’s very personal to me.

There’s a link to each, to listen on Youtube, and if you too fall in love with one of these pieces, there’s an Amazon link to purchase a recording that I heartily approve of.


Smack dab out of the Renaissance emerged

The Baroque Era.
The age of fine ornament and ornate detail.
Visual equivalent:


1. Composer: Henry Purcell

Title: Suite from (the opera) “The Fairy Queen”
Date: 1692
Mood: Elegant
Comment: Dance forms were popular for art music, in the Baroque. They were often about appreciating ornamental little twists and turns. They were always stately and  refined. This is the quintessential example.
Youtube listen: (best part starts at 2:40)
Amazon purchase:


2. Composer: Johan Sebastian Bach

Title: Little Fugue in G Minor
Date: 1703-1707
Mood: Majestic
Commentary: We modern folk don’t much care for the sound of the pipe organ. (I know I certainly don’t.) Some people also don’t care for orchestrations of Bach either. I think a full orchestration of an organ fugue is a way for us to fully appreciate the beauty of  the genre though. It sounds as good to our ears as the organ did to the audience then.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


3. Composer: George Frederic Handel

Title: Coronation Anthem No. 2
Date: 1728
Mood: Regal for obvious reasons
Commentary: The Baroque was definitely the high age of the absolute monarch. Writing a coronation anthem was a feather in your cap and a great way to pay the bills. It was also a wonderful way of showing off the loveliness of Baroque polyphony. In English, that’s multiple melodies played at the same time to create the harmony.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


4. Composer: Johan Sebastian Bach

Title: Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering)
Date: 1747
Mood: Dignified
Commentary: Funnily, Opfer also translates as victim. This is apt, and the victim was Bach. Friedrich the Great had an audience with him, and Old Fritz asked our man if he could do a fugue with 6 voices. This was not asking the impossible, but it was close. No pressure, just come up with the most complicated piece imaginable for the King of Prussia, on the spot. Bach smartly replied that he would have to go home and work this one out. While not saying no, he also didn’t say yes. The result was subsequently presented at court. We hear this  as sounding sombre, but it’s intention and original perception was dignified and stately.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


All this ornament is getting kitschy.

The Classical Era

is all about elegantly simple lines and symmetry.
Visual equivalent:


5. Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

Title: String Quartet Opus 50 No. 3
Date: 1787
Mood: Simple, harmonically lush, and beautiful
Commentary: Audiences love big ensembles, but musicians can’t wait to get to their chamber groups. There’s some thing so intimate about chamber music. Nothing is between the players and the audience, and nothing is between the audience and the ideas of the composer. In the orchestra, individual players get lost in large sections, and composers can hide behind  the varied sound qualities of different instruments. Here, there's nowhere to hide. This is an example of the Classical string quartet par excellence.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


6. Composer: W.A. Mozart

Title: Symhony No. 40 in G Minor
Date: 1788
Mood: As elegant as anything anyone could possibly imagine
Commentary: The stateliness and grace of this is symphony is the musical equivalent of a Greek temple. All parts are in equal proportion. Much as you see 2 columns on each side of the temple, you’ll hear each theme twice. Loud and soft volumes trade off with each other, like partners on a dance floor. All is perfectly measured. Although perhaps the simplest appearing piece you'll hear on this list, it would have been the most maddenly difficult to write—unless, of course, you’re Mozart.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


7. Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

Title: Lord Nelson Mass
Date: 1798
Mood: Powerful and classically elegant
Commentary: After the Battle of Trafalgar, everyone in Europe was thoroughly thrilled that Napoleon would not be invading England—except the French, of  course. The mass is named in honor of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the commander of the English fleet. This music is all about drama, while also being a collective sigh of relief.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


Dignified elegance is lovely, but sooner or later you want to take your clothes off.

The Romantic Era:
was about putting passion and power back into music.
Visual Equivalent:


8. Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

Title: Symphony No. 7
Date: 1811-1812
Commentary: I have to say this is my favorite of all the Beethovens. It’s one piece of music containing the entire range of human emotion.
1st Movement: playful
             2nd Movement: .45 calibre depressed
             3rd Movement: happy again
             4th Movement: please-take-your-medication manic

Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


9. Composer: Franz Schubert

Title: Winterreise (Winter’s Journey)
Date: 1828
Mood: Deliciously, understatedly morbid and bitter
Commentary: First of all, if you want to appreciate the beauty and refinement that the German language is capable of, this is the place to do it. Winter’s Journey is also the story of a jilted lover leaving his would-be fiancé’s home, after being turned down—leaving in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snow storm. He’s so bitter it’s funny. This one is a lot more fun, if you read the lyrics as you go.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


10. Composer: Frederic Chopin

Title: Walz in C Sharp Minor, Opus 64 No. 2
Date: 1847
Commentary: This waltz always reminds me of a beautiful, depressed girl I went to high school with. She was perpetually sad, but she was sad with such style.  Think of this waltz as kind of a moody, elegant young Kate Moss, and you’ve got it.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


11. Composer: Alexander Borodin

Title: In the Steppes of Central Asia
Date: 1880
Mood: Majestic, happy, and self-congratingly nationalistic
Commentary: In the Romantic Era, for the first time, composers were allowed to put pictures to their music. Thus, the Symphonic Poem was born. The image here was the peaceful Russian Army and a peaceful Kazakh  caravan peacefully marching past each other in Russia's colonized steppes, peacefully. Both are in awe of the vastness and beauty of the landscape. It’s all very peaceful. There are no overtones of imperialism here. (Note the sarcasm.)
Youtube listen:

Amazon purchase:


12. Composer: Johannes Brahms

Title: Symphony No. 3
Date: 1883
Mood: Passionate
Commentary: By the time Brahms came around, we were at the height of the High Romantic. Symphonies were about passion, power, and feeling a vast wave of sound wash over you. When you think of the Romantic symphony, this is the one you think of. (The 2nd movement will also always be a love letter to my ex-boyfriend.) Scholars are still in disagreement on whether or not this picture was photoshopped and Brahms was actually a PC guy.
Youtube listen:   
Amazon purchase:


13. Composer: Eric Satie

Title: Gynopedie #1
Date: 1888
Mood: A happy, lazy Sunday afternoon type melancholy
Commentary: The name was chosen for its intangible exoticism and mercurial enigmaticness. Nobody is quite sure exactly what it means, and nobody is quite certain exactly what the form of this piece is either.  The best I can say is it’s the free-form auditory equivalent of a Rodin sculpture. The chords sound almost rough hewn in bronze.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


We’ve done everything we can with the rules. The only thing left to do is break them.

The 20th Century
is The Era of Anything Goes.
Visual Equivalent: (Picasso)


14. Composer: Igor Stravinski

Title: Rite of Spring
Date: 1913
Mood: I’m going to piss you off
Commentary: This one changed everything. Rite of Spring was a breaking of the rules, for the sake of breaking the rules. (There was actually a riot at the premier.) Stravinski, because he was Stravinsky, could do this and make it work.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


15. Composer: Dimitri Shostikovich

Title: Symphony No. 5
Date: 1937
Mood: Depressed, annoyed, and sarcastic, all at the same time
Commentary: Shostikovich was constantly in a cat fight with Stalin. Sometimes, it was a cat fight for his life. While simultaneously having no choice but to placate the dictator, Shostikovich was always quietly deriding him, out of the other corner of his mouth. It’s a funny thing about instrumental music. There’s always words in there somewhere. You just can never be quite sure what they are.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


16. Composer: Aaron Copland

Title: Appalachian Spring
Date: 1944
Mood: Simple and quietly patriotic
Commentary: Written during W.W. II, the lovely thing about Appalachian Spring is that it can be patriotic without ramming that down your throat. It is in turn introspective and exuberant. It is always quietly American.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:


17. Composer: Phillip Glass

Title: String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima”
Mood: Minimalist, mesmerizing, and so pretty it hurts
Commentary: Glass is known for doing something radical in the 20th Century. He follows all the rules. Everything Stravinski threw out the window, from the time of Bach and before, Glass brings back. The funny thing is we’re so used to sounds that are hard on our ear now (dissonant) that too much harmoniousness (consonance) sounds off. I always have the most pleasant headache, by the end of this quartet.
Youtube listen:
Amazon purchase:

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