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Give me a crash course in classical music.

HiredGunHiredGun Registered User regular
edited February 2007 in Help / Advice Forum
I consider myself fairly well-read, but when it comes to music, I have very little sense of anything that came before the emergence of popular music and the recording industry in the 20th century. I want to fix this.

What I want to know is:

1) The names of the essential pieces of classical music that I should know and listen to. This includes both a) pieces that most people instantly recognize due to their fame, and b) pieces that most people don't recognize, but that were significant developments in the field.

2) Links to (legal) online recordings would be great, if applicable.

3) I also want to have a sense of the chronology, and of the connections between the various artists and trends. What is significant about this piece or that composer? In what ways is he influenced by what came before, and what is his own lasting legacy? Was there a historical context? In other words, I want to end up with something deeper than just a long playlist of pieces I need to hear.

4) No amount of input is too big or small. Existing written resources are equally as valuable as your personal take on a piece of music or a portion of musical history.

Thanks, guys.

HiredGun on


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    FawkesFawkes __BANNED USERS regular
    edited February 2007
    A History of Western Music (7th Ed). Standard textbook when I was studying. Looks a little expensive though, try the 6th or 5th editions if so.

    Otherwise, just listen to stuff. Go surreptitiously buy as many popular classics compilations as you can, preferably in some sort of disguise if you ever plan on going back to that shop, as they will have most of the famous or "essential" stuff you have heard. They are cheap, and from this, you can find out what you like, the period, who wrote it, and find more.

    [...for number 3, the above tome will do it, but read your own damn books ...] :P

    Sites which provide old, post-copyright, legally free recordings of classical music:

    Classic Cat
    Load of Rachmaninov recordings (site in Russian, just click around)

    Fawkes on
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    JansonJanson Registered User regular
    edited February 2007
    Well, I'm sure you realise that you're talking about a broad range of music spanning many centuries, so I'll give a brief run-down as taught in music theory:

    It's useful to classify music according to the periods it was written in, as each period had its own set of fashionable/new instruments, styles and techniques.

    1400-1600 Renaissance period

    I admit I know little about this period of music - no composers immediately spring to mind (I recognise a few of the names in that wikipedia link, but cannot recall any particular pieces of music) and it's not often performed.

    1600-1750 Baroque period

    Best-known composers:


    You will have heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons at some point in your life; particularly Spring, which has been used in countless films and television programmes.

    Handel's best-known piece is apparently Messiah, although I always associate him with the Royal Fireworks - maybe because I live in the UK.

    The piano originated during this time and so was a very new instrument; the harpsichord is instead often associated with the Baroque period. A lot of wind and brass instruments were also in the early stages of development so instead strings feature very heavily in the music of this era.

    Baroque music is quite heavy and considered complicated.

    1730-1820 Classical period

    Best-known composers:

    Beethoven (also considered Romantic era)

    Mozart's entire sheet music was recently made free to everyone for personal use - but unless you have a full orchestra at your disposal I guess sheet music alone is pretty useless ;)

    As the wiki link says, you have music for the piano emerging at this time, and the orchestra is growing and woodwind becomes more prominent. The word that always springs to mind when I think of Classical music is 'precise'. It's typically very light and even. Personally I don't enjoy playing as much Classical music as I do Romantic music; I find it less expressive and find it harder to get the 'feel' for a piece. Mozart is really, really hard to dislike, though. I'd probably be lambasted if I didn't add that.

    1800-1900 Romantic period

    Best-known composers:


    So many famous and well-known pieces that it's hard to know where to begin. Chopin's piano concertos are very well known - for very good reason. Strauss - or rather Johann Strauss II (since his father and brothers were also well-known composers) - composed waltzes and polkas that again, you'll have almost certainly heard before. Tchaikovsky's music is sublime. I also really like Dvořák's music. Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance is another one well known (to me). I am sorry I cannot be more specific but I am horrible when it comes to names of pieces!

    You have a fully developed orchestra by this time and the music is so expressive and melodic.

    20th Century

    Again, gets even more expansive, varied and with a great deal of experimentation.

    Best-known composers:


    Holst - The Planets is extremely well known, particularly Jupiter. Definitely look up Rachmaninoff, too - Fawkes has provided links. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is another well-known composition. I also really, really like Shostakovich's work.

    You have jazz emerging in this period, as well as some very complicated and discordant-sounding music; pieces may change key several times and be very off-beat.

    There are also many pieces of 20th Century classical music that hark back to earlier eras - i.e. Carl Orff's Carmina Baruna is mentioned here so often on these boards; modern music imitating mediaeval music.

    I've basically just paraphrased much of wikipedia here; you'll find a lot more information there, of course. What I'd really recommend doing is buying a set of really cheap classical CDs - i.e. shops here usually sell '100 Top Classical Tunes' or whatever - they'll be of not-horrid but low quality, but you'll get a lot of bang for your buck and it'll help you to become acquainted with the best-known pieces really quickly.

    Janson on
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    EggyToastEggyToast Jersey CityRegistered User regular
    edited February 2007
    Janson's post covers the basics. I'm not too into classical music, but my wife owns a good chunk of CDs. Some pieces that are very recognizeable but are often not known by actual name are:

    Pictures at an Exihibition
    Lots of things by Aaron Copland
    The music from Carmen

    Also, sources! iTunes offers a lot of full classical albums for very cheap, as does eMusic. You can go very far downloading classical music on eMusic as many pieces are very long, and they've got tons of it: Linky!

    EggyToast on
    || Flickr — || PSN: EggyToast
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    FawkesFawkes __BANNED USERS regular
    edited February 2007
    Janson wrote:
    Carl Orff's Carmina Baruna is mentioned here so often on these boards; modern music imitating mediaeval music.

    Modern music imitating Romantic/Classical period, not medieval! Otherwise all good.

    Below is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is not a list of good / worthwhile / valuable compositions, it is simply the most popular & famous stuff which you are likely to have heard already, but not know where it came from.

    Four Seasons, Glorias

    Zadok the Priest, Messiah

    Bach, just listen to Nina Simone piano improvisations in My Baby Just Cares For Me, Love Me Or Leave Me, then listen to some Bach, you'll get the idea. Everything, basically.

    ...more everything...
    Mass in C Minor (esp. Kyrie)
    Overtures to The Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte. Half the music from the above too (ie Queen of the Night Aria in Magic Flute, Non Piu Andrai, Duet (forget the name, from Shawshank Redemption), "Ah! Tutti contenti. Saremo cosi" from end Act 4 (must listen to) in Marriage of Figaro, "Soave il Vento" trio from Cosi Fan Tutte)
    Adagio from Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments (K. 361)
    Concerto for Flute & Harp
    Twinkle twinkle little star, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and all that bollocks...just buy a complete Mozart, it's pretty much all uniquely brilliant. Certainly get every opera and choral piece.

    The Creation
    Various symphonies & string quartets. Never much of a fan.

    5th Symphony (particularly 1st movement)
    6th Symphony (Pastoral)
    9th Symphony (Ode to Joy)
    Moonlight sonata
    Pathetique sonata
    Missa Solemnis

    Piano Concerto (esp. 1st movement)

    Largo al Factotum from Barber of Seville
    Overture from William Tell

    Ellens dritter Gesang (AKA Ave Maria)
    Billions of pieces of piano music & German songs

    More billions of pieces of piano music.
    Famous ones you are likely to have heard, Prelude in E Minor, Waltz no. 6, Waltz no. 13, Polonaise in A maj Op 40 No 1.
    2 Piano Concertos


    Cavaliera Rusticana

    Piano Concerto no. 1
    1812 Overture
    Swan Lake
    Eugine Onegin
    Various bits of the Symphonies

    New World Symphony (esp. 4th movement)
    Cello concerto

    Pomp & Circumstance marches no 1 & 4
    Cello Concerto
    Enigma variations

    Also sprach Zarathustra

    Clair de lune


    [If you like the previous two, also look up Poulenc choral music, and Frank Martin Mass for Two Choirs]

    Buy the Ring cycle of operas, you'll get the idea. Stolen by every film composer for the last 40 years.

    The Planets orchestral suite

    Piano Concerto no.2 (best piano music ever bar none, must have)
    Piano Concerto no.3 (most fiendishly difficult piano music ever)
    Everything he ever wrote for the piano

    I'm stopping there, as the modern stuff gets too complex. If you want, mosey around in those mentioned in the previous post (Gershwin, Shostakovich, Britten, Bartok), avoid anything called serial technique, and have a look at Tippett for the best classical music in the last 40 years.

    Fawkes on
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    GrimmyTOAGrimmyTOA Registered User regular
    edited February 2007
    I feel like everyone (while giving excellent advice far beyond my ken) is forgetting the most accessible, easy to enjoy piece of classical music that I know of: Pachelbel's Canon in D. You'll recognize it and (despite rampant overexposure) it's still a great example of Baroque music -- and a great 'starter piece'.

    GrimmyTOA on
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