Five Pieces To Break You Into Classical Music

Don't know your sextets from your sonatas? Check in with this beginner's guide to get you on the orchestral level...
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This list would have been unthinkable, philistine even, at the turn of the last century, when Classical Music was the only game in town (back then the lists would have had titles like Worst French Operas of the Season, or Best of the Baroque Era). Heck, we might as well admit that lists themselves are somewhat philistine. And here the listing of philistine things ends, to go any further would be philistine.

The thing about Classical Music is it exists in an oddly paradoxical state. It is simultaneously ubiquitous, making more ad appearances than James Nesbitt, and oppressively unknowable, most pieces being entirely too longform for modern listening habits. I've not brought up some of the more exhausted classical pieces, like the omni-popular Tchaikovskian ballets, or Beethoven's 5th (a symphony so familiar it can be denoted thus: duh duh duh duuhm). There are only so many times these works can be recommended without inducing groans everywhere they're mentioned. This criterium narrows the field. I can only hope my selections balance the need for accessibility while still showing off, if not all, then a good proportion of what Classical is capable of.

Maurice Ravel, “Bolero”

This fifteen minute, frighteningly modern behemoth is essentially just a verse chorus verse structure with a loud ending. It's also a masterful demonstration of the power of dynamics. Ravel uses two lead melodies of elongated sophistication, backed by tandem marching drums and brass (almost drum and bass), switching between the major and minor modalities with metronomic faithfulness, to remarkable effect. Though for nearly fourteen and a half minutes there is almost no change in the structure or melodies, the depth and range of effect Ravel achieves with simple accumulation, and rising gradation of volume is startling. And after the first listen the piece becomes agonising bliss, waiting for the one chord change right at the end which turns the thing on its head and draws in its cataclysmic conclusion. “Bolero” is a lesson in the power of delayed gratification, or, in more musical language, suspended resolution. I've chosen the version above purely for the ridiculous contortions of Sergiu Celibidache's conducting.

Modest Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (arr. Ravel)

This list could have been a short article, with this collection of pieces at its centre. Such is its breadth and scope. Such is its natural completeness. “Pictures at an Exhibition” has the widest wingspan of any single classical work I am capable of naming. Its' primary theme, entitled “Promenade”, was written to convey the feeling of walking among pictures at an exhibition, and (amazingly) the music does give rise to such feelings, even if you've seldom (or never) walked among pictures at an exhibition. Beyond that, every mood in Classical's significant arsenal is employed, from fathomless melancholy (“The Old Castle”), to skittish playfulness (“Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”) to all-encompassing grandeur (“The Great Gate of Kiev”). You want warring strings and brass at blistering speed? You can have “The Market Place At Limoges”. You want a gracefully slow-moving woodwind lament? You can have “Bydio”. And, listening to Ravel's orchestral arrangement (the original piece was written for solo piano), you feel as though your ninety piece orchestra has ninety separate colours at its disposal.

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3. Igor Stravinksy, Petrushka (ballet

It might have been more appropriate to select Stravinsky's masterwork “The Rite of Spring”, which after all is the superior ballet. But then, that work is more suitable for intermediate to advanced listeners, presenting as it does sawn-off chunks of unwieldy melody which fit together in a kind of monstrous puzzle. At the beginner or apprentice level of listenership “Petrushka” is far more approachable, but no less fantastic in its execution and daring. From the instantly-alive opening flutes and strings to the rushing thunder of the pumping brass crescendos, the opening movement alone is enrapturing to anyone with aural capacity. The particular brilliance of “Petrushka” (and of Igor Stravinsky's early ballet works in general) is the extraordinarily confident brand of modernity which courses through it, combined with almost parodic lapses into more traditionally fluttery ballet sequences. It's the cool mastery on display here which entertains so especially.

4. Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata and Fuge in D minor BWV565 (arr. Stokowski)

Despite Classical's above-mentioned ubiquity, the individual pieces never suffer for familiarity even when they initially evoke the products associated with them. That's because there's always so much more to them than their brief media appearances allow, and discovering this is a fascinating joy. No piece demonstrates this principle more fully than Bach's most infamous Toccata and Fuge. Leopold Stokowski's arrangement takes a knotty (though nonetheless inspired) organ piece and enlivens it with all the tremendous power of the full orchestra. Though in my opinion it neglects the brass and woodwind sections, such that it lacks the overall colour that Ravel's arrangement of “Pictures at an Exhibition” had, it is still a hugely affecting dramatisation of Bach's already eerie piece. The fact that this particular arrangement was used to inaugurate Walt Disney's “Fantasia” will add a nostalgic glaze to the feelings evoked by this music, which frankly doesn't require the help.

5. Richard Wagner, Tannhauser (overture)

Believe me when I say you don't know the first thing about epic music until you're acquainted with Richard Wagner. That isn't to say I don't believe you when you tell me you've willing sat through entire Sigur Ros albums, or how the thing you like best about Mastodon is the grandiloquent narrative behind the bellowings of their music. What I simply mean is the entire context of epic is altered once you've experienced Wagner; the ground shifts beneath your feet. I recommend the “Tannhauser” overture (or Vorspiel, as Wagner took to referring to his overtures) since the opera itself runs to three hours, while the link above is a comparatively breezy fifteen minutes. It's by no means the longest of his operas, either. That would be Wagner's “Ring Cycle” (made up of four parts: “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walkure”, “Siegfried”, and “Götterdamerung”) which spans eighteen hours. Like most great epics this overture begins humbly and above all quietly, while working its way across a mountainous range of motifs which astonish in their vigour and vision, before finalising in a chorus of absolutely deafening greatness. Wagner's work is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the Romantic era in Classical, and it's easy to see why when this piece sweeps you entirely off your feet.