Classical music study recommendations

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Classical music study recommendations

Postby lavengro » Mon Dec 23, 2019 6:15 pm

I appreciate that this post is a bit misplaced, but I have the impression that a number of forum members have a background in or appreciation for classical music.

The coming year is the year I finally expose myself to classical music. I have only a very light, hit-or-miss exposure to classical music to this point in my life: some Beethoven (mostly sonatas and a few bars from a couple of symphonies), Bach (the Brandenburg concertos), four seasons worth of Vivaldi, a few pieces by Chopin. And some Mozart by way of the movie Amadeus. And Mahler’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Minor courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s very excellent Shutter Island (side note here: if you have never watched Shutter Island, you really really should do yourself a huge favour and stop reading this post right now and watch that with the best screen/audio you can manage in a darkened room and without reading anything in advance about the movie).

Can anyone recommend any resource that might suggest an approach or provide a guide to working through a year’s worth of Western classical music mostly from scratch. I am hoping for recommendations for material on the internet rather than a text requiring purchase.

I figure I will have about an hour per day to fit in some attentive music listening. I anticipate moving chronologically through each of the traditionally-defined eras of Western classical music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic) likely stopping short of Modern and Post-modern. Does that approach make sense?

Thanks for any thoughts.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby Lianne » Mon Dec 23, 2019 6:27 pm

I hope you'll share your plan and maybe even your progress through it! If not on this forum, then at least somewhere you can point us to. :) I would be very interested in following along.

One summer at International Music Camp the music history class took the form of a chronological tour through the history of western classical music. Even though that was just a class each day for a week, it introduced me to so much music I hadn't been exposed to, starting with Gregorian chant!
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Mon Dec 23, 2019 10:41 pm

What a coincidence - I started reading a book about J. S. Bach earlier today and came to think of a good reference material I often returned to in the late 90s/early 00s - Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/100 ... ical_Music

And if you haven't read Iversen's log, you can get a lot of tips there.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby Chung » Tue Dec 24, 2019 12:06 am

lavengro wrote:I appreciate that this post is a bit misplaced, but I have the impression that a number of forum members have a background in or appreciation for classical music.

The coming year is the year I finally expose myself to classical music. I have only a very light, hit-or-miss exposure to classical music to this point in my life: some Beethoven (mostly sonatas and a few bars from a couple of symphonies), Bach (the Brandenburg concertos), four seasons worth of Vivaldi, a few pieces by Chopin. And some Mozart by way of the movie Amadeus. And Mahler’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Minor courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s very excellent Shutter Island (side note here: if you have never watched Shutter Island, you really really should do yourself a huge favour and stop reading this post right now and watch that with the best screen/audio you can manage in a darkened room and without reading anything in advance about the movie).

Can anyone recommend any resource that might suggest an approach or provide a guide to working through a year’s worth of Western classical music mostly from scratch. I am hoping for recommendations for material on the internet rather than a text requiring purchase.

I figure I will have about an hour per day to fit in some attentive music listening. I anticipate moving chronologically through each of the traditionally-defined eras of Western classical music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic) likely stopping short of Modern and Post-modern. Does that approach make sense?

Thanks for any thoughts.


If I understand you correctly, you're looking for something like a guide to appreciating classical music. Have you heard about Yale's Introduction to Classical Music on coursera? As far as I understand, it's free to register in the course as an auditor so that you can watch the lectures. If you pay, you're enrolling for the full course with assignments and quizzes, and then a certificate upon passing.

There are a few forums for classical music that would be worth following (if not outright register to) as a kind of "extra assignment". I've picked up the occasional recommendation for a good recording on these either in someone's glowing post and/or an embedded YouTube clip of a performance.

- Classical Music Guide
- Good Music Guide
- r/classical music

Online texts on classical music appreciation are legion (I get 209,000,000 hits on Google with "guide to classical music"). I think that your approach by organizing your study by the broad eras (or centuries) from Medieval to Romantic is sound enough, although I'd change "Romantic" to "present" since classical music is still around in the 21st century. Having divided classical music by era, you can then look for free texts online that go into some depth about classical music of the era in question - no doubt you'll get recommendations in these texts for pieces to listen to. However, you still might be sufficiently interested in buying a book as it could be quite cheap anyway when bought as an older edition and/or second-hand. Since you're in Vancouver, I see that amazon.ca has some choices for you, a few of which are laughably cheap through Amazon Marketplace. Maybe Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, The Classical Music Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music: An Indispensable Guide for Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music, Lives of the Great Composers 3e or Classical Music: A Beginner's Guide could be worth looking into (or checking out from a public library).

I'm obviously into classical music and I have recommendations for recordings and artists as is typical but I'd rather not spoil or distort your tastes right now since you seem keen enough to have a go at the whole range with an open mind. I came about my interest by first listening to some cheap compilations of greatest hits, and then listening to more music by certain composers whose hits had piqued my interest. The only books on classical music that I've read have been biographies of a few composers and The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby aokoye » Tue Dec 24, 2019 1:51 am

Like Chung, I'm also into classical music. I played flute very seriously for 10 or so years and was a choral singer for 4ish years with this year being first year that I haven't been in an ensemble of some sort for a very long time. I think Chung's suggestions are good, especially the idea of the Coursera course, so I'll try not to repeat them. Note that I got into classical music when I was 10 after randomly turning the radio dial to the classical station, liking it, and then being deeply involved in playing classical music for most of my life. That is, for better or worse, not something that you're going to be able to replicate. I've also studied classical music at the university level, though not as much as people who have gone to colleges/universities with more traditional music departments.

Outside of that, I think it would probably be a good idea to have days when you're willing or able to devote more than an hour to listening to classical music. You're going to miss out on a lot of symphonies and operas if you're really devoted to the one hour thing. In the same vein, I would recommend that you start listening to classical music on the radio in the background. I was going to suggest finding a local station, but when I googled for any Vancouver (Canada) based ones I couldn't find any thus I'll suggest my local station which has a handful of online streams, All Classical which is at allclassical.org (I don't get any sort of weird kick back from them, but I do try to donate to them every year). They're one of the better classical stations that I've listened to. My one minor warning of sorts is that from now through Christmas they're primarily focusing on Christmas music, but that will end sooner rather than later. Later this month they'll do their top 100 list which actually might be perfect for you. People vote on their favorite piece of classical music and the top 100 get played on December 31st in order. It gets very predictable, but given that you're new to classical music, that's not really a bad thing for you.

It would also be worth actually going to see performances which I realize requires shelling out money, but is totally worth it. So for instance, on the weekend of January 24th the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is playing a concert(s) that includes Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte, Saint-Saëns' first cello concerto, and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. I would go to that in a heartbeat and those three are definitely "you should probably know/recognize this if you care about classical music" pieces. They're also playing a piece by Pierre Boulez that I haven't heard before and am listening to now. Also don't forget about going to see a ballet or a choral music concert. There's an amazing men's choir in Vancouver that I would highly suggest trying to go see, Chor Leoni.

Given my suggestions thus far, while your idea of going from medieval music through now is a good one in terms of say, reading about music and listening to the music that you're reading about, I don't think it's warranted. That said, there's no right or wrong way to do this. I think my main concern is that to me that actually sounds far more daunting than doing something like listening to a classical radio station (online or on a radio) or subscribing to the Frankfurt Radio Symphony's youtube channel because it's just so much music to work through without help of a syllabus like you'd find in a class (see the Coursera class idea that Chung gave). I also think you'd do yourself a disservice to just stop after getting through (late) romantic music. You'd be missing out on a lot of really amazing pieces and composers including Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Shostakovich, John Adams, Rachmaninoff, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, I could go on and on but I'll stop.

TL:DR Here's a list of my suggestions
  • Listen to a classical radio station like All Classical in your day to day life (ie during your commute or while you're cooking dinner)
  • Go to concerts if you can afford to do so
  • Check out Youtube channels of various symphonies and choirs including: the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, the Oslo Philharmonic, and AVROTROS Klassiek (which is the classical music branch of the Dutch broadcaster NPO).
  • If you have friends who like classical music, ask them for say, their top five favorite composers and then look up those composers on Youtube or Wikipedia.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby lavengro » Tue Dec 24, 2019 7:18 am

Thanks very much Lianne, jeff, Chung and aokoye, your comments are much appreciated.

Lianne, I think I will start a thread by the beginning of the year, but perhaps an open thread for whoever may be interested rather than just a log of my slog through early music over the first 5 or 6 weeks of the new year (5 to 6 weeks is usually how long I last on crazy schemes). Rather than boxing, I think I may spend part of Boxing Day drafting up a rough plan. Definitely starting with (briefly) the medieval period (so far I have some individuals in mind and types of medieval music) and then moving forward through different musical eras. Just need a pithy title now for the thread, and it being the end of the year, my pith tank is pretty much depleted. Let me know if you have any ideas (title or rough plan).

Jeff, the book you mentioned looks good, the Vancouver Public Library has one copy, currently out on loan, but I will take a look in due course. I do not mind buying materials such as books, but I am trying to winnow down material things right now as I am feeling oppressed by stuff and clutter, and my interest in classical music will only continuing until early or mid February, likely (see previous paragraph comments to Lianne).

Chung, many thanks for the excellent recommendations and I will look into a number of them. I took a look and just signed up for the Coursera online course. I do not have a background in music theory or history at all, so I hope to do a little work in those areas, but mostly at this point I am looking to line up as much music as I can cram into my earholes in an organized fashion (at this point, a roughly chronological fashion) as possible within the limited free time I anticipate having available.

aokoye, many thanks for all the thoughtful suggestions. I've been to concerts in the past (though not the VSO) and listened occasionally to classical music on the radio (the CBC fm channel is or at least was good for including classical music into their programming. While I generally liked what I would hear from time to time (especially in sound tracks to movies), I still lack a complete sense of context, and it is context and a deeper understanding that I am hoping to get from a systemic approach. Rather than hearing isolated pieces from different composers from different musical periods on say a classical music channel, I am looking forward to for example spending two full weeks immersing (somewhat) into Beethoven sonatas at one point in the year, then a full week or so with Chopin's nocturnes, etc. I don't doubt at all what you say about missing out on a lot of value if I were to stop with the romantic music era, but I think trying to cram more beyond the romantic period will mean being even more superficial with the medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic periods as it. So, post Romantic period may need to be deferred until 2021.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby aokoye » Tue Dec 24, 2019 9:04 am

lavengro wrote:aokoye, many thanks for all the thoughtful suggestions. I've been to concerts in the past (though not the VSO) and listened occasionally to classical music on the radio (the CBC fm channel is or at least was good for including classical music into their programming. While I generally liked what I would hear from time to time (especially in sound tracks to movies), I still lack a complete sense of context, and it is context and a deeper understanding that I am hoping to get from a systemic approach. Rather than hearing isolated pieces from different composers from different musical periods on say a classical music channel, I am looking forward to for example spending two full weeks immersing (somewhat) into Beethoven sonatas at one point in the year, then a full week or so with Chopin's nocturnes, etc. I don't doubt at all what you say about missing out on a lot of value if I were to stop with the romantic music era, but I think trying to cram more beyond the romantic period will mean being even more superficial with the medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic periods as it. So, post Romantic period may need to be deferred until 2021.

I have a better idea of what you're looking for now. Reading through a really basic history of Western music text would probably be helpful and you've already gotten lots of suggestions on that. By basic I mean not something like the tome that is Norton's History of Western Music. That said, realize that this is more or less a never ending project which isn't a bad thing. Even if you were to just focus on say, the classical period, the breadth very wide and the depth is very deep. You could spend the whole year on Brahms for instance. Again, not a bad thing, it just is what it is (not dissimilar to language ;) ).

In terms of theory, and music history, I don't think you'll need to focus a lot on theory right now. [Western] Music history would be more useful and the Coursera course should be very useful in that regard. In terms of theory, a good and free resource for theory is musictheory.net. Again, I don't know that it will be super useful to you to take more than the shallowest of dives into it, at least for the time being. Learn the difference between major and minor (or really what they sound like), maybe learn about time signatures (or at least what a waltz is), and learn the Italian and German words that are used to denote tempo.

Have fun with this though. I have twice gotten to see all of the Shostakovich string quartets performed in order over the course of two or three days. The first time by the Manhattan String Quartet and the second by the Emerson String Quartet. They were both great experiences. It might also be fun for you to listen to different recordings of the same piece.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby rpg » Thu Dec 26, 2019 1:14 pm

I'd suggest not being too fixated on going chronologically. I think it could get a little demotivating; a lot of the most popular music is 1800s and later, and I don't think you need to artificially restrict yourself from listening to it in order to listen to more Palestrina or motets or whatever. I think you'll have a better time, and be more likely to make more progress on your project, if you allow yourself to jump around a bit. Plus, some days you may just not be in the mood for whatever you have scheduled.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby Iversen » Sat Dec 28, 2019 11:35 am

Much of the best classical music is written by totally unknown composers, but can be found on Youtube - if you know what to go for. In the preceding messages other members have suggested some all round repertoire sources so I'll just mention a few names from the older part history of classical music (up to around 1650), and I'll do so in chronological order. And later on I may add a few posts concerning instrumental music from the Baroque, the classic and the romantic period and those strands in the post 1900 music which aren't too nerve-wrecking and distressing to listen to.

Reconstructed pieces from ancient Greece and Babylon and things like that: everything I have heard of that stuff sounds awful. Leave it to the scholars...

Medieval music - ahem. Most of it was choral, and I prefer instrumental music. And most non-liturgical pieces that have survived only survived as single melody lines without indications whatsoever of speed or anything else. If you want to have a representative dose of old choral singing then try Machaut: "Mass of Notre-Dame". He lived in the 14. century, and at the same time in history you find the troubadours and trouvères of Southern and (to some extent) Northern France. One of the best of their melodies is "Quan vei l'alauzeta" by Bernat de Ventadorn (in Occitan, but there are also a few instrumental versions). You might also try the Cantigas by king Alphonso the wise of Portugal, especially his Cantiga nr. 184 "Madre de Deus". For another pretty melody try "innsbruck Ich muss dich lassen", which has been set to music several times, most succesfully by Heinrich Isaac.

The earliest keyboard pieces were written by people like Paumann, Judenkünig, Kotter and Schlick (all German), with Frescobaldi from Italy coming soon after. I think these old pieces are interesting and often pretty, but maybe something of an acquired taste. Better start out with the virginalists from the time of Elisabeth the First - people like Byrd and Bull and Farnaby and Peters and Munday and the permanently melancholic Dowland. Or early Spanish organ music by people like Cabezón, Cabanilles or Correa de Arrajo. Or if you prefer the gently sound of plucked string instruments, then try the evergreen "Fantasia que Contrahaze la Harpa en la Manera de Ludovico" by the genius Alonso Mudarra. The best version ever was made by the rock group-ish group Skye, but it may be a tad difficult to find that one in 'these distracted days' (with a formulation coined by the British composer Tomkins).

Shortly after we find renaissance composers like Praetorius ('Terpsichore') and the notorious Henry VIII of England, i.e. a whole generation of composers who wrote merry dance melodies for the courts and wealthy burghers. Often the music is better known by the names of the arrangers and/or editors (copyright wasn't a big issue back then), and for a good first impression you should definitely try the suite "Danserye" from "Het derde Musycke Boexcken", published by Thielman Susato. If you want an impression of the music the peasants listened to then you can just as well start out with the bands that tour the medieval festivals - my own favorite in this genre is "Schelmisch", but there are plenty other providers of ancient heavy metal out there. These bands may not be exactly scientific in their rendering of the old melodies, but nobody else do it better. And then two almost unknown names: the "Capona - Sferraina" by Kapsberger and "Tarantella Napoletana, Tono Hypodorico" by Athanasius Kircher.

In Italy you find dance music by people like Mainerio and Rossi, and it was also the period where opera was invented (for good or for worse). The first one was probably written by a man named Peri, but the first memorable melody was the Toccata (actually a fanfare) from Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi. And then there was a whole host of composers who wrote canzonas and sonatas for instrumental ensembles, generally for performance in churches and often in antiphonal settings where small groups were distributed in different places. The big name here was Giovanni Gabrieli, whose music was played in San Marco of Venice, but there are a number of less wellknown composers who shouldn't be ignored - people like Legrenzi, Negri, Lappi, Guami, Merulo, Merula, Canova da Milano and Ludovico Grossi da Viadana.

And then we are almost in the baroque period, but just on the border to that period we find the German composers who tried their best to survive the thirty years war - people like Rosenmüller, Pezel, Scheidt and Schein. They mostly wrote religious music for vocalists, but also some really pretty suites. And the most surprising thing - given the turmoil of the period where they lived: much of this music is surprisingly calm and serene.
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Re: Classical music study recommendations

Postby Iversen » Sun Dec 29, 2019 12:46 am

rpg wrote:I'd suggest not being too fixated on going chronologically.


OK, then I'll skip the period from 1650 to around 1900 and try to find something later that sounds nice. But to get there it might be worth identifying where it all went wrong for classical music. Up through the 1800s music had become more and more chromatic, and an Austrian composer named Schönberg represented this tendency to the utmost degree - try "Verklärte Nacht" or the longer piece "Pélleas et Melisande". But around his opus 5 he became sick and tired of chromatism and then he invented something that was much worse: dodecaphonism. The idea was that a 'melody' should contain all 12 notes in a chromatic scale with no logical order at all, and then the whole piece should be built on that. Actually Schönberg and another composer named Berg still remembered how to write well-wrought orchestral sounds - but they had a collegue named Webern who pushed the serial idea one fatal step further, and best thing that can be said about his music is that it doesn't last very long. And the line that descended from this debâcle ended in total absurdity with a piece by the American Cage, where absolutely nothing is played for 4 minutes and 51 seconds. Well, a certain Tudor went one step further - he destroyed the grand piano on which he could have played music - but maybe it was better that way.... Another person named Stockhausen boasted that he evoked "nie erhörte Klänge". Actually there might be a reason that these sounds hadn't been heard, and in my opinion they should have remained unheard...

But there were scattered pockets of composers that still wrote nice music, and one group in France was called "Les six" because it contained six composers. But there were also several others, and they continued a line back to the socalled impressionists Debussy and Ravel. Ravel's most wellknown work is the "Bolero", where a snare drum player plays the same figure for a quarter of an hour. The miracle is that it is a very efficient piece of music. The second suite from "Daphnis et Chloë" is also a magnificent piece of music, and I have painted the famous flute solo in the painting below. Debussy has written a fine seascape in "la Mer", and for a shorter work go for the "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune". But there are also less known related composers - try for instance Pierné or the organ composer Alain ("Litanies"). One generation later we find 'les six' with Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. The most important among these are Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc (try for instance the cow on the roof by Milhaud "Le Boeuf sur le Toit"), and outside the group I would like to mention Jacques Ibert, who showed his penchant for busy rhythms in works like "Escales" and "Ouverture de Fête" and "Symphonie Marine". But after them came Pierre Boulez ... well, ok, he was a good conductor...

In Russia under Stalin music was controlled by the state - and this meant that people like the infamous Zhdanov were in charge. The irony is that some composers wrote splendid music under those conditions - like the three ballet suites of Shostakovitch and the Romeo and Juliet music by Prokofiev (both also wrote symphonies, but the ballet music is more attractive). Slightly more traditional music was written by people like Glazunov, but also by some less wellknown composers like Glière ("Krashnyj Mak" ballet) and Ippolitov-Ivanov ("Caucasian Sketches"). The irony is that even apparatchiks like Tikhon Khrennikov, who was appointed by Stalin in 1948 as the leader of the Sovjet composers' organization (and who kept the job until 1991) actually could write good music in their spare time. Georgia and Armenia fostered several composers who wrote splendid music with a folkloristic tinge, and the most wellknown of these is of course Khatchaturian (the guy with the famous Sabre dance from Gayaneh - try getting the whole suite), but I would also like to mention people like Tjeknavorian, who is more known as a conductor, and the somewhat older Spendiarov.

Several composers left Russia because of the revolution (including Prokofiev, who however chose to return permanently to Moscow in 1936). Rachmaninov remained staunchly romantic, while Stravinsky seemed to try out anything - and he did often succeed in writing something worthy of attention, like the romantic ballet FIrebird, the fiercely atavistic Sacre du Printemps and the folksy Petrushka. These composers are well known, but some listeners may not yet have noticed the name Alan Hovhaness, an Armenian composer and weirdo living in the USA. At some point he destroyed all his earlier works and started to write music with an eerily hymnic athosphere, and he wrote a lot of it - at least 500 works. For a representative short morsel try the Prayer of St.George. Or the piece intitulated "And God Created Great Whales", which includes genuine whale wails.

And now we are at the symphonies I would like to mention three names: Vaughan-Williams from England, Carl Nielsen from Denmark and Sibelius from Finland. Of course I could also have mentioned scores of other composers, but this rant has already become too long. OK OK, two names more: Ottorino Respighi from Italy (3 suites illustrating the city of Rome, but try also to find Belkis) and Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil. But then I also have to mention some other Latin American composers like Chavez (sinfonia India), Marques (several Danzóns) ... and the incomparable Silvestre Revueltas, who seemed really to love the tuba (Sensemaya, Janitizio, Itinerarios).

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Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë, suite 2
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