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Top 10 Classical Albums for People Who Don't Know Shit About Classical Music

In this romanticized meeting of two of the greatest classical composers, Beethoven fingers Mozart's organ.
In this romanticized meeting of two of the greatest classical composers, Beethoven fingers Mozart's organ.
From the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San José State University

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It's been around for centuries, musicians still play it and audiences love it, so classical music must be pretty awesome, right? Hell yes!

That doesn't mean that the average Joe can dive right into any classical composition. Symphonies and sonatas can be hard to understand because: 1) there are no lyrics; 2) there are ten tons of musical ideas packed into one piece (unlike the typical pop song with a hook and contrasting bridge); and 3) the length of the works are often long.

However, sooner or later most curious listeners want to give classical music a try, and over the years I've recommended the following pieces with successful results. Classical fans argue about which performance of a Beethoven symphony is best, but here's a secret: for newcomers, the performance is less important than the actual composition. (Note: There's no vocal music here. Many newbies have trouble with operatic singing, and different languages.) Enjoy!

10) J.S. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

(Philips 468549)

Concertos are easier to understand than symphonies. Everyone can relate to a soloist playing out in front of a group. There's an inherent drama in the relation between what the soloist plays and what the rest of the musicians do. 17th and 18th century concertos are shorter than their 19th and 20th century counterparts, and easier to appreciate.

Some composers aren't happy with just one soloist; they have to put three or four in front. The most glorious examples of this type of work (known as a concerto grosso) are the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is an inexpensive 2-fer CD that collects all six Brandenburgs. Try the 2nd; it's such a rousing piece that a performance was included on the Voyager probe to introduce aliens to Terran music. The 4th and 5th are easy to grasp as well.

Wonderful as the Brandenburgs are, the first work you should go to in this set is the Double Violin Concerto. People who've never listened to classical music respond immediately and magically to this work. When I taught, I used it to illustrate counterpoint (two or more melodies happening at the same time), and it never failed to captivate first-time listeners.



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