a classical starter...
At Christmas, a friend gave me A Year of Wonder, Clemency Burton-Hill’s book of classical music recommendations for every day, and I have been thoroughly enjoying the discovery of new pieces and the chance to listen to old favourites. This week alone has brought an introduction to Amy Beach and the chance to indulge in Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. This, combined with the fact that my Proms tickets just landed, made me think about the pieces I would recommend as a ‘starter.’ I grew up with classical music, but I know that it can be a bit of a strange behemoth if you didn’t. So here are my top tips and some of my favourites (Apple Music)
Salvator Mundi - Thomas Tallis. Let’s start in the early 1500s, with Thomas Tallis, who somehow managed to survive composing church music for Henry VIII, Mary, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. Salvator Mundi was one of my earliest introduction to early choral music, and I love it.
Prelude in C Major - J.S. Bach. It was abominably hard to pick a Bach piece for this list, but I chose this short, deceptively simple piece of keyboard music from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. Bach’s music is eternal proof that you can find freedom within set limits.
Ich habe Genug - J.S. Bach. I said it was abominably hard to pick a Bach piece: I couldn’t pick just one. For Bach you get two. This is one of his cantatas. Ich habe Genug is ‘I have enough’ and it is a cantata for the feast of the purification of Mary, echoing the song of Simeon.
Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major - Haydn. I was a teenage trumpet player… I was a thoroughly competent school orchestra player, but I could also play this concerto - and was actually legitimately good at the second movement (the easiest). It is also a lovely concerto, and properly shows off the trumpet.
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat Major - Mozart. It would not be possible (or probably legal) to do any intro to classical music without Mozart. Here I confess, I occassionally find Mozart a little too much. There’s so much that’s so swimmingly, delightfully, wonderful (I mean, 27 piano concertos… ) that it’s overwhelming. I do, however, always have time for this horn concerto (and also for singing along to it, thank you Flanders and Swann).
Vienna Blood - Johann Strauss. I can’t dance, but I kind of wish I could - especially when there is waltz music involved. Strauss is the boss of waltz music. This is not the most celebrated, but it is my favourite.
Pathetique Sonata, Second Movement - Beethoven. I also learned the piano as a Smol, which may explain the presence of a lot of piano music in this list. Beethoven is always big, even in sonata form, because of all the feeeeeeelings, and his piano music makes me have an emotion (or two).
Waltz Op.39 No.15 in A - Johannes Brahms. More waltzing. I feel like Brahms is often overlooked (including by me), but his waltzes are totally charming.
Prélude Op.28 No.7 in A major - Frédéric Chopin. Captain of the ’I know what I’m Really Good At (and it’s piano) Brigade, Chopin just makes me happy. It’s very hard to pick one small but perfectly formed piece, but I picked this one.
The Sleeping Beauty, Waltz - Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was the other ‘oh my gosh I can’t just pick one’ composer. I wanted a piece from a ballet score, so I started by picking his waltz from the Sleeping Beauty, which is glorious and twirly.
Violin Concerto in D major - Tchaikovsky. And then I gave up and also added in the first movement of the violin concerto, as an example of Tchaikovsy in Peak ‘Captain Feelings’ mode. The opening gives me chills.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Rachmaninov. This is the big one. The Almost Certainly My Desert Island Disc one. I remember exactly when I first heard this piece as a whole (during the BBC Young Musician of the Year final in 1992, when I was 10, and Freddy Kempf performed it) and I’ve been in love with it ever since. The most famous variation is the 18th (at about 15 minutes in), but my favourite is Variation 12, at about 7 minutes 50 into this recording.
Golliwog’s Cakewalk - Debussy. Debussy’s titling may be profoundly uncomfortabkle today, but the piece itself is a sparkling joy.
Death of Aase - Grieg. When people go for the music from Peer Gynt they usally go for Morning or Hall of the Mountain King, but me, I’m here for funerary glory.
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis - Vaughn Williams. Another one going to the desert island, this time for the melancholy moments. I always liked this piece, and then Peter Weir put it in the soundtrack to Master and Commander and made his audience weep, and I realised I loved it.
Agnus Dei - Barber. You may know this as ‘Adagio for Strings’, but I - as someone with a marked affection for choral music - prefer this arrangement.
Jupiter, from the Planets - Holst. Not all of Holst’s Planets suite works for me, but Jupiter is always uplifting. I know it’s become a hymn which has become annoyingly patriotic (thanks, Princess Diana) but it does still work, despite that.
Nimrod - Elgar. It’s that famous for a reason. This is the English version of ‘feeeeeelings’ music.
Jazz Suite Waltz - Shostakovich. Sometimes Shostakovich can require quite a lot of attention, but this is simply fun, and a gateway drug to the srong stuff.
Peter and the Wolf - Prokofiev. One of the classic ‘intro to the orchestra’ pieces (and my personal favourite). I enjoy both the story and the music of Peter and the Wolf, and all the tunes for the different animals are great - but this is the opening.
Rhapsody in Blue - Gershwin. Yeaaaaah, that opening saxophone is just that glorious. What more do you want?
Candide Overture - Bernstein. Beautifully straddles the (fuzzy-fuzzy) border between ‘classical’ and ‘musical’, everything is for the best in this best of all possible overtures.
In Paradisum - Fauré. Everyone is always about Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem, but I want this at my funeral. It soars.
Spiegel im Spiegel - Pärt. I am a late discoverer of a lot of contemporary classical music, and this, by Arvo Pärt stole my heart when I heard it accompanying Christopher Wheeldon’s heart-breaking ballet After the Rain. I love the way it rises and falls.
The Lamb - Tavener. Tavener was my gateway to contemporary classical, weirdly because of that time that Syvati was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. This unaccompanied choral piece is simply, transcendantly, beautiful.
On the Nature of Daylight - Richter. I think I’ve spent most of the past two years listening to Max Richter since discovering him with this (in Arrival) and the score for Woolf Works. It has been the mood music of my universe, both in joy and in sorrow, and I love it.