Once, when I was waiting tables, I ran across a young lady who played an orchestral instrument (I don’t recall which one), and she asked me, exasperated, why it is that, as she put it, ‘young people don’t care about classical music anymore.’ I don’t know that that’s really answerable, but I’m gonna give a few shots at why, and what can be done about it. Specifically I’d like to encourage anyone, young or old, who has no interest in or is intimidated by classical music to venture into the waters and also maybe gently indict friends who aid in classical’s bad press and relative irrelevancy.
Whether or not it’s true, I think many people associate a classical music with upper-class snootiness: tuxedoes, ties, champagne (in champagne glasses), glove tapping, monocle wearing, nonsense. People who like classical, the thought goes, can’t like Bruce Springsteen (I actually don’t much care for the Boss, but it’s a good blue collar example). Worse yet is when classical folk, and I’ve seen this done, get down on popular music as some form of crude, barbarous, primitive, art form. Thus there is a sense of a high price for entry into the classical world. You’ve gotta have lots of money and you need to denigrate the music you actually like.
Speaking from my experience, not having any knowledge other than a few ‘big names’ made me feel overwhelmed. Here’s this mass of music with a tradition that spans centuries, how could I approach that? If someone says that I should check out a rock artist, it’s fairly easy to find them and listen to them. If I really like them, I can get through much of their entire library, usually, without much effort. But have you seen the complete works of Bach? How do you start with that? Or what about all these fancy names for genre? What’s the difference between a fugue and a symphony? And knowing that I’d not be able to ‘get’ a composer, can be a strange and frustrating feeling.
Moreover, I long found the classical music I did hear to be rather boring and unexciting. I’d only hear it in lobbies and elevators.
It was really a combination of two forces that made me start looking to get to know classical more. 1) I felt that I was rather uncultured and wanted to grow more in this regard. So I started looking at art, reading poetry, and listening to music. 2) There were several theologians who commended classical, primarily Bach and Mozart. But whatever reason works for you is fine. I think you really should give it a shot.
In that spirit, here are a few of my recommendations.
- Realize that you’ll probably never become ‘expert’ in knowing Beethoven the same way you know the entire U2 discography. It’s just harder to do and takes a ton of time.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. Just because someone says something is great, doesn’t mean you’re stupid or a fungus if you don’t. For instance, I’ve never been able to feel anything but contempt for Joseph Hadyn’s music. It sounds like really boring math problems making love. Maybe you don’t like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Maybe, like me, you think John Cage is a quack rather than a genius. Whatcha gonna do, pretend to like music you hate?
- Don’t be afraid to like something. I have all six soundtracks to the Star Wars films as well as that for Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Shindler’s List, and a few others. I like them, and I listen to them.
- Find a nerdy friend who does know more classical than you and ask them for recommendations. Not just for pieces and artists, but for recordings. You’ll find that a single piece can sound radically different among recordings due to varying interpretations or sound quality, and not all are created equal. For instance I really like ‘slow’ versions of the Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
- Realize that if you’re going to experience any music, not least potentially complex and layered pieces, you can’t just throw it on in the background. You’ve gotta sit and just listen to it. Many composers will state a theme or a melody and play off it; turn certain notes minor, make unexpected shifts in emphasis. I sometimes took this to be merely vague repetition, but it’s more than that. It’s a game.
- Trust and distrust authorities. As I said, don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. But also realize there are reasons that some consider Bach’s Mass in b minor or Mozart’s unfinished requiem to be great works. You can’t really do the ‘indie’ thing of liking ‘underground’ acts very well if you’re only just starting. Hit the big names first. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc…
- Find instruments or styles you like. I like pianos, organs and choruses, symphonies, sacred music, and fugues, for instance.
- Don’t denigrate popular music or John Williams soundtracks. Not only can you find genuinely creative pop music, but John Williams is the man.
- Make sure you make your kids take music lessons and music appreciation. If you want them to like it, then make sure they’re exposed to it. Take them to concerts too.
- Don’t be a judgmental jerk.
- Consider that maybe much of the abstract, abrasive, narcissistic ‘art for art’s sake’ of ‘modern classical’ is an adventure in ego stroking. If classical isn’t actually connecting with people, then it might not be attentive to the spirit of the people. Music should speak to people.
- Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor – You’ll recognize the opening organ lick surely, but the whole thing is a masterpiece. As James said, Bach’s fugues are an adventure in the infinite.
- (Many of these links, btw, are to reliable interpretations by a gentleman who also uses visuals to help you ‘see’ what is going on. I’ve genuinely found his graphics helpful in visualizing pieces. He’s got over a hundred videos and you can trust that they any of them are worth hearing.)
- Bach’s cello suites are all great, but the first one – in six parts total- is probably his most famous.
- Eventually look at Bach’s Mass in b minor, his Brandenburg Concerti (sample here), and his fugues. There’s a reason that he’s considered one of the best.
- Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies and his own “Great Fugue” is shockingly ‘modern’ and very powerful.
- Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque #1 are a great place to start.
- Among the small group sometimes called the ‘Holy Minimalists,’ I find particularly wonderful John Tavener and Arvo Part. For Tavener, see his The Lamb, Song for Athene, God Is With Us, and Funeral Ikos; For Part, Beatitudes, De Profundis, from Missa Syllabica, the Sanctus, and his organ music, like this.
- For more sacred music, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom is an absolute must. It truly proclaims the Gospel.
- There’s much more to add. For instance Chopin’s nocturnes and preludes, Rachmaninov’s own Divine Liturgy and Vespers, and his Prelude in c sharp minor, and others. But I don’t want to make this too long.
- Finally, if you’re on the music program Spotify, I’ve got a few classical lists that you can check out. Just search for Tony Hunt.