Putting together complitions of this sort is by its nature a bit self-important, but, the reality is, I’ve spent my entire life studying, playing, writing, and recording music. So, I am in fact qualified to put something like this together: I was classically trained at Manhattan School of Music as a child in piano, voice, and composition, and I spent my high school and college years working as an audio engineer in a professional recording studio, studying music informally during those years by simply hanging out with musicians constantly. This included artists from every genre imaginable, from hip-hop producers, to harmonium players. During this period, I also spent a significant amount of time with my uncle, who is a professional jazz guitarist and music professor. He had an enormous impact on not only my guitar playing, but also my ideas on harmony and music generally, introducing me to both jazz guitar playing, and jazz music theory. As a result, though my overall background is decidedly non-traditional, I grew up listening to almost nothing other than classical music, and I’ve spent a significant portion of my free time studying the genre ever since.
What I’ve put together below is a collection of music that I think will allow you to think about classical music, and music generally, by providing a context in which you can evaluate the next piece of music you listen to. The commentary is generally limited to historical information, with no real technical analysis. The point is to present a body of works that will acclimate you to the overall classical tradition, and its development over the last three centuries, and introduce you to a few of the main characters in this incredible story.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (1717 to 1723)
Bach’s Cello Suites are the cliché introduction to classical music, but sometimes there’s a reason things are popular: Paris is actually beautiful, and so is Rome, and as a result, a lot of people go to these cities. Similarly, Bach’s Cello Suites are amazing, because he’s making use of a single instrument, that nonetheless fills the space, with nothing to hide or dress up –
It’s just perfect music.
Harpsichord Concerto in D minor (1738)
Though the title clearly indicates that this piece was originally written for harpsichord, it is my experience that this piece is almost always played on piano. Though the piano was already in existence at the time Bach composed the piece, as an instrument, the piano was a relatively new invention, and like many new inventions, it took time for the piano to gain in popularity. Presumably, the reason that many of Bach’s pieces that were originally written for harpsichord are now played on Piano, is the present day popularity of the piano, and the relative obscurity of the harpsichord. This transition from harpsichord to piano shows that despite having written records of the plain instructions of composers, the history of music is subject to what are in effect trends in popularity.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 5, Mov. 1 (1765)
Mozart was only nine years old when he wrote this piece, and you’ll note from the title that it was his fifth symphony. He wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, and so in the time span of about a year, despite being a small child, he wrote five symphonies. As a general matter, his pace of production was simply astonishing, composing what would likely be a mountain’s worth of music if it were printed and stored in one place.
Rondo in D Major (1786)
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a rock star in his time, and would draw simply enormous crowds wherever he played. You can see his remarkable confidence in this performance, as he casually tests the piano in front of a packed house, and simply begins playing, with no announcements, or other introductions whatsoever.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 14 (“The Moonlight Sonata”) (1801)
I watched a separate video of pianist Daniel Barenboim discussing this piece, and he seemed unsure of Beethoven’s motivation for writing it. I’m not Daniel Barenboim, but it seems likely to me that this was a romantic offering from Beethoven to a woman named Giulietta Guicciardi, given the rather glowing terms he used to describe her role in his life:
“… a sweet, enchanting girl, who loves me and whom I love. After two years, I am again enjoying some moments of bliss, and it is the first time that – I feel that marriage could make me happy, but unfortunately she is not of my station – and now – I certainly could not marry now.”
Moreover, the piece is explicitly dedicated to her:
So, it sounds to me like a bittersweet song, offering affection, together with a lamentation over a relationship that never got to run its full course.
Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118 – 2 (1893)
Though I hate playing the, “who’s your favorite composer?” game, if I had to pick, it would be Brahms. The balance between ferocity and delicateness in his music is mentally exhausting, forcing even the most competitive people to concede that he is without question the superior composer, because you’re confronted with someone who is so overbearingly intense, and then suddenly, and inexplicably gentile. His strategy seems to be one of chaos, where you’re forced to simply trust the music, because you simply cannot anticipate what is going to happen.
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1879)
My understanding of the history of this piece* is that Brahms composed it around the time that Felix Schumann died. Felix was the child of his close friends, and fellow composers, Robert and Clara Schumann. Though I’m not aware of any formal dedication of the piece, Brahms was aware of Felix’s poor health, and Clara was aware of this piece of music, as is made clear in their correspondence. Brahms is known to have had a deep affection for Clara, possibly romantic in nature, so it is not inconceivable that he wrote this to alleviate Clara’s suffering, having to watch her son die.
My personal affection for this piece of music cannot be exaggerated, in particular, for the second movement –
I discovered it under thankfully happier conditions, right around the time that I met a woman that I fell madly in love with, and ended up writing an arrangement of the second movement for her.
*The following link takes you directly to Violin Sonata No. 1.
String Quartet No. 1, Mov. 1 (1903)
This piece in my opinion marks the beginning of modern music –
Whether or not you know anything about classical music, you can tell that it just doesn’t sound the same as the other pieces above. Music theorists can undoubtedly tell you a lot more than I can about the evolution of harmony, and there’s no doubt that these kinds of intellectual developments matter. But there’s also a practical side to the development of the arts, and in this case, Ravel was composing in a cosmopolitan society that had moved away from an economy dominated by the Catholic Church. As a result, he managed to find an economic and political freedom to compose that Mozart and Bach never knew, simply because they were subject to the whims of either the Church, or royalty.
So while I don’t intend to dismiss the importance of intellectual traditions, there is also the practical, economic and political context in which people live, and because artists are people, these factors can also completely change the things they create, simply because artists, like everyone else, can be either constrained, or liberated by the contexts in which they live.
Suite Bergamasque, Mov. 3 (“Clair de Lune”) (1905)
As I mentioned above, I left formal classical training during my teenage years, and started working at a recording studio. Though I didn’t deliberately leave classical music behind me, the new sounds I was exposed to occupied a significant portion of my listening time, and as a result, as a practical matter, I spent much less time listening to classical music. However, I was also experimenting with home recording at the time, through a ridiculous set up that I had concocted using a computer that my dad had recently bought for me, which featured some horrible preamp from 1960, and a guitar cabinet that I had rebuilt into monitors. While poking around the audio files on my computer, I found a midi file entitled, “Clair de Lune”. I had no idea what this was, but I clicked on it out of curiosity, since I knew it was a music file, and though the sound libraries were positively awful, it didn’t matter –
The music was just astonishing, I’d never heard anything like it.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
As a general matter, Rachmaninoff’s music is sweeping, cinematic, and full of life, with thunderous, impossible-to-play piano parts, and soaring orchestration, that all comes together to make you feel as though your life has been subsumed into some immaculately produced, Art Deco era movie. Though this piece was not, to my knowledge, written for any particular film, Variation No. 18* is a piece made for film, and is in fact featured in a film, “Somewhere in Time“.
*The following link takes you directly to Variation No. 18.