There are two approaches to learning: Some prefer to take small steps and try out the simplest and easiest first; others like to dive headfirst into the deep end of the pool.
When it comes to classical music, the first approach is most common. We don’t want to scare our pupil, so we spoon feed the shorter, easier, more comfortable pieces to them: a Chopin waltz or a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. At its worst, this leads to a belief in the student, that classical music is a warm bath to soak in, a place to let your mind drift, to let soothing images wander through your imagination.
The “Dick and Jane” approach, though, can be patronizing. If you have a real hunger for emotional and intellectual depth, the approach trivializes the subject. It pretends that the more difficult music isn’t the real heart of classical music, but some sort of broccoli to be had along with your Satie Gymnopedie or your Carmen Suite. Classical music is meant to be listened to with intensity and focus, as you might read Dostoevsky or a Greek tragedy. If your mind wanders, you have lost the trail.
I recently wrote a blog about sharing my music with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose; she, in turn, shared with me her contemporary indie-pop music (You can find it here: https://richardnilsen.com/2016/03/14/both-sides-now).
The response to this blog entry was overwhelming: More people have clicked on it than any other, and the comments added to it are legion. The piece must have hit a nerve.
Among those comments have been a number of repeated questions, and one of those is a request for further “guidance,” as to what to listen to in order to become more familiar with classical music. There is a hunger out there for something more serious or formal than the 3-minute song.
So, I’m assuming an adventurous listener, perhaps with a collection of Frank Zappa, Nick Cave or Radiohead. That is a listener who does not want to start out on baby food, but wants to dive into the deep end, who wants to drink the hard stuff.
So, here is my preliminary list of deep-end music for those who want to find out what classical music is really all about: It isn’t about style (there is a great deal of so-called classical music that is really just the conventional style of its day and has no particular claim to posterity — one thinks of Ditters von Dittersdorf or Friedrich Kalkbrenner) but about sounding depths, expanding on form, creating sound narratives and searching for meaning. I have written in the past that the essential question of classical music is “How do you write a piece of music that lasts longer than three minutes?” And that the idea of classical music needs to be expanded to include the classical musics of other cultures, such as that of India or Japan, and also to include jazz, which is really just another classical music, at least in the hands of its most serious practitioners, such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.
But here, I am going to restrict myself to what is commonly called classical music: the European-American tradition of art music.
So, here’s a first go-round of suggestions for the brave new listener.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge. Originally the final movement of his string quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, it proved to challenging for both the audiences and the performers of his day, so he felt compelled to write a replacement for it and publish the fugue separately as his Op. 133. It might be the toughest nut to crack in all of classical music. In it, Beethoven builds such a huge double fugue (that is, a fugue not on one theme, but on two themes played simultaneously, upping the ante and the difficulty by not doubling, but squaring the complexity), that it breaks the mold of what a fugue can be, as the fiddlers nearly saw their instruments in half. Playing this music is like taming wild tigers. If you survive this, everything else is a piece of cake.
There is one performance that nearly tames this wild animal, and that is a recording from 1954 with conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler leading the Vienna Philharmonic in an orchestral version of the music. It can be found on You Tube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSfcE3HH7dk.
A version for quartet in more modern sound can be had from an unidentified quartet with an entertaining animation that makes visual the notes at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s0Mp7LFI-k.
Frederic Chopin, Polonaise Fantaisie, Op. 61. This must be the hairiest thing Chopin ever wrote, incomprehensible on first listening — it seems to wander and never make up its mind. But after many hearings, it is one of the high points of western music. Give it a chance. Those opening chords are the most desolate in all music, especially the way Vladimir Horowitz plays them. Horowitz owned this piece. Here he is from 1966 in Carnegie Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI38MuQ4YdQ.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Chaconne from Partita in D-minor for solo violin. A great teacher of mine said that this is what he called “serious” music, that is, music not meant to paint a picture or tell a story, but music so abstract, so pure as to exist practically in a Platonic realm. On a single fiddle, he has the violinist play variants of the same series of chords over and over, gaining in depth and complexity as it moves along. Here is Jascha Heifetz playing at about the age of 70. It doesn’t get much better than this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q-Zqz7mNjQ.
For contrast, the Chaconne has been transcribed several times for piano. Here is Helene Grimaud playing it as opened up by the great pianist Ferruccio Busoni (don’t expect pure Bach; this is a 19th century re-imagining, but it is glorious): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw9DlMNnpPM.
Bela Bartok, String Quartet No. 5. Written in 1934, Bartok’s next-to-last string quartet is a model of construction, built in an arch-like form, so that it moves fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, with key structures and melodies equally symmetrical. The two slow movements imitate the sounds of night, with chirping and cawing, crickets and crows. The central movement is in a time signature typical of Bulgarian folk music, with beats broken up into nines broken into patterns of 4+2+3 and later into tens, broken into 3+2+2+3. And, in the finale, just before the end, you hear an imitation of a hurdy gurdy. It’s a lot to fit into a tightly argued quartet. Here it is played by the Hungarian String Quartet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMjRjLHbacw
Alban Berg, Violin Concerto. This is one of the most emotionally draining pieces of music from the 20th century, written “in memory of an angel,” the angel being Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma
Mahler and Walter Gropius. Manon died a teenager from Polio in 1934 and Berg, who was exceptionally close to the family, wrote this concerto in elegy. It is composed in the 12-tone technique, but in an accessible style, because the tone-row he built the music around has obvious tonal implications. It is heartfelt and moving, and in the final movement, the last notes of the tone row miraculously turn into the Bach chorale, “Is est Genug,” “It is enough.” If you can hear this and not blubber like a baby, you are more stalwart than me. Anne-Sophie Mutter, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd0dMs0MTg8.