An Introduction to Fine Music


Why This? Why you?

If you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’re at least a little curious about this strange obsession I have with old fashioned music. Many people make fun of it—especially opera and ballet—so why was I so (and I’ll admit it) in love with it? Follow me as far as you wish to hunt for clues.

From an early age I've had a great affection for "classical" music. I don't know where that came from. No one else in my family had a taste for it. But it has been my musical preference for most of my life. Back to the days when all my buddies were into Buddy Holly and Elvis, I was into Bach and Beethoven. As I mention in footnote 12 of My Eulogy, I think Leonard Bernstein had much to do with my early music appreciation. I count it one of the great blessings in my life.

These days I listen to, and support, All Classical Portland when I'm not listening to something from my collection of CDs. If you think this music isn't for you, I invite you to check out a couple of the samples below and see if you don't glimpse the beauty beneath the sound. Whether you do or not, whether you can or can’t, try to keep an ear open for "classical" beauty and richness in everything you listen to.

Just what does “classical” really mean? There’s the dictionary definition (“a work that is honored as definitive in its field; something noteworthy of its kind and worth remembering; an article unchanging in style”). In 2006, this was number 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 tunes of the year. Is it definitive? Worth remembering? Will it be around in a hundred years? Ten? Today?

Here’s a popular song from 1984, sung by its composer. I nominate it for a classic, and predict that it could still be popular 100 years from now. It’s difficult to define the term “classic”, but you know it when you hear it.

If you'd rather listen to "modern" music, consider a scientific explanation as to why popular music is getting worse. (Spoiler: it's all about money.)

The universe of classical music is huge, and over the centuries there have been thousands of artists who have composed significant works of music. Much of it has been lost or become uninteresting over time, but for dozens of generations many in each generation, each different time, have found lasting beauty in certain pieces.

That's why they're called "classics"—there's something timeless about them.

In the list below I cite my favorite composers from each era and provide just a small sampling of their work. My choices are almost all short pieces and I’ve chosen them only to represent each composer's much greater life's work. There is SO MUCH MORE available to listeners today than the scant few provided here.

In providing samples, I'm limited to what performances are available on the Internet; I've made an effort to choose the best of what's out there but I have more selections on CD than what I’ve provided here, and you’re welcome to listen to them. When I could, I’ve chosen samples of live music; I love to watch music being made.

And you shouldn't be surprised if you recognize more than you ever thought you would in these pieces; it’s just the names that might not be familiar to you. My invitation to you is to explore the beauty and majesty and solace of fine music to discover what appeals to you and why, and where else to find its comfort.

Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.

When I want music to tell me about the human condition in all its complexity—its pathos and whimsy and tragedy and desire and malice—I turn to immense works of the great masters.

But if I want a glimpse of eternity, of why we're all here, of what peace feels like, I listen to any of the following (in no particular order)...

Gregorian Chant was designed for contemplation of life after life.

For me,  these five works raise the human voice to the heavens...

My Brief and Unsophisticated Version of the History of Classical Music

If you’ve come this far, I’d like to give you my sense of how Western music developed over the last thousand years. Understand, I’m no expert, just an enthusiast. But I do love this music and how it progressed into the 20th century.

High Middle Ages (1000-1300)
‘Written’ music evolved when monks needed a way of creating a record of hymns to be sung in Gregorian chant. Instrumentation was primitive; the voice was the principal instrument of music, and songs/hymns the principal form, usually in religious ceremonies. It’s interesting to study the effect that Troubadours, or wandering minstrels, had on public opinion in the High Dark Ages. They were the first singers of popular music, and were also remarkable rabble rousers.

The Renaissance (1400-1600)
Instruments became more varied and more useful during this time, and also more available to the public. This period saw the development of early versions of brass instruments (trumpet, cornet and early trombone), strings (lyre, viol, harp, mandolin and guitar), percussion (drums, tambourine, bells and jews harp) and woodwinds (reed pipe, hornpipe, bagpipe, flute and recorder).

With this improvement and variety in instrumentation, and with the increase in urban living, small groups of musicians were able to spend more time together. So began dance and ensemble performance. The music followed—it became more sophisticated and profane: ballades, madrigals, motets, pavanes… and operas.

The Baroque Period (1600-1750)
This was the beginning of the classical form of music: tonality (a piece being written in a specific key), improvisation, polyphonic instrumentation and the sonata form (three or four movements ending in a lively finale).

Instruments continued to evolve in sophistication, adding: strings (violin, viola, cello, bass violin), woodwinds (oboe, bassoon), keyboards (clavichord, harpsichord, organ, fortepiano) and percussion (timpani, castanets).

The dance suite, called partita by some, became a popular form, consisting of several dance segments, or movements: overture, allemande, gigue, minuet, etc., all various types of dance. Dance suites became popular because the intent was for many in attendance to observe the performance (or competition) of those on the floor. From that the concept of ballet took hold.

Classical (1750-1820) and Romantic (1804-1910)
Coincident with the start of the Industrial Revolution, instrumentation took great leaps forward. The “color” of woodwinds was enhanced (piccolo, oboe, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, etc.), brass (many with valves now: trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas), the percussion section (xylophones, drums, celestas, cymbals, harps, bells, triangles, chimes, etc.) exploded in size and range, and the whole theme of orchestration became “bigger is better”.

At the same time, instruments like the piano and violin became “stars” and were featured as solo instruments or as equals to the full orchestra, as well as being purchased by families as essentials for home entertainment.

A Few Forms of Classical Music

The array of musical forms was vast during this period; they were considered forms because there was a formal structure to each. I’ll mention just a few here (and of course in each case there are exceptions). You can find extensive glossaries of music terms at Naxos and B. Hollis

NOTE: In many of the YouTube musical samples that follow, you'll have to click through the advertisements to get to the music.

Étude (Fr. “study”) Usually a short composition of considerable difficulty intended as practice material. Those of Debussy, Liszt and Chopin appear regularly in the concert piano repertoire.
Example: Chopin's Étude N°3 in E Major, Op.10 'Tristesse', performed by the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. (5:38)

Divertimento (It. “to amuse”) An informal, light, entertaining piece for small ensemble in a social setting, as opposed to more formal religious pieces.
Example: Mozart's Divertimento in D major, K. 136 performed by the New York Classical Players. (12:53)

Fugue (It. “a running away, flight”) A theme, announced at first in one part alone, is subsequently imitated by all the other parts in turn. The name is derived from the idea that one part starts on its own and is pursued by the parts that follow.
Example: Bach's Fugue in G minor BWV 578 performed by Ton Koopman (3:14)

Sonata (It. “to sound”) Composed for one or two instruments consisting usually of three sections: (1) Introduction & Exposition, (2) Development, and (3) Recapitulation & Coda. This sonata form is the structure of most concertos and symphonies. (And if you attend a concert in the sonata form, be sure not to applaud between movements—it’s distracting to the performers.)
Example: Beethoven's Sonata N°14 'Moonlight' performed by Daniel Barenboim (16:49)

Concerto (It. “arrange by mutual agreement”) A piece for one solo instrument (usually piano, violin or horn) in conversation with the full orchestra in three contrasting movements.
Examples: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto №2 performed by Simon Trpceski and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms (36:13), Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto performed by Itzhak Perlman and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy (36:30), and Beethoven's Piano Concerto №5 "Emperor" performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philhamonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (41:24)

Symphony (L. “concordant in sound”) A large work involving a full orchestra, usually in four movements:
1. An opening sonata or allegro (brisk, lively)
2. A slow movement, ex. Adagio (slow and lyrical)
3. A minuet (a courtly dance) or scherzo (a “joke”, light hearted)
4. Finale (fast and furious) often in the rondo form: A-B-A-C-A-D-A
Examples: Schubert's Symphony №5 in B Flat Major, D 485, performed by The Tel Aviv Soloists conducted by Barak Tal (24:46), Mozart's Symphony No 41 "Jupiter" performed by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia conducted by Lorin Maazel (41:15), and Beethoven's Symphony №5 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein (37:56)

Opera (L. “works”) An extended dramatic composition in which all parts are sung to instrumental accompaniment; usually includes arias, choruses, and recitatives.
Example: Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca in a movie version with English subtitles, by the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, with synopsis. (2:03:55)

Ballet (Fr. “a little dance”) Expressive dance with gestures and movements of grace and fluidity.
Example: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker performed by the Ballet of the Slovak National Theater and the Sofia National Opera Orchestra, with synopsis. (1:10:40)


Composers

This is a huge subject, and over the centuries there have been thousands of artists who have composed significant works of music. Much of it has become uninteresting over time, but some works have found new audiences in each of dozens of generations. That's why they're called "classics"—there's something timeless about them.

I'm only including a few of my favorite composers from each era and just a small sampling of their work. These are all short pieces, and only meant to represent each composer's much greater life's work—there is SO MUCH MORE than the brief pieces here. I haven't included some of the greatest masterworks—the concertos and symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovshy, and Rachmaninoff, to name just a few!

Also, I'm limited to what performances are available on the Internet; I've made an effort to choose the best of what's out there. And you shouldn't be surprised if you recognize more of this than you ever thought, you just didn't know the names.

My invitation to you is to explore the beauty and majesty and solace of the fine music created by these masters, to discover what appeals to you and why.

The Medieval era
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite, Ave Generosa, Spiritus Sanctus

The Renaissance era
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) Spem in Alium (Latin for "Hope in any other")
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) O Magnum Mysterium "O Great Mystery"
William Byrd (~1540-1623) Ave Verum Corpus "Hail, true Body"
Thomas Campion (1567-1620) Never Weather Beaten Sail‬

The Baroque era
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) Canon in D Major, Magnificat
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) La Follia, Concerto Grosso, Christmas Concerto
Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) Adagio
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) "Summer" Presto from The Four Seasons, Gloria
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) Rejouissance, Concerto in D major,
J. S. Bach (1685-1750) Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring, Air
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) Sonata In F Minor, Sonata in D minor
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Hallelujah Chorus, Water Music, Organ Concerto

The Classical era
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) Sonata in A, Flute Concerto in D minor
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Sunrise Quartet, Movements I & II, Serenade for Strings
W. A. Mozart (1756-1791) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Piano Sonata №11, Piano concerto №21
L. van Beethoven (1770-1827) Ode to Joy (+ 10,000), Egmont Overture, Für Elise
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Ave Maria, Serenade, Military March, Arpeggione Sonata

The Romantic era
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) Overture to Der Freischutz, Invitation to the Dance
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) William Tell Overture and just the Finale
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Hungarian March, Symphonie Fantastique
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Symphony №4, Wedding March, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Piano Concerto, Träumerei, Concertpiece for Four Horns
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Fantaisie Impromptu, Nocturne Op. 9-2 Grande Valse Brillante
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) La Campanella, Les Preludes, Hungarian Rhapsody №2, Liebestraum
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Siegfried Idyll, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, to Lohengrin
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Requiem: Dies irae, Parigi, o cara
César Franck (1822-1890) Panis Angelicus
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) The Moldau, Dance Of The Comedians
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) Bamboula, Grande Caprice De Concert
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Hungarian Dance №5, Waltz in A-Flat Major, Lullaby
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Symphony №3 (4th), Danse Macabre
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Great Gate of Kiev, Night on Bald Mountain
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Symphony №5, Serenade for Strings, Piano Concerto №1
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) Symphony №9, 4th, Cello Concerto in B minor
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) Morning from Peer Guynt, Holberg Suite Prelude
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol
Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931) Symphony on a French Mountain Air
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Pomp and Circumstance №1, Serenade for Strings
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Nessun Dorma, O Soave Fanciulla
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Adagietto, Symphony №5, "Blumine", Symphony №1
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Also Sprach Zarathustra, Pt I, Horn Concerto №1
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Finlandia, Karelia Suite, The Swan of Tuonela
Scott Joplin (1868-1917) Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, Pineapple Rag
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) The Lark Ascending, Tallis Fantasia
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Sonata №2

The 20th century
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Clair de Lune, La Mer, Rêverie, Prelude... Afternoon of a Faun
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) The Planets - Mars, the Bringer of War; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Pavane for a Dead Princess, Daybreak (Daphnis et Chloé)
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) Ritual Fire Dance, Danse Espagnole, Serenata Andaluza
George Gershwin (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue, Summertime, Our Love Is Here To Stay
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait, Simple Gifts
Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) Concierto de Aranjuez, Fantasia para un gentilhombre
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) Sabre Dance, Spartacus, Masquerade Waltz
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Adagio for Strings, Agnus Dei, Violin Concerto
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Candide Overture, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
John Williams (1932- ) Jurassic Park, Main Theme From Star Wars, Imperial March
Arvo Pärt (1935- ) Spiegel im Spiegel, Silentium
Morten Lauridsen (1943 - ) Lux Æterna, Sure on This Shining Night, O Nata Lux

The Orchestra

The various instruments and performers in an orchestra are arranged in a specific order to optimize the sound that reaches the audience in a symphony hall. Here's what the arrangement looks like for a typical symphony from the Classical/Romantic Era:

Here's a simpler diagram:

In 2011 the renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was involved in an experiment called the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, where performers from around the world were selected from YouTube videos they'd submitted of their auditions. They came from 30 different countries and gathered for three days in the Sydney Opera House, never having played together. Here they are, after a day of jetlag and maybe a little practice, performing Hector Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture on the second day. Watch for the interplay between the various groups of instruments.

Benjamin Britton

In 1945 Benjamin Britten wrote The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra to show how the various instruments contribute to the symphonic whole. Here is a 17-minute performance of the piece, illustrating each family of instruments as they are featured in it. The Young Person's Guide is a convenient way to teach early listeners to listen for the voices of the various instruments that make up an orchestra, and for them to understand the role that each plays in the harmony of a symphonic work. (Here's an interactive way to hear the same piece.)

The Philharmonia Orchestra in the UK has video interviews with all their principal instrumentalists, and together they give you in-depth insights into the role each plays in the overall sound. Click on any photo of an instrument to view that principal's interview.