I was fortunate to grow up with a father who adored classical music. During summer vacations as a child, I spent substantial time lounging around his office. He had an enormous collection of classical cassette tapes (and eventually cds!) which were played as background music and, when the patients were done for the day, turned up and blasted. We also frequented the symphony, I am a classically trained pianist, and dancing around the house to an opera or symphony is not unheard of in my family. PBS was a go-to channel and I have known a fair amount about composers for as long as I can remember. I highly recommend this kind of exposure to all the parents out there. Although I did not realize it at the time, I would grow from co-existing with classical music to loving it. This happened perhaps the same way a child of the nineties may feel suddenly happy when hearing an Alanis Morsette or Backstreet Boys song which he did not necessarily care for but that brings back school bus nostalgia so intense that they sing along and are lit up from the inside, realizing that it is a part of him.
This post is not intended for those who were gently nurtured into music appreciation, but for those who either don’t know how or what to like about classical music and also for those who are bored to death by the thought of a symphony. My upbringing does not mean I don’t understand. There are many highly regarded compositions that I don’t relate to. I don’t presume that you will like all classical music. As a born and raised Upstate New Yorker, I do not even like all Dave Matthews songs (even though I may not have admitted it in high school or even college). My intention is that you open up to the genre. Find your niche. Maybe it is Schubert, maybe Gershwin. Maybe it is opera, maybe piano sonatinas from the classical period. You may have a very specific period of music that draws you in, or perhaps a preference for a certain instrument. I urge you to explore. Find out what is out there for you because I guarantee there is something that will tug at you and make you feel something.
I’d like to introduce you to a few different works, for those who might be overwhelmed by venturing out on your own right away. I’ll start with some pieces that are extremely likable, to give you a gentle, positive nudge into your explorations. I challenge you to imagine a scene in a movie where the music would be appropriate. Be the musical director for this movie. See where that takes you. This is something I do whenever I listen to music in general and it is a fun challenge and creative exercise. Okay– Is your mind free from all pre-conceptions, misconceptions, and images of stuffy older types in tuxedos and evening finery for a night at the opera? Good.
I recommend starting with my favorite, Liszt. Why should you be interested in Liszt? Well, who doesn’t love a good performance? Big, bold, brash Liszt. In life, he had a gigantic personality. He was a real showman, excessively popular and famed for giving theatrical performances on stage. His charisma on stage extended into this personal life as well, and he was a particular favorite with the ladies. The countess d’Agout even left her husband, George Sand, for him in quite a scandal! Liszt had numerous lovers and was the toast of court and all of the most fashionable circles. Not only did his love life require virtuosity, his pieces did. The athleticism and a flair for the dramatic ingrained in Liszt’s works was something completely new. What better way to begin to appreciate classical music than with a piece so exciting and infused with humor that it actually makes me laugh. I take you to Hungarian Rhapsody #2. First, I’d like you to listen to the audio version so you can hear the humor, then I recommend watching a performance so you can see the virtuosity required of the pianist.
There are a few moments I would like to draw your attention to. At 1:33, notice the playfulness the right hand starting to tease the listener. At 5:15 the humor really begins. Pay attention to the mimicry; the hands both engaged in a game of tag around the playground. Listen to the “loudness” that comes from the left hand in seemingly unintentional bursts and the teasing scales from the right hand in the upper register. This piece is designed in such a way that the listener can hardly believe that just one person is playing all of these different notes. You will hear themes repeated throughout the song, sometimes alternating between the right and left hand, and sometimes hidden behind a heavily accented distraction. It is all part of the magic and delight.
Now for something slower and more lyrical, I suggest listening to “Romance” from “The Gadfly Suite” by Shostakovich. This was actually composed as part of a movie score. I have not seen this particular old Russian movie (or perhaps any?) so we have the opportunity to decide what kind of scene this was played during. I challenge it not to pull at your heart strings. From the first note, I feel the ache of love, perhaps unrequited? When the second violin joins the first in its song, I imagine two lonely cartoon swans swimming together, having found each other at last. Just imagining it melts my heart in the charming way only an old animated short can. What do you hear?
For our final introduction, I would like to add something from the operatic genre. I understand that opera can be difficult to take in. I apologize if my choice is a bit patronizing in its clear popularity and likelihood of being already familiar to you. This is what is known in Italian, as brindisi or, as I hope you are familiar with– a drinking song! What could be more fun? Just imagine a bunch of Italians, red in the face from wine, draped over one another, raising their glasses and bawdily singing this tune. I bring you to a selection from Verdi‘s “La Traviata” called Libiamo ne’lieti calici. I know you hear the pure joy that only unabashed drunkenness can bring.
I intend to revisit this subject later and perhaps introduce something a bit less familiar, but I hope by then, you will have taken the time to explore for yourself and maybe you can share some of your favorite pieces with me. A few ideas:
- If you are a runner, try running to classical music! It is surprisingly motivating, even the slower pieces. It can add a touch of the dramatic to your workout that you might enjoy!
- Try cooking to opera, especially Italian opera (Verdi, Puccini, Rossini). This would be a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with some new music and also set the mood for a fun evening.
- Trying watching some youtube video’s of pianists! Particularly Liszt and Rachmaninoff pieces, which are impressive to see performed. Search for the Van Cliburn competition, which will give you a taste of some of the best modern talent.