Intro to Classical Music: some listening suggestions to get you started

One magical thing about classical music is that there is so much of it, so there is always something new to discover. A common mistake is to underestimate the emotional power of classical music - it’s not just about catharsis, it’s also about expressing hope, joy, and yes, sometimes pain, all at once. Classical music is radically open to interpretation by the listener; each person can see something of their own life in it. In this article, I will focus exclusively on instrumental music — choral and vocal works will require a seperate instalment!

This list is not for the aficionado as nothing on it would be new to them. Rather, this is for people who are curious about the expressive power of classical music, and are taking the plunge for the first time.

Without further ado, here are some pieces that absolutely knock me over. 

Symphonic Repertoire

Beethoven, Symphony #6 in F Major (watch here)

This is a controversial choice, and many of my musician friends have taken me to task for loving this piece so much. But, to me, this piece is pure Spring, with melodies that shimmer with new life. I particularly love the transition from the third to the fourth movements, which does not involve a pause and is stunningly linked. It’s hard to hear this without feeling uplifted.

Márquez, Danzon #2 (watch here)

This piece is pure fun. The recording I’ve chosen is led by Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic’s dynamic (occasionally chaotic) conductor; it’ll make your day. The castanets have a particularly fantastic role to play throughout. 

Mahler, Symphony #5 (watch here)

I admit it: this symphony is long. You’ll recognise the third movement (Adagietto) from tragic moments in movies; it’s frequently ripped off (sorry, adapted) by film composers. The whole work is a gem though, beginning with a trumpet fanfare that will startle and haunt you, and carrying on without a break in emotional intensity to the very end roughly an hour later. I played the Adagietto movement at Kinhaven Music School in 2015, where my stand partner and I used to switch violins when we got bored in orchestra rehearsal. It turns out this is not a good idea in the key of C# Minor, when you’re lucky to play in tune even on an instrument you know very well.

Chamber Music

Chamber music is played between a small group of musicians, typically between two and eight, without a conductor. With apologies to the wind players out there, I’m focusing on string quartet repertoire, because frankly, it’s unrivaled.

Dvorak, String Quartet #12 in F Major, ‘American’ (watch here)

Nicknamed ‘the birds and trains quartet’ for its persistent motion and evocation of the natural world, this quartet is full of exceptional melodies and fun, varied textures. Particularly excellent moments include the opening viola solo, the final return to the theme in the fourth movement, and the wistfully beautiful violin duet in the second movement. 

This quartet is something of a calling-card for my string quartet at uni. We played it in our very first performance as a group, during which the cellist turned to the second violinist and whispered “let’s goooooo!” before setting the tempo for the fourth movement, resulting in an exhilarating (and frankly, a bit perilous) performance. 

Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 ‘Emperor’ (watch here)

This quartet is essential listening because it is quintessentially Haydn, the composer who effectively invented the string quartet as we know it today. Quartet musicians call him ‘Papa Haydn’ in deference to that contribution. The second movement is the gem of this piece; listen with tissues handy.

Shelly Washington, Middleground (listen here)

This quartet, which premiered in 2016, manages to be alternately euphoric and nostalgic. No matter where you’re from, it’ll make you think of home. My quartet performed the European premier of this piece in Glasgow in 2019. It was an *adventure* to put together, and a joy to perform!

Concerto Repertoire

The final category is solo repertoire, meaning works written for solo instruments to be accompanied by an orchestra. 

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major (watch here)

Is it unfair to include two pieces by Beethoven? I don’t think so. The violin concerto, like many of Beethoven’s works, brings us on a journey from struggle to liberation and hope. It’s difficult to imagine something as tender as the second movement, or as playful and joyful as the third movement, coming from such a famously irascible man, but such was Beethoven’s gift! 

Mozart Clarinet Concerto (watch here)

Here you go, wind players! The second movement is particularly affecting. This is one of the first pieces I played with a soloist as an orchestral player—it may also have been the first time I discovered the expressive power of the clarinet…if your only experience with the instrument has been school band, you’ll be surprised too! 

I hope you find something here that moves you! And keep your eyes peeled for a vocal music edition…