What music would you recommend to a classical neophyte?‏

Is classical music asking the right questions in its search for a new audience? Should we be debating the way musicians dress, the style of lighting used in concert halls and the rights and wrongs of applause between movements? Or should we be spending more time deliberating over what music will appeal to that elusive new audience? As the name of the game is classical music, my vote goes unequivocally for deliberating over what music to recommend and promote to new listeners. Which is why the following Facebook exchange sent me off down a path that is worth sharing.
Reader - Hey there. I am a big fan of On An Overgrown Path and a friend of mine wants to start off listening to classical music. I wanted to know some recommendations for beginners
Me - You ask a very important question, and one to which there is no easy answer. Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of your friend to help me? With some background I will make some suggestions. Reader - Brief bio: Female. Educational background: Marketing and IT. Age: 27. Occupation: IT Consultant. Hobbies: Singing pop rock. Favorite movies: The Hunger Games saga. Music they currently listen to: Joan Baez, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and have heard a bit of Wagner.
Max Hole and the other new classical gurus are curiously quiet on the crucial question of what a classical beginner should start by listening to. Current concert programmes suggests that Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius are the only games in town, while Classic FM and BBC Radio 3 playlist programmes favour the 'Tchaikovsly's greatest hits' approach. None of which, I feel, would hook our 27 year old pop rock singing Nick Cave fan on the classics. So I enlisted the help of four 'virtual' friends, all of who are professionally involved in classical music, to recommend music for this specific classical neophyte. Here are their responses.

Frances Wilson: pianist blogger and piano teacher - I'm basing my suggestions partly on my idea of "lateral listening" and also on the premise that everything is "new" if you've never heard it before - i.e. a new listener will, hopefully, approach his/her listening with open ears and few preconceptions. Here goes.....

Baroque - Bach French Suite V, 1st Partita, some of the Chorales

Moving laterally to 'Variations for Judith' (various living composers). A set of variations on Bach's Bist bei du Mir. An excellent intro to contemporary piano music and all the movements are very individual and brief. This might pique an interest in variations, in which case back to Bach and the Goldbergs.....

Chopin - Preludes (even if one doesn't know them, they are "familiar" in their idiom and soundworld). Moving laterally to Syzmanowski (Etudes, Metopes) and early Scriabin (Preludes, Morceaux).

Liszt - Annees de Pelerinage, 1st year. Fountains at the Villa d'Este - and laterally on to Ravel Jeux d'Eau and Ondine

Debussy - Preludes and Children's Corner. Clair de Lune. Again, I think this music will seem "familiar" even if it is not instantly recognisable. From Debussy early Messiaen (Prelude: La Colombe)

Prokofiev - Visions Fugitives. Brief, varied, accessible. And an intro to more atonal music

Shostakovich Preludes Op 87 - varied, short, melodic, rhythmic, colourful

Cage - In a Landscape, Dream. And thence to Philip Glass - piano Etudes, Metamorphoses (I find my students love Glass's music because it is familiar from film and TV scores)

Ligeti - Musica Ricercata. Proof that 20th-century classical music can be witty and fun. Which leads us back to Bach....and now perhaps the Goldbergs and the 48....
James Weeks: conductor and composer - How about

Machaut chansons (virelais, rondeaux, ballades)
Beethoven symphonies
Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind and Rite of Spring
Varèse Amériques
Riley IN C
Cage Sonatas and Interludes
Andriessen De Staat or Hoketus

for a start?
Vanessa Lann: composer - I would say that a good start might be to listen to any Hildegard von Bingen; then Bach's Matthew Passion or B minor Mass; I'll let other people recommend everything in the next century and a half; then maybe Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; then maybe Google "composer non-white" and "composer female" for a selection of more modern works. I'll leave out the ten-page list I could write including all the amazing work written by composers of all sorts (classical and otherwise) in the last century and a half, as I would not want to limit a new listener - and I would not know who to include, and who to leave out - and it is a bit too close to home...
Ian Sidden: baritone at Dortmund Opera I became somewhat obsessed with this project. In fact, I might have gone a bit overboard with it, because I’ve written a long blog post with a playlist both on YouTube and Spotify along with short annotations to each of the contained pieces. As I acknowledge in the blog post, I don’t consider this frozen in place, and I will update the playlist and annotations as I think of new appropriate music or as people suggest music to me.

What does "appropriate" mean? The blog post goes into much more detail, but there were six criteria:

Sense of story or place.
Brevity (as much as possible).
Opens doors to more music.
Easy to enjoy.
Quality without condescension.

I began with “story” because of my own experiences with classical, and from what we know about this young professional who wants to learn more, "story" seemed relevant to him as well. From there I considered what challenges new listeners face to flesh out the other criteria.

And the resulting playlist (as of now) is too long to post here entirely, but it’s 40 selections as of now. It has composers like Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven, of course, but also Barber, Victoria, Puccini, Bernstein, Josquin, Copland, Schubert, Britten, Wagner, Hildegard, Scriabin and Prokofiev. There are some modern composers like Larsen, Adams, Tavener, Whitacre, and Salonen. And Gottfried Huppertz is in there as the composer of the Metropolis score, which opens many doors into to the present day and to the past.

The pieces chosen from them tried to satisfy the criteria and offer a doorway inside the composers’ world. Sometimes that meant ignoring dominant genres in which particular composers composed (opera for Britten and religious vocal music for Bach, for examples) to find an easier path in. Sometimes it just meant finding the shortest expression of characteristics of a composer (Symphony no. 5 Allegro con brio from Beethoven, for example). But sometimes it meant challenging even new listeners to something unusual and potentially difficult (“Der Leiermann” from Schubert or “Helix” by Salonen).

Some major names were left out who I hope to add later, and additionally I’d like to add more diversity to this list of names. It’s a start though. You can read the aforementioned blog post via this link:

Those four thoughtful responses expose once again the fallacy of the fashionable 'one size fits all' approach to music programming. Recommendations for our classical newcomer range from Hildegard, Machaut and Bach, to Cage, Ligeti, Scriabin, Salonen, Andriessen and Gottfried Huppertz. Which is how it should be: because just as the established classical audience is a mix of overlapping but distinct niches, so the new classical audience is also an agglomeration of different niches; with some liking Nick Cave and others André Rieu. Tunnel vision programming - Mahler and R. Strauss last year, Mahler and Sibelius this year - ignores the reality of niche audiences. If classical music really wants to win new listeners, programmes must include everything from Hildegard to Gottfried Huppertz and beyond. My thanks go to Fran Wilson, Vanessa Lann, James Weeks and Ian Sidden for making this post possible, and I hope that the young neophyte that started us down this path benefits from their astute recommendations. In conclusion, to the wise words of my four 'virtual' friends I would add the following advice from the 14th century Persian poet Hāfez: "Stay close to any sounds that make you glad to be alive".

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Bookhound said…
Thoroughly enjoyed this post, agreeing with some of the choices, not agreeing with others, and thinking I must listen to that, or it's been too long since I last listened to that. Thanks too for the Hafez quote which I loved, and have never heard before.
Anonymous said…
Given that 91% of the population already listens to the radio, another pertinent question might be: which radio station? Nick Cave, Tom Waits sound a bit 6 Music. So one 'strategy' might be to move backwards in time, starting with the more modern: Ligeti, Varèse, Andriessen, (maybe even the odd(!) bit of Zappa). Weave in some Adams, Reich with older composers: Webern, CPEBach, Gesualdo, Cornysh, Hildegard. IOW, for this purpose, avoiding the well-known repertoire.
Anonymous said…
Radio 3's late night Late Junction is quite good at interspersing contemporary classical music with pop, jazz, fusion, world etc, and then more mainstream classical. The strictly "classical" pieces seem to emerge out of the other music which I think makes it more accessible to the uninitiated listener (and vice versa). I also find concert programmes which mix modern repertoire with more traditional/well-known pieces can work really well, as the new often shines a different light on the old. One of the best recent examples of this for me was a concert by the Rubenstein competition winner at the Wigmore back in March. He played 3 sonatas by Scarlatti followed by Ligeti's Musica Ricercata. It was fabulous
Anonymous said…
Curious question and even more curious answers. No right and wrong here. If the proper point of entry for a neophyte is favorable comparison with already familiarity styles, coming in through film and/or program music might be one way to go. However, I can’t help but notice that this puts the listener before the music, much like narrowcasting attempts to fit the news and current events to the profile of the individual audience member. Considering (Western) classical music has traditions stretching back nearly one millennium, it seems to me that broad exposure to lots of genres might better result in a new listener discovering which style period, instrumentation, and musical forms most appeal to his or her ears and emotions. Then off to the races. I recognize that such an approach risks turning what might be an enjoyable voyage of discovery into a dry, academic affair. However, appreciation deepens with greater knowledge and understanding of musical and historical context, as opposed to the sheer sound of things.
shfmusic said…
Great discussion! I am struggling to get my son to add some classical to his "play list" - he loves R&B, loves techno, plays the guitar....but classical is a harder sell. One thing that seems to help is knowing the background of the work or composer - the backstory, I suppose. A couple of interesting facts seems to prime the imagination to want to listen to the piece. Also, somewhere up the thread, someone mentioned brevity, and I think that does help in the early going.
Hertel said…
All these answers are way too clever in my opinion.
Just give the neophyte the New World Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Beethoven’s Pastoral, Prokofiev’s Classical, Mozart 40, Bizet’s Symphony and Bach’s Orchestral Suite no 3.
If she enjoys most of that then she will easily find the motivation to explore further. If not, then classical music will never be her kind of music.

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