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Classical Music for Dummies: Eight Composers for the Longing Musicalista in You

Mozart: Not on the list, but doesn't he look like a hipster in this picture?
Mozart: Not on the list, but doesn't he look like a hipster in this picture?

It seems like every other week I come across people who have a budding tendency within themselves to be more enthusiastic about classical music. Whether a hipster, rocker, or person somewhat regretting that he/she never continued playing the violin or piano from a young age, classical music (according to the masses) brings a sense of peace and sensibility to our fist-pumping and head-banging world.

It has been said that classical music is a dying sport of sorts, for the well-to-do and culture snobs, but I say "hooey" (with the gravity of a middle finger) to that. Classical music is for everyone who looks for drama, introspection, a dizzying array of interesting sounds, and of course, a gold lining of refinement.

The following list will serve well as a guide for those looking to explore the awesome repertoire of sounds that is the music of the heavens. BONUS: A handy-dandy pronunciation guide!


1. Tchaikovsky's Symphonies No. 4 and No. 6

(pronounced CHAI-COUGH-SKI)


There is no doubt in the minds of music historians that Tchaikovsky was both gay and a serial depressive. His music is a bit depressing, but on the same scale, extremely romantic. Idealists flock to his grandiose compositions for a spectrum of emotions. Without a doubt, no one makes more people cry to classical music than good-ole Tchaik (that bastard! ::tears up::). Also, conspiracy theorists will have a good time dining on the variable stories of how this composer came to his demise - bon ape tit!


Recommended recording:

NY Philharmonic/Bernstein for Symphony No. 4 and Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan for No. 6.

2. Mahler's Symphonies No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 (pronounced MALL-LER - otherwise known as a suburban shopping addict)
Fans of this composer are called "Mahlerites" and for a good reason. They are GAGA-Little-Monsters hardcore. All the major conductors of the world and mainstream composers like John Williams are Mahlerites, drawing inspiration directly from Mahler's legendary fame as a former conductor of the N.Y. Philharmonic and composer of massive and super highly regarded symphonies.

Especially remarkable are the final movement of the 1st, Scherzo movement of the 2nd, and the Adagietto movement of the 5th. Sadly, Mahler only had time to write nine and half symphonies, a few song cycles, and one movement of a piano quartet (which is the musical equivalent of a brain fart). The sacrifices you make to be a world-famous conductor. Ahhhh well...


Recommended recording:

Israel Philharmonic/Mehta for Symphony No. 1, London Philharmonic/Gergiev for No. 2, and Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Inbal for No. 5.

3. Ysaye Solo Sonatas No. 2 and No. 3 (pronounced EASE-ZEYE - like "easy eyes" really fast)
The solo violin music of Eugene Ysaye (my great-great-grand teacher) is well known within the violin playing world. It is a staple at violin competitions and students squeal at the opportunity to play his music. Aside from being completely ball-busting and extremely difficult to master, the music has a language all its own and the two compositions recommended above get a bit scurry.
Think Halloween meets Hilary Hahn-complexity in voices, fluidity in harmonies, a touch of madness and quotations from songs of the dead. Other than that, he is well-known for fathering the diaspora of violin playing that came to be known as the French/Belgian School. This is probably why the most famous violin competition in the world is named in his honor. (Our top American classical music export Hilary Hahn is a product of that school.)


Recommended recording:

Ilya Kaler - The Six Solo Sonatas of Eugene Ysaye.

4. Shostakovich String Quartets No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9 (pronounced SHAH/SHOH-STAH-KOE-VITCH)
The musical language of Dima Shostakovich is eery, not because he gets scurry like Ysaye, but because his world was that of the former Soviet Union. Throughout his collection of compositions, you hear musical noise akin to the shuffling of feet and the stern knocking of doors, and a compendium of sounds reminiscent of gun fire and expressing a slow deterioration of the human spirit - yup, pretty much the former Soviet Union in a nutshell.

In fact, the String Quartet No. 8 was dedicated to the victims of our World Wars - a brooding and clawing account of death and destruction. The seriousnessusus of the music does get a bit overwhelming, but if you are one to appreciate the confined histories of our past humanitarian crises, then you would empathize well with the immaculately realized world of Shostakovich's music.


Recommended recording:

Emerson String Quartet - Shostakovich String Quartet Cycle.

  5. Chopin's Solo Piano Music (yes - ALL OF IT!) (pronounced SHOW-PAN) Chopin is the wimp of classical music, but the wimp that every chick under our omnipresent California sun would melt for. Yes, his music sometimes even leaves your skin flushed and burning HOT-HOT-HOT - AYE PAPI! Like a good tan for the coming summer, he leaves a profound impression on you.

This is my best guess, but about 90 percent of concert pianists would name him as their favorite composer. His music is not particularly technical, but his musical language is extremely popular, freely interpretive, and contagiously sincere.

You walk away from listening to his music almost wanting to truthfully tell your mom that one tear in her one-piece and she's a gone-ner. The honesty of his music will transcend your soul - or at least make you want to see his music performed live. Remember to place a few napkins on your seat before you sit down.


Recommended recording

: Literally any recording will do. For fiery interpretations, see the playing of Martha Argerich.

6. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 (pronounced ROCK-MAH-NIN-NOFF) "ALL BY MYYYSELF, don't wanna be..." Yes, he inspired that song - in fact, the music of the song is a direct quotation of the second movement of this ultra-famous piano concerto.

Rachmaninov, a late Romanticist, lived in the time of Mahler, but their music is extremely different. Rachmaninov was all about the piano and his fame was solidified with this work. It is hard not to be moved and romanticized by his music - the coloration in the orchestration and elaboration of harmonies are to die for.
No-nonsense people might find his music overbearing and sappy, but you cannot deny that this was the work of a genius and a masterpiece in its own right. From the opening lines of the solo piano, to the recapitulation of the second movement, to the fugata in the third, be prepared for a rollercoaster of emotions.


7. Beethoven String Quartet No. 3 Opus 59(Razumovsky)

(pronounced BAY-TOE-VAN)


Razumovsky for some time was Beethoven's patron. The entire Opus 59 set of three string quartets were all dedicated to the royal figurehead. Though most people will point to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "Moonlight" Sonata and Symphony No. 9 "Ode to Joy" as compositions they might be more "in tune" with (see what I did there?), in actuality the breadth of Beethoven's genius lies in his String Quartets and other chamber works.

In fact, it took Bela Bartok more than a century later to be proclaimed Beethoven's true successor as a composer of string quartets. Beethoven's Quartet Cycle is immense and this particular quartet is a gem.

The approach he took in writing this quartet was so direct that even the average listener can readily parse through how he goes about developing the piece. An amusing thing to note is that Beethoven is widely known for not being able to finish his compositions on cue, meaning that instead of ending a piece on an anticipated note, he continues on and on, later fulfilling that finale moment when the listener least expects it.

Some music scholars relate this compositional trend to the possibility that after having so many lovers in his lifetime, Beethoven's over-zealous love-making might have affected his ability to finish on cue, IN BED-yes, we're airing a revered composer's age-old bedtime stories here.

Check out what he does or couldn't do in the canonic final movement of this quartet for a point of reference.


Recommended recording

: Emerson String Quartet - Beethoven String Quartet Cycle.

8. Debussy's Clair De Lune and Ravel's 2nd Movement to his Piano Concerto in G (pronounced DAY-BOO-SEE and RAH-VELL)
Why two different composers? Well, these picks comes with some controversy. They both can be lumped together in one category--that of major French composers. (Or, major impressionistic composers.)

What's the problem then? Well, the problem is that France's two greatest classical music exports were both born into the same musical circle and within their lifetimes, greatly rivaled each other. One composer would compose something and the other would almost in essense, copy an "idea" in composing something similar. Their differences though can be traced in their musical languages.

Debussy is highly modal (meaning you cannot tell too easily whether a piece is sad or happy-it is just a blur of both) whereas Ravel's music has an ethnic flare. Even I get uncomfortable talking about the two composers because, well, shay-it always seems to hit the fan when someone says "but Ravel copied Debussy." Despite the drama, what you can count on is that between the two of them, they left France with an outstanding musical tradition and heritage-including an argument of "who's better?" that will never shoot itself in the head.


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