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Classical Music for Everyone

What if Mussorgsky was considered the greatest classical composer rather than Mozart? What if instead every music listener’s first introduction to classical music was "Night on Bald Mountain"? I believe the number of listeners liking classical music would easily increase 10 fold!

I find that most orchestral classical music written prior to 1800 is too academic and boring and this is the music that turns the public off of classical music.

Once composers learned to use the tone colors of the instruments of the orchestra, to use percussion and ornamentation to season the sound of the orchestral canvas. To effectively use rhythm and beat, to enhance excitement by use of extreme dynamic contrasts, and to break free of the overly strict rules of composition the experience of classical music became a purely emotional one, one that transports one to another realm. This is the music that will get new converts to classical music.

I firmly believe that radio stations are playing the WRONG classical music, reviewers are reviewing the WRONG classical music, so people new to classical music are being exposed to classical music they could never like.

With this in mind I have created a list of classical compositions for use in presenting classical music in a positive light to those who believe they don’t like classical music.

The following are specific recommendations for classical music based the type of music the listener now enjoys:

BLUES
RUSSO: Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra and Street Music
END: Blues for a Killed Kat
SHILKRET: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra

JAZZ
BERSTEIN: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
ELLINGTON: Harlem Suite
SHAW: Concerto for Clarinet
STRAVINSKY: Ragtime
MILHAULD: La Creation du Monde
SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
COPLAND: Concerto for Clarinet
SHCHEDRIAN: Piano Concerto No. 2

SOFT ROCK
BERNSTEIN: West Side Story
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures At An Exhibition

HARD ROCK
PROKOFIEV: Dance of the Evil God and the Pagan Monsters from "Scythian Suite"
SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre
BERLIOZ: March to the Scaffold from "Symphonie Fantastique"
RICHARD STRAUSS: Opening fanfare from "Also Sprach Zarathustra"      
COPLAND: Fanfare for the Comman Man
HOLST: Mars from "The Planets"
KARG-ELGERT: Praise the Lord with Drums and Cymbals
MILHAUD: Concerto pour batterie et petit orchestre
MUSSORGSKY: Night on Bald Mountain
NELHYBEL: Trittico
WAGNER: The Ride of the Valkyries

ALTERNATIVE
MESSIAN: TurangalÓla Symphonie
VAR»SE: Ionisation

NEW AGE
Anything by Debussy, Hovhanness, Ravel or Debussy.

FOLK
Anything by Copland or Virgil Thomson. Also mediaeval and early dances and songs which really were folk music of the day.

WORLD
GROF…: Grand Canyon Suite
MENDELSSOHN: The Hebrides Overture
NIELSEN: Aladdin Suite

MEXICAN OR LATIN
BENJAMIN: Jamacan Rumba
CHAVEZ: Horse Power Suite
FALLA: Three-Cornered Hat
GOULD: Latin American Symphonette
GINASTERA: Estancia and Panambi

EASY LISTENING
Anything by Leroy Anderson, George Gershwin, Percy Grainger or Offenbach.

My hope is after exploring the classical music that is closest to the type of music one likes now; listeners will experiment and try other types of classical music. The important thing to remember is there are more types of classical music than all other types of music combined.

Currently most non-classical listeners are exposed to the likes of Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi; I do not believe this is a good place to start. I recommend sampling Mussorgsky, Ravel, Varese, Arnold, Holst, Bernstein and Copland among many others as a good first step for most listeners. I have actually converted friends to classical music using just 2 LPs to introduce them: 1) Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (Mercury SR 90006) and 2) Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 2530 309. After this they beg to hear more, in their wildest dreams they had no idea that classical music could be this exciting and enjoyable! It is this good and for the sake of the future of classical music we must expose more people to really good classical music. It can be done.

It’s fine if you like Mozart, Bach or Vivaldi, I just do not believe that new listeners should start there and the figures seem to prove me right. They are acquired tastes to grab someone you have to offer something they will love instantly!

Even though I studied music appreciation and composition in High School I came away with the belief that Rock was the superior music reinforced by being in a Rock Band, the Neon Illusions. Part of this I blame on the traditional classical music my school presented, I was totally unaware there was better more exciting classical music. That is until Emerson, Lake and Palmer came along. I had their albums "Pictures At An Exhibition", The self titled LP with had Knife Edge (after JANŃ«EK’s Sinfonietta) and "Works Part 1" which included Keith Emerson’s own "Piano Concerto" and Prokofiev’s The Evil God and the Dance of the Pagan Monsters from the "Scythian Suite". Then I bought ELO III with "Roll over Beethoven" which had all of Beethoven’s biggest hits intermixed with Chuck Berry’s song. Well it turned out I liked the Beethoven bits much better than the Chuck Berry parts. Later that month at a department store I saw "Beethoven’s Biggest Hits".

This began my obsession with classical music. Next I bought Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and it was just so much better than the Emerson Lake and Palmer version, then came Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, and on and on. Since we didn’t have a classical station in my hometown I would check out LPs from the library or just buy new classical LPs blindly. It took decades to find out which composers I liked and which I didn’t.

The review establishment in the 1970’s and early 1980’s came down hard on "Art Rock" because they ripped off versions of classical works and the resulting rock versions were not that good. While I tend to agree with their assessment, it really was shortsighted as these Art Rock musicians were proselytizing for classical music. I believe millions of classical music lovers discovered classical music much the way I did. However because the musical establishment destroyed Art Rock no one is introducing new listeners to classical music. It is now up to us to share the wonders of classical music with everyone we meet.

Happy listening,

Teresa,

A dissenting viewpoint by Jim H

I got a chance today to put together a few thoughts in response to your essay, “Classical Music for Everyone.”  As I posted on A.A. yesterday, I was originally pretty outraged by what I had read.  As I said later, though, I would consider adopting your view and would think it over.  Well, I’m back to outrage, I’m afraid.  (Well, as outraged as I get – which isn’t that outraged.)  Consider what I have to say, and respond if you like….

To begin with, I’m not sure that there’s any justification for your assumption that “Mozart is considered the greatest classical composer.”  For one thing, I’m not sure how you’re using the term, “classical.”  You could be using it in its strict sense – i.e., to mean “art music” written in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, which generally took the form of a symphony, a string quartet, or a sonata.  In that case, you would probably be correct, since Mozart would have only Haydn and the young Beethoven as competition.  But, you mention Mussorgsky in your first sentence, which leads me to believe that you’re using the term, “classical,” in its broad sense – i.e., to mean music written between roughly 1550 and 1900.  This might better be called “common practice period” music; but, that would be entirely too cumbersome.  And, besides, we all know what “classical music” means – even if, when really pressed, it’s very difficult for most people to come up with a coherent definition for that moniker.  So, if we’re going to use the term, “classical,” in its broad – indeed, all-encompassing sense – then I return to my original point:  I think that you would have a very tough time establishing that there’s a consensus that says Mozart was a superior composer to, say, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler – to name a few, and in no particular order other than by birthdates (as near as I can remember).  Whatever the case, I can pretty much assure you – and I think that you even agree – that Mussorgsky would not be on that list.  We would probably differ on the reasons why, however.  Mine would be something like, Mussorgsky wrote precisely one masterpiece – a suite for solo piano called “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which many other composers (most popular of whom was Ravel) orchestrated more-or-less well and more-or-less completely.

Now, when you say that you “find that most orchestral classical music written prior to 1800 is too academic and boring,” you pretty much give away your entire thesis to a reader somewhat versed in Music History.  When I read that in your second paragraph, I suspected that I knew exactly what was coming – namely, a huge endorsement of program music and/or “pop” classical music, with short shrift given to “absolute music” (or music that “doesn’t tell a story”).  For the most part, I was correct.  You definitely hit most of the highlights of the program genre:  “Pictures,” “Scythian Suite,” “Symphonie Fantastique,” “Zarathustra,” “Planets,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” “Grand Canyon Suite,” “Hebrides,” “Three-Cornered Hat,” etc.  (There are obviously lots more, which you don’t name but with which we’re both probably quite familiar.  What happened to “Scheherazade,” though? :-)  And your pop-inspired selections are equally prominent:  the list starts with “Three Pieces for Blues Band” and continues….

Before going any further, please understand that I’m not making a quality judgment with regard to your selections.  (Although I honestly, in good conscience, couldn’t bring myself to lump “Night on Bald Mountain” in with any Strauss tone poem.)  And I also know that you weren’t necessarily making a quality judgment when assembling your list.  I think the issue I have is with your underlying assertion (at least as I pick up on it) that says that “good classical music” either tells a story or at least sounds like popular music, and that the “wrong kind of classical music” doesn’t tell a story and doesn’t sound like popular music.

I’m ahead of myself, though, so let’s jump back a little in your essay.  You’re obviously a champion of composers who “use the tone colors of the instruments of the orchestra, … who use percussion and ornamentation to season the sound of the orchestral canvas.”  Sure, every composer on your list does that – anywhere from very effectively to “gimmicky.”  But, the way I see it, it’s not particularly fair to (at least implicitly) deride Bach for not orchestrating for instruments that didn’t exist in the early-18th century.  The same holds for “enhanc[ing] excitement by use of extreme dynamic contrasts.”  Bach’s instruments had somewhere between no and very little “built-in” dynamic contrast.  Ever play a harpsichord?  That said, Bach had to “spice things up” somehow – and he did that precisely by extraordinary use of “rhythm and beat.”  You don’t see the likes of that again until the 20th century (and then, in completely different guise).  Frankly, I don’t see how that particular sentence or phrase belongs in this paragraph of your essay at all.  And finally, someone reading your essay would be very inclined (I think) to come away with the impression that somehow – out of nowhere – toward the end of the 19th century, all of the “great” composers “broke free of the overly strict rules of composition, [allowing] the experience of classical music [to become] a purely emotional one.”  The period 1550 (if not before) to 1900 is a long time – and I may be stating something that you already know quite well – but nothing particular happened on some given day around 1830 that allowed for the composition of “Symphonie Fantastique” and that launched the Romantic period (assuming Beethoven hadn’t already done that by about 1800).  Which is the whole point:  every composer we remember – from the “academic and boring” ones right up through those active in the 20th century pushed “the overly strict rules of composition.”  (“Academic and boring” Bach perhaps more than anyone else.)  Whether they all pushed them in order to provide “a purely emotional” experience to their listeners is debatable – even doubtful.  But, the true “academic and boring” composers are the ones that we’ve forgotten.  Because they did very little to contribute to the advancements occurring very gradually in theory and composition from the “academic and boring” age straight through to the modern day.

Do I completely disagree that listening to some of your suggested program music and pop-inspired classical music might get someone turned on to classical music, in general?  No, not necessarily.  But, I do think that you’re being somewhat misleading if you’re suggesting that even a relatively new classical music lover is not going to have to come to grips with music composed before the mid-1800s.  And in pretty short order.  So, suggesting otherwise is actually somewhat irresponsible, in my view.  I say that because what your suggestion will have cultivated is nothing more than an even more robust fan base for the Boston Pops than it already has.  (And, honestly, the Boston Pops doesn’t need yet another “lightweight” fan who wants to hear the 1812 Overture again.)  To be blunt, if you’re truly “for the sake of the future of classical music” – and not just an advocate of fairytale music and classical-sounding music written around pop tunes – then you’re going to have to sit someone down and get them through the entirety of Beethoven’s 3rd.  Because the entirety of classical music – if not the entirety of modern Western civilization – revolves around it.  Then, that person will need to go both forward and backward “in time” – filling in the gaps, figuring out what led up to 1800 and what happened after that (and why).

Now, you keep harping on Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi.  I can’t figure out why those three would have become your favorite targets.  (In other words, I don’t see anything that unifies them, particularly.)  Mozart was a genius and is extraordinarily easy to listen to.  Bach was more of a genius (but much less of a savant) who wrote what is likely the greatest music – in both quantity and quality – known to mankind.  And Vivaldi wrote one piece about a hundred times.  Maybe it’s what’s in the standard rotation at your local publicly-supported radio station.  Which brings me to one of your earlier points and to my last:  that you “firmly believe that radio stations are playing the WRONG classical music.”  Now, out of all of them, this is the point of your essay that I really don’t get.  Most classical stations are publicly supported, right?  Which means that people who are already passionate about classical music are paying to hear what these stations are broadcasting.  And I can guarantee you one thing:  if, say, WNYC (yes, one of my local stations – but also the most-listened-to public radio station in the country) were to feed its listeners a steady diet of what you’re suggesting, then it would very quickly find its listenership figures plummet.  People who are “purchasing” classical music over the radio are people who already have some amount of education in classical music.  Their tastes may range very, very widely; but, they assuredly aren’t – as a group – after a healthy diet of largely emo- and pop-inspired programming.  If “music written prior to 1800…is the music that turns the public off of classical music,” then maybe the public should be turned off of classical music.  Because an awful lot of music that is absolutely central to the genre as a whole gets swept away by your recommendations (and the criteria that’s behind them).

Let me close with this analogy:  if someone were to tell you that he really doesn’t like rock music – that no Beatles album is any good and that no Stones album prior to 1980 turns him on – what would you do?  Bring him up slowly, starting with a healthy dose of 21st century top-40 in order “to present rock music in a positive light to those who believe they don’t like rock music”???  That just doesn’t make any sense to me.  If you run screaming from “Revolver” or “Beggars Banquet,” then what are your chances of becoming a rock fan?  And to deny that there are 10 or 12 key rock bands that, at various points, had monumental influence on the genre – and to ignore them – is just absurd, in my view.  It’s completely missing the forest for the trees.  And the same goes for classical.  One has to come to grips with Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, and Mahler – at a very bare minimum.  If “Night on Bald Mountain” somehow leads someone into a love affair with the Schubert string quintet (and if that someone wouldn’t have gotten there any other way), then great!  “Night on Bald Mountain” will have served some historical purpose.  That said, though, I guess I don’t see how you get from one place to the other; and, with that, I’m afraid that I don’t see your essay demonstrating how to get from one place to the other.  Unless your only real goal is to fill the ranks with lovers of program music and somewhat light and popular 20th century classical, then there’s got to be a better formula than “if you love hard rock, then just have a listen to the fourth movement of Symphonie Fantastique – and off you go!”

For what it’s worth?

~Jim

My Response

The term "Classical Music" I am referring to  is all Art Music commonly know as Classical, not the Classical Period of Mozart and Haydn.  But from say 1200 to date, yes modern Composers are still writing Classical Music!


Mussorgsky wrote a lot more than just his fantastic "Pictures At An Exhibition" which in Ravel's orchestration is one of the finest (if not the finest) music masterpieces of all time.  Mussorgsky also wrote the wonderful "Night on Bald Mountain", the absolutely charming little "Gopak" from Sorotichinsky Fair, and don't forget his opera Khovanshchina with lovely "Dance of the Persian Slaves".  If Mussorgsky didn't have such a problem with Vodka I'm sure he would have written many more master works.  Same thing with Paul Dukas, if it wasn't for his Navel career he might be considered a giant too.

It's not me but the press that proclaimed Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart as the greatest composer of all time, it's me that disagrees with this lofty status given to Mozart.

It is indeed “absolute music” that turns people off of Classical Music (myself included).  Richard Wagner was right when he said the future of music is with composers writing dramatic colorful music not the reactionary's forever stuck in the world of academia writing their absolute music.    I really hope that new convert who has just discovered the wonderfully exciting “Night on Bald Mountain” NEVER leads to a love affair with the Schubert string quintet!  Not too much more dry or boring as Schubert chamber music, except for maybe Brahms chamber music.  There are literally ten of thousands of excellent were written, orchestrated classical compositions full of real drama and human emotion.  I say down with "stuffy shirt - absolute music" up with exciting, thrilling and beautiful classical music. 

Classical Music can be every bit as enjoyable and "fun" as any other type of music including Rock.   The "Scherzo" from Bruckner's 9th Symphony can get the bodies juices flowing every bit as "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin, both works induce "goose-bumps" to the max!