Learning to Enjoy Classical Music
Do you want to learn about classical music, but are afraid you won’t like it? Many people think classical music is either a confusing racket or a big snore. But you can ease into it. There’s a lot of classical music, and chances are you’ll find something that you really enjoy.
A good way to start is with a piece that’s already familiar. No doubt you’ve heard the Alleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It’s often played at Christmas. Listen to it and try to participate in the spirit of joy it expresses. When you feel ready, listen to other parts of the Messiah. It’s the type of work that’s called an oratorio; it has choruses, which are faster and more lively, and arias, which are slower and more reflective. It all evokes a range of emotions, and is very beautiful.
Another familiar piece you can start with is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which is the fourth part of his Ninth Symphony. Usually symphonies don’t have singing, but Beethoven decided to make an exception. The words are from a poem by the German poet Schiller, and talk about universal love and brotherhood. Next you can listen to the first three parts of the symphony. The first two are rousing, and the third part is hypnotic and lovely.
A good way to get started listening to classical music is with midis on the web. A midi is a fairly simple music file. You won’t get the whole orchestra experience, but you’ll get the idea. They’re easy to access and they’re free. Once you find some favorites, you can invest in better versions. A good midi site is midiworld.com at www.midiworld.com/classic.htm.
Another place to listen to classical music is your local PBS station. These stations play a wide variety of short pieces, and identify the piece and the composer for you. They also give you interesting background information. You might not like everything they play. But I think you’ll appreciate that all the composers put some thought into their work.
It’s interesting to learn something about the composers. When you think of them as real people with joys and problems like everyone else, their music seems more accessible. Handel was a rock star of his day. His operas were all the rage until they went out of style. Handel thought his career was over and went into a depression. But he was inspired to compose the Messiah, and worked feverishly for three weeks, hardly leaving his room. When he was finished, he told his servant, “I did think I saw all heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Today the Messiah is loved and widely performed both at Christmas and Easter.
Beethoven had a difficult life. His alcoholic father beat him for not practicing the piano. You would think that would make him give up music, but music was everything to him. He grew up a moody and suspicious man, though, and was never able to have a normal relationship with friends or women. His famous deafness made him even more volatile, and, appropriately, he died during a thunderstorm. But he was recognized as the greatest composer of his day. More than that, he was loved by his public, and thousands came to his funeral. His development of the symphony changed music forever.
It’s good to know some classical music terms. Here are a few of the common ones:
Symphony – a work written for an orchestra. It has four parts.
Concerto – a work written for a solo instrument, usually a piano or violin, and an orchestra. It has three parts.
Sonata – a work written for a solo instrument. It has three parts.
These descriptions are general guidelines, and can vary.
Adagio – play it slow.
Andante – play it at a walking pace.
Allegretto – play it fast.
Allegro – play it faster.
The parts of a symphony, concerto, and sonata are often called by one of these names.
Opus – this means “work” and is often paired with a number. For example, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D is Opus 61.
Here are some websites where you can get more information:
George Frideric Handel at w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/handel.html
Ludwig van Beethoven at www.lucare.com/immortal/index.html
We can still enjoy classical music today. After all, it was the popular music of its day.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons