I have listened to classical music my whole life. Even in high school and college, when we were all listening to rock music, I also found time to play the occasional classical recording. I credit this taste to a few early teachers and also to my older brother, who likewise has long enjoyed classical music. I have a distinct memory of being at a party at his house when he was in college, and late in the evening a Led Zeppelin album coming off the turntable to be replaced by a recording of the William Tell Overture.
People will occasionally ask me for listening recommendations, often with the added clarification that they want to start learning about classical music. It’s a big order. How do you ‘start to learn?’ My first suggestion is usually not to recommend ten or twelve pieces people should be familiar with, because once you start down that road, where does it end? I always recommend that you become familiar with the various forms of classical music, and see which ones you prefer. Are you drawn to violin concertos? How about string quartets? Piano sonatas are often beautiful and restful, as are most sonatas. What about larger chamber pieces, like serenades for strings, or sextets or octets? Most composers who have written a lot of music have composed pieces in most, if not all of these forms. I think it is a more productive way to learn about music than to say, ‘Listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.’
But when I am recommending this course of action, the last form I suggest listening to is symphonies. I know this sounds strange. Symphonies are what comes to mind when anyone says classical music. Beethoven’s Fifth: dadadadaaaa . . . . But symphonies are long, complex, and often intimidating. As with any style of music you’re not familiar with, it all begins to run together in a kind of sonic sameness. Starting a person off on symphonies is like handing someone unfamiliar with great literature a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Just too much there. And indeed, you can listen to classical music all day every day and never hear a symphony. Of course symphonies are wonderful. It’s just a matter of developing the taste, the understanding, the appreciation of them. And Americans are notoriously short of the kind of patience that requires.
My patience has been severely tried the past several weeks while waiting for spring. The weather has been variable and unpredictable, unseasonably warm then dangerously cold. And once things started to warm up we had many days back to back of rainfall. One day last week we set the record rainfall amount for that day. Gloomy days, I’ll say. But yesterday and today have begun to feel very much like spring has arrived. You can delay the blessed season, but you can’t stop it. While we may know this, we become impatient with waiting. This is why there are so many springtime rituals in human culture—one of which we’ll be celebrating next weekend, though that one has gotten somewhat unmoored from its roots.
Spring has arrived. Perhaps that’s why, as I sat down this morning to think about what I might write, I was happy when the announcer on the radio said the next piece would be Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in E minor. This is a large, grand classical-romantic symphony, full of joy and bombast and one exquisite Brahmsian theme after another, and I was calm and happy and ready to hear it all. Yay, spring!
And in case you think I am being facile in moving this little essay from a discussion of symphonies to the beginning of spring, get this: Today is the birthday of famed conductor Antal Dorati. It was him conducting the Brahms piece, and when it ended a few minutes ago, they started another piece conducted by Dorati: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Can you say synchronicity?