Getting Started with Classical Music

When you want to begin listening to classical music, how do you get started? Which pieces or composers are essential to the point of being almost ‘compulsory’ and which aren’t?

Well, to begin with, I should state very clearly that there is absolutely no compulsion for anybody to like every, or any, particular piece of classical music! Each of us has individual tastes and what is glorious and wonderful to one person is found to be tedious and discordant to another.

It is, however, the case -in my opinion- that if you don’t know your Bach cantatas from your Beethoven symphonies, you’re not going to be in a position to say intelligently that you like or dislike this piece of Mozart or that piece of Bartok. On the other hand, once you have a grasp of the basic foundations of the classical music repertoire, you’ll have something to compare new musical encounters to. As you go on listening to new works by newer composers, that ‘field of knowledge’ against which you can make meaningful comparisons will get gradually larger and larger.

Given that, what composers and/or pieces of music do I think you absolutely must know (or at least must have listened to more than once!) before you can go much further in listening to classical music?

Well, I’m going to be boringly conventional about it, I’m afraid! I think you must know:

  • Bach
  • Mozart
  • Beethoven

That’s not to say there aren’t perfectly wonderful other composers out there, but these three really are in a league of their own, with pretty much everyone else taking inspiration from them and aspiring to their peculiarly great flights of original, imaginative creativity.

I should stress, too, that you don’t have to actually like any of the works these composers wrote! I mean, I think you will like them, but it’s not compulsory to do so. You listen to the music by these masters because it is masterly, not because you like it necessarily. (An equivalent example from the world of painting springs to mind: you need to at least know what the Mona Lisa looks like, even if you end up thinking it a rather peculiar painting, and not one you’d particularly want to pay good money to own!)

Put it another way: between them, these three composers established the basic rules and conventions governing the vast majority of all classical music that you’ll hear today, so knowing at least something of their output is important if you want to get a feel for what those rules and conventions are and how they’ve been bent and expanded by subsequent composers.

I will mention in passing, for example, that I personally don’t listen to a lot of Mozart or Beethoven, because the Classical frigidity of the one and the unbuttoned Romanticism of the other don’t really appeal: I’m much more a Baroque and 20th Century fan myself. All that said, it’s nevertheless true that I do listen to both reasonably frequently -and I certainly think that I would be seriously unqualified to have any opinions about other composers’ work if I didn’t know the content of their two bodies of work reasonably well.

So: whilst we don’t do league tables of composers or compositions on this website, those three are just so far ahead of the competition, I have no embarrassment about urging you to listen to them first and foremost, before any other composer you could mention.

Now, given that the output of just one of these composers consists of over a thousand pieces, I’m going to make it even easier for you: you don’t have to listen to everything by any one of those composers. At a minimum, however, I think you should know:

There are just 24 works listed there, but between them, they encompass concerti, symphonies, opera, oratorio and chamber music. If you get to know them all reasonably, you’re well on the way to being familiar with the wide range of classical music forms as well as the specific core output from the three grand masters of classical music writing.

Naturally enough, you shouldn’t stop there: there are about 200 other cantatas by Bach apart from the two I listed; almost all of them are masterpieces. His St. Matthew Passion is also arguably the better of his two great surviving oratorios, too, so you could listen to that as well as the St. John one. Similarly, Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets, not just the one that I mention above -and any of his nine symphonies are really worth listening to, not just the 5 I have called out. And finally, Mozart, as well as writing dozens of other symphonies you could listen to with great benefit and pleasure, also knocked out at least half a dozen operas which are all just as equally masterpieces as the Marriage of Figaro -to say nothing of the large number of piano and violin concertos that he wrote.

I’m not, therefore, suggesting that the list above is “it”! Far, far from it. I’m saying that getting to know these 24 pieces will stand as a great foundation on which to build a classical music-listening future. But a foundation is merely a start, not a complete building!

Are there any other composers I think ‘almost compulsory listening’ for any intelligent classical music listener, but who perhaps don’t make it into the “premier league” of compulsoriness?!

Well, of course there are! If push came to shove, I think you probably ought to know at least a little Vaughan Williams, Britten, Dvorak, Schönberg, Brahms and Handel, for starters. Push me for just one piece for each of them, and my list would be:

That list gives you a modern-sounding symphony by someone who is usually written off as an arch traditionalist; a modern opera; a late 19th century symphony; a taste of extremely late Romanticism that verges into 12-tone modernism; a large choral mass in the Germanic tradition; and a baroque oratorio -again, a mixture of musical forms and styles which will stand you in good stead as you explore the rest of the classical canon.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that you cannot meaningfully reduce ‘learning classical music’ to ‘listen to this handful of pieces’. Appreciating classical music is really a journey that takes a lifetime’s listening experience and never really ends… but we all have to start somewhere, and I think if you get the pieces I’ve mentioned here under your belt, you will be off to a really good start!