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Exploring classical music: Where do I start?

Rick Rogers Published: April 23, 2013

People who have a curiosity about classical music often ask what to explore after they tire of the repertoire’s familiar favorites. It’s a common predicament given the enormous size of the repertoire. Identifying one’s “musical comfort zone” is a good place to start. A person with a fondness for Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” for example, would likely be overwhelmed by a Mahler symphony. But he or she might find Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces” enjoyable. They’re short, tuneful and accessible.

Intrigued by Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto?”  Try Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor” or Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.” Both wear their lush romanticism on the sleeve. Many young listeners were introduced to opera by way of the orchestral suites from Bizet’s “Carmen.” If Spanish music brings out the gypsy in you, consider Chabrier’s “Espana,” de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.”

Perhaps folk tunes hold a certain appeal. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” might be a good place to begin. You might also explore Grainger’s “Irish Tune from County Derry” or Alfven’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1.” Those with a penchant for the unusual should definitely track down Ives’ “Symphony No. 2,” the finale, in particular. It’s a musical free for all.

Through television, baby boomers were introduced to countless classical works during the 1960s. For those who may wish to revisit those bygone days, try the overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell” or Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette.” Hollywood has frequently raided the classical repertoire for its sound tracks, although rarely are works heard in their entirety. The slow movements from Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 (Elvira Madigan)” are widely recognized. Try listening to the complete work for even greater appreciation.

Other works that are frequently excerpted include Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” (The Swan), Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” (18th Variation) and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (Simple Gifts). While each can stand alone, these snippets take on greater significance when heard in context. If you have adventuresome ears, try following Debussy’s “La Mer” with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” You’ll come away with very different views of music inspired by water.

Jazz enthusiasts should explore Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World” or Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.” Those intrigued by model trains might compare Villa Lobos’ “The Little Train of the Caipira” with Honegger’s “Pacific 231.” Finally, a few guilty pleasures: Khachaturian’s “Suite from Spartacus,” Weinberger’s “Polka and Fugue from Schwanda,” Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Respighi’s “Feste Romane” and Walton’s “Crown Imperial.”

So, whether you’re in search of little-known masterpieces or obscure musical gems, know that curiosity, patience and perseverance are the keys that will unlock music’s timeless mysteries.