Tag Archives: Danse Macabre

10 tips for fledgling classical music lovers

I love when people contact me to express their interest in classical music. And 2018 is already turning out to be a banner year for such requests. I think it’s fantastic. It’s as if all these fine minds of ours, regardless of creed, political slant or affiliation, are seeking out new vistas and perspectives, discovering something that is unequivocally beautiful, soulful, thought-provoking, and can be discussed in a ways that don’t divide us. Or at least allow for discourse like the following: “Okay, you think the elegance of the Classical Era can’t be beat, but you have to admit that my favorite, the Mainstream Romantics, allow for gorgeous emotion to arise. And we can both agree that classical music isn’t as stuffy or boring as we’d once thought!”

So this blog is devoted to all of you out there, dipping your toe into the classical music waters, not sure if you’re up for the full swim, but willing to wade around a bit. Hop in—the temperature is just right! So without further ado, here are…

10 tips for the fledgling classical music lover

  1. Buy compilation CDs. Or borrow them from your library. Or YouTube them. There are so many opportunities to hear classical music for cheap these days, it’s amazing. Go to your local music store; I guarantee you there will be a few dozen CDs with prices $2.99 and below. Don’t regularly go to a local music store, or your town doesn’t have one? Find one. Go to it. Do it. They are great places to browse and are a slice of a disappearing Americana. That said… On Amazon, I found this: http://a.co/1hD37LK It’s a 10-disc box set of classical compilations; I own three of the CDs and I had no idea there was a ten-disc set. For a good used copy, several of which are priced around $8.00 with shipping, it’s a staggering deal. It has both the ultra-familiar pieces and unique ones, many of which are simply movements from a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. So, once you decide which one you really like, look for the longer version. And did I mention that THIS IS A REALLY GOOD BARGAIN? Seriously, check it out.
  2. Get a classical music reference bible. I can’t tell you how often I consult mine, and what a pleasure it is. I bought mine a long time ago; it’s called Building A Classical Music Library, by Bill Parker. Some of the recordings the author suggests are likely dated now, but since classical music is rather timeless, it’s all still largely relevant. The author has a very easy-to-read style as he talks about the composers, dividing them into their respective eras. This alone has been a great reference tool for me. Before reading it, I wouldn’t have known whether Chopin, say, or Dvorak or Debussy were Early Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, or Late Romantic. (The answers: yes, yes and yes, respectively.) So, you get a fun little story about each composer, the pieces that made them famous, and recording suggestions. To buy, click on the above title or click HERE.
  3. Go to freebie classical music events, often done at lunchtime within a city’s civic center area, or in a church with nice acoustics. And for any performance you plan to attend, do a little research in advance. Wikipedia is great for learning quickly about any composer, any piece of music. It’s easy, and will allow you to better appreciate what you’re hearing. And you’ll get to impress your friends with your knowledge.
  4. Bookmark an HD digital or online classical music station on your devices. There are dozens, if not more. I listen to KAZU HD classical . Classical music 24/7, no commercials. On my car stereo, I just rediscovered a classical music station broadcast by a university nearby – what a win! Alas, there are fewer and fewer radio stations that broadcast classical. But in an increasingly wired world, you’ve got all of the Internet. And for offline time, you have…
  5. Podcasts. Most include a few minutes or more of talk, followed by a music excerpt or longer work. A great way to learn and listen while driving/walking/tuning out noisy people in public. A few to check out include Classical Podcasts, Classical Classroom, BBC Radio3 (scroll down from the landing page).
  6. Buy a season subscription to the symphony. Not just one ticket–make the investment of one season. It might feel extreme at the time, but you’ll be glad you did it. You sorta need to sit through something you wouldn’t have otherwise cherry-picked for your listening experience. (Speaking from the voice of experience here, having done both.) Granted, you’ll want the subscription series to include the works you prefer to hear. But chances are, there will be one concert you might not have otherwise attended, and that usually means three music selections new to your ears. (San Francisco Symphony allows you to switch around concerts during the season, as well, so you can cherry-pick AND have a subscription experience. I’m guessing a good number of professional orchestras work that way for their subscribers.)
  7. Read the Amazon reviews of classical music CDs. These days, when I want to research a composer or a specific work, I first get the scoop via two sources: Wikipedia and Amazon reviews. Most of the people who leave reviews on classical music CDs at Amazon are amazingly well-educated on classical music and specifics of the work in question. Quite a few are former classical musicians, I sense. Others just really, really know classical music. I don’t always agree with their opinions, but I learn a whole lot, and that’s what matters to me.
  8. Listen to the basic classical music favorites that are, face it, overplayed. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, Pachebel’s “Canon in D”. Et cetera. Then move on. Don’t stop there. Frankly, those classics are … boring. Well, let’s say this. No one becomes a classical music lover from hearing those. Listeners are sucked in by hearing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 or the first movement of the Korngold Violin Concerto, or the soundtrack of the movie Amadeus. Which is why I will make a pitch again for that most excellent CD compilation set. (http://a.co/1hD37LK)
  9. Figure out what eras are your favorite. Examples might be Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, Late Romantic, Modern. (That book I suggested buying makes learning this SO much easier.) Now, check out composers from that era you’ve maybe never heard of before. I myself have discovered new composers this way, like Reinhold Glière, Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen. There’s a good chance you’ll like their stuff. It’s always worked for me.
  10. Challenge yourself from time to time and listen to an era you’re not familiar with. (Perk: it will make you love your preferred era even more.) Once again, a symphony subscription is great for this. It’s where I first heard the work of composer Alban Berg, even though I’d thought I’d prefer the other two musical works presented. And, almost forgot to mention – read the program notes while you’re waiting for the symphony to begin. They are delicious little stories that will make you appreciate the work even more. Case in point, the Berg Violin Concerto.)

All right, there you go. Ready to start your journey? To get you pumped up, here are a few compositions or symphony/concerto excerpts I think anyone would love. If the title is hyper-linked, I’ve written about it, and clicking the link will send you to the other blog and embedded music.

  • Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune, Beau Soir, Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Afternoon of a Faun
  • Dvorák: Romance in F-minor. “Klid” (Silent Wood)
  • Mozart: anything from the film Amadeus. Get the CD. What, you’ve never seen the movie?! Get the DVD along with the CD
  • Anything by Frederic Chopin
  • Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat major
  • Violin Concertos: Brahms, Korngold, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky
  • Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”), Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, (“Rhenish”).
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”
  • Saint Saens: “Danse Macabre”, Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”, “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso”
  • Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

It is excruciatingly hard to pick only one or two of the above suggestions to embed. And, interestingly, I’m choosing one that has grown overfamiliar to me, but was undeniably a piece of classical music that had me swooning with delight, utterly transporting me. So, here you go…

And finally, one that haunted me after hearing it in an art-house movie theater, decades ago, and I only re-discovered it by chance, two years ago. My idea of sublime.

10 Spooky classical faves for Halloween

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It’s Halloween, and you’re looking for that perfect spooky Halloween music that’s a little more sophisticated than “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller” and “Werewolves of London.” Look no further, friends. I’ve done my own hopping around over the past two days to see what others consider to be their Top 10 classical spooky faves. My list is a little different; some are deliciously spooky, or quirky, or even just in a minor key, but they all are still melodic and easy to listen to. What didn’t make my list are the kind of pieces you might find in horror films, with jarring dissonances and icky, creepy, in the house alone at night, what-was-that-noise-and-don’t-turn-around-right-now-whatever-you-do music. If you are looking for that, cool, go to the bottom of this blog and I will share others’ suggestions and links to others’ sites.

Here’s my list, in no particular order. Click on the title to go to the link unless otherwise specified.

  1. Paul Dukas, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (link below)
  2. Camille Saint Saens, Danse Macabre 
  3. Sergei Rachmaninov “The Isle of the Dead” 
  4. Jean Sibelius, The Tempest, Act II, particularly “The Oak Tree” and “Caliban” (link below)
  5. JS Bach, “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” 
  6. Saint Saens, Symphony no. 3, first movement 
  7. Carl Orff, Carmina Burana “O Fortuna” 
  8. Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet “The Montagues and Capulets”  (or “The Dance of the Knights”)
  9. Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain  (Also known as Night on the Bare Mountain.)
  10. Joseph Suk, “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25 (link below)

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A few comments on some of these. I’ll start with #10, Joseph Suk’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25, which is not tenth on the list because it’s my 10th favorite. Far from it. Suk’s piece isn’t dark, really, but it’s so delicious. There is both sweetness and sorrow in it. Classical music factoid: Suk was Dvorák’s son-in-law. Story has it, however, that Suk’s wife, Dvorák’s daughter, died early in their happy marriage, and the grieving Suk (his father-in-law had recently died too) composed this in her memory, incorporating a folk tune she used to love. It’s not a complicated piece, and the key melody repeats frequently, but it’s such a infectiously delightful repetition. I just love it. So, if you like your spooky music to be on the cheerier side, check this one out. A lot of classical music fans, upon hearing this for the first time, are just agog that it’s been around all this time and they’d never heard it.

Several pieces on my list you might have heard before, but not known by name. Orff’s “O Fortuna” is in a lot of commercials; it’s strikingly theatrical and intense, very Wagnerian. Night on Bald Mountain, too, has a distinctive, memorable motif it keeps returning to, which, in the end, makes it kind of a cliché for “scary moment” scenes over the years. Give it a listen for 20 seconds and you’ll nod and say “got it.”

Night on Bald Mountain is particularly famous, as is Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for being part of Disney’s Fantasia. I guess JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor is also part of the movie, as well. What a great movie, really. Here’s a trip down memory lane for many of us:  Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (PS: the introduction is in Spanish; it’s brief, don’t fret. You don’t have the wrong embed.)

I’m a big fan of Sibelius and Saint Saens and really, you can’t go wrong with any of their music. Although the two composers don’t sound anything alike, they both seem to imbue their music with a distinct character, flavor, personality. Like Grieg and Dvoràk, you hear their music and even if you’re not familiar with that piece, you can guess the composer. Saint Saens delivers a flirtation with the otherworld (maybe even the occult) that is so deliciously Halloween-y. And Sibelius is a Finnish composer (Finland’s pride and joy, for good reason), who lived in a region that is dark and cold much of the year. His music carries a brooding power that leaves room still for folkloric whimsy, and boy, do I love the melding of the two. Here’s the link to Act II of The Tempest that I promised. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLHtjlre01E  (It starts with “The Oak Tree,” which is great, and so is “Miranda,” at around 17 minutes. Be on the lookout for “Caliban,” too. Gorgeous visuals on this YouTube.)

And of course, Sibelius’ violin concerto just screams “October” and deliciously fragile, wintery nocturne. It’s got its own blog you can find here: http://wp.me/p3k7ov-y3

All right. That’s my list, and like I promised, here are “scarier” classical tunes for you, below, and a few links to other great articles and lists. Enjoy! And Happy Halloween to you. Hope you have a perfectly spooky evening at whatever level of pathos and evil you so desire.

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Scarier Halloween Classics …

  • Bela Bartòk, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • Franz List, Totentanz
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
  • Joseph Ligeti, Atmosphère

Here’s a great list/blog for scary classical music by Limelight Magazine: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/13-scariest-pieces-classical-music-halloween

Here’s Stephen Klugewicz’ list from The Imaginative Conservative: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/10/classical-music-pieces-for-halloween.html

Great article about horror in classical music: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/horror-in-music.htm

And in case you’re in the mood to play the Halloween music yourself with instantly downloadable sheet music, check out Virtual Sheet Music’s collection of classical Halloween tunes HERE. Best of all, it’s FREE!