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A Beginner's Guide to Classical Music

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

If you have had the displeasure of needing to cross the threshold of a big-box store recently, you may have noticed that with the passing of All Hallows' Eve the satanic Halloween decorations gave way to those of the Coca-Cola Kris Kringle, complete with his brand of jingle jangle. And although in yesteryear we lamented having to listen to one of the Rat Pack crooning the same carol for the 50th time that season, I bet most would trade anything to bring back the Bing and not hear one bar from Mariah Carey or Pentatonix.

Between Spotify and YouTube, I'm sure you can find an edifying playlist of Advent hymns curated by a cultured Catholic. But might I suggest something a little different, and in the spirit of new liturgical year resolutions, that this be an occasion to enter into the treasure trove that is Western classical music. Not only would this serve to supplant the tired Christmas tunes that might creep out from your car radio, but like picking up a good book it can also be the start of a wholesome way for you and your family to be entertained when entertainment is to be had.

Now the world under the umbrella of classical music is vast and wide, with many mountains, caves, islands, cities, plains, forests, swamps and seas. It is all to easy to be intimidated by its grandeur and conclude that because getting lost and confused is inevitable that the journey is not worth starting. On the other hand, it can be seen as the adventure that it is, one where you are bound to fill your sacks again and again with bounties wherewith to enrich your homeland (i.e., homestead). I can speak to the truth of this, being a year and a half into the journey. To help you start, I'll highlight some terms I think would be unfamiliar to a beginner with the hopes to inspire self-study in the form of Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit trails (just like in the good ole' days).

"The Violin Student" (Paris, 1891) by Stephen Seymour Thomas

When someone says "classical music" off-the-cuff, they generally mean instrumental music with strings and woodwinds that sounds like it would be the soundtrack to an acclaimed movie. That's not wrong in of itself, but it's only scratching the surface. More accurately, classical music in the West started coming about around the 17th century. There was obviously music before this, Gregorian chant being an old example, and the two periods that precede the 1600s are the Medieval and Renaissance. Composers from these periods include Hildegard von Bingen, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Giovanni Gabrielli, all Catholics. Pre-classical music was almost always sacred in nature, used in Masses, Benedictions and other liturgical services.

The classical "era" is so vast that it is further subdivided into additional periods. The first is the Baroque, with the most famous composer of this time being the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach. Hearing his "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" or any selection from his Well-Tempered Clavier gives a feel for the "mathematical" approach to music that defines this time. Other notable Baroque composers include the Catholic priest Antonin Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi and Arcangelo Corelli. Sacred music was still widely composed at this time, but more and more secular works were also written.

The true Classical period follows with much more recognizable names like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Luigi Boccherini and two of J.S. Bach's sons: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach. New art forms of music or with music arise at this time, like symphonies (No. 6, "Pastoral") and operas (The Magic Flute). Still, short individual pieces have also become popular, like Eine Kline Nachtmusik.

Though not apparent at first blush, the "classical" music from the Romantic period is the most recognizable to contemporary ears. It's the go-to background music for Looney Tunes gags and what Hollywood mines to give a scene a moody mood. This is due to the tendency of composers from this time to write emotionally evocative material, whether that emotion be elation, anger, sadness, terror, patriotism or love. I dub it the "emo" phase of classical music. Even if the names of the composers or the titles of their opus don't ring a bell, a quick listen of them certainly will: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake), Frédéric Chopin (Minute Waltz and Grande Valse Brilliante), Hector Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique), Franz Schubert ("Ellen's Third Song (Ave Maria)" from The Lady of the Lake), Camille Saint-Saëns (Danse macabre and "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals), Felix Mendelssohn ("Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream), Franz Liszt (Hungarian Rhapsody Nos. 2 and 6 and "La campanella" from Grandes études de Paganini), Giuseppe Verdi ("Dies Irae" from Messa da Requiem), Richard Wagner ("The Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre), Johannes Brahms ("Wiegenlied (Lullaby)" and Tragic Overture), Edvard Grieg ("Morning Mood" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt), Bedřich Smetana ("Dance of the Comedians" from The Bartered Bride and Má vlast), Johann Strauss II (Tales from Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube) and The (Russian) Five (too many more great works to list). It should be noted that with operas and symphonies getting bolder and brasher, the ballet becomes an increasingly popular musical setting.

As we near the 20th century, we enter into the period with the unfortunate title of Modernist. To make themselves feel less guilty, some fans rename this period, or portions of it, as post-Romantic. The music composed is still very beautiful, with some minor departures from previous stylistic norms. For example, this sees the saxophone being used for the first time in orchestras, as well as jazz influences in the music writing. Notable names from this time include Gustav Holst ("Jupiter" from The Planets), Maurice Ravel (Pavane pour une infante défunte and his orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), Claude Debussy ("Clair de Lune" from Suite bergamasque), Sergei Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto No. 2), Sergei Prokofiev ("Dance of the Knights" from Romeo and Juliet), George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris) and Dmitri Shostakovich ("Waltz No. 2" from Suite for Variety Orchestra). As can be seen, suites and individual movements from them became quite popular at this time.

In the interwar era, a sort of palpable nihilism beset the globe which ushered in the post-Modernist period of classical music. The character of this period, which in some sense we are still living through, is marked by minimalism and deconstructionism. Instead of dancing their way into Armageddon like R.E.M. would eventually do, composers of this genre opted for an absurd nominalist approach which all but severed any tie to a traditional understanding of the word "music," with 4'33" by John Cage being the most egregious example. There are some nuggets to find, but they are few in far between. The only work I could recommend from my limited study is Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) by Olivier Messiaen, especially the movement "Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of birds)." The whole work serves as a meditation on the 10th chapter of the Apocalypse where a mighty angel appears and declares, "That time shall be no longer," and what music (if it can be called such without time) would be heard then.

So there's your music and history lesson for the week. Where to go to from here? Well, you're free to take or leave any of my suggestions as a jumping off point. You can also take some pointers of people who know more about this than me (I'll link some below). I'm blessed with a classically-trained wife who studied clarinet performance who keeps me from sounding like a dunce, but I think we all have that nerdy art friend who's brain we can pick with the suggestion of coffee or beer. In the end, your journey in this sonic realm is your own. Be aware that you're not going to receive much help from "the culture," and in fact may have your progress stifled by it. To illustrate, I'll offer the following parable. The popular 90s children's cartoon Little Bear was produced in Canada and there the theme song for it was an arrangement of the third and last movement, Allegro vivace, of Schubert's Violin Sonata No. 1. However, for the American broadcast, a different and generic composition for classical woodwind ensemble was used. The lesson I make of this is that "the culture" thinks that me or my progeny is too stupid to appreciate good art. So here's my challenge: prove "the culture" wrong and immerse yourself in more than 15 seconds of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Beginner Classical Music Resources

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