Give Classical A Try!

Suggestions for those dipping their toe into classical music for the first time, by Catherine Cowan.

I never liked P.E. at school. I wasn’t in with the sporty group and I did not want to be an athlete. Teachers assured me that wearing embarrassing uniform and repeatedly chasing a ball in foggy hockey fields was ‘good for me’ and when their patience wore thin they mistook for rebellion my look of distaste.

Today, I recognise that same look on some of my students’ faces when I suggest they add some classical music onto their playlists. Often protests focus around the idea that classical music is boring, difficult and irrelevant, written hundreds of years ago by old men in dusty wigs.

Not all classical music, like not all exercise, is the same. Nowadays I’ve discovered there’s more to sports than hockey and I’ve found ways of keeping healthy that I can enjoy – pretty much anything where you don’t have to hit a ball (the balls usually hit me!) So if you’ve heard classical music you didn’t like before, keep looking. Chances are some of it you will love. How about Steve Reich’s mesmerising ‘Clapping Music’, Stravinsky’s unhinged ‘Danse Sacrale’ from Rite of Spring or Einaudi’s therapeutic ‘I Giorni’.

The BBC have assembled lists of classical music you may like in an initiative called ‘Ten Pieces’ and put together short videos about each one. My favourites include: ‘No Place Like’ by Kerry Andrew which involves beatboxing and body percussion; the dramatic bellows of ‘O Fortuna’ by Carl Orff that you might recognise from tv shows like Britain’s Got Talent; and Antonin Dvorak’s profoundly peaceful Symphony no. 9 2nd Movement.

Classical music can also contain some of the most exciting virtuosic playing you’ll see. Back in 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote a violin concerto in D major after a disastrous three-week-long marriage and subsequent suicide attempt. It was so difficult to play it was declared “unplayable” by Leopold Auer to whom the work was dedicated. You can watch Janine Jansen wrap her fingers around those relentless semiquavers here. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in classical performances. See Yuja Wang’s hands fly around the keyboard playing Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ for example.

Its exciting to hear lots of musicians today putting their own spin on classical music. Pianists Anderson & Roe have modern twists on classical pieces and classical twists on pop music. Watch out for their versions of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and their contemporary take on Schubert’s terrifying ‘Der Erlkonig’.

Classical training has featured in lots of pop and rock musicians lives. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, producer and DJ Zedd, Annie Lennox, Elton John and Tori Amos are just a few who have studied classically before achieving worldwide fame in other genres.

The world of classical music is vast. Enter it with the mind of an explorer discovering a new land. It spans music from many different countries over several centuries. There are no rules for its performers or composers. They employ all manner of instruments from acoustic to electronic and non-musical objects (or no instruments at all, as in John Cage’s ‘4 minutes 33 seconds’ of silence!) to evoke every reaction and emotion you can think of.

There are no rules for its listeners either. I’m not convinced repeatedly chasing anything around in a foggy haze is good for you whether that’s hockey balls or music you’re unmoved by. If you’re not impressed by something, articulate what you don’t like about it if you can and move on. Indulge your musical curiosity and I hope you’ll share with me your most exciting discoveries.

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