Classical music - starting points

Various posts in a number of threads, most recently "Audiophiles who refuse to listen to classical" suggest there are a number of people who are looking to find a way to get into classical music. I thought it might be worthwhile if some of us who have found a way, even stumbled into one perhaps, could give some advice. If possible we might try to recall what first hooked us on classical music, identify the piece and, if relevant the performance, and describe what grabbed our attention.

I hope that others will use this as a guide to pick an approach which fits their musical tastes.

I'll start with three critical pieces for me.

Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Second Movement, Bruno Walter conductor. This was 11th grade, and quite simply the first time I was ever moved by a piece of classical music. I was caught up in the force, the drama, the inevitability of the music.

Mozart Symphony 35, George Szell conductor. I think this was as a sophomore in college. The sheer energy, the exuberance and speed of the piece had me putting it on repeat in a manner previously reserved for the Beatles.

Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner conductor (my current favorite version). The color and shattering power of the orchestra. I bought into CDs early and for a while my favorite track was The Great Gate at Kiev, the last portion of Pictures, from a demo disk that came with my player. I'm surprised I wasn't thrown out of my apartment.

While my tastes have broadened since then, each of these three works still remains a favorite.
I think if one got a movie score to something they liked very much (Star Wars, Star trek ect) this may help, they might be easier to get a newbie emersed in it quicker being able to connect with music from a scene in a movie.
It's interesting that I have listened and played Classical music for years and yet the most "approachable" Classical is the excellent movie soundtracks that are out there, as Chadnliz said. My recommendations are the Star Wars, esp. the first, Lord of the Rings, and many others. Public Radio aften has programs of music scores and they are fun and educational. I recommend that listeners audition some CDs at their local stores to find what they like and take it home.
Public radio is awesome for the learning curve because the DJ does a bit of biography between peices, I find it alot of fun to learn and listen
For someone new to classical music who is serious about getting some exposure to what is available from the different composers which would in turn give them some guidance in what music to move on to, I don't think you can beat the purchase of some compulation discs which feature composers from the different eras and which will typically include some of the composers most assessible and popular pieces. There are discs for solo piano works, chamber works, overtures, short symphonies, tone poems, and some short symphonies. Listening to these records/CD's will quickly help identify the starting point for a newcomer. These recordings are abundant and cheap. Highly recommended.

For folks who would want some very dramatic and assessible pieces from the Romantic era I would recommend:

Beethoven - Sym #5 & 7, Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto #4, Violin Sonatas 3 & 5, and Piano Sonatas #29, #8, #14, #23 and #29.

Brahms - Violin Concerto, Symphony #1, and Piano Sonata #3 and three intermezzi Op117.

Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique (and it is fantanstic, if a bit bizzare considering when it was composed). Big piece, an audiophile favorite show piece.

Chopin - Music for Solo Piano Preludes and Nocturns as well as Sonatas.

Debussy (not from the romantic period but very assessible non the less)- For Orchestral, LaMer and Afternoon of a Faun. For solo piano, Images and Preludes.

Dvorak - Tone Poems and Symphonies #8 and #9.

Falla - Nights in the gardens of Spain

Hanson - Symphony #2 (he is a neo romantic composer - this symphony is subtitled "Romantic).

Liszt - Sonata in B is a great place to start. This piece is really over the top.

Respighi - Orchestral - Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and the Birds. Big pieces - great audophile demo stuff as well.

Rachmaninov - Symphony # 2 and Symphonic Dances

Rimsky Korsokov - Scheherazade & Russian Easter Overture. More big dramatic demo music.

Saint Saens - Symphony #3 the organ symphony, Piano Concerto #2 and #4.

Schumann - Fantasy in C for solo piano (this is supremely beautiful classical piano)

Sibelius - Symphony #2

Smetana - Ma Vlast, a very nationalistic piece of Czech music - very beautiful and often quoted.

Tchaikovsky - Symphonies 4,5, and 6. Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto, Swan Lake, the 4 suites, and solo piano the Seasons.

Vaughn Williams (not really of the romantic period) Symphony # 2, subtitled the London Symphony. Beautiful piece.

Wagner - Orchestral Preludes from the Ring and others. Big music, but for shear beauty get excerpts from Tristan and Isolda. No fat soprano screeching here!

Thats a few for starters from just one period......If anyone wants specific recommendations I'd be happy to recommend some of my favorite performances.
One of the members of our audio club has but together a 'Classical For Dummies', which I think is an excellent resource for anyone feeling classically challenged. Here's the link -

Classical for Dummies
For a newbie, I would start with the Russian composers. I think they are most accessible to someone used to rock or popular music. I know Beethoven was cited, but I think he's a little too 'cerebral' to start with. I didn't full start to appreciate Beethoven until a few years ago. But you could also try Bach and Mozart. Sometimes it's easier to start with the "Bloody and Thunder." You know, canons, drums, and lots of low brass instruments (trombones).
Newbee's list is excellent. I might add 'The Planets' by Holst (wanna know where Star Wars comes from?), the Bach cello suites, Beethoven 6, and Appalachian Srping by Copland. Not all from the Romantic, but all good stuff and I think quite accessible and inviting.
An opera with the booklet in your hand. Like, Simone Boccanegra-Verdi, Carmen-Bizet, Norma-Bellini, Orfeo-Monterverdi, Figaro-Mozart, etc. How the story is underpinned with music, emotions expressed and drama played is helps you to understand and internalise the music. My first classical music cd, which is converted me to a classical music lover - after years of misspent youth around led zeppelin and alike - was the Simone Boccanegra opera. The drama, the love and emotions coming through perfectly, and gives so much deeper insight into humanity and music than any rock music.
although i have listenned to classical for many years i still get a lot of helpful info from "The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs" which lists practically all the best performances in print.
I guess I started out with the Willam Tell and the 1812.Most all Rossini overtures esp.the Theiving Magpie are all pretty good places to start. The Emperor is my fav Beethoven piano concherto.--The slow movement is sublime.Just about all the Mozart piano conchertos #17 and on up. The Rackmaninoff #2 piano is also up there with the very best.And leave us not forget Beethoven 9th.Then if you want to test,just how "full-range" your speakers are plop any of these in your player. (vinyl is better,if possible)Bach's Toccata and fugue along with Franck,Widor and Gigout organ pieces. Rent the movie Amadus---If that don't get it for you;well you need more time.
Disney's Fantasia, on a good HT system. Variety, and the images may help arrest newbie's attention. Also, Allegro non tropo. This isn't what hooked me, though. I was lucky enough to land in a dorm full of classical music grad students when I was 17. First peces that got me were Beethoven Moonlight Sonata and Emporer Concerto (Serkin; Serkin/Bernstein on Columbia) and Tchaikowski 5th Symphony, can't remember the recording -- it was my tuba playing roommate's.

Also, go to hear some live!
I am thankful for being intruduced to classical music some 20 years ago. It is a large world to investigate but the returns have been great. The emotion and variety is greater in this arena than in any other area of music. The first piece that wet my appetite was Peter Tchaikovsky's 1812 overature (although not one of his favorites). I think a good place for music that is accessable is almost anything from Franz Joseph Hyden or Mozart. I think generally (of course with many exceptions)that the Germans are to classical music what the French are to art.

The following list represents music that I believe is easily accessable and a good start.

Modest Mussorgsky - pictures at an exhibition
Vivaldi - four seasons
Peter Tchaikovsky - Concerto for Violin #1
Concerto for Piano #1
Symphony #6
Franz Joseph Hyden - Symphonies 45, 101, 104
Ludwig van Beethoven - Concerto for Violin #1
Symphonies 3,4,5 &9
Piano concertos 3 &4
Piano sonatas (all)
Max Bruch - Violin concerto #1
Mozart - Piano concertos 20,21 & 23
syphonies 38,40 & 41
Hector Berlios - Symphonie Fantastique
Franz Schubert - Symphony #9
Pucini - Turandot, Madam Butterfly & La Boheme
Verdi - Aida
Georges Bizet - Carmen
I think that with classical music it is really essential to get a decent recording. Who performs it, and sometimes how well it was recorded, makes all the difference, whether you are starting out or have listened your whole life.

I find the customer reviews at are extremely helpful in this regard, and also extremely educational about classical music, and why people listen, and what they listen for.

Go to their home page; in the upper left pull down the "" bullet and scroll down to classical music, and start with a search on anything you know and like, say "Beethoven Symphony 5". Not only will a gazillion choices for that come up, but there will be many side bars leading you to other similar or not-so-similar classical CDs. I have spent many an enjoyable evening learning one heck of a lot there, and honing down my purchases to only the truly finest recordings (often amazingly cheap) of the truly finest music ever performed. Great way to get started. Enjoy.
Newbee, you are da man! That's a great list for neophytes and I agree with it 100%. If one were to stray either side of the Romantic period I would be forced to add these as my next ten choices:

1. "Concierto de Aranjuez" - Rodrigo

2. "Piano Concerto, Opus 20" - Scriabin

3. "Rhapsody in Blue" - and other Gershwin works

4. the Gilbert & Sullivan highlights CD on Telarc

5. "Mass in B-Minor" and bunches of others - Bach

6. "Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird" - Stravinsky

7. "Concerti Grossi," "The Messiah," and more - Handel

8. Symphonies - William Boyce

9. "West Side Story" and "Candide" - Bernstein

10. "Madama Butterfly" (opera) - Puccini

Don't forget the last three symphonies by Mozart (oops! that's eleven!)
Nice set of recommendations. Newbee, Gary17 and Beemerrider: thanks for posting such extended and excellent suggestions for specific works as starting points for people beginning to explore classical music. I agree with the suggestions.

My contribution here will be to reinforce the suggestion that one start with borrowing some music from your local library. Sample some of these works at no cost and see what you connect with. And, if you have a classical music radio station (or webcast) available to you, spend some time with that as background music while you do other things.

Also, remember that each of us may connect via different styles of classical music. For a friend of mine, the normal starting points I'd suggested (e.g., Mozart) just didn't connect for him. But, when he heard some Shostakovich, that resonated immediately for him. Shostakovich is not where I'd normally think of starting someone on a classical journey, but this music really spoke to him and nailed him as a classical music listener. Now he's branching into other things.

So, for those who are just not getting into classical from the "normal" points of entry, here are some 20th Century music recommendations to consider in case your tastes are a bit more twisted and you need something a bit more out of center to catch your interest (not normally the best starting point for most people, but for some...):

Shostakovich, Sym 5 (Previn/LSO, RCA) and String Quartet No. 8 (Borodin Qt or Fitzwilliam QT, Decca)

Kodaly, Hary Janos Suite (Kertesz/LSO, Decca)

Varese, Ionisation (Mehta/LAPO/LAPercussionEnsemble on Decca or NJ Percussion Ensemble on Nonesuch)

Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste (Reiner/CSO, RCA or Solti/LSO, Decca)

Crumb, Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) or Ancient Voices of Children

Larsson, Concertino for Bassoon & String Orch, op45,4

Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto (Lutoslawsk/OrchParis, Rostropovich -cello, EMI)

Panufnik, Concertino for timpani, percussion & strings or Sinfonia Rustica

Poulenc, Concerto for Organ, Strings & Timpani (Pretre/FNRO, Durufle -org, EMI)

Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, op16 (Dorati/LSO, Mercury)

Schuller, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (Dorati/MinneapolisSO, Mercury)
Rushton, Where's Mahler in your list! :-)

Believe it on not, I recently exposed my adult daughter to classical music using my two favorite composers, Sibelius (Sym #4), and Mahler (Sym #6). She found Sibelius bland and just loved Mahler. Go figure!
Rushton - your post captures exactly what I had in mind when I started this thread. There are countless entries into classical music, each right for someone.

It seems to me that Baroque music may be under-represented so far. I would guess that most people have heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons at some point or another. If you liked that you might also try.

Bach - Brandeburg Concertos

Handel - Water Music and Fireworks Music

Also try Glenn Gould or Andras Schiff playing Bach's 2 and 3 Part Inventions. There is something about Bach on piano that clears my head and seems to restore the natural order of the universe. (The Modern Jazz Quartet does this for me as well.)
Newbee, good question. I love Mahler, but if someone is not finding an entry point from some of the other music suggested, I'd take 'em a bit further out on the edges. ;-)

Interesting story about your daughter, as I keep Sibelius and Mahler tied together in my pantheon of two of the greatest orchestral composers coming out of our western european musical tradition. Hard to imagine liking one and not gravitating to the other.
Thanks, Rushton. Yours is the voice of reason vis. a vis. how a given piece of music will "resonate" with an individual. In my case I like stuff all the way from Renaissance and Baroque to Bernstein when it comes to classical. However, when I asked a friend who is heavily into Mahler to help me break into his music he suggested I get Symphony #2. I'm trying to like it but after a few passes I'm not there yet!

In a broad sense it is likely that folks new to classical music will be happiest with pieces heavy on melody (IMHO).
Most of what has been listed here qualify. A few more of this type that grabbed me upon first listen include Barber's "Adagio for Strings," Pachelbel's "Canon," "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," and Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" to name a few more.
Jgreenwood, good catch to point out that we've not covered many entry points using Baroque music (Bach's Mass in B can be a challengin entry point). I like your Bach and handel suggestions above. To those, I'd offer:

Telemann's Tafelmusik (Music for Table). The Reference Recordings disc with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is not bad, but I'd recommend Bruggen/ConAmsterdam on Telefunken as a better entre.

Albinoni, Adagio in g (Marriner/ASMF, Brown -vn, EMI)

Allegri, Miserere (Tallis Scholars or Willcocks and the Choir at King's College on Argo)

Buxtehude, Sonatas for Violin and Cello (Boston Museum Trio on Harmonia Mundi)

Gabrielli, just about anything, particularly his music for brass

Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale (Christie/Les Arts Florissants on Harmonia Mundi)

"Laudate!" or "LaudateII" (Drottingholm Baroque Ensemble, Uppsala Academia Kammarkor, Proprius)

"Recital" and "In Concert" and "A Second Recital" by the Academy of St. Martins in the Field, with Marriner on Argo.
Beemerrider, I agree with you about pieces with greater melodic content as better points of entry for most of us. You've suggested good works for starting points.
How about starting with a live performance! The vast majority of classical music was written before Edison was a gleem in anyone's eye. I've got cheap tickets in the front row,(the ones everyone hates)right in front of the cellos. Watch the drops of sweat fly from the conductors brow, watch how hard the players work during a Beethoven symphony, make eye contact with the performers, hear first hand the complex harmonics of the instruments. No recording and no equipment can really reproduce the total experience of a live performance. Get yourself some cheap tickets to a couple of concerts and see what happens!
Beemerrider, Don't give up on Mahler. I'm not at all sure that #2 is the best place to start though. The last movement is certainly a big part of this piece's attraction but it sure takes a long time to get there and even then it can seem uneven and overlong. Personally I would have recommended #1, which is much more conventional, direct, dramatic and brief (for Mahler) or his greatest Symphony, IMHO, #6 which while long in duration is anything but long in listening. It is full of moments of contrasting drama, bleakness and great beauty. #7 is fairly assessible as well. Stay away from #3 & #9 'til you have gotten a handle on Mahler. They aren't tough musically, but will seem endless until you are more musically acquainted with Mahler. Also, FWIW, because of the uniqueness of Mahler it does help to read a bit about what he was up to....makes a bit more sense out of what what you are hearing and why. The opposite of what you noted as a good thing for newbies exists in Mahler - there is not a lot of symplistic melody to initially draw you in. But, as your friend will attest, once its in your blood it is very moving stuff. Keep trying, but don't get stuck on #2 - borrow some others.

Rushton (and anyone else), I've spent this morning listening to some very assessible neo- romantics (Arnold, Copland, Barber, Bantock) but as I was trying to make recommendations for newbies I kept away from them as much because of the obscurity of some of their names and music as anything else, but their music is very assessible and melodic. See any point in making an addendum to my list? Also, perhaps someone would volunteer to consolidate the lists by era (I demur - I'm too lazy).
Newbee, thanks for your encouragement. I will give Mahler's First a go...why don't you go ahead and recommend the one you like best. I'll add it to my next Amazon order. I know practically nothing about the composer and will do a little reading. One thing I do know, however, is that Mahler once said that all of Puccini's music sounded the same to him. I took that one personally!

By the way, were we separated at birth? I also very much favor Tyler Linbrook Monitors driven by a 30 watt tube integrated, and agree right down the line with your comments on music.

Regards, Lee
Newbee, I've also considered suggesting some of the neo-romantics to which I would add a whole host of British composers in addition to Arnold. But this all gets so overwhelming for people new to classical music that I've avoided doing so. Perhaps a mistake since some might be able to quickly relate to Butterworth or Bax or Moeran... Still, this thread now has a variety of entry points.

Jgreenwood: Thanks for suggesting this!
For Mahler's 1st Symphony, consider the Horenstein/LSO performance on Unicorn if you can find it. The Solti/LSO performance is also quite good. If you contrast either of these with the Giulini/Chicago performance, you might think you're listening to entirely different pieces of music. (One of the nice things about classical music, for me.)
hi guys
great thread,how about some specific choices that bring out the best of your systems
Alpass, let me suggest you start a new thread with that question. It's a good question, but it really is off-topic for this thread. There are lots of threads in the archives to suggest very system revealing classical music, and I'll be happy to contribute on a new thread you start.
Beemerrider, Solti's 1st, suggested by Rushton is a good place to start. It's in print and its a budget CD. If you can't find it Kubelik is another budget disc I'd recommend that is in print.

If you want to try #6, Zander on Telarc is a fine place to start and the CD, at regular price, comes with an additional disc of commentary by Zander about the symphony which you should find valuable.

All of Zander's Telarc disc's come with the commentary disc and they are all top drawer interpertations and performances which are well recorded. Also Telarc sells each symphony set at 'one disc' prices even though the set may have 2 or 3 disc's. And, for the audio nuts amoungst us I think some are hi-res format as well. I like Zander's performances a lot. Just a great way to get an intro to Mahler. He hasn't done the 1st yet (nor the 2d 7, and 8) but I'm waiting.

Rushton, Re multiple performances of Mahler. Just for fun I just counted my CD's of Mahler. Over 160. No wonder I'm broke! But, they really are all different from each other performance wise and interpertively. I'm often like a mule between haystacks. But, I've got a few favorites........:-)
Thanks, guys. I've pretty much always liked Solti so I think I will head in that direction.
Sibelius is a much better composer than Mahler, but I'm sure a youngster raised on rock would prefer Mahler.
"Peter and the Wolf" was a childhood favorite of mine ( the old Bernstein NY phil. recording on Columbia Masterworks). "The Moldau" by Smetana followed. My older sister had these records and I had none, so I got to listen only to those they had already at first.

So much music for most to choose from these days. Classical is a hard sell for most. Both my kids have some degree of interest in classical music among others as well I like to think from hearing dear old dad play it all at one point or another, among other things. My daughter is into her third year of playing violin with the Middle School Orchestra and seems to be coming into her own there as well.

Leroy Anderson is where I would recommend for many to start first. So many short, catchy and immediately recognizable contemporary classical compositions there, including stuff you hear every CHristmas.

Many ways to go from there. bach, Mozart, Tchiakovsky, BEethoven, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, maybe even Mahler and Stravinsky for some classical music with an edge. Hard to say.

Dance music maybe? Strauss waltzes, Czech Marches, Tchaikovsky Ballet music? Sousa marches maybe? More people are probably likely to relate to music that one can dance or perform to.