Seven simple steps to a classical education

 

Do you know your arias from your Elgar? Your lieder from your Grieg? When Louise Eastfound that knowledge of classical music didn’t come with age, she embarked on a DIY appreciation course

THE MOMENT of realisation happened about three months ago. I was sitting in a shady courtyard with my friend Stephen, glasses clinking with ice before us.

“The only thing that could make this any better,” Stephen noted,” “would be a Puccini aria floating out of an upstairs window.” “Ah yes,” I sighed. “Puccini.” That’s when it struck me. He might as well have mooted the addition of a Bontok nose flute for all the context my brain could offer. No little trickles of music dripped into my inner ear, as they would if he had suggested Elliott Smith or some mid-period Queen.

A knowledge of classical music was something I always assumed I’d acquire when I was a grown-up. Yet here I am, to all intents and purposes an adult (I own a house but not a Bebo account), and still completely clueless.

I know the main names. I tune in to Lyric FM while driving. I like that lunchtime thingy at the National Concert Hall, but essentially, I have no idea of how Brahms is different to Liszt, or why everyone looks so po-faced and worshipful when they talk about Bach.

Down the years, I have made a few attempts to educate myself – reading Michael Dervan’s pieces in The Irish Times, and so on – but reading an expert talking to connoisseurs is a bit like joining a PhD seminar straight from kindergarten. To be honest, it served only to reinforce my conviction that there’s a hell of a lot to know and, therefore, it is best left for another time.

Now it occurs to me that “another time” isn’t going to happen by itself. It also occurs to me that I already have the means at my disposal. Like many desk-workers, I devour a sickening amount of trivia online – blogs, feeds, virals of dancing cats and babies.

What if I was to divert my river of time-wasting towards the barren wasteland of my classical music knowledge? Stephen agreed to send some e-mails to kick-start my education. What ensued was an online, self-administered music course, consisting of YouTube clips, classical music blogs, bookmarking and live streaming. True, it’s hardly Juilliard. To a true classical music aficionado, the patchy sound quality and the surface-skimming would be about as palatable as a Beethoven ring-tone.

For me, though, the immediacy of YouTube, along with Stephen’s always-amusing e-mails, means that this particular attempt at self-improvement has not just worked, but turned into a genuine pleasure.

STEP ONE

The first e-mail arrives. Stephen has decided on a chronological approach and, as his year zero, settles on Gregorio Allegri’s Misererefrom around 1630. It’s beautiful; a weaving together of nine unaccompanied voices, immediately suggestive of cloisters, mist and mystery.

In fact, Stephen tells me, the Vatican was so determined to keep its mystery intact, it allowed no copies of the sheet music to be made, a situation which stood until 1770 when Mozart, the 14-year-old wunderkind, arrived in Rome and produced a near-perfect score after hearing it twice.

Next up are Corelli and Vivaldi. Stephen manages to divorce the latter from its layers of pizza-parlour familiarity by suggesting that technological advances in violin craftsmanship during the early 18th century made the instrument, for the first time, a real rival to the human voice.

In imagining a time when a violin was something exhilaratingly new, a thing of innovation and possibility, I find I’m listening to the winter concerto of the Four Seasonsas though Vivaldi composed it just yesterday.

STEP TWO

Ah, Bach. Stephen warns me he can only ruffle the surface of Bach, so prolific was he. Even so, there are several links to follow up from violin partitas to the Passions and oratorios. I’m expecting to feel intimidated and confused, but each link pleases me more than the last.

Perhaps most importantly, Stephen tells me the Goldberg Variationsleave him cold, which immediately motivates me to track them down on YouTube.

My search throws up wonderful old footage of Glen Gould, the Canadian pianist, swaying and muttering and pummelling the air.

Gould recorded the Goldberg Variationsboth in 1955, at the beginning of his career, and in 1981, near the end. Comparing the two versions, the first quick and lively, the latter, introspective and measured, opens my ears to how interpretations can vary, and prompts me to start exploring in earnest.

STEP THREE

The trick to listening to classical music, as a beginner, is to have something to listen out for. When listening to a clarinet quintet, I think about Stephen’s assertion that Mozart’s genius lies in his taking the complexity of baroque music and tidying it up so the mechanical complexity lies below the surface.

I christen it “the swan paradigm” and in listening for the dark paddling beneath the calm cascade of notes, begin to hear something much more interesting.

For Haydn, he suggests thinking about the scene in Footloosewhen Lori Singer’s strict preacher daddy listens to the Lark Quintetand we instinctively know he’s not all bad.

STEP FOUR

Beethoven is a particular favourite of Stephen’s so there are several links to attend to. I find myself slipping back into my old ways and allowing Ode to Joyswirl around me like muzak in a lift.

Then comes the Emperor concerto, an 1811 composition which steps into the lift with me, looks innocent for three minutes and then pushes the emergency button, jolting me to attention. I sit still, listen and really hear it.

STEP FIVE

“Nation-builders” is how Stephen suggests I look at the composers of the 19th century, a time of rising national sentiment. Britain had Elgar, Norway had Grieg, Poland had Chopin (seriously, Poland? Am I the only person who thought Chopin was French?).

What has really struck me in the last couple of weeks is that these works – classical standards, and mainstays of the BBC Proms – are less accessible to me than Bach and the early Baroque music. I hear that huge orchestral sound and I start to think about what I’ll have for dinner.

Once upon a time, I would have decided they weren’t for me, end of story, but I’m beginning to realise it takes repeated, concentrated listening to really hear music so superficially lovely. In a funny way, I think I’ll only truly like classical music when I know why I dislike it.

STEP SIX

My plan has always been to decide what I like, based on the YouTube links, then buy the recordings, but my list is expanding faster than I can afford to purchase, and I am starting to feel a little swamped.

So as an interim measure, I start a kind of impromptu online music library, book-marking links to pieces I enjoy. I’m still returning frequently to Bach, but my virtual shelves also contain links to Claudio Arrau playing Chopin’s Nocturnes; a very beautiful cello quintet by Schubert (D956); Beethoven’s Diabelli Variationsplayed by Alfred Brendel, and violinist Henryk Szeryng playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

STEP SEVEN

Wagner is a surprise. Admittedly, we don’t really touch the operas but after listening to a few rather elegant lieder, I did not feel, as Woody Allen did, remotely compelled to invade Poland.

Stephen now decides to abandon chronology in favour of floating between favourite pieces from Mahler to Richard Strauss, something he continues to do on a regular basis. On occasion, I return the favour with a piece I’ve found on my travels, an exchange I know gives me a lot more pleasure than it ever could him.

In the last few months, I’ve finally stopped feeling completely bamboozled by classical music and have reached a point where I feel comfortably, enthusiastically, ignorant.

I now know, for example, what Puccini sounds like – and to be honest, I reckon a Schubert lied might have been more suitable for our courtyard drinks.

BARTÓK, BACH OR BEETHOVEN: ONLINE AIDS TO IMPROVING YOUR EAR

To get you in the mood, log on to the wonderful Ted Talks site, ted.com, and search for Benjamin Zander. In just 20 minutes, the thoroughly charming and hilarious conductor of the Boston Philharmonic (above) demonstrates how to “read” Chopin and proves that no one is tone-deaf.

Not everyone has a Stephen. If you can’t find someone to steer you, check out classicalconvert.com.

Intelligently written by a 28-year-old New Yorker, with the beginner in mind, it includes a good list of starter pieces and a useful guide to composers using short MP3s as illustration.

Classical music forums are where fanatics swap notes; one I like is talkclassical.com, which has nicely non-snarky users. Hunt out the thread titled “Your top 10 classical works” for suggestions of pieces you might want to add to your listening list.

YouTubeis a phenomenal source for the beginner. Unlike elsewhere on the site, the comments left by classical users can sometimes be informative, although there’s still a hefty number of the “You suck” variety. Playlists compiled by other users are a great way of finding new music; enter, say, “Glen Gould” or “Chopin sonatas” and hit “Playlists”.

When you do find a piece you like, it’s a good idea to bookmark it. Most browsers offer this option, but I found delicious.com, a dedicated bookmarking site, particularly malleable. When you have a page open, simply hit the tag button, name it Mahler, and hey presto, you’ve started to build your own online library.

Should you feel like a little variety in your listening, classical.djoffers links to live streaming from classical music radio stations all over the world, from Taipei to Lima.

If you prefer to get your information the Luddite way, there are plenty of books for classical virgins, most of them concerned with educating you before your demise. In no particular order: 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Dieby Matthew Rye (Cassell Illustrated); 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Dieby Tom Moon (Workman) and The Rough Guide to Classical Music(Rough Guides).