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This Newb’s Playlist Helps You Understand (=Love) Classical Music

An average dude pays attention to his wife's classical music. And he has some feelings about it

By Matthew Rea, '13 PhD

February 25, 2020 •

I used to be like you. Just a guy out there, an arts grad living his life, knowing nothing about classical music except for that bit in Apocalypse Now, where the arrival of the helicopters is set to Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Then I met my wife, a classically trained saxophonist who was, at the time, studying for her DMus. That was nine years ago, and since then I've listened to heaps of classical music and spent a lot of time talking to my wife about it. Call it my foray into lifelong learning. By now I've graduated to a level of musical knowledge akin to that of a precocious six-year-old. With that wealth of knowledge, I offer a few music recommendations for you to listen along with me. My comments are worthless to the musically savvy but if that's not you, listen up and start your own classical music playlist.

1. Symphony No. 9 "New World Symphony" - Dvořák: One of the most popular symphonies, No. 9 has all the stuff you want. Flutes? There are some in there. Percussion? Check. Violins that play so softly that you imagine the conductor is all crouched down for that part? You bet, pal. Neil Armstrong liked this one so much he took it to the moon. Themes from New World pop up in movies and video games, which makes the piece familiar to modern audiences. If you listen closely, there are parts of this work that sound a lot like John Williams's scores for Jaws and Star Wars. I used to think Williams was ripping off Dvořák, but apparently in classical music that's called an "homage," maybe Latin for "rip off." (Don't look that up.)

Tip: Sit on your hands. If this is the first piece you see performed live, you'll learn about movements, little breaks in the music. You will be tempted to clap here but, reader, do not do this. You will look foolish.

2. The Rite of Spring - Stravinsky: A ballet! You can sometimes tell when a piece is for ballet because it has a regular movie name like Swan Lake, not all confusing like Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112, "The Year of 1917." Anyway, The Rite of Spring is strange - in a "let's do some legal, recreational drugs responsibly and, like, listen to music, man" kind of way. Starts out sounding like plant-people waking up groggy and then, a few beats later, they're fighting each other to the death. Lots of wavy horns and stabby strings. It's fun to listen and imagine how the dancers might interpret the music. When it was first performed in Paris it was so avant-garde that people freaked the heck out.

Tip: Impress your friends. Tell them this piece definitely inspired the music for when Kirk fights Spock in that weird episode of Star Trek.

3. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Rachmaninoff: This one is a "concertante," which means one instrument gets some solos but not as many as it would in a concerto. Rachmaninoff is the composer they talk about in the movie Shine where Geoffrey Rush portrays pianist David Helfgott having a mental breakdown trying to play Piano Concerto No. 3 - a super hard piece. You know whoever's at the piano is in for a wild ride. My favourite part is about two-thirds through where the piano starts playing this slow, touchy-feely music and suddenly the whole orchestra joins in and it feels like you're in for a warm, satisfying ending. Then Rachmaninov adds another superfast part for the piano. Cool, but I get the impression he just hates pianists.

Tip: See for yourself. If you see this live, turn to a fellow audience member and say, "Wow, did you see the pianist's hands? Incredible." You'll look like a regular Johnny Symphony.

4. Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" - Beethoven: Beethoven dedicated this piece to Napoleon Bonaparte, but when Bonaparte declared himself emperor, Beethoven became enraged and tore that dedication right off the page. Politics! Anyway, Eroica is good. What's cool about Beethoven is that he's got a lot of feels in his music and that's true for Eroica. The first movement is all action and excitement, the second movement is all sadness and tension, and the third movement has all these horns that sound like they're having a conversation. The finale is just bonkers. The whole thing plays out like a musical heroic epic building to a triumphant ending. It's a cool and emotional trip.

Tip: Learn a fun fact. Napoleon did not have a triumphant ending. He died in exile, probably from stomach cancer (and not arsenic poisoning, which would have been cooler).

5. Bolero - Ravel: Sometimes I think this one's a prank. Seriously, it just keeps going. It's a one-movement orchestral piece, so you can clap when it's done and no one will glare at you. Ravel wrote it after watching his child struggle through a 15-minute recital, after which he said, "If I must suffer, so shall you all." OK, I made that up, but sometimes this piece feels that way. Apparently in the '80s people thought this piece was Bo Derek levels of sexy, so what do I know? Imagine being the snare drummer - a lifetime of musical training so you can die of boredom while a clarinet gets a solo. Yeesh. Anyway, the first few minutes, admittedly, are quite fun. You can tell it's dancey - it was commissioned as a ballet. Mostly, it sounds like we're all travelling to some cool place but we never, ever get there. Ever.

Tip: Take my advice. Check out Frank Zappa's Bolero cover.

Looking to increase your own music appreciation? UAlberta's Department of Music hosts all kinds of concerts and musical events every year. Take a look.

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