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Classical Notes

How do you introduce someone to Classical Music?

Posted at 2:47 PM on July 2, 2012 by ClassicalMPR (15 Comments)

Courtesy of Ed Yourdon

Brian Newhouse, Managing Director of Classical Music at MPR | APM put forth a question to the classical staff last Friday, and the emails started flying.

It seems they're expecting a foreign exchange student, and that student asked to be introduced to Classical music. What happened next was a flurry of "desert island" pieces from an array of our staff. We wanted to share with you — and have you weigh-in — our growing list of classic classical pieces.


Tim Roesler (Senior Vice President, Minnesota Public Radio)

"For me it's the finest 8 minutes in classical music; the Allegretto [second movement] from Beethoven's 7th."

Jodi Gustafson (Sr. Administrative Assistant, Classical)

"I'll contrast with the complete serenity of Arvo Pärt's Te Deum."

Julie Amacher (National Host, Classical 24)

Ralph Vaughn Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis; Beethoven: Choral Fantasy

Alison Young (Host/Producer, Classical Music Service)

"I think I could listen over and over to Claude Debussy's Suite Bergamasque. Just sublime and transporting too."

Rex Levang (Music Director, Classical Music Service)

"At 15, I think my desert island piece might have been [Gershwin's] Rhapsody in Blue. Today, I'd be harder pressed!"

Judy McAlpine (Sr. VP & General Manager, APM, Content and Media)

"[Golijov's] Azul, because its beauty is beyond words."

William Johnston (Regional Digital Media Intern, Classical MPR)

"Mahler's Second Symphony, particularly the final movement, although it loses much of its power when not preceded by the remainder of the work, especially Urlicht (the fourth of five movements). The sublime beauty and transporting power of that final movement is a gem set in the rest of the work.

A runner up would the Richard Strauss Vier letzte Lieder (Last Four Songs), particularly the fourth, and especially when paired with Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) from which Im Abendrot (Evening, the fourth song) draws a key musical motive and creates a beautiful moment."

Jen Keavy (Marketing Manager)

"Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Intense, emotional, expressive. (Yep, I said it! I love Schoenberg.)

Bach's Cello Suites — all of them. They are meditative and transcendent, and are known to bring me to tears, especially when performed by Pablo Casals.

Also on the list is Carissimi's oratorio, Jepthe. Beautiful and dramatic."

Randi Yoder (Sr VP & Chief Development Officer)

"At 15, I was starting to perform (in choir) Handel's Messiah and could barely get through the parts we sang without my throat tightening up because it was so moving. In fact, my first gift to MPR in the late 70's was motivated by a recording of it MPR was giving away as a premium. I went completely off our early years of marriage budget to get the 'free' copy which of course would have been cheaper to acquire at the music store! I still play it and sing along."

Emily Reese (Host, Cultural Programming)

"Ravel, Mother Goose Suite, the Enchanted Garden part. What I do when I'm teaching classical music to someone who's clearly interested is I make them a CD with as many different pieces I can fit in that 70 minutes, then I talk them through each piece, or write a few words about each, explaining why I love it. It's pretty easy when you have a disc of Bach, Ravel, Beethoven, Shostakovich, et cetera, to put very simply why you like them. I think, anyway."

Lynne Warfel (National Host/Producer)

"When I was 15 I had this oddball, eclectic love of The Beatles, rock and roll, Broadway shows and Stan Kenton's kind of music — a love inspired by my jazz trumpeter Dad. I hadn't been exposed much at all to classical, but when I was, it was head-on with the finale to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil. No half-measures! As a (then) new singer who liked big Broadway 'production-number' endings and big brassy trumpet sections, it was perfect. Rattled the rafters. Same year: [Carl Orff's] Carmina Burana and Brahms' Symphonies for the first time: Philadelphia Orchestra. Loved stuff that made noise with lots of brass and percussion.


Now it's your turn. Give us your list of "must listen" works in the comments below.


Comments (15)

I'd love to have unique answers, but I'm not surprised that the first composers to come to mind are already represented here: Mahler's 2nd is incredibly powerful -- but Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa performed by SPCO was a truly transcendent experience for me. I've gifted recordings of the piece to probably a dozen people.

Posted by Molly O C Rowan | July 3, 2012 9:57 AM


Copland conducting his Appalachian Spring was my gateway drug at 16. So lovely, still.

Posted by allie | July 3, 2012 10:02 AM


A piece that's part piano concerto, part orchestral work and choral work: Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and for fun: Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals and Luciano Pavoratti singing "Nessum Dorma"

Posted by Barry G. Wick | July 3, 2012 10:08 AM


I like the Mahler Urlicht/Finale 2nd Symphony idea. For someone just being introduced to classical music though, I wonder if it might get a bit long and a little difficult to handle - it's almost too personal! I think I would have to go with Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, with background information for each picture. It really draws you into the music and makes it somewhat "interactive" for the listener to visualize each picture in their head. Plus it's not too long, there's a lot of contrast, different instrument families are used often, and the end is, well. Exciting.

Posted by Joe | July 3, 2012 10:10 AM


...oh gateway music like the Swingle Singers singing Bach's Greatest Hits...

Posted by Barry G. Wick | July 3, 2012 10:15 AM


My music class Teacher in Junior High would put on a stack of records for us to listen to. She only had about 4-5 pieces that she would play over and over - until we had the titles of the pieces memorized. I don't remember all of the selections, but I do remember one - Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. It has stuck with me all of these years.

Posted by Ken | July 6, 2012 9:18 PM


To introduce someone to classical music, you have to choose beautiful pieces. Of the ones listed by the staff and others, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (especially the second movement) come to mind.

But you may also want to consider where the person is starting from. For example, if the person is fond of jazz, tell him or her that Beethoven invented jazz in the last movement of his last Piano Sonata with its syncopated rhythms, then listen to it.

It also helps to use some piece they all know, then explain why it is great. For example, the famous opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are actually a pretty dumb theme (3 D's and an E-flat). What makes it great is how Beethoven modulates it, inverts it, introduces a counter theme, and everything else. He builds a powerful symphony based on a very unlikely motif. That's what makes classical music great.

Posted by John Pastor | July 9, 2012 10:24 AM


The finale of Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major is so much fun - it makes me want to laugh and dance. It would delight someone who is new to classical music.

Posted by Ruth Metzger | July 9, 2012 1:53 PM


Having a distinct fondness for lyrical music (& thinking that's an excellent way to introduce classical music to someone unfamiliar with it), I would recommend:

Piano Concerto #2 by Edvard Grieg

Pier Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg

Symphony #9 ("New World") by Antonin Dvorak

1812 Overture by Peter Tchaikowsky

& as a chamber piece, Piano Quintet in A major ("The Trout") by Franz Schubert

Posted by Jonathan | July 9, 2012 5:58 PM


My gateway was Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto in C minor...on 8 double-sided 78 records that belonged to my mother. The opening still transports me.

Posted by Joan Potter | July 10, 2012 7:19 AM


I would go with songs they are familiar with. Songs they have heard before in the background but never really listened to.

Greig's Morning Mood
Blue Danube Waltz
Mozart's Requiem
Brahm's Lullabye
Rhapsody in Blue
Copeland's Rodeo and Theme for a Common Man (although with Olympics.. that soon may be a little tiring)
Claire De Lune
Lakme's Flower Duet
Nutcracker Suite

And then throw in some contemporary pieces: Movie themes by John Williams
- Harry Potter
- Star Wars
- Schindlers List
- ET
- Indiana Jones

I think the Twilight scores are lovely pieces of music. I am partial to Full Moon and The Kiss from Eclipse. The way they both build and build. Suprisingly I can get lost in them.

Posted by Maggie | July 10, 2012 9:28 AM


Have fun!! Schedule an evening for vintage catoon-watching. Enjoy Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Looney Tunes, etc. When you have finished with giggling, point out that much of the music is/was all-time favorite "classical" pieced.

Posted by Eunice | July 11, 2012 2:00 PM


During my very young youth, I would peruse Encarta (ah yes! that wonderful reference library wedged between printed encyclopedias and Wikipedia). I learned about the world (e.g., the most memorable video was "Oh the humanity!" for the Hindenburg disaster), but most importantly, I was introduced to classical music. I fell in love with a snippet from Schubert's Quintet in C Major (first movement: Allegro ma non troppo). I then began playing the violin in 5th grade and made it my goal to perform this piece at competition. In the 11th grade, this goal became a reality, as I gathered a group of fellow musicians and we received top honors at the all-state competition. Ever since, I have introduced others to classical music through this movement. Listen to it, and tell me it doesn't move you!!

Posted by Laura | July 12, 2012 10:31 AM


This is a great idea. Here are some of my "desert island" pieces. Some repetition, some additions:

Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine (got me into choral music)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Capriccio Espagnole
Copland's 3rd Symphony, particularly the final movement
Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony, particularly 3rd movement
Divine Comedy by Robert W. Smith

I think the best place to start someone listening to classical music would be Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 . Such wonderful music all the way through

Posted by Jay | July 12, 2012 5:00 PM


What an interesting conversation! I agree that you need to start with beautiful melodies, certainly "Nessun dorma." How about some of the Mozart arias for soprano? Then, give examples of tuneful instrumental pieces too such as Rachmaninoff's c minor Piano Concerto, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Dvorak's New World Symphony ("Going Home") and for sure the Air ("on the G String") from Bach's third Orchestral Suite, which I regard as the most perfectly crafted piece ever - it is my desert island piece! How about choral, like Bach's Christmas Oratorio or the Magnificat?

Posted by Michael | July 12, 2012 10:14 PM