Best classical music for beginners
New to classical music? Here’s ten works we are sure will get you hooked... Daniel Jaffé counts down ten great classical music pieces for beginners
It’s a pity that some of the most exciting and evocative music we know has been saddled with the misleading label ‘classical’.
All the more ironic since certain styles of music regularly filed under that category feature in so many Hollywood blockbusters and increasingly sophisticated online and computer games (indeed, there has been a BBC Prom dedicated to just that genre of music in 2022).
Perhaps it’s best to regard ‘classical’ music as the equivalent of ‘literary fiction’: just as authors as diverse as Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Tolstoy and Shakespeare are caught up in this single term, so JS Bach, Elisabeth Lutyens, Stravinsky, Florence Price, Walton and Philip Glass are all examples of ‘classical’. No ten composers, let alone a mere ten works, can do more than give a hint of the riches in store for anyone ready to embark on a lifetime of discovery.
All that said, here is a selection of works which are not just attractive in themselves, but which we hope will whet any beginner’s appetite to try other similar works or to explore more by a particular composer or period of music.
We’ve tried, on one hand, to avoid ‘cheating’ by suggesting leftfield or one-off works which aren’t typical of mainstream classical repertoire. While these can be exciting in themselves, so often they can lead to disappointment if a classical music beginner hopes to find more of the same.
We’ve also tried to avoid offering clichés of a particular genre or repertoire. Of course, there’s something to be said for getting into such classics as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Moonlight Sonata. But these works carry such a level of ‘familiarity’ that it’s perhaps best to start with less obvious pieces which may surprise and (we hope) delight rather than lull the listener into thinking ‘I know this already’.
So here are some suggestions which we hope are not too obvious, but which give solid starting points from which to begin your own journey of discovery.
Best classical music for beginners
William Byrd: 'Haec dies' (for unaccompanied chorus)
For many people, choral music – precisely because it is sung by human voices and usually involves the setting of meaningful texts – provides some of the most immediately engaging and sometimes transcendent experiences in musical performance. Here’s a relatively old classic, first published in 1591 during the reign of Elizabeth I by the English composer William Byrd.
This was a time when England was enjoying an efflorescence in English literature – of which Shakespeare was just the most celebrated of writers – and was also home to some of the greatest composers to be found anywhere in Europe.
One of the greatest of these was William Byrd, a close friend and colleague of Thomas Tallis (whose fame was largely revived early in the 20th century by Vaughan Williams, who introduced several of his melodies to the English Hymnal and also famously used a theme as the basis for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis).
Byrd’s music is, if anything, even more varied than Tallis’s: he wrote and published music both for the church and for domestic performance (both sacred and secular, since Byrd – as a secretly observant Catholic – wrote a deal of music for covert Catholic service usually performed in private chapels).
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Given his background, and the way Tudor music is generally presented in historical dramas, one might expect something grave and sombre. Not ‘Haec dies’ – here’s a major key work with an exuberant spring in its step, sometimes fooling the listener with its unexpected syncopated, almost jazzy rhythms.
Recommended recording: The New Company/Harry Bicket (Sony)
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (for Baroque orchestra)
The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, once wrote of his favourite composer: ‘I’m convinced that Bach is the greatest genius who ever walked among us, and the Brandenburgs are what he wrote when he was happy.’
There’s a great deal more to the Brandenburg Concertos than pure happiness, but it’s certainly true that you won’t find the sombre moods and anguish of Bach’s celebrated choral Passions. JS Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most prolific yet almost unfailingly inspired composers who ever existed, and this is music which unashamedly takes joy in life and the act of creativity.
Each of the six Concertos has its own instrumentation – the way Bach uses these instruments is fascinating in itself.
Concerto No. 1 is perhaps his nearest to what might these days be called a Concerto for Orchestra, using as it does something like a full orchestra (only without any percussion), and the spotlight is placed on various sections and instruments of the orchestra at different points – most obviously in the finale.
Concerto No. 2 caught Paul McCartney’s ear with its virtuoso part for high trumpet (he hired the soloist he had heard on the radio to take part in the sessions for ‘Penny Lane’), though there are solo parts for various woodwind instruments too.
No. 3 is effectively for string orchestra (though usually accompanied by harpsichord), with the string parts unusually divided into three each for violins, violas, and cellos doubled by basses: just listen to how the opening motif is worked and varied through Bach’s intricate part writing.
No. 4 is undeservedly one of the least celebrated of the set, yet has a charming swing in its three-time opening movement and spotlights delightfully burbling woodwind and a virtuosic violin soloist. The Fifth, though touted as the first true keyboard concerto, is perhaps the least obviously colourful since it has to allow the relatively quiet harpsichord to shine.
But then No. 6 dispenses with the violins and gives violas and cellos a chance to shine. Above all, this is joyous music – wonderful to hear, and even more wonderful if you can attend a live performance (see note at the end of this article).
So where to start? No. 3 is a relatively short and joyous burst of energy involving strings only; then try either No. 2 or No. 4 to try Bach’s flavoursome way with his wind instruments.
Recommended recording: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Erato)
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto
Why not Mozart? Well, why not Haydn? Mozart so regularly gets a look in with these lists of classical music for beginners, while Haydn is too often thought rather a dry and dull option – how wrong people can be!
One of Joseph Haydn’s most charming characteristics is his joyous way of celebrating the God of his faith and life: this can be heard so often in his masses and liturgical works, and it was tempting to suggest one of these. But here’s a sure-fire piece, particularly for listeners who have not yet acclimatised to classical-style singing and perhaps hesitate to get into the more religious works.
Haydn wrote his Trumpet Concerto in 1796 to show off the capabilities of the then just-developed keyed trumpet. And it still holds its own as a charming demonstration of the instrument’s potential and character in three well-contrasted movements. The first is a swaggering and nonchalant demonstration of being able to play far from basic melodies; the second is one of the most charming melodies ever written for any instrument. The finale is a bubbling celebration of the trumpet, now set to join any musical band, respectable or not.
Recommended recording: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet); Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner (Philips)
Movement 2, Andante:
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
It’s highly likely that anyone that listens to any music will have heard at least some snatches of Beethoven, whether the hammering ‘da-da-da-daaaah’ motif that opens the Fifth Symphony, maybe the chorus from his Ninth Symphony, and almost certainly those moody arpeggios which open his Moonlight Sonata.
These, and those famous scowling portraits of the man, all tend to make him appear intense and dauntingly serious. So here’s something to surprise anyone who thinks Beethoven is all storm and stress.
The Fourth Piano Concerto (composed 1805-06) doesn’t start with some grand statement, but is gently stirred into action by the soloist strumming a straightforward, easy-going theme, answered in kind by the orchestra. This is Beethoven in mellow mood – something not heard often enough about his music let alone depicted in popular culture.
And so it continues throughout that first movement, like a genial conversation between friends. The mood is rather different in the second movement: it begins with the orchestra playing a more ‘typical’ Beethoven theme, vigorous and rather disgruntled. The piano responds in a calmer mood – the movement has been aptly described as Orpheus taming the furies, the piano being Orpheus playing a conciliatory role even as the orchestra sometimes interrupts.
The furies eventually subside, and the music smoothly transitions to the finale – cheerful and joyous, and sure to leave the audience in a good mood.
Recommended recording: Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony)
Schubert: Symphony No. 8, ‘Unfinished’
After all these concertos, here at last is a symphony – or rather, a great but uncomplete symphony. It is not for the sake of brevity that Schubert’s most famous symphony, No. 8 (started in 1822 but never completed) has been chosen: it’s about as long as many a symphony by Mozart or even Beethoven (which is not to say it is of the greatest length). But it is one of those works which seems absolutely timeless in its expression.
Its moody, bass-heavy opening already suggests the storm clouds are gathering, the shivering strings that follow suggesting disquiet even as the woodwind present the first theme. But then comes a remarkable key change, brought courtesy of the horns, and a songful new theme is played by the cellos – one of those melodies which seem to have always been part of our consciousness without our knowing it (perhaps helped by the fact it has been used in so many films, ranging from Bela Lugosi thrillers to Spielberg’s The Minority Report).
But this proves something of a false dawn, as the introduction returns – possibly first with the repeat of the movement’s opening ‘exposition’, treated as optional by some conductors. The mood as it opens the development section that follows the exposition (repeated or not) becomes more than sombre, apparently sinking into a great abyss as the upper strings seem to play that opening theme in anguish.
Quite how Schubert climbs out of that dark pit is for you, the listener, to discover. Anyone needing reassurance may know that the clouds are dispersed in the serene second movement, a perfect complement to the first movement’s night time of the soul. Altogether, it’s a work once heard never forgotten.
Recommended recording: Vienna Philharmonic/Carlos Kleiber (Deutsche Grammophon)
Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10
Chopin is such a mainstay of amateur and budding pianists that it is sometimes easy to forget quite how extraordinarily inventive, unique and ahead of its time his music was – and how formidably difficult some of it is to play! While many learner pianists are familiar with the evocative character of many of his Preludes, the same could be equally said about the two sets of pieces (Opus 10 and Opus 25) most unpromisingly called Etudes (Studies).
Nominally intended to exercise and improve a pianist’s technique, they should perhaps also be seen as studies akin to an artist’s sketches, so potent and evocative as they are as pieces of music. For starters, try from the Op. 10 set No. 3 in E major, nicknamed (not by Chopin, who did not give names to any of these piece) ‘Tristesse’: here, in concentrated form, is the source of the wistful, rapt poetry in music that Rachmaninov borrowed and ‘made his own’ in his well-loved Second Piano Concerto.
And then there’s the ferocious final Etude, nicknamed the ‘Revolutionary’ as it was said to reflect Chopin’s reaction to the news of the Russian attack on Warsaw during the November 1831 uprising. While those nicknames may help identify each of the etudes, at the end of the day it’s the music that counts – and almost two centuries after they were originally composed they still cast a potent spell.
Recommended recording: Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon)
Schumann: ‘Mondnacht’ from Liederkreis, Op. 39
For anyone who has been nervous about trying ‘art song’ in its various guises – whether Lieder (German), mélodie (French), or Romance (Russian or East European) – we think this song by Robert Schumann will be a pleasant surprise. Schumann wrote two sets of songs called ‘Liederkreis’, both within a year of each other (around 1840). The earlier Op. 24 collection sets poems from Heinrich Heine, while the Op. 39 set - which includes the song we’re recommending - takes its texts from a volume of poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff.
A leading light in the Romantic movement in the early 19th-century, Eichendorff was particularly prone to writing poems in which the narrator identifies closely with nature, finding themselves at ‘home’ in a wild wood, or – as in the wonderful ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) – the apparent symbiotic relationship between the moon and a field of wheat at night. The piano starts with a yearning melody, on the brink of committing itself to a key, but withholding that moment as if in a state of rapt wonder, as the singer begins to articulate the scene: ‘It were as if Heaven had gently kissed the earth…’
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Rather than commit to an entire cycle, it might be a good idea to find a singer you enjoy listening to first. American soprano Barbara Bonney’s lovely performance with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy is taken from an album with presents a selection of Schumann’s songs, of which just two sets of songs are performed complete (Frauenliebe und -leben, and 6 Lieder, Op. 13). Nonetheless, this is probably a good way to sample his various songs before deciding whether to embark on hearing an entire cycle. Besides, the album also includes songs by Robert’s wife, the brilliant pianist and now much-admired composer Clara Schumann.
Recommended recording: Barbara Bonney (soprano), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) (Decca)
Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Borodin was one of the greatest melodists of the late-19th century. That's something that a certain Broadway musical took advantage of: listeners of a certain generation may recall Kismet with its duet (later much covered as a solo song) ‘Stranger in Paradise’. Here, now, is the song in its original and (we think) far superior form.
The Polovtsian Dances are an episode in Borodin’s full-scale operatic spectacular, Prince Igor, illustrating events taken from ancient history (to which both Russia and Ukraine lay claim to, both nations tracing their history back to ancient Rus’) concerning the Rus’ Prince, Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave. Though a warrior who waged several successful campaigns, he is immortalised by his one major defeat, memorialised in the medieval literary epic The Lay of Igor’s Host on which Borodin’s opera is based.
As prisoner of the Polovtsians under their leader Khan Konchak, Prince Igor is lavishly entertained and looked after by the Khan, the Polovtsian Dances being performed for the benefit of both Khan Konchak and his noble prisoner. The Dances, starting with a sultry and beguiling melody sung by the Polovtsian maidens, complemented by the athletic and fiery dances of the Polovtsian warriors, have proved irresistible for audiences ever since, particularly in performances involving the chorus as well as the spectacular orchestral music (sometimes performed on its own in concert performances).
We’re unashamedly recommending a specific album which offers not only the Polovtsian Dances, but also excerpts from the opera, which may persuade listeners new to that genre to explore further. Janáček’s Jenůfa, Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, or one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s many fine operas would be good follow ups, perhaps followed by Verdi’s compelling take on Shakespeare, Otello.
Borodin himself wrote relatively few works – including two very beautiful string quartets, two extremely fine symphonies and a third which, like Prince Igor, was left incomplete when he suddenly died of a heart attack during a party. Any of those works are definitely worth investigating.
Recommended recording: Kyiv Chamber Choir; Ukraine National Radio Symphony/Theodore Kuchar
Debussy: ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ (for piano), from Images Book I
He likewise totally reinvented the aesthetics of music for the piano, an instrument which had long been treated as a vehicle for a pianist or composer-pianist’s virtuosity, from Mozart through to Liszt. While Chopin demonstrated how even virtuoso pianistic technique could be made subservient to the most poetic of musical expression, Debussy took this a step further.
Observers of Debussy the pianist noted how he seemed to transform the piano from an instrument of hammers and strings to something far more subtle. Composers such as Schubert and Liszt had given effective enough depictions of rivers and fountains, but Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ (composed 1905) takes the depiction of water to an entirely new level.
This mesmerising piece captures the qualities of a limpid pool, its surface gently disturbed as the piece begins. A rough parallel can be drawn with the old school of British acting – Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, also recognisably themselves even as they masterfully delivered their lines – being replaced by a school of acting so subtle and consummate that we no longer are aware of the actor but solely of the character they are playing.
Debussy’s music demands that the pianist conjures his water portrait, making us forget the virtuosic technique required to create it. This is truly enchanting music.
We named Debussy one of the greatest French composers ever
Recommended recording: Arturo Michelangeli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8
The string quartet – typically two violins, viola and cello (though there have occasionally been interesting tweaks to that line-up) – has had a fair bit of negative representation in mainstream media.
It’s become a TV drama cliché to see some extremely rich host entertaining guests in his mansion and grounds with a string quartet playing genteel music in the background. This is a sure-fire signal that here is some morally dubious character, whose string quartet and other by-gone trappings of ‘culture’ give a specious veneer of ‘respectability’ which conceals their criminal or sociopathic activities.
Which is a gross misrepresentation – firstly because the string quartet, far from being an ensemble to display for social status, has principally been essentially an intimate and even private form of music making. Sometimes this was amongst friends, as in the case of the quartets by Haydn and Mozart (who would typically play in the quartets themselves). At other times, the string quartet served as a musical billet-doux (Borodin’s two string quartets were both expressions of love for his beloved wife), or as a pared-down expression of one’s innermost feelings – arguably the case with composers such as Schubert and most certainly Shostakovich.
The Soviet-Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 8, composed in 1960, is anything but genteel, and runs the gamut of emotions from bleak despair, anger, tender recollection in which there is perhaps budding hope (Shostakovich, having faced hideous pressures under the Soviet regime, was in suicidal mood when he wrote the quartet in three days of white-heat inspiration), and finally a stoic will to continue. Don’t be put off – this is music that is vigorous, sometimes exhilarating, and deeply moving: and perhaps a salutary jolt for anyone who thinks chamber music is too prissy to be worth trying.
Recommended recording: Borodin Quartet (Erato)
Live music versus recorded: which is best for a beginner?
Inevitably in a list of this kind, we have offered links to recordings you may either stream or buy. Yes, this is the most convenient way of finding new music, but, it has to be said, nothing beats the experience of actually going to a live performance!
We especially recommend trying to go to a concert of orchestral music, most particularly if you've never been to one before. Nothing beats the experience of seeing so many types of instruments – stringed, wind and percussion – and you have the excitement of seeing the musicians making the music right there in front of you.
Plus, there’s the sonic splendour of actual live sound, the more splendid if you go to a state-of-the-art concert hall such as Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. But you may also feel a frisson of excitement at a concert by a fine a cappella choir, or when witnessing the intimate intensity of a string quartet or a solo violin and piano duo.
There’s also a mental difference between listening to an album at home – often there’s an expectation that the music is there to relax you after a hard day – and going to a performance, particularly if it’s something ‘immersive’ such as going to an opera, or, for instance, one of Britten’s Church Parables staged in a church or cathedral with costumed performers processing in and out past the audience.
So don’t worry if you get the chance to hear something performed live which is outside what we’ve recommended here – it may be precisely because hearing that work live rather than ‘canned’ may be its best introduction.
All that said, while you’re on Spotify, do listen to the recommended work, but also be prepared for what Spotify’s algorithm throws at you after each of these works – you may make some surprising discoveries that way.
Top pic: pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. Photo by Mark Allan