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The Story of Great Music

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  1. Introduction

    What You Need to Begin
    5 Steps
  2. The Renaissance and Baroque Eras
    1. Renaissance
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  3. 2. Early Baroque
    11 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  4. 3. Handel
    10 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  5. 4. Bach
    13 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  6. The Classical Era
    5. Haydn
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  7. 6. Mozart
    9 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  8. 7. Beethoven
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  9. The Romantic Era
    8. Early German Romantics
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  10. 9. French Romantics
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  11. 10. Masters of the Piano
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  12. 11. Romantic Opera
    9 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  13. 12. Brahms
    8 Steps
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    1 Quiz
  14. 13. Romantic Nationalism
    10 Steps
  15. 14. Russian Romantics
    9 Steps
  16. The 20th Century
    15. French Impressionism
    6 Steps
  17. 16. Finland, England, & America
    5 Steps
Lesson Progress
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Please note the {+} in front of this lesson. That means it’s an optional step. Whenever you see the {+} in front of a step, it is your choice whether you want to finish it or not.

One of the important things with classical music is having access to a good library. Of course, what that library looks like depends a lot on how you listen to music. These days, it’s pretty easy to create a digital library with all the different music services. But you may want to have something more permanent, too. There is something pleasing about listening to a CD (compact disc), tape (cassette tape), or LP (vinyl record) of a specific performance.

I started buying cassette tapes in the 1980’s, then moved to CDs in the 1990s, shifted to digital downloads in the 2000’s, tried out streaming services in the 2010’s, and finally arrived back at LPs in the 2020’s. The irony, of course, is that LP’s were dominant in the world of music from the 1910’s to the mid-1980’s, and have only come back into vogue in the past decade. Personally, I think LP’s are the best way to listen to music – but they do take a lot of equipment and work to maintain.

One of the differences of listening to classical music is that there isn’t just one album for each piece of music (like, for instance, the Beatles album Abbey Road). Instead, there are a seeming endless number of performances by different musicians at different times on different labels. Since classical music has been recorded for over 100 years, these recordings stretch back for quite a long time.

My job will be to steer you through this forest with recommendations of specific performances that I think are good. Granted, this is rather subjective. But there is some consensus among classical music listeners of what the better performances are.

Where will you find these lists?

At the bottom of each section, there will be a step called Listen: with the name of the era after it. This is there you go to find the recommend listening for that lesson, but it will also act to direct you to works and performances that would be good to have in a library.

You can add them to your digital streaming account (if they are available there), or purchase a CD or LP. I’ve provided some additional recommendations about purchasing CDs and LPs in the section after this next one.

A Few Definitions

For those who have not purchased much classical music, here are a few useful clarification of terms. Often the labeling system of digital services like iTunes, Spotify, and others are not well set up to handle classical music. As a result, these categories often get misplaced so you have to know what you’re looking for.

Label – this is the company that produced the recording (or now owns it). Common names are Deutsche Grammaphone, Columbia, Sony, Decca, Warner, etc. Some labels, like Mercury Living Presence, are no longer in existence, but recorded the music using special microphones and recording approaches and so created a very unique sound.

Composer(s) – This is the person who wrote the music. Some albums include works by only one composer, some include works by many composers.

ConductorThis is the person who leads the orchestra. In instrumental music, they are the primary interpreters and so contribute greatly to the sound of the music. Some of the more famous conductors are Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Herbert von Karajan, and Arturo Toscanini, to name just a few.

Orchestra – This is the group of symphonic musicians that work for a particular symphony orchestra. They are normally named after the city they are found in, although not always (for instance, the NBC Symphony Orchestra or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). In some instances, major cities like London or Berlin or New York have multiple orchestras. Often conductors and orchestras go together and even have legendary associations, such as George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, or Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. (The term ‘philharmonic’ is generally synonymous with ‘orchestra’).

Performer/Soloist – This normally refers to the virtuoso musician (such as a pianist or violinist) who is featured with an orchestra performing in a concerto or other work with orchestra. They often will perform on their own, as well. Famous performers include Jascha Heifitz (violin), Vladimir Horowitz (piano), and John Williams (guitar).

Ensemble – This is a group of musicians smaller than an orchestra. It can include everything from a ‘chamber orchestra’ (just a smaller orchestra), to an octet (8 performers), septet (7), sextet (6), quintet (5), quartet (4), trio (3), and duo (2). Sometimes the type of instrument will be applied before the ensemble name to designate what it is, such as: string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello), piano trio (piano, violin, cell), wind quintet (five wind instruments), etc.

Date/Location – In some instances, the date and place the performance happened will be listed. This is often important in live performances, or when some conductors/performers/orchestras perform the same piece multiple times. For instance, Herbert von Karajan recorded Beethoven’s 9 symphonies on four separate occasions with two different labels. These span nearly 40 years, and the differences between his technique and the recording equipment/approach can easily be heard. In this case, many people have a preference for one of his recordings over another; in my opinion, his 1963 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is the best. (Although, if I had to choose an edition of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies, I’d probably go with Wilhelm Furtwangler’s historic recordings).

Recording Quality – This is not really a category, but probably needs to be mentioned. Some labels employed engineers that just did a better job than others recording the music. In some instances, the music was later re-mixed for CD or digital streaming (or even for LPs, although I think this is a bad idea) in order to make it work ‘better’ on a new delivery platform. This can get complex. All to say, if you continue to listen, you’ll notice differences across labels. If you move into CD/LP, it becomes more apparent.

Historic PerformancesIn some instances, an incredibly excellent or important performance happened before recording technology could capture all the details that now be captured.

Format – This refers to the medium that the recording is available. As I mentioned before, everything old is new again, so I’ll try to explain formats step-by-step:

  • Vinyl Record or LP (Long Playing Record) – these are old school records played on a turntable with a metal stylus running over a groove to create a sound. These are analog recordings (‘analog’ means it creates a sound wave through non-digital means)
  • Compact Disc (CD) – these are the small, plastic discs used with a CD player. The CD player has a laser that reads the 1’s and 0’s that make up the digital music file.
  • Digital Files – These are either known as ‘lossy’ or ‘lossless’. A lossy file means that it has been digitally compressed to save space and so bits of the music have been lost. These are often MP3s, AACs, or M4V files, and are saved at 128kbs, 192kbs up to 320kbs. The other file type is lossless, which means it maintains the full digital file taken from the final mix. These are often FLAC or Apple Lossless files, and are much larger.
  • Digital Streaming – these are the same files as digital lossy files, although you can now find some lossless digital streaming.

Places to Purchase

There are lots of places to purchase music online. I have generally moved away from purchasing digital music via the format of MP3s or AACs, primarily because of lower quality. I’ll therefore primarily talk about purchasing CDs and LPs.

Discogs is a website/app that is a great source for any format of music, especially LPs and CDs. Individuals and companies setup storefronts where they sell used and new music recordings of every striped and brand (including classical). If you do purchase from them, I recommend only purchasing when the quality of the item is Mint (M), Near Mint (NM), or Very Good Plus (VG+).

Amazon usually offers the best prices for buying something new. They also will provide links to used items, which are often fine to buy for CDs (just read the description). The links to used material sometimes takes a little looking – it’s either under “See all formats and editions” below the price, or it’s on the right hand side.

Ebay is a good place to purchase both CDs and LPs.

Final Thoughts

Taking the time (and money) to build a music library is a worthwhile endeavor. Although digital streaming services do provide a great and easy way to access an enormous amount of music, it can be overwhelming to sift through all the options. Furthermore, there is something psychologically detached from listening to music through these services.

Instead, when you have a real CD or LP in your hands, it feels as if you are closer to the music. There is an intentionality to putting it in a player and listening to it. This isn’t required to enjoy the music, but it is helpful in getting to know specific composers and musicians.

All to say, keep an eye out for the Recommended Recording sections if you want to learn more about which recordings are a good place to start collecting, either physically or digitally.