Classical Music for Beginners

Now and then, people ask me for advice on where to begin with the daunting world of classical music recordings. They’ve heard bits here and there, they’re curious, they imagine they’d probably enjoy it once they got involved, but they wouldn’t know where to look if they walked into — oops, I mean logged onto and started poking around. My strategy is always to offer a handful of suggestions, in as wide a variety as possible. “Try these,” I say. “See what grabs you, and we’ll work from there.”

That’s the idea behind this Dozen. Here are 12 recordings selected to entice people who have had little exposure to classical music, but who know they want more. I’ve carefully contrived the list to cover a wide range of colors and styles, instruments and moods, shapes and sizes. Some pieces are light, some heavy; some charming, some imposing; some dramatic, meditative, amorous, tragic, lofty, goofy. All in all, the selections encompass 1,200 years of music history — and they’ve all been chosen to make a good first impression and whet your appetite. They’re “gateway” works, if you will. I’d be surprised if there were anyone who couldn’t find something on this list that pleasured and intrigued them. Think of it as a sampler, a tapas menu: if you don’t care for the stuffed olives/Renaissance Mass, try the garlic shrimp/20th-century string quartet.

Are these the twelve greatest works ever? No, though some of them could justly claim a place on such a list. Most of these are works I actually have suggested to people, and which have gotten a favorable response. Others I have seen appeal to newbies in ways I never expected. Others are just a few personal favorites which I proselytize for whenever possible.

Gregorian Chant For Easter
Artist: Capella Antiqua, Munich
Release Date: 2006

The recorded history of “classical” music in the Western “art” tradition (so many of these terms are so problematic) begins in the medieval period with music composed for church use — settings of sacred texts in Latin for choirs singing in unison, just one note at a time. The serene meditativeness of Gregorian chant (named for liturgical reformer Pope Gregory, 540-604, who launched the practice according to legend) has made it popular in recent years, usable as a backdrop for anything from yoga to post-rave chilling. There are plenty of chant CDs out there, some with hipper packaging, but these performances by the male voices of Capella Antiqua, Munich, surrounded by a cathedral-like halo of reverb, are stately and gorgeous.

Ockeghem: Requiem
Artist: Ensemble Organum, Marcel Pérès
Release Date: 1993

A friend of mine, also a musician, has played a number of classical pieces for his infant son, and reports that Allen seems to like the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497) best. It could be the way this Renaissance composer weaves voices together to create a sort of ear-blanket. Or perhaps this music’s low gentle murmuring reminds him of sounds in utero. Either way, the Ensemble Organum’s performance of this Requiem (a Mass to honor the dead) is spacious and calm, but also possesses a sort of authoritative, virile resonance.

Bach: Six Concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg
Artist: Trevor Pinnock
Release Date: 2008

Incomparably joyous and sparkling, these six pieces can claim to be both the greatest of baroque instrumental works and, with the possible exception of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos, the most popular. Composers in the baroque era (roughly 1600-1750) prioritized a musical skill called counterpoint, the practice of combining independent instrumental or vocal lines into a complex whole. Johann Sebastian Bach had no rivals (and surely never will) in this art, giving every section of the orchestra something rewarding — and fun — to do. He built structures of grandeur and irresistible energy. Each of these concertos are scored for a different combination; if you’d like a taste, try the first movement of the Concerto no. 2, in which four bright-toned soloists (violin, flute, oboe and trumpet) dance festively around the accompanying string orchestra, or the fleet finale of the Concerto no. 3, a whirlwind showpiece for strings alone.

MOZART: Overtures
Artist: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

After Bach and his contemporaries had brought Baroque counterpoint to its peak, composers of the next generation reacted by lightening the texture of their music. The melody line dominated, and the middle and bass instruments were entrusted with harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment rather than with independent lines of their own. This new style, though, was no less bubbling and energetic — see the overtures (instrumental preludes) which Mozart (1756-91) wrote for his operas. Brilliant attention-getters, arresting but never too pompous, full of catchy tunes, cheeky wind solos and stirring trumpet-and drum passages, these overtures are played with great verve by Capella Istropolitana.

CHOPIN: Etudes Opp. 10 and 25
Artist: Freddy Kempf
Release Date: 2004

Frederic Chopin’s music, full of innovations in nuances of harmony and delicate coloristic effects, pushed the boundaries of what a piano could do. In these two sets of etudes (completed in 1832 and 1836), he also pushed piano technique, making unprecedented demands of virtuosity in works that are still among the most richly dazzling ever written. Not all the pieces are finger-tanglers, though; some are studies in sensitive touch and singing melody. Though pianist Freddy Kempf’s technique is precise, these etudes are for him poetry first; in op. 10 no. 3 in E or op. 25 no. 1 in A-flat, he phrases the surface melody with the expressivity a great vocalist might bring to it.

Pearl Fishers and Other Famous Operatic Duets
Artist: Various Artists

It occurred to me that an album of duets might make an even better introduction to opera than one of solo arias — even though those big diva/divo moments are what the general public thinks of when they hear the term opera. Duets, of course, display the character interplay that the dramatic side of opera is all about: love, conflict, friendship — or betrayal, as in the searing finale to Act II of Verdi’s Otello, when Iago falsely swears loyalty to the title character. Two rapturous and justly popular duets recorded here come from French operas, the rest from Italian. Complete recordings of many of these operas are also available on eMusic, so if these excerpts whet your appetite, you can move on to explore the entire work.

Dvorak / Haydn / Shostakovich: String Quartets
Artist: Quartetto Cassoviae
Release Date: 2000

Contained on this disc is a mini-history of the string quartet itself: an elegant, buoyant piece (1799) by Franz Josef Haydn, a pioneer of the form; a fragrantly tuneful example (1893) by Antonin Dvorak, written under the influence of American folksong; and a bitter, semi-autobiographical work (1960) by Dmitri Shostakovich, reflective of his state of mind during a life lived under Soviet oppression. The Quartetto Cassoviae’s performance of this last quartet is perhaps the disc’s most impressive: it’s taut, wiry, grippingly expressive and even a little nightmarish.

Alexander Borodin: Symphony No.2 – Conducted by Carlos Kleiber & Erich Kleiber
Artist: Kleiber
Release Date: 2003

I chose this symphony because I clearly remember my sister, eight or nine at the time, dragged to one of my school orchestra concerts and, at its conclusion, telling me she liked this piece best. The brusque gesture that launches Alexander Borodin’s Second Symphony (1876) is definitely one of the more arresting openings: glowering, passionate and Russian, Russian, Russian. Compare it to the sinuous oboe melody that comes later, and you hear the two sides of Borodin’s musical personality: barbaric vs. sensuous, both tinged with the exotic folk colors of ancient Asian tribes. This disc is also the only one I know that offers father-son performances of the same work, by Erich (1890-1956) and Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004).

STRAVINSKY: 125th Anniversary Album – The Rite of Spring / Violin Concerto (Stravinsky, Vol. 8)
Artist: Jennifer Frautschi

When Igor Stravinsky got a commission to write music for a ballet depicting ancient fertility rituals, did he intend from the start to revolutionize musical history? He filled his colorful score (completed in 1913) with pounding, asymmetrical rhythms and harsh dissonances — unprecedented elements at the time; he’s one of the many composers in the first few decades of the 20th century who tossed a bomb into the middle of Romantic-era assumptions about what music could be. This earthy, viscerally intense showpiece still startles audiences — especially those who see classical music as something stuffy and genteel. Think of it as heavy metal classical. Robert Craft, a longtime colleague of the composer, conducts a particularly gutsy and un-pretty performance.

Strauss: Symphonia Domestica / Eine Alpensinfonie / Oboe Concerto / Duett-Concertino
Artist: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 2006

This disc shows the two sides of composer Richard Strauss. In the Symphonia domestica (1903) and Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony, 1915), he capped the tradition of German romanticism with two of the grandest and most opulent orchestral works ever; in his two nostalgic concertos (one for oboe from 1945, the other for clarinet and bassoon from 1947), he revived the spirit of Mozart in slender, tuneful, but autumnal pieces for a (much) smaller orchestra. Oboe soloist Jonathan Small, in particular, plays with ravishing fluency, and conductor Gerard Schwarz is especially adept in this soaring, sweeping music.

Daughters Of The Lonsome Isle
Artist: Margaret Leng Tan
Release Date: 1994

Just by inserting screws, rubber erasers and other tidbits between a piano’s strings, John Cage (1912-1992) was able to turn the instrument into a miniature percussion orchestra. This was just one of the avant gardist’s many innovations. On this disc, keyboardist Margaret Leng Tan, the world’s foremost toy piano virtuoso, pays homage to Cage’s experiments, his rhythmic vitality and the Zen-inspired spirit that led him to ask profound conceptual questions about music. But even as Cage challenged traditional notions of music, it’s not hard to find great beauty, wit, depth and spiritual gentleness in his work. It’s scarcely possible, for example, not to fall in love with Cage’s pulsing, gnomic Bacchanale or the elegiac In the Name of the Holocaust, which proves that the instrument he called a “prepared piano” was just as capable of stark intensity.

Reich: Different Trains
Artist: The Duke Quartet, Andrew Russo & Marc Mellits

As a child in the early ’40s, composer Steve Reich used to travel across the U.S. by train each year. In thinking about the very “different trains” he could have been riding as a Jew had he grown up in Europe, Reich was inspired to compose this powerful work for string quartet and tape. Snippets of recorded interviews with actual railroad employees are woven among the urgently churning string parts, with their licks echoing the speakers’ vocal inflections. Also included here is Reich’s 1967 Piano Phase, which was a groundbreaking early work that used a compositional technique that caught his imagination: complex rhythmic effects achieved by subtle shifts in temporal coordination between musicians, creating a trance-like rippling effect.

A Guide to Buying an Acoustic Guitar

Knowing how to choose the right guitar and how to identify a bad one, will save you from countless headaches, not to mention finger aches.

Acoustic guitar bodies come in basically the same hourglass shape, with some variations, but they do vary in size, color, wood-type, style, and extra features. You can even buy an acoustic guitar so small that fits into a hiking backpack.

Guitars come in a very wide range of prices, but when it comes to instruments, in general, you get what you pay for, especially when you buy new. There’s a real difference between getting a bargain and buying cheap.

But whether you buy new or used may be determined by many personal factors including your budget, and each has their own pros and cons.

Buying new, gives you a warranty and, hopefully, a return period, if for some reason you’re not totally satisfied with your purchase, or something goes wrong.

Under ‘usual’ circumstances, a used guitar can usually be purchased cheaper and has already gone through its “break-in” period.

Commercially built guitars are usually mass manufactured. “Custom-made” guitars are exactly that. They are custom built and tailored to your specifications by a highly skilled guitar maker.

Prices for a custom-built guitar vary considerably, depending on the skill level of the craftsperson you contract the job to, but, as a rule, they are generally quite higher than a commercially built guitar of “similar” quality. Each custom built guitar is unique and therefore hard to compare in price to a commercially built guitar.


Understanding some of the parts of a guitar will definitely help you when it comes to the Pre-Purchase Checklist.

BODY: This is the part with the sound hole in the front. It is where the strumming is done, and it can vary in size. The actual size, shape, type of wood, coating, and general build of the body also affects how the guitar will “sound”, whether it’s a rich and warm sound, or a thin and ‘twangy’ sound. The body tends to be the part that also gets scratched, damaged, and generally banged-up the most.

NECK: This is the long piece extending from the body and ends at the ‘head’ of the guitar where the ‘Tuning Heads’ are, also known as ‘machine heads’. The strings travel from the ‘Bridge’ on the body, across the sound hole, along the ‘Fret Board’, which is attached to the front-side of the neck, and finally arriving at the tuning heads where they are wrapped around tuning posts. The tuning heads are then turned by hand, which then turns the posts, making the strings tighter or looser, thus affecting their ‘tuning’. Necks tend to warp and twist if not looked after, or if the guitar is left propped against a heat source.

BRIDGE: The Bridge is normally located on the front of the body, by the sound hole, and on the side of the hole opposite to the neck. The strings are usually fed through the bridge first before they cross the hole and travel up the neck to the tuning heads. The bridge is like an anchor-point for the strings. Metal bridges are best, but on most acoustics they are either hard plastic or wood. Bridges have a tendency to crack and split over a long period of time.

FRET BOARD: The fret board is glued to the front of the neck. This is the part you press the strings onto to make chords or play individual notes. Because it’s glued on separately, a fret board can be made of a wood that’s different from the neck.

The strings travel over the fret board and the distance they are above the fret board makes a difference to the playability of the guitar. If the strings are too far above the fret board, then they will be hard to press down, making the guitar hard to play.

When a beginner plays a guitar, initially his or her fingertips are very soft and need to be hardened. A guitar with the strings too far above the fret board, also known as having a ‘high action’, will cause the player’s fingers to hurt so much that they are likely to put the guitar away in discouragement and possibly stop playing altogether.

STRINGS: Acoustic guitar strings, come in a wide variety of ‘flavors’. They can be made out of nylon, brass, steel, or a combination. Nylon strings are usually only found on Classical guitars and Student guitars, because they’re easier on the fingertips. They have a rich, warm sound to them.

Strings sets come in different ‘weights’, or sizes. Strings that come from a package marked ‘Heavy’ are usually quite thick in size and sound “beefy”. Strings that are light, or extra light, are very thin and usually have a brighter sound to them, but are also quieter sounding than heavy strings.

String choices are purely personal taste. Light strings are easier to press than heavy strings but also sound quite different. The more often strings are played, the dirtier they get. If a cloth isn’t run over and under them, from time to time, the sound becomes very dull


– Before you buy a used guitar, cost-compare against the price of a new one, unless the guitar is quite old. You could also compare its used price to other used prices by going to an online auction and either searching for the same or a similar guitar.
– Check the overall condition of the wood for cracks, scratches, splits, dents, chips, etc.
– Also check the lacquer finish for cracks and splits.
– Check the neck/fret board for warping and twisting. You can do this by holding the guitar flat on its back, with the sound hole facing upward. Bring the guitar up to eye-level, with the neck running away from you and the edge of the body almost touching your face. Let your eyesight skim across the front of the body and down the fret board. You should be able to see if the neck is twisted or bowing.
– Tune the guitar, or have the seller tune it for you.
– If you know how to play about five or six chords then play them. If you don’t know how to play, ask the seller to play them for you. This check ensures that the neck of the guitar is not warped, even though you couldn’t physically see it. If the neck is warped, and the guitar is properly tuned, then some of the chords will sound good, but others will sound as though the guitar is not tuned. If this happens, check the tuning again. If it persists, then don’t buy the guitar.
– Check the bridge of the guitar. If it’s made out of wood or plastic, make sure it’s not cracked or splitting. The bridge needs to be rock-solid, as a lot of pressure is exerted on the bridge by the strings.
– Check the tuning heads. Do they turn easily, or are they very stiff and hard to turn. Even with the high tension of the strings, a quality guitar will have tuning heads that are fairly easy to turn.
– Check the ‘action’ of the guitar. Are the strings a fair distance from the fret board? Are they easy or hard to press down at various points on the fret board?
– If you are buying the guitar for yourself, and you know how to play, even if you’re a beginner, then play the guitar.
– How does it feel?
– Is it easy or hard to play?
– Can you fit your hand around the neck/fret board comfortably to play chords?
– Is the guitar a comfortable size and shape for your body? Is it easy to hold?
– If you plan to play standing up, ask for a guitar strap.
– Do you like the sound, the color, etc?
– If you don’t play, have someone else play it for you so that you can judge what it sounds like.


Buying a guitar from a physical retail music store allows you to ‘test drive’ the guitar and ask more questions up front. Buying online or from a catalog may bring you more cash savings.

No matter where you buy your guitar, if you know what to look for, and spend a little extra effort in your search for that ‘perfect’ guitar, not only will your fingers thank you, but also your ears, and all those who will come to join you around the campfire, or even go to see you in concert