Saturday, June 14, 2008

How to Start Your Own Classical Music Collection

I'm often asked by people who are new to classical music for a list of CDs or key symphonies that I think are the best choices to start off a new classical music collection. What are ideal symphonies or works that can help you get started getting to know classical music?

Today I'm going to attempt to answer this question, and I'll provide you with a brief list of works that can form the foundation of a great collection of important classical music.

Keep in mind that whenever one reviews any type of list like this, invariably one can complain that a given work was left off the list ("where's Chopin? or Mahler?"), or even that some work was left on the list ("ugh, Beethoven's 5th again?").

This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive. It is merely a starting point for the novice listener. If you purchase recordings of these works and listen to each and every one of them, you'll have a great head start on your journey towards getting to know classical music as a genre.

Where applicable, I've included links to other posts on 101 Classical Music CDs--if you'd like to read more about that particular work, follow the link to do so. In addition, I've included links to Amazon at the bottom of this post where you can buy high-quality recordings of these works.* Let's begin:

1) Mozart: Symphonies 40 and 41
These two symphonies are widely thought to be Mozart's very best. And you can usually find them both on the same CD. A close second choice in my view: Symphonies 38 and 39.

2) Bach: The Six Brandenburg Concertos, or Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor
The Brandenburg Concertos are unparalleled works of the Baroque era. And the Violin Concerto in A minor is stately, somber and stunningly beautiful.

3) Beethoven: Fifth Symphony, Third Symphony and Seventh Symphony
There is no such thing as a bad Beethoven symphony--each one is a masterpiece. However, for some reason, the odd-numbered symphonies tend to resonate more with beginners.

4) Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Listen to this work intently, all the way though, and tell me it doesn't bring you to tears.

5) Brahms: Second Symphony, Fourth Symphony
Although he was long afraid of the responsibility of composing a symphony (in part because of Beethoven's long shadow), these two symphonies contain a beauty and a depth of feeling that will stand up against any other composer in history.

6) Haydn: any of the London Symphonies
Choose any of the twelve symphonies (#93 to #104) that Haydn wrote between the years 1791-1795, during which he made two extended visits to London. They are widely seen as his greatest works, written during a particularly fruitful period of his life--both economically and creatively.

There you have it--go on out and get started building your classical music collection! Again, let me reiterate that this list is in no way exhaustive. It's merely a solid starting point for you to begin your journey through this amazing and multifaceted genre of music. I expect to return to this theme and I'll bring you more suggested "listening lists" in the future.

Finally, let me close this post with a few words of encouragement. You don't need a great ear, a great musical memory, or any sort of highbrow taste in music to appreciate each and every one of these classics (although I would suggest not bothering to read any of the CD liner notes if you can help it). Remember, these symphonic works were the popular music of their era, and the Beethovens, Mozarts and Haydns were the proverbial rock stars of their time. Their music is extremely accessible to everyone. Go for it!

* Full disclosure: if you enter Amazon via a link on my blog and buy something, I'll get a small commission on that purchase. Please think of it as my "tip jar"--and thanks so much to those readers out there who support me!

Amazon Links:
Mozart Symphony #40, #41
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Bach: Violin Concertos
Beethoven, All Nine Symphonies
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Brahms Symphony #2
Brahms Symphony #4
Brahms, All Four Symphonies
Haydn: London Symphonies, Vol. 1
Haydn: London Symphonies, Vol. 2


Chantal said...

Indeed, where IS Mahler?? :-)

TheSieve said...


I have a novice question, from a jazz guy who knows little about classical. How do I know which recordings of these great works to buy? If one version of Beethoven's 5th is recorded by the Prague Philharmonic and another by the New York, is there any way for me to know which to buy. And if so, could you advise there as well?


TheSieve (goes in one ear and out the other....)

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi TheSieve,

The links I posted at the bottom of this post (as well as the links to recordings elsewhere in this blog) are all excellent recordings of each of these works. You can start there.

Another really valuable source of information are the reviews on Amazon. It's almost shocking to see the musical acumen and level of detail in many of those reviews.

And then as a general comment, you're highly unlikely to get a bad recording of any symphony as long as it's a done by a major orchestra. Think US cities with an NFL team (how ironic does that sound?), or most major European cities.

Good luck!


Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Chantal, thanks for your commment!

I think Mahler will have to come in a "Start Your Own Classical Music Collection Part 2" post... :)


chris said...

Great blog - and great info.

I'd mention to "thesieve" that if you're shopping at a store, especially a Borders sort of place, look in the music reference section for a "Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music" or "Gramophone Guide."

It's important to remember the reviews are just one person's opinion but you can at least get an idea of sound quality and from time to time objective comments like "sloppy playing" or "unusually slow performance" can help one make an informed decision.

What I tell my friends is that at the end of the day, a Karajan recording of Beethoven's 5th, versus Bernstein, versus Barenboim, versus Drahos aren't "that" different if you're just getting to know a work.

Daniel Koontz said...

Great points, Chris, thanks for weighing in!


Tom said...

Nice article - can I just get my twopennies' worth in about my favourite symphonist - Mr Dvorak. He could also be a great starting point for someone wanting to get into symphonies. Could start out with the 9th (it's always nice when you recognise a tune - that tune from the 2nd movement), or the playful 8th, or the brooding, stormy, emotional 7th or my personal favourite the beautiful, gentle 6th - which has all the warmth of Brahms' 2nd but flows along a little easier in my opinon. Or even the 5th - particularly the 1st movement, which bursts into life with one of Dvorak's most infectious tunes about 30 seconds into the first movement.

Daniel Koontz said...


That's a good call on the Dvorak. Most people would recognize the key theme from his 9th symphony, so that would make for a great gateway symphony not only Dvorak's work in particular, but to classical music in general.

Thanks for your comment!


Anonymous said...

You ought to include Mahler's Second Symphony in such a list.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Record Hunter, thanks for your comment. Yep, either Mahler's 2nd or his 5th probably ought to be a part of anyone's key classical music recordings.

But this post is intended as a starting point for newbies to the genre--I intend to do a follow-up post to this one and put together a "next top ten" list of CDs that will include quite a few of the symphonies commenters are talking about here.

Thanks for reading!