Image: Martin Thomas via Flickr
Towards the end of last year, I asked people what they wanted me to cover in this column in 2018, a bold and ultimately fruitless thing to do, given I would only have about five or six more editions of this column to write. Nevertheless, friend of the column Casey Morell said: “I have always wondered why there isn’t a good piece that’s basically, ‘so you’re interested in listening to classical music? Here’s how you start.’” While I am not sure I am the person to write a good piece on that very topic, I do know I am a person who can write a piece on that topic, which is what I will do now.
So you’re interested in listening to classical music? you might be asking. Then start listening to classical music. That’s a smug, easy way of putting it, but I’m not entirely without justification. We have created a barrier to entry when it comes to classical music. In part because it’s old? I guess? And representative of a time in history that feels more and more alien to us by the day. And sometimes the pieces are, like, over an hour along. And also probably because it—like so much culture for so long—was dominated by stodgy white men who were always inexplicably feuding with one another. (Which, okay, on second thought, that’s basically the same as now.) But what I always feel is the most important thing to remind people is that classical music is music, and what’s more, it was popular music, honestly, truly, for a very long stretch of time. In turn, it was written to be listened to. It doesn’t want to alienate you. Challenge you, sure, but mostly welcome you into a theme, a melody, a variation, a mood.
Though I have only ever briefly written about them for this column, I really think the easiest entry into classical music is by listening to film scores. I write to you as if you are me—that is, to say, in your mid-to-late 20s or 30s—and I have no doubt in my mind that there are already at least half a dozen film scores that flood your brain at the mere mention of the genre. The works of John Williams and Hans Zimmer and Rachel Portman and Dario Marianelli are evocative and profound, and they summon images along with their melodies. Film scores are a gateway drug; the mocha of the classical music world. Next time you see a movie with a memorable score, stay through the credits (or google it afterwards, I don’t care) to find out the composer and dig into their work. Familiarize yourself with their music as you clean or work or commute or walk, allow yourself to understand the rise and fall of dramatic tension without lyrics.
Once you feel safe and comforted, it’s time to throw all of that out the window and dive right into symphonies. Symphonies: you know them already. I have spent the better part of my time on this column writing about them. You can’t hide from symphonies. You can dip around them for a time, bask in overtures and dances and polkas, but eventually you will get there. If you’ll indulge me (and again, you have to, it’s my column), I’d like to return to the first entry in this column which focused on Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony From The New World. I argued in late October 2016—haha, remembering arguing something in late October 2016?—that this was the best symphony of all time. I stand by this, by the way. And if you haven’t listened to it before or you’ve forgotten what it sounds like (fuck you??), I highly encourage you to revisit this Berliner Philharmoniker recording of it.
It’s possible the uproar and passion of its opening movement, “Adagio – allegro molto,” will motivate you, kickstart your mood, in which case I’m sending you to Wagner, to Shostakovich, to Hindemith. Or maybe you’ll need the full, wistful longing of its world-famous “Largo,” in which case I’m sending you to Bruckner, to Mendelssohn, to Holst (the expanding brain meme of Holst’s Planets ends in Venus, by the way, I’m as surprised as you are). And if you’re a “Scherzo” person—no shame, some of my closest friends are Leos—I’m sending you to Janáček, to Khachaturian, to Bernstein. And if you, like me, stand in awe of the finale, the “Allegro con fuoco,” I’m sending you to Beethoven, to Mahler, to Tchaikovsky.
None of this is academic or theoretical, and no doubt I’ve left some crucial people out. I’m really just doing my best to make recommendations. You will have to do the legwork, but this is fun legwork, I promise. When you finish listening to one piece, start another immediately. Absorb it the way skincare fanatics drink water. When in doubt, when lost for ideas, find your local classical station. As a kid, on nights I couldn’t fall asleep, I would sometimes turn on WFMT, the classical music station here in Chicago and just listen to whatever was on. No preference. I rarely knew what I was listening to. But I knew I liked it because I let myself listen in the silence of my bedroom. (This was, of course, after the phase of my childhood where, if I couldn’t fall asleep, I would throw myself out of bed to pretend like I had fallen out of bed in order to get my parents to come to my room and pay attention to me.)
All of this is to say that I know you can do the work here because I did the work here on the column. I pitched this column on a true whim, on a “I know there is, like, nothing less clickable than writing about classical music,” and when Silvia accepted it, I immediately panicked. For so long, this had been a subject I knew about that I kept to myself, and now I had to broadcast this knowledge in a way that sometimes led to people emailing me to call me a dumbass (it’s fine, the secret of the column is that I am a dumbass). To write what I wrote involved research and effort and long nights just listening to pieces—ones I knew, ones I didn’t—in the silence of my bedroom, on long walks, on noisy trains. And what I will say about working on a column that ultimately could not have had less relevance from fall of 2016 until now is that I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to dive headfirst into something so esoteric and abstract and strange and funny and difficult and beautiful. That, to me, is the legacy of The Awl in a nutshell, and to have played even the smallest part in its history is a great joy (especially when I also used said privilege to publish my terrible but correct opinions). Anchoring myself to classical music was a gift, and all I can do is give it back to you. Every piece of music I’ve written about for the column is here, and I’m wherever you need me to be. See ya soon.