2020 Classical Music New Years Resolutions: Getting Started

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Happy New Year! It’s that time again for us to reflect on the past year and think about what we can change or do better in our lives. Sometimes these New Year’s resolutions end up changing our lives, and sometimes they fizzle out partially through the year. However, this year I am committed to completing my goals, and I invite you to join me in completing our goals!

If you’ve ever told yourself, “I should really get more involved in classical music,” or “I’d really like to start seeing more ballet/opera/orchestra concerts/recitals,” then maybe this is the year you start getting involved! I’d love to be able to help you achieve that goal, so I have designed a series of blogs to get you started depending on which direction you want to go. On January 10th, I will be focusing on the symphony orchestra (symphonic music to get you started, how to start going to more concerts, how to keep things affordable, etc.). On January 17th, I will focus my attention towards opera, and January 24th will have a similar post about ballet. Finally, I will be posting my own personal classical music resolutions on January 31st.

January 2020

Classical music, in a modern frame of mind, can be defined as “art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western culture, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music” (Wikipedia: Classical music). To scholars, it more precisely refers to the Classical era between 1750 and 1820; however, it is more commonly accepted as any music written before the early 1900s. While these definitions do hold truth to them, classical music is still alive and well. It is still a heavily practiced and respected art, and it is the root to all forms of music we know and love today.

So, where do you begin if you’re trying to expand your musical palate into the classical music world? I have a few easy steps for you to get you prepped and ready for your journey.

Step 1: Gaining access to the music

There are several wonderful ways to access classical music. Purchasing records, CDs, and even the digital formats of these, although a wonderful to collect, can become quite expensive. One of the benefits of having the physical or digital albums is to force you to listen to several other works that aren’t the highlight of the album (unless the album is only for one particular work). However, we live in an age where we have streaming at our fingertips. There are several incredible apps that host an abundance of works on some of the greatest recordings. My top two favorites are Spotify and Apple Music. These two services have a substantial library of classical music albums. More often then not, I am able to find what I am looking for on either of these two services. My next suggestion, would be to look on YouTube. Surprisingly, YouTube will have some of the most obscure and rarest recording you could imagine. Finally, there are some streaming services that cater to the classical music genre, such as Primephonic and Idagio. These services are fantastic for keeping your classical music interests separate from your other favorites. Each of them have an extensive library that will whet your appetite for more classical music.

Step 2: Getting to know your tastes

When I started getting into classical music, I realized that I was pigeon-holing my listening to music only written in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in Germany and France. As I became more knowledgeable, I began to break out of these constraints and pick up pieces from all over time and around the world. Of course I would land on specific time frames and cultural centers, but the first goal is to discover your tastes without blinding yourself to other works. There are two ways I would go about finding what you like most: 1) Start with what you know and expand outward, or 2) Randomly select music from a variety of time periods and cultural centers until you find something that sticks. Let me expand on each of them.

Option 1: Start with what you know

There are a plethora of pieces that you are bound to know that have been embedded into popular culture. Maybe you heard them in movies or commercials, or maybe you heard them in songs your parents used to sing you to sleep. We often find comfort in things we know and are familiar with, and this could help you ease into your goal. More often than not, the tune you are familiar with is only a fraction of the whole work. Some examples of are: Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” Waltz, and Rossini’s Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia. Start by getting familiar with the whole work. You might be surprised to find that you like the whole work.

After you’ve relived and expanded on these familiar pieces, look up different works by the same composer that you may have never heard of before. It’s alright if you don’t enjoy the work. The key is to keep searching for works that you do like. When you find a piece you like, write it down or save it on your device/app. The names of pieces can be really hard to remember sometimes, so find a way that works for you to remember them. That being said, different record labels name the pieces differently. Sometimes the work’s title will be in its original language. If the piece is popular enough, the title may be translated into English. If you have a difficult time deciphering the titles of pieces, you are always welcome to contact me!

Option 2: Pick pieces at “random”

While picking at random seems to be a tedious option, it was certainly an option that I took to expand my classical music knowledge before entering into my masters degree program. Being completely random while you are just starting can be very difficult, I have a solution to help.

1) Start by picking a musical era:

  • Renaissance
  • Baroque
  • Classical
  • Romantic
  • 20th-Century
  • Modern

2) Pick a major cultural center (A major caveat with this step is that certain cultural centers thrived in certain eras while others struggled to be recognized):

  • Austria
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Great Britain
  • Hungary
  • Italy
  • Mexico
  • Norway
  • Russia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United States of America
  • Or any other Western cultural center

3) Pick a composer. If you’ve picked a particular composer last time you went through the process, try finding a different composer.

4) Pick a piece. Try picking something that is a little different in style than the last piece you listened to. If you listened to a chamber work, maybe try listening to a symphonic work.

Step 3: Attend live performances

I believe that certain pieces of music are best experienced live. Modern recordings are often edited to enhance the quality and mask the mistakes that comes with live performing. While recordings are phenomenal resources, it often takes away the emotion and passion one can witness during a live performance. Indeed, live performances can become quite pricey, but performance companies often have discounts or opportunities that can make attending a live performance more financially possible. In each of the upcoming New Years Resolution blogs, I will talk more about this in depth in regards to each category. Before I get there, I suggest looking up local performing organizations and see what kind of discounts or programs they have in place to help you get to see that piece you really want to see.

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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