I’ve been asked many times for practical advice on how one should go about building up a library of classical music at home. (For the purposes of this article, we will use the term “classical music” to refer broadly to the great Western tradition of music of the past 1,000 years prior to the rise of jazz, rock, and their more recent progeny. Some people call it “art music,” as in the fine art of music.)
In this article, I have no intention of mounting any arguments against immersion in popular music, most of which I do think is bad for the soul, nor have I any inclination to rank the music of one period over another – as, for example, by arguing that Baroque music is better than Romantic (even though I personally think it is). As for the important question of the degree to which we should be “consumers of canned music,” my position, in a nutshell, is that while recordings of great music have their place in the life of a modern culturally literate Christian, they should not altogether supplant the learning and playing of instruments; the art of singing; and, in general, live music-making and actual concert-going.
My purpose here is modest: I would like to put forth some strategies for building a library of great music and make some particular recommendations. Readers who would like to add any of their own are encouraged to do so in the comments.
One last caveat: I am hopelessly out of date technologically, so I still buy CDs and listen to them in my car or on my home stereo. I’ve never gone in for all this MP3 stuff, let alone Spotify and the rest of the online services. As a kid, I used 8-track tapes, then cassette tapes, and I considered it cool in high school to listen to LPs when CDs had taken over, long before LPs became fashionable again. So I have a strong disposition to want to handle physical objects on which music is recorded. Nevertheless, downloadable MP3s and online services make easy work of many of my recommendations.
Here are a few helpful strategies for building up your library.
- Start with composers typically regarded as great. Don’t be shy about immersing yourself in their works. To take some well known examples: Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Purcell, Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky. Although artistic tastes can be fickle and untrustworthy – one need only consult the New York Times to see the absurd contortions into which art and music critics can twist themselves – it’s a simple fact that composers of the fame of the ones just mentioned are widely considered to be great for many substantial reasons. Their music has stood the test of time. Most of the “greats” have been acknowledged as great for many generations now. People keep on listening to their work with enjoyment, orchestras or soloists keep on playing it to audiences, record companies keep issuing new recordings of it, and radio stations keep programming it. It’s true that you have to give yourself and the music a chance by listening to it quite a lot, but it’s remarkable how catchy and delightful a great piece of music, such as Praetorius’s Terpsichore, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition can be.
- Find out what periods, styles, genres, or composers you like the most. The benefit of sampling the famous composers, whose music is known to be well written (just as famous writers are known to be good writers), is that you will find out more quickly what kind of music you find most interesting and enjoyable to listen to. Will it be Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern? Solo piano, chamber music, orchestral? Sonatas, symphonies, concertos? Purely instrumental, choral music, or solo songs? In the days when “sampling music” often enough meant buying albums, tapes, or CDs at the shop and bringing them home, exploration meant shelling out the bucks. Even now, one can end up spending a chunk of change on downloadable MP3s. But with free samples on Amazon, the “streaming” music services, online classical radio stations (such as “Boston Baroque Radio”), and YouTube clips, it’s possible to listen for free to almost anything and make musical discoveries that will slowly guide you toward a more permanent collection.Once you find something you like, I do recommend buying it in a high-quality audio format and then listening to it on a decent set of speakers or earphones. YouTube clips are poor in sound quality, and computers and other small devices typically don’t have speakers that can handle the dynamic range and sound colors of great music. People sometimes underestimate the difference it makes to have a good sound system. This is not a waste of money, but a good investment for the growth of your intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural life – and if there are children in the picture, it’s all the more important!
- You can build up an impressive library quickly and affordably with box sets. I recommend exploring the many high-quality “budget” series, where you get a 2-CD set for the price of one CD (or less). At Amazon, in the “CDs & Vinyl” category, search for “virgin veritas x2,” “dg the originals,” “double decca.” There’s always Naxos, too, which has a massive catalog of recordings from every era and in every genre, always at affordable prices.[i] A quick search at Amazon turns up many remarkable box sets worth looking into for an instant library of, say, Baroque masterpieces.[ii] We can all joke about Amazon reviews (“I got this product one hour ago and it’s working great!”), but I have found, in the area of music, that many of the reviewers are serious listeners who give knowledgeable reviews. So when a box set is panned by a lot of people, or gets mostly high reviews, I have found that this consensus is usually accurate.
- Focus on genres that already appeal to you. Picking out a composer or looking for box sets can still be intimidating, as our capitalist free market deliriously exults in quantity and variety. For some, then, a more direct route to the goal of listening enjoyment and cultural elevation would be to identify a favorite instrument or type of music. Is English choral music your cup of tea on a Sunday? Looking for Gregorian chant and polyphony? Always been fond of the mellow cello; the glittering harp; the pleasant guitar; the melancholy lute; the tickled ivories; the trumpet’s bright sound; or the pipe organ, king of instruments? Then start your search from that instrument – e.g., “greatest cello works” or some such phrase – and work from there.
- Find a favorite musician or ensemble and collect recordings. Alternatively or simultaneously, when you find a particular musician you “resonate with,” look him up and start collecting his recordings. For example, my family loves an early music specialist named Jordi Savall, his late wife Montserrat Figueras, and the various ensembles they’ve worked with, the most famous being Hesperion XXI. We’ve never found a recording by them that we haven’t loved.
- Go the route of DVD or YouTube. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who find it difficult to just listen to classical music; perhaps they are visual people or somewhat fidgety. In this situation, nothing beats a well produced DVD that explores a composer, musician, time period, or genre. The Christopher Nupen documentaries are some of my favorites. Nupen cleverly weaves together aspects of a composer’s life and philosophy, or the trials and accomplishments of a concert musician, with fine performances of individual works. My favorites are Jean Sibelius, Evgeny Kissin: The Gift of Music, and Andrés Segovia. Another route, which is both affordable and exciting, is the Digital Concert Hall, a subscription to a huge catalogue of concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, widely considered the greatest in the world. I know of families that select a concert each week to listen to. It sure beats most of the movies out there.
Other DVDs I can recommend, out of so many:
- The Essential Bach – 5 DVDs: Brandenburg Concertos, performed in the palace for whose prince Bach wrote them; Mass in B minor, performed in the Leipzig church where Bach was cantor; Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I; various organ works; German Brass Plays Bach.
- Byrd: Playing Elizabeth’s Tune – a fine BBC documentary about the life and times of William Byrd, the great Catholic recusant composer who managed to keep the favor of a queen who had the blood of many Catholics on her hands.
- Live in Rome: Celebrating Palestrina’s 400th Anniversary – The Tallis Scholars singing the Missa Papae Marcelli and Allegro’s Miserere, among other works, in the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, where Palestrina served as a choir boy and later choirmaster.
- Cecilia Bartoli Live in Italy – marvelous singing and selection of pieces.
Again, these are just suggestions. The important thing is to make an effort to find what you like or what intrigues you and then take that as a point of departure for your exploration.
Those who are interested in Gregorian chant will find recommended recordings in this LifeSite article. For an especially beautiful polyphony recording, see this article. For examples of true inculturation, try listening to the lovely music composed by Catholic converts in Mexico under the guidance of European missionaries, as performed by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE). St. Hildegard of Bingen is not the strange proto-feminist that some modern authors make her out to be. Her visions may be symbolically riotous, but her original music is some of the most peaceful and prayerful ever composed, as heard in the recordings of Sequentia. For lively medieval instrumental music, check out La Reverdie or the Martin Best Mediaeval Ensemble, and for early music in general, Hesperion XXI.
Within the Renaissance period, the Tallis Scholars, the Huelgas Ensemble, The King’s Singers, the Cambridge Singers, Hilliard Ensemble, Stile Antico, the New London Consort, the Praetorius Consort, the Gabrieli Consort, the English Concert, and the Freiburger Barockorchester are a few of the many excellent ensembles to listen to. Again, these will lead to others worth knowing about.
In the compass of a short article, I will not attempt to go through all the periods of music, as that would swell this article to three times its size. Perhaps another time…
Yet I cannot resist recommending some of my favorite modern works from the 20th and 21st centuries. While I do recommend starting with “tried and true” composers (like the “killer bees”: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms[iii]), I also think it’s important to get to know more recent composers who stand in the great Western classical tradition and whose work is worth listening to. You can sample all these pieces at YouTube first before committing to them.
- Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations (1899). Okay, not 20th century, but close enough.
- Gustav Holst, The Planets (1916).
- Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony (1934).
- Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem (1948). Many recordings available. The one I have is Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, nicely paired with Fauré’s Requiem.
- Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum (1984) and Berliner Messe (1990). Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by T. Kaljuste, ECM label. If you enjoy this Pärt CD, you have a lot to look forward to, as there are quite a few more on the same record label. Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) began his life as a Soviet avant-garde composer and gave up modernism as he discovered medieval music and Russian Orthodoxy. He is the world’s most frequently performed living composer.
- Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, “Sorrowful Songs” (1976). Many recordings; my favorite is still David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta on Nonesuch. Górecki was a devout Catholic who wrote a special piece for the visit of John Paul II to Poland in 1978, “Totus Tuus.”
- John Tavener, The Protecting Veil, The Last Sleep of the Virgin, and Choral Music. Double disc set from EMI. Tavener can be a bit strange, but he may appeal to some with his Byzantine-sounding harmonies and his meditative minimalism.
- Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice and Other Choral Works. Gorgeous English choral music, in my opinion some of the best ever written.
- Rolf Lislevand, Nuove Musiche and Diminuito. These two recent ECM recordings feature world-class musicians improvising on Renaissance musical themes. Sounds odd, but it works extremely well.
- Jordi Savall, Lachrimae Caravaggio. To my knowledge, this is the only original composition by Savall to have been recorded. It’s dark and moody, exquisitely rendered on early music instruments such as viols and cornets.
- Eleni Karaindrou, Eternity and a Day. ECM label. Karaindrou is a modern Greek composer who has written some of the best film scores that our age can boast.
- Pēteris Vasks, of Latvia (b. 1946), writes refreshingly lyrical and lush music. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer, done right after the fall of Soviet Communism, is among the most poignant choral works of our time. My favorite record of his music is called Message, which unfortunately appears to be out of print, although used CDs are available at good prices. Still, there are plenty of other discs of his music that you can sample at Amazon.
- The music of Norwegian Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) is outstanding. Check it out.
- The music of Elam Rotem (b. 1984), with whom I did an interview for New Liturgical Movement. There you will find some clips of his magnificent Monteverdian music.
I had better stop there, because the topic is really endless.
We all stand to benefit from broadening and deepening our listening habits and thus our ongoing musical formation. I hope you will take this article as a gentle provocation to do so.
[ii] If you already enjoy Bach and Mozart, consider a box set of their complete works: the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition is 153 CDs (currently listed at Amazon for $134), and the Mozart Edition is 170 CDs (for $157). Pause for a moment to absorb what you have just read: Mozart composed 170 full-length CDs’ worth of great music, and Bach 153 full-length CDs’ worth (another more recent box set of Bach divides it over 172 CDs). Any one of Bach’s or Mozart’s thousands of pieces has more technical skill and musical inventiveness in it than just about the total life’s work of any modern pop star. Mozart died at the age of 35, and although Bach was 65 at his death, he had also been building organs, hiring and firing orchestras, teaching choir boys, giving music lessons, and spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with the obtuse town council and church board in Leipzig. Such monumental artistic accomplishments, my friends, are what genius actually means, and they back up the conviction that there is something nearly miraculous, and certainly divinely bestowed, in these towering figures – all the more reason to get to know their music. It’s true, as reviewers often say, that, given a choice, one wouldn’t necessarily buy each individual CD of a box set, because certain works might be obscure, or certain performances not the best available. But that’s beside the point. At the cost of 88¢ or 92¢ per CD, one doesn’t have to like all of them. Most of the performances are fine, unless you are ready to move into the connoisseur category.
[iii] I stole the expression “killer bees” from musicologist Robert Greenberg.
A friend alerted me to Dr. Andrew Childs’ wonderful list of 100 great classical pieces, with brief commentaries. It may be found here.
Dr. Michael Pakaluk has kindly given me permission to publish here some advice he gave on his Facebook page to people inquiring about how to help their children fall in love with classical music. I find it extremely helpful.
Any child who can sit still and read for half an hour can be taught to love classical music. It’s your choice as a parent: do you want your child to grow up liking classical music or not? You can govern this.
I learned this truth from William F. Buckley’s autobiography. I don’t remember the story exactly. But he says something like when he was a child he visited some relative in Austria (I think), and, after dinner, everyone had to sit quietly for an hour and listen to classical music. He said that at the end of that month he had changed to loving, appreciating, and having an understanding of classical music. All that was required was that he sit down and be quiet.
For high school and college students, I recommend leaping right in with symphonies. Listen to some symphonies of Haydn (for example, The Philosopher, Surprise, Military, Oxford, Hornsignal, Farewell), then Mozart (Prague, Jupiter, Hafner), then all of Beethoven and Brahms, Tchaikovsky 4-6, Dvorak 7-9, Borodin 2, Bruckner 4, 7, 8, 9, Mahler 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, Sibelius 2, 5, Prokofiev 1, 5, Shostakovich 1, 5, 10, Rachmaninoff 2, Hanson 2 (for those who can’t get enough Sibelius). I’m sure I left many things out even of my own preferred pieces, but that’s a good list that would take a year to go through. The order from older to more recent is important I think for quicker understanding.
For younger children I recommend shorter pieces from suites, ballets, and “programmatic” works (pieces which aim to tell a story). For example, begin by playing only “Morning” from Pier Gynt Suite No. 1. Play it over and over until the children clamor to hear “Morning” again. Then add other parts of the suite.
Other good choices along those lines: Carmen Suites, L’Arlésienne Suites, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain, Nutcracker (Disney knew what he was doing), Peter and the Wolf, Bolero, Iberia of Albeniz – generally the kinds of pieces they have on albums entitled “100 Classical Favorites.”
Surprisingly it does not take long until even young children (7 years old or so) can listen to the last movement of Beethoven’s 9 and love that. We played that movement every Saturday morning over pancakes for about 4 weeks and everyone got hooked on it, especially Mark, age 7.
The principle of repetition is extremely effective. We were going to hear the NSO in concert playing the Three Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. So I played them every day for two weeks. Guess what? These pieces became everyone’s most beloved music, especially for (then) 8 year old Mark. These are highly subtle and sophisticated pieces, I would note.
I really recommend the Digital Concert Hall, which is a subscription for video of the Berlin Philharmonic. Why? Music is meant to be seen as well as heard. Children are fascinated by watching the musicians. The Berlin Phil is far superior in playing to almost everything you’ll find for free on YouTube. It costs about $120 for a one-year subscription if you are a teacher or student and is well worth trying for one year. Ask for and get the academic discount if you can.
This lecture by a British conductor and champion of Mahler, “The Transformative Power of Classical Music,” is worth a watch.