For a long time I’ve wanted to create some sort of beginner’s guide to classical music, but I was never quite sure how. Part of my hesitation has been uncertainty over where the beginner should start. I came to classical music as a teenager through accessible orchestral works such as Holst’s The Planets and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, but others will testify to the power of Vivaldi, or Pärt, or a particular instrument. The sensible approach seemed to be to develop a long list of recordings and let the beginner pick where to start, rather than say “start here”. The most straightforward approach to such a list would be a roughly chronological one, or at least one divided into the major periods of classical music – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and so on. But then, of course, the question is what to put on the list.
Perhaps the key factor in helping me settle on the eventual format for my guide was my discovery earlier this year of an enjoyable album of music by Andreas Hammerschmidt, described by The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “the most representative composer of mid-17th-century German church music, of which he was a prolific and extremely popular exponent”. I was intrigued; I’ve always been fascinated by those composers who have been left behind in history, and here was one who appeared to be a significant figure of his day. I’m not alone among classical enthusiasts in having many gaps in my knowledge, especially of music from before the late Baroque. It’s true that for many, “proper” classical music begins with Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, with the occasional nod backwards to key figures such as Monteverdi and an acknowledgment (but often not much more than that) that classical music really goes back to the first millennium, to the days of Gregorian chant. The situation is illustrated by any of the chronologically based beginner’s guides on the market, which try to get the Middle Ages over with as quickly as possible before rushing through the Renaissance so they can finally get to the good stuff. Take 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, for example. After just 8 recordings we reach the 16th century; 18 more albums bring us to the 17th century, and when we arrive in the 18th century we still have 940 recordings left to hear. The Andreas Hammerschmidts of this world don’t stand much of a chance. Compare this with, say, Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, which devotes one of its 5 volumes to music from before the 17th century. But Taruskin is for the serious student, and he doesn’t suggest recordings to listen to. Rather more useful is a book I found recently called Music and Western Man, which presents the scripts of a 1950s Canadian radio series involving “commentary and recorded musical illustrations”, stretching from a pair of hymns to Apollo to Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony; here, the aim was to shed light on those parts of classical history outside the standard repertoire.
And that’s how I found my niche. A History of Classical Music through Recordings combines a long list of suggested albums with an attempt to give rather more equal time to all parts of the story than is found in a typical listening guide. In each (roughly chronological) part, I’ll suggest 5 (or thereabouts) albums, using each to illustrate some aspect of the tale. My selection of recordings will be based to some extent on my own likes but will largely be influenced by ideas obtained from various print and online sources. I don’t know how long this journey will take; in fact, at any given time I’ll probably be just a few steps ahead of you, the reader, because like any of my previous endeavours to enlighten others I’ll first be enlightening myself.
I warned myself not to tell the prospective listener to “start here”, but here we are. Join me in Part 1 for a look at Gregorian chant, after which comes organum, troubadours, and… well, everything else.