Ah. So you’ve reached that point in your life where you suddenly need to develop a genuine and abiding appreciation of classical music? Either you need to impress someone (a sophisticated hot person, a Wagner-obsessed boss, your local cultural elite), you’ve reached the age of 55, or you’ve come to realize that the shallow, money-worn world of popular music emptied itself of all authenticity and originality long ago and is now a grotesque, ever-accelerating carousel of vapidity and barely disguised plagiarism. Don’t worry, it comes to us all.
But if you don’t know your arias from your Elgar, it’s an intimidating world to leap into. Plus if you’ve always been of the opinion that classical music is duh-duh-duh-dumb, it’s not like you can just force yourself to enjoy it. Except, with classical music, you absolutely can do that! There are two approaches you might want to take: The first, which is guaranteed to work, is to learn an instrument (we recommend the trombone, as it makes by far the best fart noises). Once you start getting even a little bit good you’ll find yourself developing a grudging love for the repertoire that’s been torturing you along the way — it’s musical Stockholm syndrome, and its only drawback is that it will probably take you two or three years to get there.
The second strategy is to nimbly sidestep all the classical world’s off-putting technical jargon and intellectual snobbery by cheat-sheeting your way in. We’re here to help, with a quick-dip orientation that focuses on just a few signposts and landmarks that might help the average symphon-o-phobe navigate towards their niche. Because, really, it’s all just music, and the big emotional hits people get from their favorite moments in rock, rap, E.D.M., whatever, in the 21st century are still present in the musical mix whichever era you’re listening to, as long as you can tune in to the right snippets. But first, a quick historical survey of the territory we’re talking about…
“Through music we may wander where we will in time, and find friends in every century,” said someone, once. If that’s so, in the 13th through 16th centuries, those friends are likely to be monks chanting solemnly for your salvation; from the 17th to the 18th, they’ll be aristocrats in the royal courts and palaces of the Baroque and Classical musical periods, powdering their periwigs and doing this sort of thing to harpsichords; for the rest of the 19th century they would be passionate disciples of the Romantic style — one minute declaring their undying devotion to you, the next challenging you to a duel; and from 1900 onwards they’re increasingly loud and obnoxious, often drunk. Which, come to think of it, might be one reason why, except when it’s snuck in as background sound for films, TV shows and video games, listening to classical music isn’t anywhere near as popular as it used to be.
Again, though, whatever it is you love most about music, you’re able to find its equivalent in the classical canon, so let’s start making some handy comparisons.
You Only Love: Irresistible Riffs
Richard Wagner, the severe and revered German composer of the mid- to late 1800s, is often cited as the great-grandfather of heavy rock, but that’s perhaps more to do with the sumptuous Gothic mood and imagery of his vast operas. Granted, he came up with more than a few surging figures (that’s classical for “riff,” b.t.w.) that Jimmy Page would be proud to call his own — the famous ascending battle-cry earworm from “Ride of the Valkyries” being the most obvious. But if you’re looking for the orchestral equivalent of iconic guitar parts in the mold of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you’ll find a whole pile of them squashed into Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” from 1867 (the weird ’70s disco version from Saturday Night Fever notwithstanding):
You Only Love: Heavy Metal Menace
Now we head to the thrashier, chuggier end of the spectrum. From Megadeth to Babymetal, heavy metal’s orchestral heritage can be detected (along with so many other parallels with modern music) in Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Modernist ballet The Rite of Spring. Legend has it that when Stravinsky premiered his landmark work in Paris in 1913 a small riot broke out among audience members, who were either inspired or incensed by the loud, dissonant future-music they were hearing — and so the mosh pit came to be. Have a listen to this granite slab of orchestral doom from the Rite’s opening few minutes, thought to be around the point in proceedings when the historic shovings commenced…
And compare it with, to take an aptly named example, Iron Maiden’s “Phantom of the Opera” from 1980:
You Only Love: Killer Beats
Dance music in its modern, speaker-melting form has a surprisingly close relationship with contemporary practitioners of art music (the experimental, avant-garde side of today’s composing world, as opposed to the soundtrack industry). In their early use of electronic instruments, brash, boundary-pushing composers of the 20th century, such as Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen, exerted a huge influence on the various dance-music genres that started emerging in popular culture in the 1990s — although Stockhausen, when asked to critique electro artists for a 1995 magazine article, was brilliantly, imperiously sniffy about them. His advice for Aphex Twin: “I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work Song of the Youths…”
His big complaint about ’90s electro was that it was too repetitive (this from a man who wrote an hour-long ambient piece for two pianos called “Mantra”). But the strict rhythms and hypnotic repetition that characterizes so much of the music you hear in dance clubs today are also echoes from an era long before, when, throughout the Baroque and Classical periods, much of the repertoire was dedicated to the courtly dances that dominated aristocratic social life in Europe.
“Vivaldi is at times so repetitive, it could qualify as the rave of the Baroque era,” says Catherine Kontz, a London-based composer, who recommends looking beyond his famous Four Seasons concertos to his violin sonatas to hear something like the Enlightenment version of a David Guetta floor-filler. One of those, Vivaldi’s Sonata No.12 in D Minor of 1705, his variations on a popular ditty called “Madness,” even comes complete with some very un-Baroque-like spikes and dips in volume — your 18th-century version of those mulchy dance-floor EQ-filter sweeps that all the best club tunes have, which make them sound like they go underwater for a bit:
Something akin to an E.D.M. four-to-the-floor kick drum was even occasionally audible in Baroque ballrooms — some conductors of the era liked to keep their ensembles’ pulse in the pocket by thumping the floor with a huge thumping-stick. In 1687, Jean-Baptiste Lully, royal composer to the court of Louis XIV, got so caught up in keeping up the energy in the room that he caused himself a lethal injury by ramming his conducting staff into his own foot — you could say he really nailed the performance — and died from gangrene soon afterwards:
You Only Love: Impossibly Fast Shredding
Many rock guitarists known for hammering their instruments at unlikely speed, such as Eddie Van Halen or Matt Bellamy of Muse, are apt to chuck in the occasional classical-sounding passage — so much so that nods to Bach mid wig-out is something of a stadium-guitarist cliché. And there’s a reason for this widdly affinity: Aside from showing off their breadth of musical influences, rock shredders are often making use of a psycho-musical effect known as “auditory stream segregation,” an aspect of how our brains process sound that composers and musicians have been exploiting at least as far back the Baroque period of the 17th and early 18th centuries — notably in flute sonatas by Bach and Pietro Locatelli’s works for violin. Here’s one of those, Locatelli’s Harmonic Labyrinth, written by the Italian virtuoso in 1733, in which something resembling an Irish jig foggily emerges from the firehose spray of notes:
As the psychologist Mark Levitin explains in his book Your Brain on Music: “The notes go by so quickly that an illusory melody appears… Due to stream segregation the melody ‘pops out’ when the notes are close enough together in time — the [brain’s] perceptual system holds the notes together — but the melody is lost when its notes are too far apart in time.”
For some more cognitive overload, here’s another example by the Romantic composer Chopin, who thoroughly abused this phenomenon in his ludicrously fast works for piano, such as Fantasie-Impromptu in C Sharp Minor, played here by a person who is 5.
Proving beyond doubt that the spirit of demonic fretboard noodling is centuries old, one of the most iconic shredding moments in rock and roll history — Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner“ at Woodstock — has a direct ancestor in the Romantic period. Written in 1829, here’s one of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini’s furiously embellished variations on God Save the King:
You Only Love: Crazy-Ass Flow
Since long before Hamilton stole its wigs and stage sets, opera has been popping up in the world of rap music on a fairly regular basis. Back in 2001, for example, Beyoncé starred with Mos Def and Wyclef Jean in the “hip-hopera” movie version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (which critically didn’t go so well), and recently Drake declared himself a big Pavarotti fan during an interview on British radio, saying Pav’s version of the song “Caruso” is “the song I used to get ready for anything.”
The two traditions might seem as though they’re from separate galaxies, but, technically at least, the demands of rhythmic articulation and vocal dexterity placed on an opera singer aren’t exactly light years away from an M.C. rapping at speed. Here’s a very weird illustration of that from Gioachino Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville, first performed in 1816:
And, of course, the “Three Tenors” concert, held in Rome to celebrate the 1990 F.I.F.A. World Cup and starring Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, is the operatic world’s best-ever approximation of a rap battle (Pavarotti’s obvious mic-drop moment is at 1:33):
You Only Love: Epic Drum Solos
Drum solos in rock and jazz aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and when elongated bursts of unaccompanied percussion pop up in classical music, they can be equally divisive. This is partly because they’re most commonly associated with the art music of minimalists and experimentalists from the latter half of the 20th century onwards, pretty much all of which was designed to be challenging and unpopular in the first place. As one of the more listenable, and inventive, examples, here’s Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which was written in 1972:
From the better-known classical jukebox, the most famous bout of timpani, of course — and probably the most meme-worthy bit of percussion in history — comes in at the start of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, forever associated with the opening scenes from the ’60s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But another iconic moment on the Space Odyssey soundtrack is an elegant excerpt from the 1939 ballet Gayane by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian. In the original ballet, the segment that directly follows this, “Lezginka,” might just lay claim to classical music’s closest equivalent to an epic drum solo — at least in this performance, in that it features a percussion soloist, drumming, epically:
You Only Love: Psychedelic Odysseys
From around the turn of the 20th century there has been plenty of orchestral music that modern pop-culture psychonauts, stoners, and connoisseurs of ambient dance have been able to fully relate to. Works by Minimalist composers from the 1960s and ’70s held obvious crossover appeal for the Flower Power generation — Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air and Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach, for instance, were big hits with the hippies.
But ambient soundscapes date much further back than that. Performing a piece composed in 1925, here’s a man tickling a piano to death. The Impressionist composers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, meanwhile, such as Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, taking their cues from the fuzzy French art movement of the same name, began a general drift away from conventions of melody and traditional harmony to create soft-focus, dreamlike interludes.
Though not exactly representative of the style, one of the best known works from this grouping is Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, which repeats the same tract of melody over and over to create a hypnotic 17-minute snake-charm. And while it might be pure coincidence, Ravel is thought to have written it while suffering from a degenerative brain disease called primary progressive aphasia, which may have inhibited his sense of pitch and made him prone to repetitive behavior.
The all-time standout work of orchestral trippiness, though, is the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, which stakes a claim to be the first major piece of music composed under the influence of narcotics. Berlioz wrote it in 1830, strung out on unrequited love and, as suggested by both his biographers and the program notes he supplied for his audiences, hallucinations brought on by opium.
In 1969 the great composer, conductor and music educator Leonard Bernstein dedicated one of his televised Young People’s Concerts lectures to the work, describing Berlioz’s opening few bars as “Pretty spooky: Those sounds you are hearing come from the first psychedelic symphony in history; the first musical description ever made of a trip, written 130-odd years before the Beatles.” Here is Bernstein, conducting the final, macabre movement, “The Nightmare of the Witches’ Sabbath,” which has shivering paranoid comedown written all over it:
You Only Love: Shameless Stadium Excess
Whether it’s Pink Floyd crash-landing an airplane on stage, Beyoncé’s epic marching band and majorette troupe at Coachella last year, or Tommy Lee drumming upside down on his bizarre stage-rollercoaster, pop and rock mega-productions might think they have the monopoly on outrageous scale and spectacle. But this is not so. I’m not thinking here of Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas (which takes place over four nights and involves 15 hours of music), which certainly has seen some O.T.T. staging in its time, but of the much more recent Helicopter String Quartet, by Stockhausen, which was first performed in 1995, by two violinists, a viola player, a cellist, and four tone-deaf helicopter pilots:
The 32-minute piece, in which live footage from the choppers is broadcast to the audience sitting comfortably coughing in an auditorium below, is just one section of a much larger work of Stockhausen’s, his operatic cycle Licht, which in total amounts to a mammoth 29 hours of music. According to Catherine Kontz, Licht “is probably the most ambitious project in scale and size any composer has ever undertaken.”
She should know: Kontz herself is currently working on a work for a solo voice accompanied by electronic instruments which has a duration of 12 hours; it’s due to premier in London in the Fall, and she has called it, winningly, Endurance. “It’s a bit mad,” she admits. “Even Springsteen’s shows are shorter.”
You Only Love: When the Beat Drops
On the face of it, there’s nothing in modern music more alien to the intricacies of harmonic theory than the anarchy and abandon of a sweat-drenched, deafening dance floor at 2 a.m. But that special clubbing moment when the track’s climax, held up for a couple of bars beyond too long by a sadistic D.J., finally thumps in and the crowd loses its complete shit, has, in fact, played out over and over again in various musical forms down the centuries. Sort of.
As Daniel Levitin explains in Your Brain on Music, “The setting up and then manipulating of expectations is the heart of music,” from a psychological point of view. And one of the main ways both composers and D.J.s keep us engaged is by establishing a tension in their music and then messing with us a little about exactly when that suspense is likely to resolve. The Classical-period composer Joseph Haydn peppered his works with “deceptive cadences” — chord sequences that trick the listener into anticipating a sense of closure, but then switch to prolong the wait. In his Surprise Symphony of 1791 he turned a whole movement into a practical joke, lullabying his audience with soft, gentlemanly violins for 16 bars before jolting them awake with a sudden symphonic nipple-tweak:
During the Romantic era, composers took the approach of piling on the suspense to torturous extremes. In his 1859 opera Tristan and Isolde, Wagner establishes a brooding sense of anxiety with a famous chord (just four notes sounded together that basically invented all Hollywood orchestral scores ever, 70 years too early) in the opening few bars; he immediately moves the harmony off into further realms of discord and disquietude, and doesn’t fully resolve those anxious opening cadences until the finale of Act III, some four fucking hours later. For this, and for so many other reasons, the man was a monster.
But by far the most teeteringly anticipated beat-drop moment in the whole classical canon has to be, well, the cannons (actual cannons!) when they finally go off for the triumphant finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. You know when people go around saying “boom,” with an air of being supremely gratified by some important thing that’s just been accomplished to the satisfaction of everybody in the room? This is where that comes from: