The beauty of classical music

Dmitri Shostakovich, irascible and exciting. Photo: Robert Rossing

The’s Ruadhan Jones is a recent convert to classical music after attending a recent Tchaikovsky violin concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and he talks about finding beauty in the classics.

Classical music is not just for snobs – that should be, often is, the first line in any introduction. But it does take some getting used to, and I speak as someone trying very hard.

My problem had always been that I associated classical music with the plink-kerplunk of a Tchaikovsky. He’s like the boring uncle, always bringing out the same old anecdotes. You put up with him, might have a little affection for him, but while he speaks you’re not really listening and are most likely following your own train of thought. 

But Shostakovich was someone I could get in to. He’s the sardonic cousin, whose off-beat humour and troubled life make him exciting but at times irascible company. You are never certain if he is laughing with you or at you. Either way, it makes you keep listening. 

A great performance conducted by David Brophy, formerly of RTE Concert Orchestra Photo: Cork Concert Orchestra

Of course that’s a subjective claim, and for you Tchaikovsky might be the way in. But what I’m trying to say is that classical music can be exciting. It’s not just for intellectuals and the “high-brow” – classical music is there to be enjoyed as well as studied.

Consider this: the average song is about three minutes. Imagine being able to enjoy a piece of music to the same extent, but having the experience last for an hour! 

But it won’t happen straight away, so to help you on you as you begin, here are a few things that worked for me.

1 – Start and persevere

It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice there is in classical music, or underwhelmed by your first listen. Maybe you tried Beethoven’s fifth and thought it was boring. Maybe you listened to Stockhausen and wondered if it was even music.

Either way, try again! If Beethoven’s not for you, try Mahler, or Bach, or a Russian! If a symphony’s too long, try a concerto, or a quartet, or a sonata. Start with a composer, start with a musician; start with an orchestra, start with an instrument. There are so many ways in, the thing to do is make a start and stick at it.

2 – Find a friend

Do you have a friend who likes classical music? Or better yet, who plays an instrument? Why not ask them for recommendations, or go to a performance with them? A musician is best because if they’re playing in the orchestra, you’re more likely to be invested in it. That’s what happened to me. I went to my friend’s performance and was listening so intently I found myself noticing things for the first time. For example, I noticed how Shostakovich uses the strings and cello to represent Stalin in the 10th symphony, and that the flute was enigmatic and mournful.

Numerous performances with unique quality. Photo: YouTube screengrab

3 – Listen Live

Concerts can be expensive, or few and far between – the selection is often limited and may not be to your taste. But music, of all the arts, is the most like falling in love. You can build a connection over the phone, or online – but it’s the intimate, personal relationship that forms when you “meet” for the first time that cements it. 

But don’t worry if you can only listen online. The internet allows you to access performances from around the world. If you love Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, for example, you can go on Spotify or YouTube, look it up and find numerous different performances, each with their own unique quality.

4 – Relax, let the music work

It can be easy to overstress the “meaning” of a piece. There is a pleasure in reading up on the background and the themes, of knowing this from that, your ass from your oboe. But the immediate purpose of music is to draw you out of yourself and to enter into something else. If you are too concerned with meaning, you will always be observing from the outside. Get to “know” the piece of music first, then delve into its backstory. 

So relax, and let the music work over you. But then, if you want, go and explore the rich history a piece of music might contain. To know that Stalin’s presence constantly menaces the 10th symphony, or that the first movement asks the question ,“who are you”, extends the great impression it makes.

It becomes a statement of personal identity in the face of totalitarian conformity.

5 – Shostakovich not Tchaikovsky

As I said, this is a subjective distinction, but I will argue for Shostakovich over Tchaikovsky any day. The reason being that I’m deeply invested in his music. So fall in love, as it were, with a composer – get involved and attached. This is a great way to encourage your interest to grow. But also remember that your tastes will change, or that you can fall for the wrong person, as it were. So don’t be afraid of committing wholeheartedly to your love – only, don’t let it be the only one.

A few favourites to get you going:

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