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BWW Feature: The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide To Classical Music

We give you an introduction to all things classical music

BWW Feature: The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide To Classical MusicIt may be a while before we can pack ourselves into a concert hall again, sadly. That said, with more and more people listening to classical music while staying at home in lockdown, we thought it would be helpful to share a BroadwayWorld beginner's guide to classical music.

Check out the other guides we have shared so far about going to opera and stand-up comedy.

Classical music is not for me.

For a musical genre that spans literal centuries, I am convinced that there is a piece of classical music for everyone. Classical music is used extensively in film, TV, theatre...it's everywhere!

I love both the intricacy and intimacy of a string quartet (before Bridgerton made it cool) and the vastness of a soundscape created by a massive orchestra. Whether you want something chilled or energetic, I'm sure you can find something to fit your mood.

I don't know what kind of classical music I like.

Classical music can be broken down into general categories based on when the music was written. Here are the big six:

Medieval - Music written between the years 1150 to 1400 is referred to as medieval music. Expect to hear instruments like flutes, recorders, plucked strings, but not many others. The names and composers of many pieces written in this era are not known.

Renaissance - Between 1400 to 1600, music became more complex in harmony and other aspects: for example, bowed strings became a thing. There was a general focus on choral music. You also start to hear some early wind and brass instruments being used by composers like Dowland and Tallis.

Baroque - The Baroque period spans the years 1600 to 1750. We start to see music performed by larger ensembles called "orchestras". Handel, Vivaldi and Bach are some of the best known Baroque musicians, and they made use of new instruments like the oboe.

Classical - The term "classical music" can apply to anything written for orchestral instruments between the Medieval era and today, but it also specifically refers to music from the 1750s to the early 1820s. The piano officially replaces the "plucky"-sounding harpsichord used in earlier periods. Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart are the rock stars of this period.

Romantic - Orchestras grew in size during the Romantic period of 1820 to 1900, and consequently, the music written for them grew in depth and intensity. Chopin, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of music during this era.

20th/21st Century - Music written after 1900 is generally referred to as modern or 20th/21st Century music. It can be broken down into further categories like minimalism or expressionism. Some composers became increasingly experimental and diverse in their writing style, but you can also count modern film scores as part of this category. Some 20th/21st Century composers include Philip Glass, John Williams and Anna Meredith.

There are also different types of classical music depending on the size of the group of musicians involved or the types of pieces they play. Some people prefer a particular composer, while others prefer a particular era or combination of instruments.

I don't know where to start.

For musical fans, orchestras such as the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and John Wilson Orchestra specialise in producing albums featuring music written for the stage. Who doesn't love an overture?!

Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music and other streaming services have plenty of curated playlists for every occasion. Personally, I enjoy working from home with "melancholy strings" and "piano chill" on in the background. Additionally, I love putting on a fast-paced film soundtrack or excerpts from Mahler's Symphony No. 8 to make my exercise regime feel that little bit more epic.

If you are familiar with a snippet of a classical piece, why not listen to the whole work? For example, many of us will be familiar with the theme tune to The Apprentice, but did you know it's actually an excerpt called "Montagues and Capulets" from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet?

While initially developed as an educational resource, the BBC "Ten Pieces" initiative is a great introduction to the world of classical music. Their website has loads of free resources available to help you get familiar with different styles of classical music.

You can also tune into classical radio stations like BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM. Both stations regularly play popular classical pieces from across the genre and include interviews and spotlight features as well.

When should I clap?

For the uninitiated at a classical concert, at least as and when we can finally go to such things again, you may be puzzled by the mysterious etiquette around when you should clap. Relax, we've got you covered.

Some composers write their pieces in multiple "movements", like chapters. At most (but not all) classical concerts, the convention is that you wait until the end of the entire piece before applauding.

Yes, the result is a slightly awkward silence after even the most impressive bit of performance, but it's just the way it is. I find it's best to follow the lead of the others in attendance.

As a general guide, if you're attending a concert with lots of different excerpts from different works, it is absolutely fine to clap at the end of each piece. If a "concerto" (solo instrument and orchestra) is being performed, this is usually split into three movements. Meanwhile, if a symphony is being performed in full, this will usually consist of four movements, but some don't follow this structure.

My best advice is to get yourself a programme, if they are available, to follow along. Programme notes are extremely helpful for giving you a heads up about what you should expect to hear in each movement, for example, the kind of picture or mood the composer is trying to create for the listener.

Where can I watch classical performances at the moment?

Orchestras have been working hard to adapt to life with COVID-19 by spreading their players out so they can still play together within current social distancing guidelines. As a violinist, I'm still not used to seeing the string players on their own instead of sitting in pairs, called "desks".

You can catch live and pre-recorded broadcasts from the London Symphony Orchestra's Lunchtime Concerts to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's Digital Season, plus many more.

The annual BBC Proms festival made the most of having the whole Royal Albert Hall at their disposal in the summer, and the 2020 programme can still be viewed on BBC iPlayer.

Have you started listening to classical music recently? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!


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From This Author Fiona Scott