Shit Gets Serious: Your 8-Step Classical Music Cheat Sheet

So you’ve got a new love in your life, and this person is interested in classical music. Are you into it? Yeah, I can get a lot of homework done with this on-style? Or for real?

I read a survey that measured something weird: What is the genre of music that, when an opposite-sex love intrest likes it, turns one on the most? Answer:

Women said they liked guys who were into metal.

Men said they liked women who were into classical music.

You don’t want the extent of your knowledge of the classical world to be “What’s better than roses on a piano? Two lips on an organ!” So whether you’re a guy who’s found the lady with the preferred taste, or the lady who liked classical music, and now wants to get into it, here’s a cheat sheet to get you started.

1. BACH

Bach is considered the OG music genius of all time for a lot of reasons. He’s the X-Man of classical music; the catalog is almost endless (1126 compositions if you wanna be exact about it). Organ music was his specialty, but he also has a whole wack of pieces for the recently-invented tuning for harpsichord.

His best jams have this mood about them that’s not happy or sad, heavy or light… they’re just deep, and tragically hopeful. Bach was a hardcore religious dude who infused all his pieces with the pagan Christian numerological symbolism that was de rigeur in his time, and eventually got so good that he could compose without a keyboard or anything.

He wrote lots of fugues. A fugue is a piece where you hear a kind of boring theme played, and as it’s humming along the tune starts again higher or lower, and they weave together, and then the tune starts again in another voice while the others continue, and pretty soon you’ve got a musical Mandelbrot fractal twisting and weaving on itself like strands of DNA during abiogenesis or something, real psychedelia.

2. MOZART

Next comes Mozart. Mozart takes this whole froofy powdered wigs, buckled shoes thing and makes it sing. He was to classical music like what Miles Davis was to jazz. The emotion comes close to, but never quite becomes cynical, cloying, weepy or melodramatic.

I guess Hollywood says he was the kind of personality who would piss most of us off or whatever but he totally kills it with the music thing. He died when he was 35 and a few composers who knew he was the tits came out to his funeral but otherwise people stayed home. Not cause they didn’t care but because that was what you did back then.

His sister Nannerl was also a top-notch jammer until she had to quit cause it was time to get married.

3. BEETHOVEN

Then Beethoven came along and made Mozart sound froofy.

Beethoven was Sabbath to Mozart’s Beach Boys. You get some of those weird emotions that Mozart didn’t really jam on; things get grim; they get attitude; they get way overblown. He does this trick of writing the music to make it sound like the pianist is taking a couple practice swings at the jam before it breaks out. He does all this while he is slowly going deaf.

Beethoven’s solo piano music is badass and makes ladies faint cause it’s so emo; the piano is becoming this popular instrument for people who aren’t like nobility or whatever, so the masses can take Beethoven home and dig on it. Later composers analyzed his work and said he wasn’t that good at harmony, melody, orchestration, or counterpoint.

Like Sabbath, it wasn’t really about skill, it was the vibe that was different and new, and everyone couldn’t get enough. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people.

4. CHOPIN + MAHLER

Chopin is this ultra-gushy Polish house music, piano solo, folk dances made appealing to rich people. He used to spend days on one bar of music, trying to get a sequence of three or four chords just right. Strangely for such a romantic, he never married and had an affair for ten years with a woman named George Sand who had lots of other affairs. Just another one married to the music, I guess.

Mahler is this weirdo who composes symphonies by taking great German folk songs, deconstructing them and playing them really slowly. He’s like the DJ Screw or Khanate type, it’s mostly overdone but he does do some wild industrial-sounding orchestration occasionally, and some of those tunes totally deserve to be played back at weed speed.

5. THE RUSSIANS

The modern Russians were a handful of guys with beards and catchy riffs, with Tchaikovsky being the catalyst as just the catchiest tunesmith of all time. Think Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty… you walk out of the place not with the one loudest jam in your head, but you’re whistling through several tunes to find the one you liked the most which you can’t remember, cause all the other tunes were so damn catchy, too.

BorodinGliere, and others were two- or three-hit wonders. Rimsky-Kosakov had some exceptionally slammin pieces. The Russians capitalized on being exotic, writing totally bangin jams in different styles with punchy rhythms, but it’s the ante upped on catchiness and brevity that really secures them.

The icing on the modern Russian cake, Stravinsky, is considered by many to be the composer with the highest levels of ninjantium in his blood cells since Bach. He’s better than most at most things. An uneven career, but his ballets are indispensable and just keep giving listen after listen. I used to rock The Rite in the car turned up to the point where it distorts, which wasn’t hard cause my car was from 1989. It’s gone now.

6. THE BRITISH INVASION

Holst and Elgar were the British invasion, they brought that stoic, British Empire sound like it’s so great being the best“The Planets” is the quintessential orchestral one-hit-wonder, but some of the dissonances and edgy chords were even busted simultaneously by Stravinsky, so you know it’s good. Later the Planets vibe was ripped off by Star Wars, Back to the Future, etc.

7. AMERICA

Aaron Copland is considered the inventor of the American sound in classical music. His two cowboy ballets, and his “Fanfare for the Common Man” are as American a concept as it gets. While others got their exotic inspiration from Arabia and the Orient, Copland wrote pieces about Cuba and Mexico. His harmonic language can make for some really bananas endings, and sometimes the jam sounds like an out of tune saloon piano on purpose. He wrote a piece called “Lincoln Portrait” which has narration about Lincon’s life and it’s actually good. Look for the Charlton Heston version.

Ives is the another semi-classical American composer, he has a sexy piece of early acid blues, and Conlon Nancarrow wrote music for player pianos using a ruler and holepunch so he doesn’t fit anywhere but deserves a mention.

8. SHIT GOT WEIRD

By the 1950s classical music was really split with some new heads getting weirder and weirder, others going more and more sortof post-romantic movie vibes, simple gushy or epic. A lot of it is really great if you know where to look.

There are some new promising composers bridging the gap. Time will tell how this stuff holds up.

There are a lot of men and women who compose(d) classical music who are not on this list. This is the stuff I like and know, and all playboys and bunnies should have their heads wrapped around what they enjoy from these basics, and some tunes at the tips of their fingers, if they want to make beautiful music together.

 

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