Intro to Classical Music

Anacostia LibraryStaff Picks

Intro to Classical Music

Classical music can be one of the most daunting topics for someone to get interested in. Although other forms of art such as literature and visual art have been around for centuries as well, classical music somehow seems like it existed for hundreds of years and then kind of stopped being created, leaving it stuck in the past and somewhat difficult to start discovering. These titles will hopefully take some of that apprehension away, by showing that classical music is still being created and still evolving, as well as showing some great entry points into the deep history of this art form.

NPR Classical Music Companion by Miles Hoffman

This title is a great introduction to the sometimes confusing or unapproachable terminology associated with classical music. Unlike many classical music primers, this book doesn’t really focus on the composers themselves, but will instead use them as an example to help illustrate a musical concept. For example, the idea of a musical motif is introduced by mentioning perhaps the four most famous notes in classical music, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In conjunction with the previous book on the list, I think this could be a reasonable start to someone’s informed enjoyment of everything classical music has to offer. 

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century by Alex Ross
Classical music can sometimes be thought of as something from centuries again, extremely old compositions with little relation to what one might consider modern music. The Rest is Noise is a fascinating and thrilling book that explores the classical music of the 20th century in a way that educates as much as it entertains. Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker, and although he is extremely knowledgeable about classical music, he is not a snob when it comes to popular or modern music, and this omnivorous sensibility helps to make The Rest is Noise both informative and accessible to even classical music novices. Ross touches on some of the most well-known episodes of the time, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the musical revolution of “atonality”, but also explores lesser-discussed themes and composers. This is a book to open one’s mind to the vastness of classical music that’s not as old as you might think.

The Classical Music Book by DK Books
A broad overview of all that might be considered classical music, The Classical Music Book is from DK Publishing, well-known for their style of informative and beautifully laid-out topical books. This book looks at classical music chronologically through nearly 100 pieces of music. Each piece is discussed with regards to the music itself, as well as the importance of both the composer and the influence of the piece on the wider world of classical music. A fun overview that might open up doors to further investigation.

Mozart by Paul Johnson
This is an in-depth but still accessible look at one of the undisputed geniuses of classical music. The author looks at some of the “common knowledge” about Mozart, and using his vast research into the time period as well as Mozart’s private letters, tries to determine the accuracy of this accepted story. Simultaneously, he tells the narrative of his life, from a 3 year-old prodigy in Austria to the end of his life. If your interest lies in the personalities that create classical music as well as the music itself, this might be a great title for you.

Mozart In The Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall
A book that might change some minds on the old-fashioned nature of classical music, this title exposes some of the seedier aspects of performing classical music in this day and age. The author describes the somewhat surprising existence of many performers living in New York City. An extremely competitive field combined with very often low-paying gigs creates extraordinarily stressful working conditions, and this book delves deeply into some of the ways that these musicians try to deal with those conditions. Very different from the other titles on the list, this book shines a light on what it means to be a classical musician in the 21st century.