Classical music - starting points

Various posts in a number of threads, most recently "Audiophiles who refuse to listen to classical" suggest there are a number of people who are looking to find a way to get into classical music. I thought it might be worthwhile if some of us who have found a way, even stumbled into one perhaps, could give some advice. If possible we might try to recall what first hooked us on classical music, identify the piece and, if relevant the performance, and describe what grabbed our attention.

I hope that others will use this as a guide to pick an approach which fits their musical tastes.

I'll start with three critical pieces for me.

Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Second Movement, Bruno Walter conductor. This was 11th grade, and quite simply the first time I was ever moved by a piece of classical music. I was caught up in the force, the drama, the inevitability of the music.

Mozart Symphony 35, George Szell conductor. I think this was as a sophomore in college. The sheer energy, the exuberance and speed of the piece had me putting it on repeat in a manner previously reserved for the Beatles.

Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner conductor (my current favorite version). The color and shattering power of the orchestra. I bought into CDs early and for a while my favorite track was The Great Gate at Kiev, the last portion of Pictures, from a demo disk that came with my player. I'm surprised I wasn't thrown out of my apartment.

While my tastes have broadened since then, each of these three works still remains a favorite.
I think that with classical music it is really essential to get a decent recording. Who performs it, and sometimes how well it was recorded, makes all the difference, whether you are starting out or have listened your whole life.

I find the customer reviews at are extremely helpful in this regard, and also extremely educational about classical music, and why people listen, and what they listen for.

Go to their home page; in the upper left pull down the "" bullet and scroll down to classical music, and start with a search on anything you know and like, say "Beethoven Symphony 5". Not only will a gazillion choices for that come up, but there will be many side bars leading you to other similar or not-so-similar classical CDs. I have spent many an enjoyable evening learning one heck of a lot there, and honing down my purchases to only the truly finest recordings (often amazingly cheap) of the truly finest music ever performed. Great way to get started. Enjoy.
Newbee, you are da man! That's a great list for neophytes and I agree with it 100%. If one were to stray either side of the Romantic period I would be forced to add these as my next ten choices:

1. "Concierto de Aranjuez" - Rodrigo

2. "Piano Concerto, Opus 20" - Scriabin

3. "Rhapsody in Blue" - and other Gershwin works

4. the Gilbert & Sullivan highlights CD on Telarc

5. "Mass in B-Minor" and bunches of others - Bach

6. "Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird" - Stravinsky

7. "Concerti Grossi," "The Messiah," and more - Handel

8. Symphonies - William Boyce

9. "West Side Story" and "Candide" - Bernstein

10. "Madama Butterfly" (opera) - Puccini

Don't forget the last three symphonies by Mozart (oops! that's eleven!)
Nice set of recommendations. Newbee, Gary17 and Beemerrider: thanks for posting such extended and excellent suggestions for specific works as starting points for people beginning to explore classical music. I agree with the suggestions.

My contribution here will be to reinforce the suggestion that one start with borrowing some music from your local library. Sample some of these works at no cost and see what you connect with. And, if you have a classical music radio station (or webcast) available to you, spend some time with that as background music while you do other things.

Also, remember that each of us may connect via different styles of classical music. For a friend of mine, the normal starting points I'd suggested (e.g., Mozart) just didn't connect for him. But, when he heard some Shostakovich, that resonated immediately for him. Shostakovich is not where I'd normally think of starting someone on a classical journey, but this music really spoke to him and nailed him as a classical music listener. Now he's branching into other things.

So, for those who are just not getting into classical from the "normal" points of entry, here are some 20th Century music recommendations to consider in case your tastes are a bit more twisted and you need something a bit more out of center to catch your interest (not normally the best starting point for most people, but for some...):

Shostakovich, Sym 5 (Previn/LSO, RCA) and String Quartet No. 8 (Borodin Qt or Fitzwilliam QT, Decca)

Kodaly, Hary Janos Suite (Kertesz/LSO, Decca)

Varese, Ionisation (Mehta/LAPO/LAPercussionEnsemble on Decca or NJ Percussion Ensemble on Nonesuch)

Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste (Reiner/CSO, RCA or Solti/LSO, Decca)

Crumb, Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) or Ancient Voices of Children

Larsson, Concertino for Bassoon & String Orch, op45,4

Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto (Lutoslawsk/OrchParis, Rostropovich -cello, EMI)

Panufnik, Concertino for timpani, percussion & strings or Sinfonia Rustica

Poulenc, Concerto for Organ, Strings & Timpani (Pretre/FNRO, Durufle -org, EMI)

Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, op16 (Dorati/LSO, Mercury)

Schuller, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (Dorati/MinneapolisSO, Mercury)
Rushton, Where's Mahler in your list! :-)

Believe it on not, I recently exposed my adult daughter to classical music using my two favorite composers, Sibelius (Sym #4), and Mahler (Sym #6). She found Sibelius bland and just loved Mahler. Go figure!
Rushton - your post captures exactly what I had in mind when I started this thread. There are countless entries into classical music, each right for someone.

It seems to me that Baroque music may be under-represented so far. I would guess that most people have heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons at some point or another. If you liked that you might also try.

Bach - Brandeburg Concertos

Handel - Water Music and Fireworks Music

Also try Glenn Gould or Andras Schiff playing Bach's 2 and 3 Part Inventions. There is something about Bach on piano that clears my head and seems to restore the natural order of the universe. (The Modern Jazz Quartet does this for me as well.)