Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Decorating Time with Prokofiev's First Symphony

"Ah, music! A magic far beyond all we do here!"

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.

None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.

A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.

As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski


0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)

1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.

1:57 – Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.

3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)

3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.

4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)

Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound.

It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.

© 2015 James L. Smith

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Debussy, Syrinx (1913)

When Claude Debussy composed Syrinx in 1913 it was the first significant work for solo flute composed since C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in A Minor in 1763. The technical improvements added to the flute by Theobald Boehm in the mid-1800s made the piece possible, allowing Debussy to showcase what could be done with the new and improved flute. As a flute player myself, I have played the piece often and enjoyed the flexibility in how it can be interpreted.


Emmanuel Pahud, flute
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Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Second Movement (1791)

This clarinet concerto was the last significant work Mozart finished before his death in December 1791. London’s Classic FM audience recently ranked the concerto at #8 in it’s 2015 Hall of Fame poll for favorite pieces of classical music.


Martin Fröst, clarinet (Christoph Poppen conducting the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra)
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An Illustrated History of Music

There's an old saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which makes me wonder if the person who first said that (the source is unknown) ever considered using drawings to "talk" about music.

Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)

I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.

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Strauss, Don Quixote, Finale (1898)

Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.


Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)
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Paganini, Caprice No. 24 (1809)

The legend of Niccolò Paganini includes a story that his mother made a pact with the devil and traded his soul for musical virtuosity. Not true, of course. Like most great musicians, he was probably just born with some natural talent and then worked like a dog to develop that talent.


Alexander Markov, violin
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Benjamin Zander on Music and Passion

“Everybody loves classical music, they just haven't found out about it yet.” – Benjamin Zander

Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by
Benjamin Zander, the conductor and music director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

I hope Zander's lecture will give tyros a reason to give classical music a chance. His moving performance of Chopin's
Prelude in E Minor should be enough to persuade people to begin the journey.




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