The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music? Here is what hooked critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times. | July 20, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Every once in a while, it’s good to look back and realize with renewed appreciation what pieces and performers first hooked you at a young age on classical music.

That is exactly what Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, did this past week.


You could call it nostalgia, but it really was more of a Proustian act of recovering lost time, without a lot of sentimentality but instead with a lot of clear-eyed adult analysis and appreciation.

He was born into a non-musical family, but the young Tommasini nonetheless found himself inexorably drawn toward classical music.

As a young pianist, he got hooked on some unusual repertoire, short pieces that are often overlooked today. Can you guess which pieces by which composer? They might surprise you.

And he favored certain well-known dramatic works by Beethoven (below) especially one particular piano sonata he attempted to play as well as a couple of other sonatas and one of the piano concertos.

Both sets of works, small and large, were performed by two of the Truly Great Pianists of his youth — Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

Beethoven big

Tommasini also write about his first opera that hooked him for life on opera. Care to guess which one by which composer? And where he heard it?

You may recall that Tommasini, a trained composer, is probably the most respected classical music critic in the U.S. today, along with Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine.

And local readers may recall when Tommasini (below right) came to Madison to do a residency during the UW-Madison’s centennial celebration of the Pro Arte Quartet two seasons ago. He spoke articulately and passionately at the Wisconsin Union Theater, then did a Q&A with composer William Bolcom (below left) and UW piano professor Todd Welbourne (below middle) before the world-premiere performance of a commissioned work, William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, with the Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor:

William Bolcom, Todd Welbourne, Anthony Tommasini

Anyway, here is a link to Tommasini’s story, complete with a terrific and an unexpected anecdote at the end as well as recordings of the specific pieces form his youth that you should listen to:

It wasn’t the first time Tommasini talked about seminal classical works in his past. Here is another that involved Chopin:

Like Tommasini, I too was given to romantic drama, or even melodrama, as a young person. That, I suspect, is typical. Young people don’t generally first fall in love with the Baroque. I just adored Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Prelude in C-sharp minor, called “The Bells of Moscow” by its fans and called “It” by Rachmaninoff who grew to detest the popular piece that he was always asked to play as an encore. And I too had to try my hand  or hands at it, to play and perform it. And then it was Rachmanioff’s lush Piano Concerto No. 2 in a great old recording by Arthur Rubinstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. No one has admitted it yet, so I will. I came to classical music through cartoons – Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”, Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” (and then, of course, Disney’s “Fantasia”).

    Comment by Steve Rankin — July 22, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    • Oh, I certainly was introduced to many classical works through Bugs Bunny, but I did not realize just how much until later in life.

      Comment by Steve Kurr — July 22, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

  2. I came to classical music via ballet, so the Nutcracker Suite was a favorite early on. I have performed it several times since but I regret I haven’t yet preformed the whole ballet with dancers. Someday, hopefully, I will have the chance to play the entire work. The other big piece that loomed large for me during high school was Brahms Violin Concerto, which I finally did get to play last May with Gil Shaham as soloist!

    Comment by Rose Gear — July 22, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  3. Probably doing my interpretative dance to “Clair de Lune” as a toddler which my mother played in the piano. I grew up on classical music around the house.

    Comment by Robin Schmidt — July 22, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  4. As a teenager, the thing that really got me hooked was the first time I heard Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, and soon after that his cello concerto. I was mostly listening to heavy metal and other “dark” music at the time, because I had your typical teen angst brewing… Shostakovich opened my eyes to all the amazing worlds classical music can hold, and his music was my gateway into so much more.

    My entrance into opera came with a deep falling-in-love with Bernstein’s “Candide” when I first heard it at age 18, and then moving into more and more “legit” operatic repertoire from there.

    Comment by Scott — July 22, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  5. What hooked me on classical music? Two without a doubt: Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, performed by Rudolf Serkin with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. Also singing Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers,” and listening in college to Mahler’s 4th Symphony with Reri Grist as the soloist. Beverly Taylor

    Comment by Beverly Taylor — July 21, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

  6. I was exposed to classical music through my parents (who often tuned in WPR) and my school music program, but it never really grabbed me until my senior year of high school in the mid-1980s. I happened to get a cassette of George Szell conducting Beethoven’s 4th and 5th symphonies, and that was the first recording I really listened to intently. That led me to raid my dad’s recording library, purchase my own cassettes, and tape things off the radio. Now I have 1300 CDs and over 28,000 tracks on iTunes.

    Comment by Steve Kurr — July 21, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    • Hi Steve,
      It is hard to beat George Szell in Beethoven (or Mozart and Haydn). So I completely understand your experiences. Beethoven’s Fifth still is like a force of nature unto itself. It demands that you listen. You simply cannot ignore it. And the architecture is so tight that it makes you understand its structure. Forget the cynics who say we hear it too often. To hear it often is to learn how to fell and how to think.
      Thank you for reading and being so honest in telling about the formative experiences that a conductor himself went through during his early years with classical music.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 21, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  7. Almost the only “classical” piece I heard before high school was Brahms’ “Lullaby.” In high school I bought a cheap record player and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Shortly after I purchased Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and a complete set of the 9 Beethoven Symphonies through Book of the Month Club. All of these were wonderful, but early on the 6th by Beethoven was a favorite. Later, and still, it became the 9th. Excerpts from “Swan Lake” and later the Van Cliburn recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 ravished me — and 999,999 other people. And Yes, I am old enough to remember when it first came out.
    Some opera is ravishing and some I can live without. If I had to chose one song it would be Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon,” though in another mood perhaps “Nessun Dorma.”

    Daryl Sherman

    Comment by Daryl Sherman — July 20, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

    • Hi Daryl,
      Your choices hit a lot of the right nights — at least as far as my own experience is concerned.
      I too loved some of the Beethoven symphonies and especially the Dvorak New World. Still do.
      And I still adore Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky. No one has ever played it better for money.
      I agree with your two opera choices — I generally love the arias and special moments more than entire operas. But I would also add some of the best of “La Boheme” and “Tosca” as well as selections from his shorter, less well-known operas.
      Thank you for reading and replying so candidly and in such detail,
      Happy listening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 21, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  8. Ho – I must disagree about young people not falling in love with baroque music. I remember listening with my father to a Brandenburg Concerto, and telling Dad that Bach was a genius. I must have been about 5. It’s the first sentence I remember saying, ever. I haven’t changed my mind.

    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — July 20, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    • Hi Marika,
      Well, I can’t tell yet if you are the exception to the rule,
      or typical.
      One other person mentioned Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
      So maybe Baroque music can or does appeal to young people.
      But most of the responses seem to agree with my experience: That younger people IN GENERAL people prefer classical music with drama and straightforward emotional content, especially at the beginning of their listening and playing experiences.
      So for the moment, anyway, I will stand by my generality for what it is worth, and also congratulate you for your early recognition of Bach.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

  9. I am not musical but my parents were, so I tapped their 78 rpms for “The Nutcracker” and “Scheherazade,” proof positive that music is, indeed, magical.

    Comment by Michael Muckian — July 20, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    • Hi Mike,
      That’s a great start — two very big and colorful, tuneful works.I think they gave you a taste for the exotic too.
      Another person also mentioned The Nutcracker.
      My first big Tchaikovsky love was Van Cliburn’s recording of the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor — the first classical album that was a million-copy seller. So a lot people agreed with me!
      Thanks for letting us know.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 9:17 am

  10. Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” on ’78s — before the days of LPs — the only classical recording I can remember my parents owning. As a young child, I often listened to, and danced to it. Aside from simple Bach pieces assigned by my piano teacher, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor blew me away when I was about 11. It was the theme of a Sunday morning radio program. Who wouldn’t respond to those majestic chords and the brilliance of the piece? Although my mother tuned in to the Met on Saturday afternoons, my first live opera was “Rigoletto,” performed by the Baltimore Civic Opera around 1953. I remember Rosa Ponselle, by then an aging diva, sitting regally in a nearby box.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — July 20, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    • Hi Ann,
      The Nutcracker is evergreen precisely because it is so irresistible.
      And the Bach is almost Romantic enough that of course its drama and lushness appeal to young listeners.
      Plus many of us saw and heard it used in the orchestration by Leopold Stokowsky in the Walt Disney landmark film “Fantasia.”
      But “Rigoletto” — not that is maturity at a young age.
      Thanks for telling us.
      Cheers and happy listening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 9:21 am

  11. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony — I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Opera — none, really; I’ve never much cared for it, though many set pieces are wonderful. Mostly too overwrought for me.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — July 20, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    • Hi Susan,
      I came to the Prokofiev symphony (his first, form his student days) much later but also loved the wit of the Haydn pastiche.
      And I share your feeling about opera being overwrought. It is just too grand for me.
      Plus, I usually find the plots just melodramatic and unbelievable.
      Many operas are also way too long.
      As a whole, I find, the genre is too ripe — like fruit past its prime that is too soft and juicy and mushy to eat and enjoy or nourish you.
      But many, many others disagree.
      Opera just keeps growing precisely because of the theatrical and dramatic, narrative and visual elements.
      Me, I’ll take solo instruments and chamber music and then symphonies and concertos.
      Cheers and thanks!

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 8:56 am

  12. In classical, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”; in opera, “Carmen.”

    Comment by Renee — July 20, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    • Hi Renee,
      Great works all — and somewhat unusual for a young beginner.
      Except for the Mozart and the Vivaldi and, well I guess, also the Bizet.
      Thanks for sharing.
      You good taste in music continues to this day.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 9:00 am

      • I played viola in my high school orchestra, and two of the pieces we learned were “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and “The Four Seasons.” I only joined the orchestra (no musical training required) to get out of a typing class, and was instantly hooked and stayed on for four years. As for “Carmen” I discovered it after seeing the film “Carmen Jones.” I liked the music so much, I looked up Bizet in an encyclopedia (remember those!), and found the film was based on an opera. I later found the Callas version in my local library, and loved it.

        Comment by Renee — July 21, 2013 @ 6:39 am

  13. Sibelius 2 (last movement) was one of the first for me. For opera, Le Nozze di Figaro.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — July 20, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      Great pieces to start with.
      I too was deeply moved by the Sibelius Second — until I heard the final movement of the Sibelius Fifth which totally blew me away and still does.
      I admire your admiration for Mozart’s opera that early.
      I am not a big opera fan, but I adored and still adore Puccini’s “La Boheme,” especially the first act. It strikes me still as the most perfect opera ever composed.
      Keep listening to and making music, and enriching us all.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2013 @ 8:51 am

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