Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Hi all

Am posting a piece I wrote a while ago to circulate to those who have a basic liking for western classical music, but are looking to know more about the nuances. Am sharing it on this blog



MANY people listening to western classical music for the first time may find it heavy, or even boring. It often requires patience and perseverance to develop a taste for it, unless one is exposed to some of the more popular and melodious tunes initially—pieces like Johann Strauss Jr’s ‘The Blue Danube’ (an elevator favourite), Beethoven’s 5th symphony (rearranged to a disco sound in ‘Saturday Night Fever’), Mozart’s 25th symphony (used in the Titan watches ad), Mozart’s 40th symphony (adapted by Salil Chowdhury in ‘Itna na mujhse tu pyar badha’) and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (rearranged in the movie ‘Black Swan’).


However, complex as it may appear, western classical music can be appreciated if one knows a few basic fundamentals. Like all genres, it has its rules and techniques. But unlike most genres, there’s absolutely no scope for a musician to improvise or use his own creativity, as the piece HAS to be played the way it was originally written. The feel and expression may change each time, depending on who’s playing it, but the notes and arrangements have to stay the same.


What must one keep in mind to appreciate western classical music? Here are the very basics:
1 Composer and era
While listening to a classical work, the first thing one keeps in mind is the composer and which era he belonged to. After all, the composer is the brainchild of the musical piece, and it is his imagination that musicians are expressing as dictated by him. The five eras in classical music, along with the main composers, are:

a) Baroque period (1600-1770, roughly)—Bach, Vivaldi, Handel. The early music of Haydn came under this era. This era was preceded by European church music and the Renaissance period—a lot of which is termed gospel music these days.
b) Classical period (1770-1815, roughly)—Later Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven. While Haydn is considered a bridge between the baroque and classical eras, Beethoven is seen as a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras
c) Romantic period (1815-1910, roughly)—Later-day Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Johannes Brahms, many others
d) Modern period (1910-1975)—Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg. Charles Ives. Some people feel that though he lived before this era, Wagner’s style of composition had a major influence on modern composers.

e) Contemporary period (1975 onwards)—Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Adams, Karl Jenkins, John Tavener.

There is another school which classifies conductors by country, but that can be done once one is a bit deeper into the music.

2 Conductor
The conductor is the person who leads the orchestra which plays the composer’s music, whether it is live on stage or for a recording. Though all orchestras play the same piece the same way, a good conductor can bring about better tone, texture, colour and feel from the musicians. The best known conductors are Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Barenboim, Antal Dorati, Simon Rattle and India’s very own Zubin Mehta.

3 The type of music
This could be either orchestral/ philharmonic (where many musicians—even 50 or 100—play together) or chamber music. The latter can have a small group of musicians—even 20 or 25—or lesser numbers like solo, duet, trio and quartet. A string quartet, for instance, has two violins, a viola and a cello.

4 The type of composition
The popular ones are:
a) Symphony—This is where a large number of musicians play a pre-composed piece. Symphonies have many violinists, violists and cellists, and a smaller number of bass players, horn players, percussionists, and on many occasions, a pianist.
b) Concerto—Here again, a large number of musicians play together, but the difference is that one musician has a more prominent role. Thus in a piano concerto, the pianist is the soloist who is the backbone of the piece.
c) Quartets, trios, duets and solos—Feature four, three, two and one player, respectively.
d) Sonatas—These are small compositions which are played on instruments (as opposed to cantatas, which are sung).
e) Opera—This is considred another genre altogether, but the base is the same. Here, various singers play the roles of the cast in a story. Each singer has a certain voice range (for men it is bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and counter-tenor, and for women it is alto, contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano). They are backed by an orchestra. Popular opera composers are Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner. Singers of operatic music include Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Maria Callas and Monserrat Caballe.
f) Waltzes, marches, dances—These are akin to Indian light classical music. Usually sprightly and catchy tunes. The most famous waltz composer is Johann Strauss Jr, best known for ‘The Blue Danube’. In the contemporary world, violinist-conductor Andre Rieu is known for his modern interpretations of such tunes, accompanied by a large orchestra.
g) Ballet—Longer pieces written for dance enactments. Popular ballet composers are Tchaikovsky (‘Swan Lake’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’), Profokiev (‘Romeo and Juliet’), and Stravinsky (‘The Firebird’).
h) Choir/ choral music—Many singers sing in harmony, but not for a story situation.

5 Movements

Just like Indian vocal music has the slow vilambit and fast drut, and Indian instrumental music has the alaap, jod and jhala sequence, western classical music is divided into movements, often based on their tempo. Most symphonies have four movements—fast, slow, fast, extra-fast, played in that order. Concertos can have four or three movements—from fast to slow to fast again. Though different names are given to different movements based on their speed, the common ones are adagio (slow), largo (very slow), andante (slow, at a walking pace), allegro (fast), scherzo (very fast) and vivace (lively).

6 Instruments used

Last bust not the least, one must keep in mind the musical instruments used. The most prominent ones used in western classical music are the violin, cello, viola and piano, but on the whole instruments can be characterised into:
a) Stringed instruments—Violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar (lesser used), harp (used more in earlier classical music)
b) Wind instruments—Flute, piccolo, oboe, bassoon, clarinet
c) Brass instruments—French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba
d) Percussion instruments—Timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals
e) Keyboard instruments—Piano, organ, harpsichord

Well, if one keeps these six things in mind, it becomes easier to appreciate western classical music. For those who are keen to make a beginning, one can start with a compilation called ‘100 Greatest Classical Works’ (EMI). Once one has acquired that basic taste, here are 10 album recommendations:

1 VivaldiThe Four Seasons
2 Bach
6 flute sonatas and The Brandenburg Concertos
3 Mozart
Symphony No 25, Symphony No 40 and ‘Eine Klein Nachtmusik’
4 Beethoven
Symphony No 5, Moonlight Sonata, Piano Concerto No 5 (used very well in ‘The King’s Speec’h), Symphony No 9
5 Rimmsky Korsakov
Scheherezade (a great CD for beginners)
6 Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique
7 Johann Strauss Jr
Viennese Waltzes (light tunes – semi-classical in nature). Also called ‘Vienerwaltzer’
8 Tchaikovsky
Swan Lake (another great CD for beginners)
9 Stravinsky
Firebird and The Rite Of Spring
10 Rachmaninnoff
Piano concerto No 2 (pl don’t try his piano concerto No 1)


Pieces one can check on YouTube


1 Maurice Ravel—Bolero (one of the ultimate musical pieces)

2 Mozart25th Symphony

3 Mozart – 40th Symphony

4 Beethoven5th Symphony

5 Johann Strauss JrThe Blue Danube

6 TchaikovksySwan Lake

7 Carl OrffCarmina Buranna (Old Spice ad)

8 WagnerRide of The Valkyries

9 Tchaikovsky5th symphony movement 2 (which inspired John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’)

10 PachelbelCanon in D



Comments on: "An initiation into western classical music" (5)

  1. Well written and informative…

  2. very good information. i am totally new to this system of music. i am carnatic vocalist, doing ph d in notations. can i rely on this information. please contact me if possible.

  3. Prasanna Sarpotdar said:

    Hello, Naren. Really nice information. How about including Hebrides Overture (Op No. 26) -‘Fingal’s Cave’ by Mendelssohn? I keep on listening to the Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan rendition.

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