My First Classical Music Playlist

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Illustration by James MayhewThere is a BIG hall filled with hundreds of people. They are just getting comfortable in their seats when the musicians walk onto the stage, carrying instruments. There are the string instruments: the violins, violas, cellos and large double basses, which are heavy to carry. There are the brass instruments: horns, trumpets, trombones and a tuba. And there are the woodwind instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The percussionists walk onto the stage too, but they are not carrying anything because their instruments – drums, triangles, timpani, xylophone and bells – are already set up.

The musicians sit in their places, making a semi-circle on the stage and leaving a space in the front for the conductor. Then you can hear a long, clear note – an ‘A’ – from the oboe. All the musicians in the orchestra copy that note, making sure they are all in tune.

When they are quiet and ready, the conductor walks onto the stage, carrying with him the little stick called a baton. He steps up onto the podium so that he’s a bit taller, bows to the audience, and everyone claps. He turns around to face his orchestra and lifts up his baton. Everyone is silent. All the musicians are looking at that stick, with their instruments ready. Suddenly, down it goes and the whole orchestra starts to play! The concert has begun!

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)

1. William Tell: Overture (Finale)

Keyword: Galloping

A boy stands by a tree with an apple on his head. Cruel soldiers have told his father, William Tell, to shoot an arrow through the apple. If William refuses, father and son will both die. William shoots. The arrow goes straight through the apple and doesn’t touch the boy! This music has often been used in cowboy films when the hero is galloping to the rescue.

Performers: Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550236


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

2. Swan Lake: Valse

Keyword: Dance

It’s young Prince Siegfried’s birthday. At his birthday celebrations he watches the villagers dance a waltz for him. His mother will come along later and tell him that he can have a good time now but he needs to hurry up and choose a wife!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553271


Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

3. The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in E major, RV 269, ‘Spring’: I. Allegro

Keyword: Birds

Hear the birds chirping away as spring comes after the long winter, bringing the sun and new green shoots on the trees. Life comes to the countryside.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.553219


John Adams (b. 1947)

4. Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Keyword: Click

Hang on to your hats, you are going for a ride along rails: straight to start with, now bending left, now right… through different places, with the wind blowing in your face. It’s a real thrill!

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559031


Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

5. Berceuse, Op. 16

Keyword: Lullaby

Time to be quiet as you let the music move around you. The tune on the violin wanders gently along, and the piano supports it like an older brother or sister.

Performers: Dong-Suk Kang, violin; Pascal Devoyon, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550906


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

6. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067: VII. Badinerie

Keyword: Sparkle

The silver sound of the flute sparkles in the air. Can you keep up with it as it shoots to a high note, then back to the melody? The flautist is very quick with his fingers on the keys as he blows all the little notes: just try whistling it!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554609


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

7. Symphony No. 5 in C minor: I. Allegro con brio

Keyword: Famous

This is probably the most famous bit of classical music in the world. It is the first part of the Fifth Symphony by the German composer Beethoven. Tap the opening rhythm with your finger on a table in time to the music: Da-da-da-DAAAAH, Da-da-da-DAAAAH! Can you spot it coming back again and again from different instruments?

Performers: Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.554061


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

8. Peer Gynt Suite No. 1: IV. In the Hall of the Mountain King

Keyword: Trolls

In Norway the young Peer Gynt dreams that he enters a mountain cave. There, sitting on a throne, he finds the Mountain King surrounded by trolls and other little monsters. The trolls see Peer Gynt and call out, ‘Kill him!’ Peer Gynt runs, hides and then escapes.

Performers: Norrköping Symphony Orchestra; Mats Rondin

Taken from Naxos 8.557426


Béla Bartók (1881–1945)

9. Romanian Folk Dance No. 2

Keyword: Folk

A pretty little folk dance played on the piano. It comes from the country of Romania, where years ago it would probably have been played on a violin. Men and women in special Romanian dress would dance the steps together.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554718


Béla Bartók (1881–1945)

10. Romanian Folk Dance No. 3

Keyword: Mystery

This little folk dance on the piano is from Romania too. But listen to how magical and mystical it sounds. It’s almost spooky!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554718


Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

11. Trumpet Concerto: III. Finale: Allegro

Keyword: Showman

After the introduction, the trumpeter stands up in front of the orchestra with the trumpet held high and plays this fun melody, with all its twiddles. There are lots of people playing in the orchestra but you can easily hear the solo trumpet.

Performers: Jürgen Schuster, trumpet; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.570482


Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

12. Hungarian Dance No. 5 (orch. Schmeling)

Keyword: Energy

In Hungary a long time ago, the men danced in black boots while the women danced in red boots with flouncy skirts. They all whirled around full of energy.

Performers: Budapest Symphony Orchestra; István Bogár

Taken from Naxos 8.550110


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)

13. The Carnival of the Animals: The Swan

Keyword: Gliding

The swan glides silently along the surface of the water without any effort. All you see is a body covered in pure white feathers, the long neck elegantly held, and its coloured beak. It leaves only a few ripples behind.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335


Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)

14. Étude in G flat major, Op. 25 No. 9 ‘Butterfly’s Wings’

Keyword: Flutter

The butterfly dodges from flower to flower, this way and that. It hardly ever flies in a straight line, so you never know where it is going.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554528


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

15. Children’s Corner Suite: Golliwog’s Cakewalk

Keyword: Jerky

Listen carefully, and you will hear three sections in this piano piece. 1: A jerky, jazzy dance. 2: A slower section: it wanders around, as if it could go anywhere. 3: The jazzy tune is back again!

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555800


Paul Dukas (1865–1935)

16. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (extract)

Keyword: Magic

The boy – the apprentice – has been left in the Sorcerer’s room to do chores. But he is fed up with collecting buckets of water and tries some magic: he orders a broom to do it instead. It works! But the broom is soon out of control: it just keeps going and the boy can’t stop it. There is water everywhere! He tries chopping the broom in two but the two pieces become two whole brooms… then more and more… Eventually the Sorcerer returns and breaks the spell. The boy’s head hangs low.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.554066


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

17. Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 No. 8

Keyword: Fiery

This dance is called a furiant. Fiery! Playing it is an orchestra of around 80 musicians with flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, brass, percussion and lots of string instruments: violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Sometimes you can hear just one or two instruments, and sometimes the whole lot. Fiery!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdeněk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550143


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

18. The Magic Flute: Papageno’s Song

Keyword: Pipes

Papageno is a bird-catcher. He is dressed in colourful bird feathers so that he looks like a bird. He plays the pan-pipes, so he can imitate the songs of birds. (Can you hear the little high notes that he keeps playing on his pipes?) He is not very happy because he doesn’t have a wife, and this is what he is singing about: if only he could catch a wife as easily as he can catch birds. But he doesn’t seem to have the right kind of net for catching a wife!

Performers: Georg Tichy, Papageno; Budapest Failoni Chamber Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.660030-31


Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)

19. Peter and the Wolf: The Cat

Keyword: Clarinet

We have another bird-catcher here! The cat (the clarinet) slinks through the grass, looking for a bird to catch. It sees one. But just before the cat can pounce, the bird (the flute) flies up into the tree. From the safety of the tree, the bird can make as much bird noise as it likes!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

20. Divertimento in F major, K. 138 ‘Salzburg Symphony No. 3’: III. Presto

Keyword: Strings

Four musicians sit in a semi-circle: violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello. They are making music together, like four good friends chatting away to each other.

Performers: Éder Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550543


Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)

21. Petrushka: Russian Dance

Keyword: Spiky

Petrushka is a Russian puppet made of straw. He can only move when someone pulls his strings. But one day, life breathes into his legs and his arms and his body. He finds he can walk and dance by himself, and he can feel things!

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557500


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)

22. The Carnival of the Animals: The Elephant

Keyword: Lumbering

The large elephant lumbers across the land, his trunk swaying. Lifting his feet takes a lot of energy, but he gets into a rhythm as he walks through the grass. Here, the double bass, the largest of the string family in the orchestra, is the elephant.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335


Robert Schumann (1810–1856)

23. Scenes of Childhood: Of Foreign Lands and People

Keyword: Piano

The composer Robert Schumann is remembering when he was a boy. In this gentle piece, the pianist’s right hand plays the melody while the left hand plays the accompaniment. Try listening just to the left hand accompaniment, underneath the melody – you can count ‘1–2–3, 1–2–3’ all the way through.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550784


Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)

24. The Golden Age Suite: III. Polka

Keyword: Quirky

A polka is a dance – but what a crazy polka this is! It’s so strange that it’s funny. The clarinet starts it off, all jerky. Then the xylophone goes bonkers too. Then other instruments start joining in the fun. Suddenly there’s a big brass chord. The tuba and the snare drum try to get into the mood, but the whole thing finishes!

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee

Taken from Naxos 8.553126-25


John Williams (b. 1932)

25. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry’s Wondrous World

Keyword: Film

You are sitting in the cinema. There is a big screen in front of you, and Harry Potter is there with all his friends. And just as important is the music: the whole orchestra bringing to life ‘Harry’s Wondrous World’!

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Carl Davis

Taken from Naxos 8.570505


Note writer: Nicolas Soames

Music selection and ‘My First’ series editor: Genevieve Helsby