Resources for the classical music neophyte

compiled by Bill Buffam

This guide is part of the course material for the Classical Music Appreciation class of Chester County Night School. As such, it is of most use to people living in or near West Chester, PA.

Reference Books

Alison Latham (ed): The Oxford Companion to Music
Big, fat and comprehensive. Organized strictly alphabetically, like an encyclopedia. If I limited myself to one reference book, this would be it.

Ted Libbey: The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music
Half the size of the Oxford, but complementary and useful. My second favorite.

Jan Swafford: The Vintage Guide to Classical Music.
Organized by historical period, and by composer within periods. Contains a briefly worded glossary of musical terms. Complementary to the first two.

Classical Music in general


Wikipedia grows organically, so anything I write here will probably be out of date by the time you read it. If you're not already familiar with Wikipedia here is the background to this remarkable resource.

Classical Net

Like Wikipedia, Classical Net is a free, volunteer-supported resource. It covers similar ground to the Night School class by providing guidance for the classical-music neophyte, but also extends to an impressive library of reviews and recommendations.

Others: Google and other search engines will turn up many more classical-music resource sites. Other than the two above, I haven't seen any others worth specifically noting. It's not that other sites don't contain useful and accurate information, but in my estimation they're not as comprehensive as the two above, and show insufficient evidence of the kind of support that will keep them growing and relevant. If you're looking for specific classical-music information, the Internet search engines will surely find these sites for you.

Glossaries of musical terms

Wikipedia: terms found on printed music

Comprehensive and accurate, but limited as advertised to terms you'll find on printed music.

Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary

Interactive, comprehensive and accurate. It has sound clips, and audio pronunciation of the terms. It's the best glossary I've found anywhere on the Web. There are others out there, but beware—my experience is that the ones topping Google's response to "glossary musical terms" are very poor, with many misleading and inaccurate explanations. No, I'm not going to name names.

Program notes on classical works

The amount of Web information on classical works grows all the time. Some orchestras are beginning to retain program notes to their concerts long after the concert has taken place, and some of these notes are outstanding (notably those of The National Symphony Orchestra). Wikipedia is also a very good source, and is well worth a mention here because it rarely shows up in the top-ranked hits of a Google search. Otherwise, Googling the title of the work, with or without the term "program notes" usually unearths something of value, although you may have to do some heavy sifting.

Library Resources

Chester County Library

The Chester County Library has a good collection of classical CDs. A random sampling suggests that you'll be able to find most of the works I list in the beginner's repertoire. Miniature scores are not straightforwardly available in this library, although the library will obtain almost any score (if it's available) through inter-library loan.

West Chester University Library

West Chester University has an excellent music library, with many CDs and printed scores. Members of the public are extended full borrowing privileges for books and scores for a $20 annual fee. No, you can't borrow audio materials, but you can listen to them in the library itself.

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania music library has the most comprehensive set of music resources in our geographic area. Although borrowing privileges are available to the general public, they come with such a steep fee that it's not really an option for all but the most dedicated (or rich). However, visitors may freely use the available resources within the confines of the library itself. Visitor access is, however, limited to weekdays before 10 pm, and a photo id is required.

Purchasing recorded music

Amazon is the most user-friendly site for finding CDs. What sets Amazon apart is its reader-reviews section, which allows you to narrow down the choice of which of the (usually many) available recordings to buy. Amazon also provides a broker service for other sellers of new and used CDs, which usually result in substantial savings over the price you'd pay if buying from Amazon directly.

Classical Net lists additional sources for purchasing recorded music.

Local orchestra concerts

I have listed here what I consider to be the local orchestras of most potential interest to my Night School students.

Professional orchestras

The Philadelphia Orchestra should need no introduction. Our home-town orchestra is truly world class.

The National Symphony Orchestra performs in Washington DC's Kennedy Center. Like the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National is a world-class ensemble. One of these days, treat yourself to a pleasant train ride down to DC for a change of scene.

The Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra performs at the Kimmel Center, although in a smaller hall than the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Pottstown Symphony performs approximately eight concerts each season in Pottstown, PA and neighboring communities.

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra performs in the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE.

The Delaware Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Bucks County, peforms three concerts each season in Bensalem, PA.

The Kennett Symphony performs several concerts each season in various venues in Chester County. This orchestra is listed here for completeness only. Its concert repertoire is more in keeping with an orchestral "pops" format than what one would normally expect from a symphony orchestra.

Student Orchestras

The Curtis Institute Orchestra gives several concerts a year. Yes, they're students, but this is a very good orchestra. These are the musicians who will be filling the chairs of our professional orchestras next year or shortly thereafter. Curtis students also perform solo and small-group recitals (free admission) throughout the academic year. Check the Curtis event calendar regularly for upcoming performances.

The orchestras of West Chester University and Temple University perform several concerts each season.

Community Orchestras

The Main Line Symphony Orchestra performs three concerts each season in Wayne, PA.

The Delaware County Symphony peforms four concerts each season in Aston, PA.

The North Penn Symphony Orchestra performs five concerts each season in Lansdale, PA.

The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra performs five concerts each season in Drexel Hill, PA.

The Bucks County Symphony Orchestra performs five concerts each season in Doylestonwn, PA

The Old York Road Symphony performs five concerts each season in Abington, PA.

The Immaculata Symphony, whose members are drawn from the community as well as the Immaculata University student body, peforms five concerts each season in Malvern, PA.

The Ambler Symphony gives several concerts a year in Ambler, PA.

TheWarminster Symphony Orchestra gives several concerts a year in Warminster, PA.

The Newark Symphony Orchestra performs four concerts each season in Newark, DE.


What? I've left something out? Horrors! Please tell me about it. My e-mail address is here.