Primephonic on classical music for curious beginners, Beethoven and beyond

If the celebrations surrounding the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven have piqued your interest in classical music, specialist music streaming service Primephonic hopes to captivate you further with a series of companion booklet downloads.

Mimicking the pamphlets found in CDs, Primephonic has produced a library of PDFs for subscribers which offer expert insight.

The CD-style booklets have been produced in association with music labels Sony, Universal and Harmonia Mundi, as well as hundreds of other specialist labels, and are a world’s first. 

To learn more, TLR talked to Guy Jones, who leads Primephonic’s curation team, responsible for its exhaustive playlists and original digital content. 

Guy Jones is Primephonic’s classical guru

Jones is a self confessed classical obsessive. “Before this, I worked at the London Symphony Orchestra in their digital team,” he tells us. “I believe really strongly in telling people about classical music, and getting people to love classical music as much as I do.” 

Classical is special amongst genres for a number reasons, he argues. “It’s extremely deep and varied for one thing. It literally covers about 1,500 years worth of music, from all over the world like. Yes, it’s a Western thing, but almost every country has its own classical music tradition. Another reason I love it, is because I think it’s misrepresented and misunderstood – I quite enjoy giving people the opportunity to understand and see it and give it a chance!”

For many classical music is a passion, but for others it’s intimidating. Jones thinks he knows why.

“The first problem is it’s huge. Like I said, it spans 1,500 years or so. And that term ‘classical music’ itself is a really frustratingly vague term. It has an equivalent in academia, they call it Western art music, which I think is a lot better. But I don’t think it really matters what you call it. Having one term to describe it is crazy. It’s like saying that hip hop and bubblegum pop and progressive metal are all just modern music, which is like it’s technically true, but it’s not very useful.”

People often think classical music is old, he says. “But composers are still alive and writing…) Jones cites American composer Jennifer Higdon.

Secondly, the sheer variety of styles can also be baffling, he reasons.

“Look at Stravinsky, he had so many different phases, so many different kinds of music, from his ballet Pulcinella, which he wrote during his neoclassical period, to the twelve-tone music he wrote fifty years later, which couldn’t sound more different.”

The term ‘classical music’ itself is a really frustratingly vague term. It’s like saying hip hop and prog metal are ‘modern music’. It’s not very helpful…

Downloadable booklets bridge to gap between CDs and streaming

To help subscribers navigate this cornucopia of riches, Primephonic has developed a sophisticated Search option that divides composers, eras and more.

“It’s a great starting point,” enthuses Jones. “A lot of people will be familiar with names like Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, but maybe less so with conductors or ensembles. Then we also have it broken down by period, so you can listen to Baroque or you can get to the Romantic period, or the 20th century, whatever you want to do…”

The second problem is that classical music is just plain intimidating, he admits. “In a recent survey, 65 per cent of Brits said that they wished they knew more about classical music, which is interesting to me. I don’t know what is stopping people from knowing more about classical music. I think it’s very rare to hear somebody say, ‘I wish I knew more about films’ or ‘I wish I knew more about books’. You just read a book or you go and watch a film. You like some, you don’t like others…”

The lore surrounding classical music is a modern invention says Jones

People feel that they have to kind of know about it in order to enjoy it, he concedes. “I think there’s a couple of reasons for this, one is that the music is often complicated, there are lots of instruments going on at once. I can see how people might feel they need to appreciate music before they can enjoy it. And then there’s the long standing idea of elitism…”

“I can certainly see how the rules of classical can sometimes put people off, but a lot of the rules that you get in concert halls these days, about when to clap and how to dress, all that stuff, is an invention of the last 50 years. In Mozart’s time, people would clap all the way through a concert, they would talk to each other all the way through the opera. As for costs, it costs a lot less to go and see the London Symphony Orchestra than it does to go to Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium. People don’t really call football elitist…”

Primephonic says it goes out of its way to welcome classical newbies. “We have over 300 playlists on the platform, all curated by humans, everything from Renaissance to piano to opera, string quartets, whatever. These are a great way to explore.” 

Beethoven was a grumpy, tempestuous revolutionary

Given it’s Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, Primephonic would seem to be a good place to learn more about the legendary composer?

“Absolutely. For example, Ludvig Van beethoven was the polar opposite of Mozart (another household name from the classical era). Where Mozart was all lightness and major keys, Beethoven was a grumpy, tempestuous revolutionary. You can hear the swagger and confidence in Beethoven’s Fifth (with arguably the most famous four-note opening in music, period). 

“But a personal tragedy struck Beethoven just as he was finding his voice, probably the most cruel and ironic thing that could happen to any musician: the loss of this hearing.  What many people don’t know is how close he came to suicide once he realised that his hearing wasn’t going to come back.”

What many people don’t realise is how close Beethoven came to suicide. We’re really lucky he resolved to keep on living…”

“In 1802, when it became clear that it wasn’t going to improve, he took himself off to a remote village called Heiligenstadt just outside of Vienna, where he wrote a letter to his brothers, which he never sent. It was actually only found after he died, in his personal effects. The letter became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In it, Beethoven writes about how close he is to suicide. In the end he resolves to continue living for and through his music. And we’re really, really lucky that he did, because it’s Beethoven’s later mature works that brought about the winds of change that took us into the Romantic era, with works like the Ninth Symphony…”

To learn more, why not activate a 14-day free trial on Full subscriptions cost £9.99 (Premium) or £14.99 (Platinum) a month. 

About Steve May

Creator of Home Cinema Choice magazine, and editor of The Luxe Review, Steve muses and reviews for Trusted Reviews, T3, Yahoo UK, Home Cinema Choice, Games Radar, Ideal Home, Louder Sounds, Channel News and Boat International. He’s also the editor of professional home cinema website Inside CI. He's on Twitter and Instagram as @SteveMay_UK

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