Hi James! You have the most gorgeous journey ahead of you as you choose to enter the world of classical music. Classical music makes us all smarter! Susie pretty much covered everything you need to know about classical music! Beautiful job, Suse!
I think her suggestion to listen to Dennis Lewin's programs is spectacular! Listening to Dennis' programs are about the best thing you can do to immerse yourself in classical music because Dennis not only covers the composers, but also the artists who perform the music, and this man knows whereof he speaks! He's a master teacher as well as a virtuoso artist.
Eric's favorite, Rachmaninoff, is the PERFECT place to start, because you are already familiar with his music, having loved Eric's "All By Myself." Rach's music is representative of the "Romantic Period," (18-25 - 1900) although he bridges Romantic and 20th Century music, having lived 1873-1943. His music, as you already know, is absolutely gorgeous. Listen to his piano concerto #2 and his symphonies. You'll recognize some of the intricate harmonies instantly!
The musical periods you want to first learn about begin at 1600-1750 (Baroque period), which covers, as all the musical periods do and as Susie said, many important geographic areas, most notably Germany (Bach, Handel), France (Lully, Rameau), England (Henry Purcell) and Italy, my favorite, being a string player (Arcangelo Corelli, my fave, Albinoni, Torelli, and all the guys whose last names sound like Italian pasta dishes). The Italian Baroque was "the Golden Age of Strings," because the Cremonese violinmakers Amati and Stradivari made the most gorgeous instruments this side of Heaven. The Torelli trumpet concerto in D Major is one of my favorite pieces, too, and if you like the trumpet, you will adore it. I'm sure Wynton Marsalis must have a recording of it out there somewhere. I adore the Bach Brandenburg Concertos too (there are six--each one gorgeous) and they are for "chamber orchestra," a smaller orchestra intended then to perform in an intimate setting for the kings of Europe.
After Baroque, the Classical period is 1750-1825, and features a host of composers from every country, but again Germany brought us Haydn and his pupil, Mozart (the genius!). Haydn wrote 104 symphonies (my favorite of all to play and hear is #104, "The London"--you'll love it!). Mozart took what he learned from Haydn and refined it with unparalleled genius. I read in the Bible that when we quit the earth, our spirit (in Hebrew, "ruahh") goes back to God, and he instills ruahh into newborns from his "pool." I've always thought after reading this that our Eric received some of Mozart's AND Rachmaninoff's ruahh. I've not known a musician with the genius of Mozart besides Eric. And he's so inspired by Rachmaninoff I don't think my idea is a stretch at all. Classical music is very light and transparent in texture, compared to the other periods, even Baroque. Whereas staccato (short) notes on string instruments in the Baroque period are played on the string (the bow stays into the string) and played actually INTO the string with pressure (heavy), the Classical staccato notes on string instruments are bounced lightly OFF the string (spiccato bow stroke), giving the music a much lighter, sprightlier texture. So any violinist playing the Mozart or Haydn concertos (or their pieces) has to play absolutely pristinely CLEAN, (perfectly in tune and NO mistakes at all!), because EVERY NOTE CAN BE HEARD, DUE TO THE LIGHT TEXTURE OF THE MUSIC. My favorite Haydn Violin Concerto is his C Major and his C Major cello concerto too. My favorite Mozart Violin concerto is the A Major (#5). Other Classical composers are Carl Stamitz (Germany) and Boccherini (Italy).
Beethoven bridged the Classical period with the Romantic period. he was a real rebel, experimenting in ways no one had done before. Many people considered his music to be radical. Although heavier in texture than the music of Haydn, Mozart and the other Classicists Beethoven's music retains the classical structure and his experimentation was mostly harmonic. Of all his symphonies, I love his Pastoral (#6) the best. #9 is monumental, but as a first violinist, I find that my part goes on forever and never stops. As one of my friends once said, "It's a beast," if you're in first violin. Louis (or Ludwig, he's sometimes called) Spohr String Quartets are delightful, Rossini's Overtures (La Gazza Ladra--The Thieving Magpie; The Barber of Seville, to name two) are great. Carl Maria Von Weber (Der Freischutz) and Franz Schubert's symphonies (#5, which I adore, and the Great C Major as well as His #6 (Unfinished). I also adore his Overture to Rosamunde (sometimes called The Magic Harp). The opera was a dismal failure as far as popularity, but the Overture remains to this day. I love playing it and hearing it.
The Romantic composers besides Rachmaninoff, are Robert Schumann (His piano quintet Opus 44--I adore playing it), his symphonies (Spring and Rhenish). I adore his Symphony #2, also fun to play. Of course, Brahms is monumental. His symphonies are amazing. His 1st Symphony has that beautiful and powerful "Dies Irae" moment and I adore playing his Symphony #2 in D Major and his Symphony #4 in e minor. Chopin piano music is exquisite. Dennis Lewin plays Chopin so beautifully. Franz Liszt (Les Preludes), his rhapsodies. Felix Mendelssohn (Symphony #4, "Italian,") and his gorgeous Violin Concerto in E minor. Max Bruch, (Scottish Fantasy for Violin--makes me cry every time I hear it--you can smell the heather in Scotland!) and his gorgeous g minor violin concerto, but his d minor violin concerto is even more beautiful--very reminiscent of the Scottish Fantasy. Giuseppe Verdi opera is a MUST to listen to and will give you the added dimension of how the Romantic period shaped vocal music. Also Puccini! Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in a minor. If you can get your hands on a recording of it by Oscar Levant, you'll have the best performance of it ever made. Oscar is my favorite pianist of all time. Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner are heavier, but you'll really "get" Romanticism in music if you listen to them. Tchaikovsky's symphonies (#6, The Pathetique), Frederick Delius (England) "Walk to the Paradise Garden" from "A Village Romeo and Juliet" is GORGEOUS. Antonin Dvorak (Symphony "From the New World"). Love it! Rimsky-Korsakov "Sheherazade," VERY Romantic in every way. Very "epic," which is what Romanticism is all about in music, as in literature. Jan Sibelius, Finland, "Finlandia" and his symphonies. I love Carl Nielsen's works too (The Four Temperaments and his symphonies, and Little Symphony for Strings). Also, Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis). Sir Edward Elgar (England) wrote some romantic marches (Orb and Scepter, Pomp and Circumstance) and gorgeous orchestra works. Hector Villa-Lobos' Bacheanus Brazilieras (especially #5, find a recording by Marni Nixon, who is the mother of Andrew Gold (Eric Carmen's friend and collaborator). Marni Nixon was THE premier vocalist--she sang for all the major stars and was an AMAZING vocalist in her own right. Claude Debussy (La Mer, and his beautiful gossamer piano piece, Claire de Lune), bridges Romantic and 20th Century periods too.
You already know Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. 20th Century Classical Music--there you go! Aaron Copland, who taught Bernstein. His Appalachian Spring, "Rodeo," just beautiful music. George Gershwin (find Oscar Levant's recordings) of Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F. His Porgy and Bess (opera) is gorgeous. Benjamin Britten (England).. Paul Hindemith (Symphonic Metamorphosen, Mathis de Mahler), Bela Bartok (Hungary), Howard Hanson (Song of Democracy), Igor Stravinsky (The Firebird) and Prokofiev (Violin concerto in g minor--just gorgeous). You've probably already heard Peter and the Wolf. Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary), his Hary Janos Suite.
That's a start! Susie really went into detail. Go on Facebook and find Dennis Lewin's cds for sale. He is a gifted virtuoso pianist and you will just love his recordings. I have his cd and nobody plays Debussy's Claire de Lune like Dennis.
Welcome to the world of classical, James! You're just gonna love it here!