From Nathan Shirley: Videos — untapped potential

[From Greg: Again I’m happy to introduce a guest blogger, our second one, pianist/composer Nathan Shirley. He brings us his favorite classical music videos, and I think it’s a marvelous list, lively, provocative, and — as the best lists of this kind are — highly individual. We’ll save it as a permanent blog sidebar, in the “Resources” section on the right, on the main blog page. This section will expand over time, and I hope will become an archive of ideas and information, useful for anyone interested in the future of classical music. Nathan’s post is the start of that. 

[Others, of course, will have their own video choices! Feel free to tell us about them, in comments or by emailing me. We can have more guest posts on this subject, replies to Nathan or completely new video explorations. And these, too, will be saved as blog sidebars. 

[More guest posts are coming. I said a while ago that I wanted the blog to expand, and I’m just delighted with how that’s happening.]

I’ve spent some time compiling a list of videos I think especially stand out from the very bland standard classical music videos (no easy task to find these!).

Most bigger budget classical music videos are basically just documentations of performances. So they end up looking fine, but certainly nothing special which might better serve the music. They are typically filmed the same way a golf tournament or baseball game would be filmed — everything very well-lit (overly lit, with little or no shadow). Several different camera operators film the action and there is one person switching from camera to camera (wide shot, close-up, different close-up, wide shot, rinse and repeat). The cuts are generally made arbitrarily or at best when there is something visually new happening (not something musically new, often very different things). While there is certainly nothing wrong with this, it doesn’t add anything to compliment the music. Music is after all an art, not a sport. If it is going to be filmed, let the visuals work for the music, or better yet, let them strive towards the same level of artistic expression which the composer and performer have attained.

In the world of popular music this is very common and hugely popular, it’s called the “music video.’ There are countless examples of brilliant music videos which have been made on every budget level conceivable. There are some attempts at this in the classical world, but they are very few and very far between. So, let’s take a look at some.

(By the way, several of my favorite examples from the older generation of performers are not available on YouTube. The reason seems to be that the labels which own the rights to these films have forced YouTube to take down these videos anytime someone uploads them. They are shooting themselves in the foot here as very few people even know these fantastic films exist, and they certainly aren’t going to discover them if they aren’t on YouTube. Even the popular music labels have finally realized YouTube is their friend, when they post music videos they get advertising revenue and also a direct link to iTunes where people flock to download the recordings they’ve just heard.)

First videos from the older generation, starting with one of Alexis Weissenberg:

1- mY8 

I would say this is likely the best classical music performance video out there. Just look at some of those gorgeous shots, the shadows, dark/light, the camera angles, over head panning. These are things you just don’t see. This particular video is especially amazing when you consider the technology they were working with at the time. The cameras were so noisy back then, in order to get these close up shots they had to record the audio separately, then they had to mechanically render the piano silent so that Weissenberg could hear the recording while playing along with it (silently).

Here is the complete video (poor VHS):

And this is one of my own videos, heavily influenced by Weissenberg’s Petrushka film:

This one of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is much more simplistic, and it’s a short little piece. But the film is very nice, notice the lighting. The editing is great, cut right to the music, not arbitrarily like most videos you see. Notice the close up of the foot on the pedal:

Here is a short recording from a masterclass. A masterclass! You will never see a more artistic recording of a5- 31s masterclass (and this is very old), just look at the  beautiful lighting, the closeup of his face, this truly brings to life Alfred Cortot’s music and message:

Speaking of non-performance classical music videos, here is a nice one, of Glenn Gould, documentary style, but still a rarity. A classical musician at practice:

Now here is another Glenn Gould performance turned into a true music video. Nothing could be more simple here and that is what makes it so powerful. Make sure you watch to the end!:

There are other true classical “music videos.” The most famous is Fantasia, but this of course didn’t grow out of the classical music world, but from the commercial world of Disney. And yet parts of the film remain some of the few masterpieces of the genre simply because the genre is practically nonexistent:

9- u-oHere is another of the few brilliant classical music videos, this one from the 1976 film Allegro non troppo:

And here are two very different music videos of my own music. First this one:


This is a modern-day “visualization” of classical music, again, not born out of the classical music world, but these videos are hugely popular on YouTube:

And another of a complete symphony orchestra:

This one is very simple, in fact it doesn’t even use a “real” recording, just cheap midi playback, but it’s quite effective:

15- 5_UMy own approach combining a visualization of sheet music with the performance:

Now let’s take a look at some current good classical music performance videos.

This one, of Hélène Grimaudis very well done, great camera work, nice lighting, etc, but it really feels too much like a commercial for my taste, a bit over the top in some respects. It makes me wonder why Grimaud is acting here, was she coached, was it her idea or is it actually sincere? You can make up your own mind:

This one, of Valentina Lisitsa is more tasteful I’d say. Fairly simple video, but very beautiful lighting and shallow focus:

18- 0i8

And here, this video of Julia Fischer is very nice, very bright, portrait style lighting, but in a good way. The background is minimalistic, but still subtly varied, with dark/light contrasts. The camera work is fairly standard, but very well-edited to the music with a lot of variety and nice tight closeups. (And notice how her dress changes! Very nice subtlety.)

Here is one more of my own, this combines recorded performance with the painting which inspired the composition:

Now let’s go back to one from the earlier generation. This video of Andres Segovia was recorded in an amazingly beautiful setting. The camera work is fairly basic and standard, but the extremely wide shot used at key moments really makes this (plus they are not overly lit, which amplifies the mysterious element of this music):

Even if budgets are very low, I would encourage musicians and managers to seek out collaborations between performers and film professionals (not just videographers who purely cover live events). Many professionals would love to add a classical music film clip to their demo reel. Or, spend a little time at a film school, you’ll find no shortage of aspiring cinematographers and directors with true creativity who would kill to record a professional string quartet, especially if given plenty of artistic freedom. One of the professors might even be willing to oversee such a project, which should ensure a high technical standard.

Nathan Shirley is a composer and pianist writing melodic and accessible, yet complex and subtle music, in the great classical tradition. Drawing inspiration from music of the past, present and all around the globe, he composes modern classical music for people who hate modern classical music.

Learn more at

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  1. says

    There were many interesting videos here to consider.
    A fresh one that I came across today, Anderson & Roe’s transcription of Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig”, has me feeling that a major production as dramatic as the music need not be all that expensive to make. Everything they do here is low tech… just labor intensive.

    • says

      Thanks for the link Rick. I was a little worried at first, but that quickly vanished as I realized where the video was going. Love the piano wire. This is a great example to add to the list! Many thanks.

  2. Mika Cooper says

    One of my favorite cinematic representations of classical music has long been the short film “The Bolero” (1973,, which won the Academy Award for short documentary film in 1974. The actual piece doesn’t begin until almost the halfway point (11:30) of the film. But I regard the introductory material (interviews with Mehta, setting up the performance space, rehearsal footage, etc.) as enacting cinematically that creation of anticipation, that slow build up to climax, that Mehta describes occurring musically in the Ravel piece itself. I was in high school when the film came out (my school acquired a 16mm copy, which I screened several times). But the inspired shots of the dancing wrinkles on the back of Mehta’s jacket as he conducts, intercut with his white cuffs and baton jumping in and out of the frame (19:48-20:30), are visual images that have stuck with me ever since—and until searching for the film just now I hadn’t seen it at all since 1974. If the film doesn’t appeal to you (the music is a separate issue, of course), Nathan, I’d be curious to hear why.

    • says

      Thanks Mika! I’m not sure how I’ve never come across this before, I’m a big fan of Mehta. After a quick scan of this film I’m easily convinced it’s the best video of a symphony orchestra (as far as I’ve seen). I haven’t had time to watch it all yet, but the lighting, the creative shots, all tasteful, all capture the music sublimely. Excellent example.

  3. Nate Festinger says

    In this visual century, I agree — video (and well-done video at that) is crucial for us to start incorporating into what we do. Thanks for the great post and all the inspiration clips.

  4. says

    Fantastic list Nathan, really enjoying watching them!

    As a performer, I’ve received a few ‘gifts’ in the form of fan videos from followers/fans on social media. Perhaps it’s because these video makers have genuine emotional connection to the music, quite a few of them are really fantastic. One of my favourites was this video for my recording of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone (arranged/performed by me on recorder, melodica, toy piano and harpsichord). Enjoy!