Nathan Shirley: Videos — untapped potential

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 a 5- 31smasterclass (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:

Here is another of the few brilliant classical music videos, this one from the 1976 film Allegro non troppo:
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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:

My own approach combining a visualization of sheet music with the performance:
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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:

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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

    I was reading this thinking about exactly what Nathan mentions in the last paragraph of this post. When I was looking for videographers to help me with a videopoem I was working on (which includes a 5-part vocal score) I had no lack of responses. Students to video artists to professionals were all interested in working on something that was different from the usual film work they do. Though I wouldn’t call the film or my music for it “classical” by any means, you can find it on Vimeo by googling Lia Pas and susurrations .

  2. says

    Submit any of these on tumblr and I’ll happily post any classical music videos:

    I’ve also done a lot of work with filmmakers as a composer myself, and produced several films of my own pieces, both with independent narratives, and focusing on the performance itself. It’s always great to see different approaches to classical music and film.

    • says

      Thanks, Kevin. I’ll look at your Tumblr page. Curious to see your videos. So many things happening in this field! So much to know about, be inspired by.