25 Essential Classical Pieces to Know
This was originally posted on my old blog on April 15, 2020.
I can't tell you how often I ask a question like this in a lesson:
Have you heard of the composer Tchaikovsky?
The answer from the student is no.
Then I ask, Have you heard this? as I play the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker.
The answer is always yes.
That once happened 3 times in a week!
Not everyone who studies music is going to embrace classical music, and I don't think that's a bad thing. However, regardless of your genre of choice, there are certain pieces you should know to have a solid foundation as a musician.
I could easily make this a top 100 list, and I may do some 25 "more pieces" posts in the future, but I wanted to start with 25 pieces that I think you should know in many cases almost by accident. These are pieces that have at some point become part of culture through frequent performances, inclusion in movies/TV/commercials, or by some other means. I'm not including pieces like Beethoven's Für Elise, which most of you will play yourself, but the large and grand pieces that you should just know the composer and title of when you hear it. Most of these pieces are for orchestra.
I would encourage you to listen to 1 piece a day. You can find them on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, or Amazon. These are listed alphabetically by composer.
1. J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 - You've heard this around Halloween. It's an organ piece, but there is a terrific orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski that was used in Disney's Fantasia (1940). As my students get more advanced, I at least have them learn a version of the Toccata that was transcribed by Louis Brasson. On the organ, the version most often recommended is a 1988 recording by Hannes Kästner.
2. Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings - Samuel Barber is quite possibly my favorite classical composer, or one of the top few! This is not his best work, but it is one of the most heartwarming and saddest pieces of music that he wrote when he was young. This has been used in the movies Platoon, The Elephant Man, and many other films and television episodes. Recommended recordings: New York Philharmonic (Thomas Schippers conducting) from 1965, and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
3. Ludwig Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 - You know it as Beethoven's 5th. There are 4 movements, and the 1st movement is super-famous, but the other 3 movements are really good with the last one being pretty famous on its own. It goes from dark and foreboding to a big happy fanfare. Recommended Recordings: Vienna Philharmonic (conducted by Carlos Kleib er), Berlin Philharmonic (Von Karajan)
4. Ludwig Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - This is the origin of "Ode to Joy" which happens in the last movement. Don't skip ahead. It's an hour-long for the whole symphony, but it's worth the trip. This is a piece that literally CHANGED how every piece of music was composed afterwards and ushered in a whole new era of music! Recommended recordings: Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (1962), Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic (2015)
5. Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances - This is tricky. Brahms' most famous pieces are not nearly his best, but these Hungarian Dances are fun. There are 21 of them, but they are short. If you want to just get to the essential ones, listen to #4, 5, 6, 7, and 17. There are so many versions, but the original is for 4-hand piano duet. (Recommended recording: Naxos label of Brahms Four-hand Piano Music Volume 2 from 1997) However, check out any of the various orchestral versions as well (too many to recommend).
6. Aaron Copland: Rodeo suite - So many choices from this American composer, but this is an exciting introduction. If it sounds like Western Movie music, keep in mind that Copland invented it. Recommended recordings: Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic or Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony.
7. Frederick Chopin: Grand Valse Brillante, op. 18 - THE piano composer of all time! People wrote for the piano before Chopin, but Chopin (pronounced Show-pan) dedicated his entire career to piano music. There are so many famous pieces of music, but let me give you one that you're very likely to hear before you play it. Watch pianist Valentina Lisitsa play it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LG-E4PVGQSI
8. Claude Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun - In my mind there are 3 pieces of music that changed classical music forever after they premiered, and they're all on this list. I mentioned Beethoven's 9th symphony. This is the 2nd one. Before this piece, orchestra music was getting bigger and without restraint. Debussy introduced new harmonies and radically new ways of combining instruments. My personal favorite recording is on the Philips label, a 2-disc set of orchestral music by Debussy conducted by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertebouw Orchestra.
9. Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" - in the late 1800s, Dvorak visited from what is now the Czech Republic to the United States. He loved his trip here, and composed many pieces in celebration. This is the most famous. All 4 movements are wonderful, but the 2nd movement (Largo) is the most famous. Recommended Recordings: Berlin Philharmonic (Kubelik) and my personal favorite: Charles MacKerras and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
10. George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue - This is a piano concerto (see the Rachmaninoff piece for an explanation). Gershwin crossed classical with jazz in a way that has still never been surpassed. Recommended recording: Earl Wild performing with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler
11. Edward Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 - This is originally incidental music for a play, and there is a 2nd suite as well, but this first collection of 4 pieces are the ones that I guarantee you've heard at least 2 of them before. (I had a hard time finding recommended recordings, but there are so many great ones to choose)
12. George Frederick Handel: Water Music - Technically two. I'm not about to send you to the 3-hour Messiah, but you must listen to the Hallelujah Chorus from that piece if you haven't. Water Music is a collection of small-ensemble pieces written to be played on a royal ship. They are some of the most famous and accessible of Baroque pieces ever. (My favorite recording is from Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra.
13. Gustav Holst: The Planets - Do you like Star Wars? Check out this piece that was written 60 years before Episode IV, and was a huge inspiration on the sound. Recommended Recording: Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1998. For slower but with great power and sound quality, try John Eliot Gardiner with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
14. Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 - If Chopin developed piano music as we know it, Liszt took it to another level. There are orchestral pieces, but the piano version is essential! I recommend that you watch a live performance of Valentina Lisitsa again on YouTube with this one. Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdH1hSWGFGU
15. Felix Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream overture and suite - Like Peer Gynt, it's music from a play that was collected into a suite. If you've ever been to a wedding or watched one in a movie, you've probably heard at least one of the pieces. The entire incidental music is not much longer than the suite, and I'd definitely recommend Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
16. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro - So many pieces of Mozart's to choose, but I'll give you my favorite, and one that doesn't take very long to hear. Again, so many great recordings and hard to find a consensus recommendation.
17. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition - This is originally a very difficult collection of piano music that is almost never heard in its original form. It's worth checking out, but definitely find Maurice Ravel's orchestra version. This is music about paintings in a museum. There are various pieces called Promenade which represent the transition from one to another. Recommended orchestral recording: Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra from 1999. Recommended Piano Recording: Michael Pletniv.
18. Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf - Again, a great composer and this is not nearly his best work, but this is a perfect introduction. Make sure you find a version with a narrator. If you search, I bet you'll find a narrator you know. Many famous actors have done this, including John Gielgud (my favorite), Sean Connery, Boris Karloff, David Attenborough, and more.
19. Sergei Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 2 - The composer's name also spells like Rachmaninov. A concerto is a piece for solo instrument (in this case, piano) and orchestra. Rachmaninov wrote 4 large pieces for this combination, but this is the most memorable. Also, a great story! He was devastated from a negative review of his first symphony, and didn't compose anything for 2 years. A psychiatric therapist was able to heal him, and the music he wrote in the following year is some of his best starting with this piece! Recommended recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy playing with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin
20. Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 - I actually recommend the whole ballet, which isn't very long, but this suite will give you a nice introduction. Ravel is considered a master of the orchestra. Without his innovations, the early Disney scores would not sound the way they do. There are a number of recommended recordings from orchestras and conductors I previously recommended on other works, but try Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 2011 for a highly recommended recording.
22. Franz Schubert: Ave Maria - Many versions of this. Schubert has larger and more important works, but this is a nice intro and probably the shortest work on the list.
23. Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra - You've absolutely heard the first minute of this, but probably not the remaining 29. It's all very good! I recommend Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.
24. Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring - This is the 3rd piece that changed music forever. This piece and the ballet choreography that went with it caused a riot in its 1913 premiere. It's an acquired taste, but stick with it. It's influenced so much of the past 100 years. The expert for Stravinsky is Robert Craft, so any of his recordings are good, but Bernstein also does a great job.
25. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite - Now back to full circle. I could come up with 10 essential pieces for this composer alone, but let's bring it back to where I started. Once again, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony is highly recommended.
I've left out quite a bit. At some point in the near future, I will have to follow up. If you listen to all of these, let me know which pieces you liked, loved, or didn't like. And definitely let me know if you've already listened to all of them before, or let me know when you do.
If you'd like to hear examples of all of these pieces as I talk about them, check out Episode 17 of The Musician Toolkit podcast!