10 pieces of classical music everyone should know

Don't be that person who says their favourite piece of classical music is Phantom of the Opera.
Don't be that person who says their favourite piece of classical music is Phantom of the Opera. (Jeff Pachoud/Getty Images)

Are you the kind of person who appreciates multiple genres of music?

Being familiar with the classics in any genre is a factor in one's overall cultural awareness. In jazz, there's Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight. In country, Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire. In R&B, everyone should know Gladys Knight and the Pips' Midnight Train to Georgia. Notorious B.I.G.'s Juicy is a hip-hop classic; Michael Jackson's Billie Jean is one of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Classical music is a tougher nut to crack, not only because it has centuries of history behind it, but also because it seems classical music lovers belong to an exclusive club, throwing around terms like partita, singspiel and von Karajan.

For the classical curious, cutting through the mystique may be a challenge, but we're here to help. Don't be that person who says their favourite piece of classical music is Phantom of the Opera. Get to know the following works, and build your classical music foundation.

Here are 10 pieces of classical music everyone should know.

1. J.S. Bach: Suite No. 1 in G major for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007

Everyone should know at least one work by J.S. Bach, considered by many to be the greatest composer in history. The Suite No. 1 for unaccompanied cello is a 15-minute distillation of everything that makes Bach's music awesome: inventive harmonies, mind-blowing counterpoint and — always in Bach — something spiritual.

The first movement, Prelude, is well known from its use in film, but all seven movements combine to make a varied, satisfying, even transcendent listening experience.

We're partial to these excerpts played by Johannes Moser:

Further listening:

J.S. Bach: Partita in C minor, BWV 826
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks

2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

"Da-da-da-daaaa." The opening theme of Beethoven's Fifth has become a pop culture cliché for "things just got real." (Beethoven's biographer described it more poetically by saying, "That's how destiny knocks at your door.")

But this symphony has more to offer beyond those ominous opening measures. The intensity of the first movement casts a long shadow over the slow second movement, whose sweet lyricism is never allowed to shine for long. The third movement is incredibly tense and leads directly — dramatically — into the fourth movement, which is probably the most heroic music ever written (24:40 in the video below). Make it your soundtrack the next time you run 10 kilometres, hand your term paper in on time, find jeans that fit, don't have cavities, etc.

Enjoy this performance from the 2012 BBC Proms:

Further listening:

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

3. Franz Schubert: 'Du bist die Ruh,' D. 776

Singers and accompanists often say a song recital is the purest form of musical expression. "Art song offers musical drama without any packaging," explains collaborative pianist Erika Switzer. "It suits the moments in life when you crave raw, unadulterated musical communication. Art song is to opera what Adele is to Madonna: the singer-songwriter of the classical world."

The classical song repertoire is dominated by German lieder and French mélodies, and one's enjoyment of the music is definitely enhanced by an understanding of the words.

There's no better place to start than Schubert. He wrote more than 600 Lieder and there isn't a dud among them. Here's his most popular song, performed by mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and pianist Gerold Huber. (Follow the text and translation here.)

Further listening:

Duparc: "Chanson triste"
Schumann: "Mondnacht"
Tchaikovsky: "Why?"

4. Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1, Op. 25

Chamber music sometimes gets a bad rap. It doesn't have the sheer power of orchestral music, nor the narrative aid of lyrics, nor is there a conductor with star appeal to give it a personality. Some people say it's boring. It's not.

Like their jazz-playing cousins, chamber musicians need to be totally attuned to each other, and there's no safety net. Each player is vital to the success of the performance. That energy is transmitted to the audience.

Brahms's chamber music — especially the works with piano — have great tunes and momentum that get you out of your seat. The fourth movement of his first piano quartet is a tour de force.

Further listening:

Beethoven: String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1
Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K. 581
Brahms: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 1

5. Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1

Experts agree, Chopin was the poet of the piano. Janina Fialkowska, one of the world's leading Chopin pianists, says, "There is no composer who wrote better for the instrument." Chopin spins such beautiful, singing melodies that pianist Anton Kuerti calls him "the greatest opera composer who never wrote an opera."

If you have ever fallen in love, paddled a canoe on a lake by moonlight, gotten up early to watch the sunrise, eaten an oyster pulled fresh from the sea, cried during a film or had a baby wrap its fingers around your pinky, then you need to pay attention to Chopin. He understands you.

Further listening:

Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Chopin: Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major

6. Georges Bizet: Carmen

Opera is not everyone's cup of tea. As Will & Grace's Will Truman said, "I love the opera. Dressed up, hanging out with fabulous people, drinking champagne. If it weren't for the damned music, it would be a perfect evening!"

Jokes aside, everyone should know at least one opera, and there's none crammed with greater arias, duets and ensembles than Bizet's Carmen. The music is brilliant and it's a great piece of theatre too.

The title role is a terrific vehicle for an accomplished singing actress. Carmen marches to the beat of her own drum. Uninterested in a monogamous relationship with the smitten soldier Don José, she prefers the bohemian life and no-strings-attached thing she's got going with the bull fighter, Escamillo. As always in opera, this love triangle ends badly, but sounds beautiful along the way.

Carmen's Act 1 Habañera is her defining moment:

Further listening:

Duet: "Parle-moi de ma mère" (Act 1)
Aria: "Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre" (Act 2)
Quintet: "Nous avons en tête une affaire" (Act 2)
Aria: "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" (Act 2)

7. Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

You already know its opening measures from the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's worth familiarizing yourself with all 30 minutes of Strauss's symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra).

Strauss was an innovator who painted pictures with an orchestral palette unlike anyone who came before him. The symphonic poems he composed between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I were startlingly modern works.

You don't really need to know all that in order to appreciate Also sprach Zarathustra, although it is helpful to understand that Strauss based his work on a novel of the same name by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In it, Nietzsche introduces the notion of the Übermensch, the heroic, self-mastered individual to whom humankind aspires.

If that all sounds a bit over the top, at least it explains the epic nature of the music. It's a huge workout for any orchestra, and is probably as much fun to play as it is to hear.

Further listening:

Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64
Wagner: Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

8. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Concerto is an elegant name for a composition for instrumental soloist with orchestral accompaniment. There are many great concertos: Sibelius's Violin Concerto, Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto are favourites among young musicians taking part in music competitions.

We recommend Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 as a good place to start exploring the concerto repertoire. (Call it "Rach 2" and sound like a pro.) Rachmaninoff wrote this work around the same time Strauss penned Also sprach Zarathustra, but the two works are worlds apart.

Rachmaninoff's music is unabashedly lush and tuneful, with lots of opportunities for the piano soloist to impress with powerful chords and dazzling finger work. The gorgeous theme of the slow second movement, below, is one of history's greatest melodies. Can you name the famous power ballad that borrowed it?

Further listening:

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

9. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

Has there ever been a piece of music that captured the essence of a nation better than Copland's 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring? Copland's best-known work appeared smack dab in the middle of the American Century, as the 20th was known, and conjures up images not only of vast fields of wheat and the wild frontier, but also the modern city and the age of the automobile. In short, the music creates a tableau of modern American life.

The opening moments of the score depict an awakening — perhaps a sunrise, or maybe the awakening of an entire nation — that never fails to give you shivers.

Further listening:

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Bernstein: West Side Story
Floyd: "Ain't it a Pretty Night" from Susanna

10. Ann Southam: Glass Houses

Everyone should know some Canadian classical music, and Ann Southam's Glass Houses, a set of solo piano pieces composed in homage to minimalist composer Philip Glass, is the perfect introduction. Southam's style of minimalism is more intricate and ornamented than her American counterpart's. While the music is complex, it falls easily on the ear.

Pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico has recorded the full work and, with the composer's permission, released a revised version in 2011.

Further listening:

Mozetich: Postcards from the Sky


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