I suddenly got in a crazy classical mood and felt like tidying up in my own head in the only way I know how to; by making a list.
Said list ended up being longer than first anticipated, but I have tried to divide the music into clear sections where one can easily find the right genre.
The point of this list though is to provide some starting points for people with ambitions to listen more to music by classical composers (AKA ~my heroes~). In the current ocean of pieces it can be difficult to know where to start (I know I would feel that way about let’s say, rap), and it is always good to follow recommendations from experienced listeners before finding one’s own path.
What is important to remember when listening to classical music, is that it is not like listening to a pop song. You do not instantly know if you like it or not, and the more you get to know it, the more of the details you will notice. Classical pieces get better by the times you explore it, but will reward you even more in return.
This list contains what is in my opinion some of the greatest music ever made. There, I said it. Ready to roll. (Click the titles to access the Spotify or YouTube link.)
Often enjoyed mainly by piano players themselves, I seem to represent the exception. There are thousands of piano pieces out there, and many of them make even me yawn, so I can see why people without much knowledge of piano repertoire might get lost looking for something brilliant. The masterworks do however exist, and in my opinion, they represent some of the most magical pieces of the Romantic era.
One cannot avoid mentioning Franz Liszt, and although many listeners would go straight to Chopin, I have always preferred the former. I used to have a relationship to FL like a fourteen-year-old to Justin Bieber, and I dare say I could sing through the melodies of all these ten minute plus pieces.
Franz Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2
Not only was this my first love within FL’s music, but within classical music overall. I have since then (around 2002) come to realize that this piece is a bit of a cliché in the classical music environment, which is exactly why it’s a great starting point for untrained ears. It’s playful, yet utterly dramatic at times, and being a rhapsody it changes mood and motives all the time, so it’s difficult to get bored. If you still worry about drifting off, there’s always the possibility to put Tom & Jerry’s Cat Concerto, where the piece is (almost) played in its full version, not adding any tones that weren’t there in the first place. One of my personal favorites!
It’s also worth noticing that the rhapsody has been arranged for symphony orchestra, so if you prefer a fuller sound, you have the option. I tend to prefer originals, but this piece is definitely worth listening to in both versions. To the fourteen-year-old me, Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 opened up a whole world of music to me, which basically made my music interest flourish. I don’t know if I would have been a musician today if it had not been for this piece. (Then I would have been a failed and desperate writer instead.)
Franz Liszt – Polonaise Melancolique
When I discovered this piece I got so excited that I made my own arrangement for full orchestra, putting down every single note of the piano into everything from flutes to double basses. (How did I have any friends when I was a teenager?)
The piece is extremely virtuous and dominated by a deeply tragical mood, and is on top of that a bit peculiar, as polonaises are usually happy and light sounding. It is also one of the composer’s less famous pieces, and I still have not managed to listen to it live.
Without stating this as a fact, I seem to get a kind of Russian or perhaps Hungarian folk music vibe from the motives, and the melodies easily carry their listeners into the mysterious twilights of the Eastern Europe of the 19th century, handing us images of gypsy caravans and snow-covered steppes.
Franz Liszt – Ballade no. 2 in Bb minor
Don’t be fooled by the lack of creativity title wise; think of it as Levi’s 501, – good products sometimes sell themselves. The ballade is somehow what I would call heavy, and starts off in the deepest register of the piano, putting the main theme in a range where melodies are very rarely put. I have always thought this piece sounds much more modern than it is (which is one of the reasons I think FL is generally underrated), and it goes from threatening, dark and fast to tender, slow and almost completely silent.
I addition the ballade is extremely virtuous and watching it live is like watching a miracle. Just make sure to sit on the side where you see the fingers of the performer.
I somehow have an attraction towards composers called Franz, and this piece is actually arranged for piano by the Franz above, making it one of my obvious favorites. The piece was originally written for piano and vocals, but FL must have found the melodies so intriguing that he made it into a solo piece for his own favorite instrument.
The title means Serenade and there is even a version in English with the same name, by the absolutely amazing 50s band The Platters, really making it one of the 19th-century pieces that has managed to survive even commercially throughout two hundred years. Quite an achievement.
Ständchen is quite simple musically and basically repeats the same motive time after time but without ever sounding repetitive. It is (as most of the music I enjoy) very sad, kind of romantic, and ends dramatically, after having been built up through all of its six minutes duration.
As a fun fact, I will add another level to my own nerdy-ness and include that I once learned the whole piece by heart, basically jumping over three levels in piano (which is not really my instrument). I still remember my piano teacher’s comment; I don’t understand how you manage to play that piece with that technique. Luckily he understood that the only way to make me practice was to let me play pieces that I loved. Bless him for that.
Øystein Sommerfeldt – Vals til Hege
Gotta include a Norwegian composer on the list, and this short and exercise-like piece is perfect for feeding your general, everyday sadness. It is so insignificant in regards of piano repertoire that it is difficult to find a recording of it, which is an absolute shame, as the melodies are so beautiful that they basically make you want something sad to happen to you so that this can be the soundtrack of your life (I know, I need help).
Eric Satie – Gnosienne no. 1
Having written a bunch of weird, atonal stuff, ES also had a talent for composing beautiful melodies. The Gnosienne has been made famous among non-musicians through movies and series, and provides the perfect background mood for whichever sad situation. The motives are almost banally simple, but even more effective. The piece has also been arranged for classical guitar and works equally well for that.
Louis Gottschalk – Souvenir de Porto Rico
I discovered this lesser-known piece while studying music, as the pianist playing beside me spent months practicing it. I ended up eavesdropping outside his door a whole bunch of times before I finally gathered the courage to knock. I was not sorry. The piece is somehow Romantic-sounding but has a touch of American and Latin folk music, which gives the listener a kind of Chaplin vibe. There are still wonderful Romantic climaxes, but all over this piece is both dramatic and playful at the same time.
The definition of a concerto is a piece with one or more solo players, usually with the orchestra (or alternatively the piano) as a secondary function. Concertos exist for more or less all instruments, but the most famous ones are usually for violin or piano, closely followed by instruments like cello and horn. In my opinion, the best concertos have orchestra parts that play an active role, but there is obviously no truth regarding this. What concertos have in common is that they are virtuous, and therefore often enjoyed by listeners that are not bothered by so-called “show off phrases”.
Edgar Meyer – Violin Concerto, First movement
Being written by a somewhat peculiar composer, EM did not disappoint when Hilary Hahn commissioned this piece from him. EM spent years of his career writing and playing bluegrass-inspired music along with legendary banjo player Bela Fleck, EM himself with his double bass. It seems though as this extraordinary bass player finally decided to show the public the tricks he had up his sleeve, resulting in a beautiful violin concerto for talented HH. Although the concerto is tonal it is obviously from modern times and has a dramatic and film music like atmosphere. The orchestra is far from passive, and its parts are beautifully put together with those of the soloist. Definitely a good choice for listeners requiring a newer sound.
Max Bruch – Violin concerto in G minor, First movement: Vorspiel. Allegro Moderato
This piece is extremely established in the concerto repertoire, and with good reason. I for one wait patiently through the slow and in my opinion boring intro, before the tension increases with three hundred percent when the strings start their plucking motive in the background. As mentioned this concerto is as virtuous as most concertos, but instead of just playing scales up and down, MB has been creative with his virtuous parts, making the soloist play several strings at the same time, sometimes aggressively articulated with sharp accents.
The orchestra is quite active through the whole movement, and during the highlight, the soloist is completely absent, which is somewhat rare in a concerto. Also, instead of ending with a Eurovision-like fanfare, the end of the first movement is also the beginning of the second, and you will have problems telling exactly where the transition is if you don’t already know the piece. This one is probably a good choice for listeners that enjoy very slow music, but since that is not me, I won’t recommend it.
Jean Sibelius – Violin concerto in D minor, First movement: Allegro Moderato
A good choice for listeners who have already found themselves enjoying the previous concerto, as I think the two movements have a lot in common. But, JS’s sound is naturally more Northern and less German-Romantic and has more folk music-like tonality.
The virtuous parts are definitely what picky listeners would refer to as show off, but still not what make the movement special. The main motives and melodies give associations to nature and forest and provide vivid and visual images as if one were listening to a movie soundtrack. There are also several off-key tones here and there, that create a tension that the former piece lacks, and adds another level of profoundness.
Ludvig van Beethoven – Triple concerto for piano, violin and cello in C major, First movement: Allegro
Not really being one for piano concertos, this piece has something inexplicable to it, making it one of my concerto favorites. First of all, there are not many concertos involving three soloists, and one of them being the piano, it is quite an achievement to put these three instruments together with a full orchestra.
This being an earlier piece than most of the others on this list, it absolutely has another expression, and with the risk of stereotyping the era, it is generally happier sounding than the Romantic pieces mentioned above. This said, there is still a dramatic kind of sorrow within it, especially around the ninth minute, where the three instruments get together in a series of arpeggio chords that rip the heart out of your chest (in a good way. Yes, it is possible).
Nikolay Myaskovsky – Sonata for cello in A minor, First movement: Allegro Moderato
Written by a much less famous composer than the former, this piece has somehow not become a part of the standard solo repertoire, unlike the previous ones. It is not a concerto but a sonata and is therefore accompanied by the piano instead of the orchestra, but the melodies sound like they are made with such profound sorrow that they stand just beautifully as they are.
I found this movement so special that I made a song of it, always having thought that the melodies would work absolutely wonderfully with lyrics. The cello is the perfect instrument for expressing sadness, and NM couldn’t have made a better choice on this matter.
The general non-musician audience usually finds these pieces the most appealing within the classical repertoire, perhaps because they are used to hearing their sound occasionally in movies and series (I mean, we all watched the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars).
The best orchestral pieces are in my opinion the ones that really take advantage of all the different sound opportunities, and make me love instruments that I usually don’t enjoy listening to (I won’t mention names).
Possibly my favorite piece in the whole world. Just like in the violin concerto, JS teleports his listeners into the Finnish forests. The piece is almost twenty minutes long, and possibly a heavy piece to begin one’s classical music adventure with, and I for one had to listen to it quite a few times before I started loving it like I do now. It is built upon three brilliantly put together melodies, each more dramatic and mysterious than the previous, all sewed together in a mosaic-like blanket full of tiny details that can be discovered time after time.
En saga demands a certain amount of patience, but getting through it will give you a lifelong treasure. If there is one piece on this list I know I will never stop listening to, it is this one.
Jean Sibelius – Symphony no. 1 in E minor, Fourth movement: Finale
While not being quite as amazing as En Saga, JS’s first symphony is also wonderful, and a rare finding within the symphony repertoire, as it is one of the few symphonies where all the movements are equally breathtaking (maybe with the exception of the third). The mood is just like any Sibelius piece, and if I were to choose one movement, I would go for the fourth one.
Camille Saint-Säéns – Danse Macabre
This piece is a great one for unexperienced listeners, as it is both beautiful, humorous, playful, and literally diabolic at the same time. There is a small but dominating violin solo appearing from time to time, imitating Mephistopheles himself playing his fiddle. And it certainly sounds like it.
Danse Macabre is quite famous and sometimes regarded light music, but most of all it has a somewhat cartoon-like touch, making it a fun experience for people who connect classical music with falling asleep.
Arnold Schönberg – Verklärte Nacht, First movement: Grave
Most people don’t connect AS with beautiful orchestra music, being that he went insanely experimental at a certain point, and started writing completely atonal music for an even smaller audience than the tonal classical music.
This piece, however, was written before his turning point and is an absolute masterpiece. It has always given me more or less the same feeling as Sibelius’ En saga but in a more modern, yet tonal and deeply emotional suit. I die a little inside every time I think about all the amazing music AS could have written, but decided not to.
Verklärte Nacht was originally written for string ensemble but has later been rearranged for full orchestra, which in my opinion is even better. It is sadly a bit of a challenge to find good recordings of the latter, but don’t despair; the string orchestra version is also amazing.
Franz Liszt – Les préludes
Although FL is mostly famous for his piano pieces, I could not resist putting him on this part of the lis(z)t as well. This is quite a heavy piece, long in duration and very dramatic and huge sounding. It does however contain that very mood that FL always manages to express, – the kind of action like movie soundtrack spirit that makes you imagine someone running from a monster or going to war.
Also, the title is worth explaining; meaning that life is just a prelude to the afterlife. Without debating that subject, it is quite a powerful message.
Sergei Prokofiev – Montagues and Capulets
Being one of the most infamous works on this list, this piece will be recognized by non-musicians as well as musicians. It starts off pretty strange, but wait for it; the good is yet to come. The main motive is ridiculously simple but yet manages to stab you right through the heart.
The piece describes the story of Romeo and Juliet and belongs to SP’s ballet with the same name, and is the definite highlight of this work.
Not being a huge opera fan, I on the other hand find choir music quite magical at times. Even the highest of voices become more pleasant-sounding when they blend together, and there are a few choir pieces that have reached the very top of my list.
Thomas Tallis – Spem in Alium
I first heard this piece in a lecture at the music academy, which was an issue, because I had to hide the fact that I was crying for about its whole ten-minute duration. The piece is by far the oldest on this list and consists of forty different voices. It starts off with a single soprano and builds up to something sounding as close to a choir of angels that one can imagine.
The utter sadness of this piece will have its listeners philosophize about all things greater than life itself, and I dare say it has the ability to put even the most hardcore atheist in a religious mood. I still dream of hearing this piece live in a cathedral.
Hector Berlioz – Te Deum: Judex Crederis
Te Deum is a fantastic and powerful creation, with Judex Crederis as the absolute climax. The movement makes you feel like you are going through the very day of judgment, and an ensemble consisting of a huge choir, full orchestra and organ is being taken to its very limit. Both instruments and voices fill the whole register, all the way from tones so deep they sound like they’re coming from within the earth, to screams of pain and suffering.
I once sang this piece in a choir with hundreds of people along with the Symphonic Orchestra of Oslo, and being a part of performing it is the only thing I can think of better than hearing it live.
The by far newest piece on the list, composed by the young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. OG is remarkably successful and makes beautiful choir music, which makes him considered tacky amongst other, more modern oriented Norwegian contemporary composers.
In my opinion, Nisi Dominus is a great piece, especially the second part, where the basses sing so deeply you can feel it in your stomach, and the music resembles the dramatic choirs often used in fantasy movies.
As a side note, I will mention that I once texted the web administration on OG’s page, asking where I could get a recording of this piece. I received a very friendly e-mail from the composer himself, with a beautiful, professional recording as an attachment. Good to know there are still some down to earth, friendly artists out there.
Being a cellist myself, I obviously have a thing for string pieces. This last part of the list includes some of my very favorite pieces, – pieces that I consider the most beautiful music made for strings.
Franz Schubert – String quintet in C major, Second movement: Adagio
In addition to En Saga, this is my second favorite piece in the world. I got it recommended by a previous teacher, and the first time I played it I cried like an idiot. Both the first and second movement are magical, but the second one has a kind of despair to it that makes me long for something I have yet to identify.
The movement starts off as quiet as it is possible for a quintet to play, and lays down a subtle blanket of soft string chords, leaving the listener totally unprepared for what is to come. When the second, faster part starts, it is in far contrast to the first, and these three passionate minutes consist of what is possibly the most beautiful melody in the history of music.
I don’t really know what else to say.
Although JS is mostly famous for his orchestral works, at times he also rocked the strings, the Impromptu being the best example. The piece has a lot in common with the previous one by Schubert, and starts off with a bell-like chime, completely calmly. The second part is faster and starts off in a kind of half happy mood, but when it changes to minor it is like going beyond a happy face and seeing the sorrow within the soul.
Like in so many classical pieces, there are parts of this piece I don’t enjoy as much as others, but the fast minor part is even better when it comes after a more cheerful introduction.
Antonin Dvorak – String quartet no. 12 in F major (“The American quartet”), First movement: Allegro
Feeling slightly guilty about not having put AD on the list until now, I have to include this piece. As I have already said, few composers manage to make a four-movement piece with equally beautiful movements, but AD must have had a special talent for this (as it also applies to his eight and ninth symphony).
It is impossible for me to choose a single movement in this quartet, as they are all amazing, and perfectly balanced between careful optimism and deep melancholy. All the movements are closely connected and there is never any doubt that they belong together; another unique character of this piece, that cannot be found in a lot of four-movement works.