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To help you appreciate Classical music, we’ve put together a list of famous works you might want to know. All are important pieces that showcase different styles, musical periods, and structures. From concertos to symphonies, we think you’ll find these pieces engaging and enjoyable to listen to.

We’ve also shared a nugget of insight into each piece or composer.

Browse them all below or listen to our playlist on Spotify.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

The Four Seasons (1723)

This isn’t technically one piece— it’s a series of four violin concertos, one for each season. Vivaldi pushes the limits of musical portrayal here, sonically painting images of everything from winter storms to singing birds.

A concerto is a musical piece composed for a solo instrument (or instruments) accompanied by an orchestra. It often has three movements. Concertos are similar to symphonies, but they are written to feature a specific instrument or performer.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787)

We don’t know why Mozart composed this serenade (his other serenades were all commissioned for special occasions, like weddings), and it wasn’t published until long after his death. But we do know that the melody has become perhaps the best-known in all of classical music. Ironically, as famous as the title has become, Mozart was only giving it a dismissive label (“a little serenade”) when he recorded it as completed in his journal.

A serenade is a piece of music created or performed in honor of someone or an occasion. They are very often fun, light, and care-free.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Symphony No. 94 in G major “Surprise” (1791)

Haydn was the unrivaled master of the early classical symphony, and this work shows him at his wittiest and most charming.

A symphony is a multi-movement work that showcases the entire orchestra. Melodies and themes may be passed around through the different sections, like strings, woodwinds, or brass. They can have solos within the movements, usually performed by the section leaders.

Like concertos, they can also have accompanied instrumental soloists, vocal soloists, or even full choirs.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 5 (1808)

This powerful work shows Beethoven at his best— creating an entire symphony from four notes (da da da DAAAAAAAAH!).

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Peer Gynt (1875)

Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play contains some of the best-known tunes ever written. This Norwegian folk saga is filled with mysterious mythological characters, and Grieg gives us melodies to portray them all.

Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

1812 Overture (1880)

While Tchaikovsky wasn’t fond of this piece, audiences have loved this piece since it was first performed. Composed to honor the Russian victory over Napoleon’s invading army, the 1812 Overture uses everything from a full orchestra and brass band to actual cannons and church bells to portray the battle for Moscow. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Russian Orthodox hymns, the old Russian national anthem, and La Marseillaise— the French national anthem.

An overture is a lot like a prologue. It usually introduces a larger work, like an opera. Sometimes, though, an overture is just a shorter work intended to open a concert.

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Popular bandleader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to write him a piece that would combine classical and jazz to create a truly “American” sound, and Gershwin responded with an instant classic.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Adagio for Strings (1936)

Originally the second movement of his String Quartet, Barber’s Adagio was beloved by audiences from the first performance. The simple lines combine to form a passionate and emotional work that is more than the sum of its parts.

“Adagio” is a tempo marking indicating that the music should be played slowly. The second movements of many symphonies are adagios.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Appalachian Spring (1944)

When Copland composed this music, all he knew was that it would be for a ballet by Martha Graham— he had no idea what the ballet’s plot would be. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the music so perfectly evokes the image of life in a small Appalachian town. The piece climaxes with a set of variations on the hymn “‘Tis the Gift to be Simple”.

John Adams (b. 1947)

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)

John Adams’ fanfare is a thrilling, high-energy romp that uses repetition and musical loops to build tension and excitement. Buckle your seatbelts!

Ready for more? We’re working on Classical 201 to push your listening chops farther. In the meantime, check out these additional works.

Further Listening: Classical Music 102

Stream the playlist for free on Spotify.

  • JS Bach — Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
  • Handel — The Messiah
  • Mozart — Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
  • Mozart — Symphony No. 41
  • Mozart — Clarinet Concerto
  • Beethoven — Symphony No. 9
  • Rossini — William Tell Overture
  • Mendelssohn — Violin Concerto
  • Tchaikovsky — Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture
  • Prokofiev — Classical Symphony

Are there other pieces you love that you think are a helpful introduction to Classical music? Let us know on Facebook.

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