Music industry leader Chartmetric recently published a data-driven analysis of COVID-19’s effects on listening habits. Their primary finding? Classical and ambient are “the big quarantine winners.”
As we all struggle to find healthy outlets for combatting stay-at-home stress, classical music is a winningly creative option. The physiological benefits of music listening are well documented, and in the words of respected neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin, “[music] doesn't have the unwanted side effects that many pharmaceutical products do.” Pandemic considerations aside, we’ve chosen 30 classical pieces every music lover should hear...both classical fans and those needing an introduction.
Consider this an invitation to revisit some of the all-time greats, encounter a few pieces you may not know, and--if needed--reconsider negative connotations you may have about classical music. Starting with a simplified definition: classical music = European/Russian music that predates American genres (blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop, etc.) + music that grew out of that older tradition. And continuing with an assertion that classical music remains groundbreaking and relevant, with blockbuster movies soundtracked by composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams.
To underscore (pun intended) this last point, we’ve selected 30 classical pieces from the last 300 years, listing in reverse-chronological order with increasingly fewer selections. We tried to
- be representative of the greatest composers from this period (21 of whom also appear in the Spotify Monthly Listener Top 100 Artists from Classical, Ensemble & Opera),
- spotlight a broad cross-section, and
- choose pieces that were and/or continue to be more modern-sounding.
Additionally, each selection is a “classical gateway” that will hopefully become habit-forming and lead to discovering other pieces. Whether you’re seeking spiritual solace or sheer escapism, there’s plenty of classical music that merits inclusion on your playlist.
We’ve included a few notes for each of these pieces to justify their selection. But to be clear: the only context required to enjoy this music is a pair of working ears...and an open mind.
Classical Gateways: 30 Pieces Every Music Lover Should Hear...from the Last 300 Years
1. Passacaglia (4th movement) from Partita for 8 Voices (2012) by Caroline Shaw
Think classical music is dead? Shaw received a Pulitzer Prize at the ripe old age of 30 for this 4-movement, all-vocal composition, a fresh exploration of the world’s oldest instrument. Her Passacaglia--a slow, triple-meter dance--shifts from sublime to grotesque to absurd within its 6-minute running time.
2. Movido, Urgente - Macho, Cool & Dangerous (1st movement) from Last Round (1996) by Osvaldo Golijov
This Argentinian composer fused classical with the tango of his heartland in a 2-movement work for small string orchestra. Last Round’s uptempo, edgy first movement makes an ideal introduction, regardless of one’s knowledge of tango or the late Astor Piazzolla who inspired this piece. See also: Golijov’s gorgeous opera Ainadamar.
A Brief Introduction to Minimalism, the Greatest Classical Music Invention of the 20th Century
Next comes an asterisked cluster of pieces coinciding with the arrival of minimalism. As with many other classical music styles, minimalism corresponds to a visual arts movement. In terms of “minimal music,” let’s go with Wikipedia’s definition: “a form of art music that employs limited or minimal musical materials.” Minimalist composers made the radical decision to de-emphasize harmonic progression and melody, instead focusing more on rhythm and timbre (how things actually sound, such as the contrast between a tuba and a guitar).
Philip Glass and Steve Reich are the composers most responsible for the birth and flourishing of minimalism, beginning in the 1960s. They studied the music of India and Africa, respectively, and Glass collaborated with many non-classical musicians. Their music has influenced today’s popular music, which is apparent when tracing a line from early minimalism through early electronic music into today’s EDM. (As a recent example, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem incorporates Steve Reich’s iconic Clapping Music into this David Bowie remix.)
Minimalism restored a longstanding porousness between classical and popular music, and this “gateway” aspect of the music is part of its unique appeal. But the main reason these pieces merit inclusion is their intrinsic beauty and charm.
Classical Gateways (Continued)
3. *The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) (1985) by John Adams
Think classical music is boring? This brightly colorful piece springs to life with a propulsive rhythm, overlaid with pointillistic jabs of upper-register strings and woodwinds that fade in and out of focus with carefully controlled dynamic and instrumental contrasts. It briefly melts into a jazzy, off-kilter lyrical section before returning to the faster cadence. Film composer Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice, Batman) was clearly inspired. See also: Adams' perfectly titled Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
4. *Fratres for Violin and Piano (1980) by Arvo Part
Even absent any background information--according to the Estonian composer, this piece illustrates that “the instant and eternity are struggling within us”--Fratres is one of the most meditative works we've ever encountered. The contrast between manically energetic segments and serenely slow passages is spellbinding.
5. *Pulses (1st movement) from Music for 18 Musicians (1976) by Steve Reich
The hour-long Music for 18 Musicians rewards patience and unstressed listening. While minimalist masterpieces like this are of much higher quality, you might approach them similarly to autostereogram pictures, in this case slightly relaxing your ears to reveal the subtle hypnotic effects of slowly-changing repetitive pulsation and dynamics. See also: Reich’s Tehillim, whose conclusion is perhaps the most radiantly joyful music we’ve ever heard.
6. *Spaceship from Einstein on the Beach (1975) by Philip Glass
Philip Glass is the most important classical composer that pop music fans should know. His 5-hour opera Einstein on the Beach is a monumental work that gets our vote for greatest classical work of the last 50 years. There are lots of amazing auditory details in Spaceship. Our favorite is the synthesized bass line that snakes through most of it, catching every twist and turn of a meter that’s constantly in flux. The primary criticism minimalism has faced--from the musical establishment and skeptical listeners alike--is that it’s too repetitive. In the hands of a master composer like Glass, however, this repetition is a means to accentuate the micro-changes that happen in the music.
7. Departure (1st movement) from Black Angels (1970) by George Crumb
Think rock bands have a lock on scary music? Not many songs can match Black Angels in menacing creepiness. This intensely vivid 3-movement work for electric string quartet was written in response to the Vietnam War. Its opening chords may be familiar to horror fans, as Departure was deftly used to score parts of The Exorcist. See also: Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening, especially Music of the Starry Night (5th movement) for its mystical beauty.
8. Lux Aeterna (1966) by Gyorgy Ligeti
“Eternal Light” is one of the most challenging pieces on this list for its dissonant harmonies (harsh-sounding note combinations). Ligeti’s music grows out of the dissolution of tonal (more consonant, pleasant-sounding) music that some classical composers advocated for during the early-20th century: a new school called serialism that minimalism basically overturned. At a leisurely pace, Ligeti layers different vocal tones to magnify what arises from the odd combinations. In another example of genius film scoring, Lux Aeterna played every time the otherworldly, mysterious monolith appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
9. Finale (10th movement) from Turangalila Symphony (1948) by Oliver Messiaen
The Turangalila is one of the last in a long line of symphonies dating back 200 years, with each composer creating more maximalist takes on this traditionally 4-movement full-orchestra musical format. In Messiaen’s exuberant, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Finale, we’re reminded of his contemporary Jackson Pollack, though there’s more order than is immediately apparent in this musical splatter painting. This was also clearly composed in the significant wake of Aaron Copland. Still need convincing? Film composer and Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood is a huge fan.
10. Buckaroo Holiday from Rodeo (1942) by Aaron Copland
In striving to forge a uniquely American style of classical music, Copland created such a definitive sound that several decades of composers borrowed. His music for the ballet Rodeo, which leaps to a start with this opening movement, was written during a decade-long blitz of incredible musical invention. If Buckaroo Holiday reminds you of old westerns, it’s because their musical DNA traces back directly to Copland’s landmark compositions. See also: Copland's Appalachian Spring, particularly its 2-part conclusion of "Simple Gifts" hymn and sublime coda.
11. Allegro non troppo (4th movement) from Symphony No. 5 (1937) by Dmitri Shostkovich
Think YOUR job is hard? Imagine being forced to perform a highly creative job with a gun to your back. As a “response to justified criticism” from Stalin himself, this Russian composer delivered a piece that functions brilliantly on two levels: 1) as an orchestral show-stopper and 2) as a veiled criticism of the Soviet establishment, camouflaged as propaganda. For an example of how Shostakovich accomplished this, consider the abrupt change from minor to major key and exaggerated celebration during this symphony’s final minute. Perceptive listeners may hear terror lurking beneath the triumph. See also: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, especially the 1st movement for its jaw-dropping invasion march.
12. Adagio for Strings (1936) by Samuel Barber
Sometimes a composition’s title and background are really helpful for understanding and appreciating the piece. Other times, less so. By naming this gorgeously expressive masterpiece simply Adagio for Strings, which means "at a slow pace played by string instruments,” Barber invites our own interpretation and experience. It’s quite a gift...and one you may find yourself returning to again and again throughout your life.
13. Adagio (3rd movement) from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) by Bela Bartok
Another abstractly titled composition, its dissonant, disorienting orchestration and dramatic outbursts seem to suggest nothing less than a terrifically haunted house. Indeed, the third part of this 4-movement piece belongs to a subset of Bartok’s compositions that he termed “night music” because of their eerie, lonely qualities. Stanley Kubrick wisely chose to use this piece as the musical centerpiece of The Shining.
14. "Nessun Dorma!" from Turandot (1926) by Giacomo Puccini
Even those allergic to operatic singing style--an acquired taste for modern listeners--may concede that this song is exquisite. Consider the context of this vocal style: that it's not an affectation but an elegant, powerful means of musical amplification during a pre-electronic era. Once you HAVE acquired an appreciation for opera, you may conclude that anything less than an operatic style sounds hopelessly silly interpreting a great like "Nessun Dorma!" Melody plays a pivotal role in music, and Puccini is one of the best to ever string together a series of notes.
15. Allegro ma non troppo (3rd movement) from Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921) by Sergei Prokofiev
Concerto is a multi-movement musical form in which the orchestra and featured instrument--in this case piano--play a duet of sorts, sometimes working together and other times sparring for the listener’s attention. This concerto’s final movement begins with a sturdy triple-meter dance; slows for a languid, introspective midsection; and returns to a quickened version of the dance. In its exuberant conclusion, the famously colorful Prokofiev explodes his canvass...the pianist’s hands practically throwing sparks as the orchestra launches musical confetti into the air. See also: Prokofiev’s celebrated Romeo and Juliet ballet score.
16. Mars, the Bringer of War from The Planets (1916) by Gustav Holst
How must it have felt to invent a new chord, back before every chord had been used? And to have an appropriate outlet for said chord, that would not scare off your audience but thrill and captivate them? Then imagine doubling-down on the new thing and using a jilting, off-kilter 5/4 time signature, with lots of tritones (the so-called "devil's interval") thrown in for good measure. Yeah, Stravinsky did some of this first with The Rite of Spring (see below), but Holst devised the greatest concept symphony of all time and kicked it off with this fireplug. And it still sounds--all 7 movements of it--fresh and timeless.
17. Part II: The Sacrifice from The Rite of Spring (1913) by Igor Stravinsky
This is it. The beginning of modern music. One could make a case for Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, composed ~20 years earlier. But The Rite of Spring blended Debussy’s mystical, transcendent harmonies with Stravinsky’s primal melodies, jolting rhythms, and strikingly loud instrumentation to capture lightning in a bottle. Today’s listeners may need to turn up the volume in order to replicate the riot-inducing qualities of this, the conclusion of his game-changing ballet score.
18. Finale. Alle breve (3rd movement) from Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Music historians consider that the Romantic era ended around 1900, with the arrival of composers like Stravinsky and Debussy. But Rachmaninoff didn’t get the memo. The virtuosic pianist (his enormous hands could span ~1 ½ times that of most players) composed 4 piano concertos that balanced technical bravado with Romantic elements such as lyrical melodies, lush orchestration, and dramatic dynamic contrasts. Each of these--including the so-called “Rach 3”--have been mainstays on concert stages ever since, treasured by performers and audiences alike.
19. Rondo-Finale (Allegro) (5th movement) from Symphony No. 5 (1902) by Gustav Mahler
Mahler is to orchestras as Wagner is to operas: once you acquire a taste for their mammoth compositions you’ll happily spend many hours savoring them. But it may take awhile to appreciate the nuances each brought to their oversized creations. In typical form, Mahler ends this symphony with a bang...after teasing out the triumphant central theme over and over (rondo is a form in which one theme is repeatedly alternated with contrasting themes). While most famous for the heroic force of his music, with 100-person orchestras often joined by choirs and vocal soloists, Mahler was equally adept at stripping things down to an intimate, small group of performers, often within the same musical work. See also: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
20. Claire de lune from Suite bergamasque (1890) by Claude Debussy
You may already know this piece or be distantly familiar with it. “Moonlight” is an excellent example of fame coinciding with greatness. (Just because the David is well-known doesn't diminish its significance). Debussy and the also-outstanding Maurice Ravel took the impressionist art of their painter and writer peers and brilliantly translated it to music. You'd be forgiven for choosing a diet of all-Debussy piano music after falling under this piece's spell.
21. Prelude to Act 1. Langsam Und Schmachtend from Tristan and Isolde (1859) by Richard Wagner
This unassuming prelude performs a musical cloak-and-dagger trick, its subdued beginning and pace belying the intensely dark opera that lies ahead. It slow-blossoms to foreshadow Tristan and Isolde’s all-consuming, doomed love story. As 21st century listeners, we can hear the fervent longing Wagner built into this music. What’s less obvious is the sickness at its core: when this piece was composed, the creeping chromatic melody--each note moving by the smallest possible increment either upwards or downwards--was uncommon and would have been heard as impure. (A point rendered explicit in the opera’s finale “Liebestod,” which translates to “Love Death.”) Even without this perspective, the Prelude is a powerful stand-alone piece.
22. "Brindisi" from La Traviata (1853) by Giuseppe Verdi
When most people think of opera, they think of Italian opera. It’s safe to say that an outsize share of the credit for Italian opera’s enduring popularity goes to Verdi for the 25 (!) operas he composed, many of which form the bedrock for opera houses internationally. For those unsure about Verdi and the golden age of Italian opera, this piece--nicknamed “Toast” as it’s a traditional drinking song--is a good litmus test. If you enjoy this, know that Verdi and other composers of his era (including Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini) left countless operas with melodies rivaling anything on the pop charts today.
23. Ballade No. 1 (1835) by Frederic Chopin
Unlike nearly every composer on this list, including the other outstanding pianist/composer Rachmaninoff (who created symphonies, operas, choral works, etc.), Chopin composed almost exclusively for his favored piano. He makes a compelling case for specialization, and the crystalline Ballade No. 1 is one of more than 150 solo piano pieces that ensure his legacy will last forever. If this instrument also speaks to you, his miniatures will deliver as much variety and quality as the much-larger symphonies that dominate many a classical playlist.
24. Marche au supplice (4th movement) from Symphonie Fantastique (1830) by Hector Berlioz
Think sex, drugs, and rock & roll was an original concept? Berlioz composed Symphonie Fantastique--a concept symphony about an artist's passion for an unattainable woman prompting an opium overdose--125 years before Chuck Berry. Sex and drugs aside, this 5-movement symphony is one of the most exciting, ahead-of-its-time works in classical history. The composer describes his “March to the Scaffold” movement as follows: “[Our protagonist] dreams that he has killed his beloved in a fit of anger. He is now being taken to the scaffold...then the axe falls and he is executed.” Considering that this piece is almost 200 years old, you may be astonished at how visceral and modern it sounds.
25. Die liebe Farbe from Die schone Mullerin (1823) by Franz Schubert
Who's the greatest songwriter of all time? Lennon-McCartney? Bob Dylan? George Gershwin? Whoever you pick, there's a case to be made that Franz Schubert was greater. He was the first significant songwriter as we understand the tradition today: a composer who elevates a text and amplifies its emotional essence through musical setting. We can also trace the lineage of concept albums back to Schubert and his peers, who created cohesive song cycles like “The Lovely Maid of the Mill.” The meditative, achingly beautiful song we’ve chosen represents a turning point in the story: a young man who has fallen in unrequited love starts fantacizing about the suicide he’ll soon commit. See also: Schubert’s stand-alone song Der Erlkonig, which requires the vocalist to convey 4 separate characters over a fast-paced span of 2 verses.
26. Allegro con brio (1st movement) from Symphony No. 5 (1808) by Ludwig van Beethoven
Those first four notes may be the most famous in the history of music. Whether you’re a newcomer or have heard the full 4-movement symphony hundreds of times, they still sound electrifying. Beethoven was uniquely skilled at fashioning large, majestic, musically cohesive structures from such simple building blocks as these four notes. Consider the vast distance traveled between this intro and the stormy, emphatic climax at ~6:25, before bringing it full circle with a final statement of these notes. Beethoven produced a huge amount of masterpieces in every musical genre of his day, continuing into his last decade when he was completely deaf. Find a way into his music, and you will never lack for spiritual sustenance.
27. Largo - Vivace (1st movement) from Symphony No. 102 (1794) by Franz Joseph Haydn
“Papa” Haydn’s got a brand new bag! Haydn, whose long life encompassed Mozart’s unfairly short one, earned his nickname as father of the symphony. Of the 104 (!) symphonies he composed--typically in 4-movement structures--the later ones begin with this one-two punch of a slow, stately curtain-raiser followed by uptempo main section. These symphonies represent the tip of the iceberg for his catalog, and classical music is much richer thanks to his often-inspired, occasionally-workmanlike compositions. If you enjoy this piece, you’ll discover many others that are equally effervescent and rewarding.
28. Act 2 Finale from The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The key to appreciating the greatest melodist who ever lived lies in his operas. Mozart excelled at every type of composition, but it’s apparent from his vocal works that he possessed a rare, innate understanding of the human voice. Unlike the smaller musical cells that Bach and Beethoven forged into larger, equally compelling compositions, Mozart wrote long-lined melodies for everything: whether vocal or instrumental, you can easily sing his music. Mozart poured much of his passion into towering operatic achievements like the timelessly funny comic opera The Marriage of Figaro, whose Act 2 Finale builds to an unheard-of vocal septet (a “duet” with 6 people singing simultaneously). To follow along with the drama, start the libretto translation with “Now out you come, you imp of Satan…”
29. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (1750) by Johann Sebastian Bach
This piece may carry associations of a) church, b) old horror footage, and/or c) Disney’s Fantasia. The first of these is appropriate because the devout Bach was a lifelong church musician. In order to pierce the thick armor of these connotations, please consider another perspective: the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was a showpiece for the highest-tech instrument on the planet / the synthesizer of its day, the pipe organ, whose mastery provided fame during Bach’s lifetime. Toccata means “to touch,” and pertains to the rhythmically fluid first half, in which the performer gets our attention by showing off all the organ’s bells and whistles. This is followed by one of Bach’s greatest fugues, a musical technique in which a solo melody begins, is eventually joined by a 2nd version, is eventually joined by a 3rd version, etc., building in complexity through the simultaneous interplay of all versions. See also: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, especially the fleet-footed dance of its 2nd movement.
30. Allegro non molto (1st movement) from The Four Seasons - Winter (1717) by Antonio Vivaldi
Because a list of “classical gateways” without Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons--one of the best pieces to ever lure listeners into classical music--wouldn’t feel complete. Part of its appeal lies in the groundbreaking programmatic flair of Vivaldi’s packaging: 4 string quartets of 3 movements apiece, each intended to evoke a specific season. But a concept is only as good as its delivery, and Vivaldi cemented his legacy with inspired music that remains a high-water mark in the string repertoire. There’s an appealingly chilly quality to the start of his Winter quartet, which conjures an image of icy winds advancing then bursting into a gale-force storm. Music would never be the same.
Image Credits: Minute School, San Diego Reader