So you’re at the point where you’ve decided that becoming familiar with at least the rudiments of classical music is an important part of your development into a more sophisticated, urbane, worldly man. You still love Metallica, or Jay-Z or The Killers or Flogging Molly or Mongolian goat-roping music or whatever your particular thing happens to be, but you’re unsure how to approach the vast, nebulous, intimidating world of ‘classical’ music. (Let’s forget for a moment the gross inaccuracy of lumping all the music mentioned in this article under one generic term; when I say ‘classical’ music, we all know what I’m talking about, and all the music here could fit under that monstrous umbrella.)
Nothing like a ‘Top Ten Pieces of Classical Music That Must Be Heard Above All Others’ list to get the ball rolling, so let me explain the format:
I’ve picked ten pieces, all of which are extremely well-known to classical aficionados, most of which are well-known to the wider world. I’ll include a brief note on the piece, as well as a recommendation or two of other works or composers that might be appealing if you enjoy that particular work. For some help with terminology and listening approaches, see my previous article, How to Talk About Classical Music.
Some works have well-known nicknames, rarely attributed to the work by the composer himself.
I’m sure those in the know will skewer me for leaving out any one of ten thousand other possible choices, but three main factors have guided my selection of this list as a whole, not necessarily each particular piece on this list. They are: accessibility, popularity, and variety, both stylistic and temporal.
In no particular order, here they are:
If you don’t recognize this immediately upon hearing it, you’ve been living in a cave since the day you were born. Please step into the light, pull your fingers out of your ears, and begin your journey towards joining the human race. Simple, elegant, beautiful, utterly timeless.
If you like this try: string quartets by Mozart or Luigi Boccherini, chamber music by Ignaz Pleyel or Carl Maria von Weber.
One of the most important classical recordings of the twentieth century (on any list) is oddball Canadian genius Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of The Goldberg Variations, a keyboard suite by J.S. Bach, master of the Baroque. Connoisseurs often point to his 1981 recording of the same work as better than the 1955. Either way, you won’t go wrong. Sublime and stirring, the opening movement of the work is as soulful and beautiful as you could possibly want.
If you like this try: Bach’s French Suites, English Suites, The Well-Tempered Clavier. Keyboard pieces by Domenico Scarlatti or G.F. Handel.
Effective Use of Classical Music in Non-Musicals
Of course, the most well-known is
1) Wagner's Ride of the Valykries in "Apocalypse Now ".
2) Debussy's Clair de Lune in " Frankie and Johnny ".
3) Peter Lorre whistling Grieg's In The Hall of the Mountain King throughout " M ".
4) And of course, the music ( whatever it is )accompanying the Walken / Hopper scene in True Romance.
Any others ? And please, don't mention " Amadeus ",
although I know that since I asked you not to mention " Amadeus ", everyone WILL mention
" Amadeus ".