I was just reading I'm just realizing, at 20 years of age, that I enjoy classical music. and I realized that lots of people today go through life not knowing much of anything about classical music. That's sad, because there's a treasure trove of experiences in there that people have felt were worthy of keeping around around for (in some cases) hundreds of years. My parents had it on constantly when I was a kid, so I grew up with it, but if you're starting with it now it can be kind of intimidating...there's just so much of it. Where do you start?

Perhaps this will help: once upon a time I asked a music director of mine for a "best of" list of classical music works, to help as a general guide and for building my own music library. He was quite enthusiastic, and came back with a two page handwritten list, which was so nicely and thoroughly done I thought it would be of general interest. This list is subjective, of course: his main interest is classical choral music, because he conducts one of the big Manhattan-based choruses, but he also did classical radio for 30 or 40 years and had a long career as a professor of music. Over the years, I've customized and modified the list a bit, but the overall structure is his.

This is by no means an attempt at a classical "canon", nor is it complete. This is simply one take on the "don't miss" pieces, the stuff that gets played over and over again on classical music stations, and is likely to be common to most enthusiasts' libraries. So if you're new at this classical music stuff and looking for somewhere to start, start here.

Notes:

  • Opera is specifically excluded, because it deserves its own category, but when overtures to specific pieces have become important in their own right they are mentioned.
  • There's lots of nice pre-Baroque music (Josquin des Prez, Agricola, etc.) and Twentieth Century stuff that is omitted.
  • As usual, nationalities and "periods" (Baroque, Classical) are approximate, but I've left them in because they provide a useful framework.
  • If you feel I've left out something vitally important, /msg me.

Baroque

Vivaldi, Antonio (Italian; 1678-1741)
The Four Seasons
Gloria

Bach, Johann Sebastian (German; 1685-1750)
6 Brandenburg Concerti
4 Orchestra Suites
2 Violin Concerti
Concerto for 2 violins
Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor
Tocattas & Fugues
Goldberg Variations
Mass in B Minor
Magnificat
St. Matthew Passion
St. John Passion
Weinachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio)
Musikalisches Opfer (or Musical Offering)

Handel, George Frederic (1685-1759)
Water Music
Messiah
Israel in Egypt
Solomon

Classical

Haydn, Joseph (Austrian; 1732-1809)
Symphonies Nos. 88, 92 thru 104
The Creation
String Quartets, Opus 76

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (Austrian; 1756-1791)
Symphonies Nos. 34 thru 41 (esp. 40, 41)
Piano Concertos Nos. 21 thru 27 (esp. 20, 21)
Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 5
Sinfonia Concertante
Quintet in G Minor
Requiem
Mass in C Minor, "Great Mass" K. 427
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Clarinet Quintet
Overtures to Operas: Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni, Le Nozze De Figaro

Beethoven, Ludwig van (German; 1770-1827)
Symphonies 3, 5, 7, 9 (more powerful)
Symphonies 1, 2, 4, 6, 8 (more lyrical & flowing)
Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 5
Violin Concerto, Op. 61
Mass in C Major, Op. 86
Missa Solemnis
String Quartets, Op. 59, Nos. 1, 2 and 3
Piano Sonatas: "Moonlight", "Appassionata", "Pathetique"
"Archduke" Trio
Coriolanus and Egmont Overtures

Schubert, Franz Peter (Austrian; 1797-1828)
"Unfinished" Symphony
Symphony #9
String Quartet #14, in D Minor "Death and the Maiden"
String Quintet, Op. 163 (in C)
Mass No. 6 in E Flat
"Rosamunde", Incidental Music
Piano Trios, Op. 9 and Op. 100
"Trout" Quintet

Romantic & Turn-of-the-century

Schumann, Robert (German; 1810-1856)
Symphonies 1 thru 4
Piano Concerto in A Minor
Piano Quintet, Op. 44

Mendelssohn, Felix (German; 1809-1847)
Symphonies #2, "Lobgesang", #3 "Scotch", #4 "Italian" and #5 "Reformation"
Violin Concerto in E Minor
Midsummer Nights Dream: Incidental Music
Octet for Strings

Chopin, Frederic (Polish; 1810-1849)
"Revolutionary" Etude
Nocturnes for piano (mostly quiet)
Scherzi for piano
Piano Concertos, Nos. 1 and 2

Berlioz, Hector (French; 1803-1869)
Symphony Fantastique
Requiem

Wagner, Richard (German; 1813-1883)
"Meistersinger" Prelude
"Tannhauser" Prelude
"Rienzi" Prelude
"The Flying Dutchman" Overture

Liszt, Franz (Hungarian; 1811-1886)
Les Preludes
Piano Concerto No. 1

Brahms, Johannes (German; 1833-1897)
Symphonies Nos. 1 thru 4
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Violin Concerto
Requiem
Double Concerto, Op. 102
Schicksalslied, Op. 54
String Quartet, Op. 51, No. 1
Clarinet Quintet

Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyitch (Russian; 1840-1893)
Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 6
Piano Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto
Serenade for Strings
Souvenir of Florence (string sextet)
Nutcracker Suite
Romeo & Juliet: Overture Fantasy
Rococo Variations for Cello & Orchestra

Bruckner, Anton (Austrian; 1824-1896)
Symphony #7

Verdi, Giuseppe (Italian; 1813-1901)
Requiem

Dvorak, Antonin (Bohemia/Czech; 1841-1904)
Symphony #9 "New World"
Requiem
Cello Concerto

Grieg, Edvard (Norwegian; 1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A Minor
Holberg Suite
Peer Gynt Suite

Mahler, Gustav (Austrian; 1860-1911)
Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4
Das Lied von der Erde
Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Elgar, Sir Edwin William (English; 1857-1934)
Enigma Variations
Pomp and Circumstance marches

Holst, Gustav (English; 1874-1934)
The Planets

Rachmaninoff, Sergey Vasilyevich (Russian; 1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3
Symphony No. 2

Strauss, Richard (German; 1864-1949)
Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Also Sprach Zarathustra

Sibelius, Jean (Finnish; 1865-1957)
Violin Concerto
Finlandia
Symphony #1, 2, 4, 6

Vaughan Williams, Ralph (English; 1872-1958)
Symphony #1, #4
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Serenade to Music
Violin Concerto

Poulenc, Francis (French; 1899-1963)
Concerto for 2 Pianos
Gloria
Organ Concerto
Concert Champatre (harpsichord concerto)

Impressionists

Debussy, Claude (French; 1862-1918)
La Mer
Afternoon of A Faun
Three Nocturnes for Orchestra
String Quartet in G Minor

Ravel, Maurice (French/Swiss-Basque; 1875-1937)
La Valse
Bolero
Piano Concerto, G Major
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Daphnis and Chloe
String Quartet in F Major


20th Century

Bartok, Bela (Hungarian; 1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Piano Concerto No. 3

Prokofieff, Sergey (Russian; 1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet
Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Alexander Nevsky
Symphony No. 5
Peter and the Wolf
Overture on Hebrew Themes

Stravinsky, Igor (Russian; 1882-1971)
L'Histoire du Soldat (chamber music)
Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring")
Petrouchka
Firebird


Shostakovich, Dmitri (Russian; 1906-1975)
Symphony #1, 5, 6
Age of Gold (ballet suite - popular)

I agree!

With this list though comes the question, "where does one start?"... and in some cases, "how does one listen to this?"
Yes, music appreciation is not automatic. It's not your fault and there's nothing wrong with you if you listen and nothing happens inside. But you almost certainly can have it affect you. Here is a quick guide to how to listen to classical music. This is about as incomplete as the list on sockpuppet's writeup.

Tip #1: Classical music is not stuffy. Classical musicians are not stuffy. Well, most of us aren't. We give off that impression because of our ever-so-quiet concert halls (which is a relatively new phenomenon spreading from Wagner) and tuxedoes (now THAT is hard to explain).
Corollary: though you needn't be stuffy, there is a basic expectation that you be quiet. Why? People at a concert, especially the performers, are listening as intently as they possibly can. This means they can hear a LOT. Including candy wrapper noise and whispers. Often, things are put in the background, and missing them would be a shame.

Tip #2: Read the liner notes or program notes. If there are none, look the piece up on Everything2 or elsewhere on the internet. Does it have a story? Even without a story are there things it is going to represent in the music? For example, Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast makes much more sense if you understand it to be Czech patriotic music, and the second movement especially more sense if you know it is following the river Moldau from its source to finish. The third movement (Sarka) actually has a story to it. Knowing this program will help. On the other hand, authors can write without a program. Mozart's 40th symphony has no apparent external references, but it is still music that can affect... there is not a lot that notes can do in this case aside from technically explain. Even that can be useful, because…

Tip #3: Classical music repeats itself. But it comes back different. Try to recognize motives, that is, snippets of tune. What has happened to it? Was it once major but has now been recast into minor? If the composer was writing programmatically, does this motive stand for anything? Familiarity can help a lot here. Something difficult or even boring can come alive on a later listen, even if you're used to listening – Schmidt's 2nd symphony dragged for me, the first time.

Tip #4: Move with the music. If you are in a concert hall or other live performance, do so discreetly. If you have a recording you can listen to alone, be flamboyant. Dance, wave your arms like a conductor, clench your fists, sing along, whatever gets you into it. If you can't find the rhythm of the music interesting... well, some classical music essentially ignores rhythm. Occasionally, it still works despite missing this main feature. I cannot think of many examples though...

Tip #5: listen for dissonance. A story is exciting when things don't always go right, and the characters must resolve the situation at great effort. Similarly, music becomes exciting when the vanilla major harmonies twist into somewhat painful minor, or worse - how will the composer get back to something less jarring? The dissonance can resolve immediately, or only after much effort. One of the necessary skills of a composer is to stretch out the resolution of a dissonance to keep the piece viscerally engaging, without alienating the listeners. Usually, this combines with rhythm, as the dissonances are emphasized or deemphasized to make whatever musical point the composer is trying to get at.

Regardless of time period, some pieces involve slight dissonances (Pavane for a dead pricess). Others beat you over the head with it (Symphony fantastique). Over time, though, what could be considered dissonance changes. In the Middle Ages, a perfect fourth was considered dissonant. Now, it's considered one of the least dissonant intervals around.

Tip #6: Don't use a long playlist. Consciously select each thing you listen to, so you associate it with its name. Do listen to a few things repeatedly for a while to get to know them, rather than moving on rapidly. I was once given a 10 CD set. It was too much. I still don't know more than a little bit of it, since it was too much to absorb at once.

If you can get the feel of dissonance/resolution, pattern, and rhythm into your bones, the rest is small potatoes. However, not being stuffy and knowing the story have their places.

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