The Classical Music Everyone Knows

The top 100 most well-known classical pieces. Many of these pieces are popular because of their use in commercials, movies, and TV.

The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concerti by Antonio Vivaldi, each of which gives musical expression to a season of the year. They were written around 1716–1717 and published in 1725 in Amsterdam, together with eight additional concerti, as Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention).

The Four Seasons is one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written, and Vivaldi’s best-known work. Each concerto depicts a different season of the year: spring, summer, autumn (or harvest) and winter. The concerti are sometimes known by their Italian titles: Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione Nos. 1–4, Op. 8.

The four violin concertos are part of a larger set of twelve concerti Vivaldi wrote under the overall title “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione” (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). It is not known for certain why Vivaldi chose to group these particular four concerti together under the title “The Four Seasons”, nor why he chose to give them names relating to the seasons and nature. Vivaldi was probably influenced by the pastoral poems of Giovanni Battista Vitali, Tommaso Albinoni and Pietro Metastasio.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525, is a 1787 composition for a chamber ensemble by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The German title means “a little serenade”, though it is often rendered more literally as “a little night music”. The work is written for an ensemble of two violinists, viola and bass with optional double basses.

One of the best-known works in the Western classical repertoire, Eine kleine Nachtmusik is regularly programmed on radio stations around the world and is often used in television and film.

Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

This is one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written, and for good reason. The serene beauty of the melody, coupled with the simple (yet elegant) harmony makes for a truly moving listening experience.

The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most popular and well-known pieces of classical music in the world. Composed in 1892, it is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and originally intended as a ballet. The suite was first performed in Russia in 1892 and has since become one of the most commonly performed ballets. The ballet is typically divided into two acts, with the first act themed around a Christmas party and the second act focused on a battle between the toy soldiers and an army of mice.

One of the most recognizable aspects of The Nutcracker Suite is its use of leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes which represent specific characters, objects, or ideas. For example, the Sugarplum Fairy is represented by a delicate waltz, while the menacing Mouse King has a jagged theme which sounds like teeth gnashing. Tchaikovsky’s use of leitmotifs creates a sense of unity throughout the suite and helps to bring the story to life.

While The Nutcracker Suite is best known for its use in ballet, it has also been adapted for use in other forms of dance, film, television, and even video games. Its timeless melodies and enchanting atmosphere continue to delight audiences of all ages around the world.

Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Swan Lake is a ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875–76. Despite its initial failure, it is now one of the most popular of all ballets. The scenario, initially in two acts, was fashioned from Russian folk tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. The ballet was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 20 February 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Although it is presented in many different versions, most ballet companies base their productions both choreographically and musically on this work.

Swan Lake is usually performed with four acts and a prologue (the lakeside scenes). Tchaikovsky’s score consists of some of his most memorable melodies, many of which are particularly associated with the ballet: “The Swan Lake Theme” itself, “The Maidens’ Chorus”, “The Scene at the Palace Gates”, ” Pas d’action “, among others.

The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner

The “Ride of the Valkyries” is the popular name for the beginning of act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of the four works that constitute Richard Wagner’sDer Ring des Nibelungen. It was first performed at the National Theatre Munich on 26 June 1856, with Hans von Bülow conducting. The composer called for six horns in E-flat, but since Wagner’s orchestra did not have this many horns available, they were replaced by trumpets.

Wagner’s composition features a distinctive leitmotif associated with the Valkyries, famously used in film scores such as Apocalypse Now. The main melody of this leitmotif is first heard in bars 7–12 on solo horn and strings.

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

This famous tone poem by Richard Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche’s novel of the same name. The work is divided into nine sections, each representing a different stage in human life, from birth to death. It begins with a slow, solemn introduction, followed by a faster section which represents the dawn of man. The tempo then quickens again to depict the energy and vibrancy of youth. The middle section is a slower, more reflective interlude, before the pace picks up once more for the final section, in which Strauss depicts humanity’s grandest aspiration – the achievement of immortality.

Boléro by Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel’s Boléro is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable pieces of classical music ever written. It was composed in 1928 and premiered the following year. The work is in the form of a rondo, meaning that it consists of a principal theme (the “boléro” motif) which recurs throughout the piece, interspersed with contrasting sections. The piece builds inexorably to a huge climax, after which the music dies away to nothing.

Ravel intended Boléro to be a ballet, but it soon took on a life of its own as a concert work. It has since been performed and recorded by countless artists and has become one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written.

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