Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music Every Man Should Know

Classical music is not only great for relaxing, it can be actively enjoyed as well. You’re in no danger of switching out Led Zeppelin’s box set or The Chronic for Classical Concertos in the Key of C, but if you’re thinking it’s time to deepen your musical repertoire, we’ve got the perfect launching point into the greatest hits list of classical music.

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:

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
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.

2. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Goldberg Variations
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.

3. Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
This is a set of four concertos, named–you guessed it–one for each season. Also from the Baroque era, each concerto consists of three movements, and they are very programmatic–that is, different themes represent specific scenes or events through sound. If you listen closely it’s not hard to hear a harvest-time barn dance, slippery winter ice, birds singing, growling thunder and sudden storm. Certain segments of this are extremely popular and you will definitely recognize them.

If you like this try: some of Vivaldi’s 500 other concertos, Arcangelo Corelli, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Concerti Grossi by George Frederic Handel.

4. Georges Bizet, Carmen
There’s a popular joke amongst art music aficionados that all the best Spanish classical music was written by Frenchmen. What, no laughter? I guess you have to be a big music nerd like me to find that funny. Yes, Carmen is an opera, written by a Frenchman and set in Spain. Considered by many to be the most perfect opera ever written, it’s ridiculously popular and will make you sound more educated and sophisticated to be able to recognize the arias from this work. If you’re only ever going to know one opera, it might as well be this one. And who knows? You might even become a secret opera lover…

If you like this try: Other Popular Operas: Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville (Bugs Bunny music), Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme. Spanish-themed classical music: Symphonie Espagnole by Edouard Lalo, Bolero by Maurice Ravel (both Frenchmen).

5. Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
More program music here, but in a very different style from Vivaldi. If you ever watched
Disney’s Fantasia as a kid you’ll know this one. Beethoven wrote grand, fantastic symphonies on a scale that went far beyond any who had gone before him. His nine symphonies are one of the artistic pinnacles of Western civilization, and No. 6 is my personal favorite. Imagine an idyllic walk through a central European countryside as you listen, and the music will unfold like magic.

If you like this try: Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies, symphonic works by Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. Great symphonies from other time periods include Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (the ‘Titan’), Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in C Major (the ‘Jupiter), Symphonie Fantastique (programmatic) by Hector Berlioz, Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (the ‘Pathetique) by Tchaikovsky. La Mer by Claude Debussy (also programmatic; so much so that it is considered a tone poem.)

6. George Frederic Handel, Messiah
Handel was one of the greatest composers of oratorios who ever lived. An oratorio could be thought of as an opera with no costumes, staging or movement: the singers and chorus stand there and perform a long work that typically tells a continuous story. The Messiah, usually performed around Christmas time, tells the story of the birth, life and death of Jesus. The Hallelujah chorus just might be the most well-known classical tune in the world, but there are so many great tunes here it’s impossible to list them all.

If you like this try: Handel’s other oratorios, such as Samson or Solomon. Masses by Franz Joseph Haydn, cantatas by J.S. Bach, Vivaldi’s Gloria.

7. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
This is a ballet. Before you ask me where my pink tutu is, know that this ballet is about ritualistic pagan sacrifices and ends with the slaughtering of a young girl, and was so controversial that it caused a riot when it premiered in 1913. Yes, this one was also in Fantasia (the dinosaur thing) but I’m not mining Walt Disney for music; it’s just coincidence, and the fact that this is great music. Don’t look for catchy melodies to hum in this one; it’s all atmosphere, violent, percussive clashing, atonal dissonance and off-beat rhythms. Well-worth a listen if you want to challenge yourself a bit. Listen to it three times and you’ll be hooked for life.

If you like this try: Stravinsky’s other ballet suites like The Firebird and Petrushka; Arnold Schoenberg (if the whole atonalism thing turns you on).

classical music inset

8. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli
‘Early music,’ as the term is used among musicologists, loosely describes all music before 1750, which was the end of the Baroque era. This work, composed during the Renaissance, definitely qualifies. The legend has it that the Catholic Church was considering banning all music that was polyphonic, or exhibiting two or more independent melody lines running simultaneously. ‘Too confusing and/or lascivious,’ they said. Supposedly Palestrina composed this work as a defense of polyphony, and it was heard by the proper authorities, who determined that polyphony could indeed be used in church music, and therefore this one work by Palestrina, dedicated to a pope who reigned for all of three weeks, changed the course of music history. Good story, no one really knows how much truth there is to it, but this is a summation of the finest strands of Renaissance vocal music and is stupendously, gloriously beautiful. The Kyrie especially is positively transcendental, whether or not you are the religious type.

If you like this try: Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (usually just called ‘Allegri’s Misere.’) Choral works by Thomas Tallis, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Josquin des Prez.

9. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets held the first quadrennial Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. The unlikely winner was a lanky young Texan by the name of Van Cliburn, who, even in those extremely tense, nationalistic times, so wowed the world that he became an overnight celebrity, and the Russians began calling him ‘Vanka,’ (‘our little Van’.) I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Vanka play this work live; it’s his signature piece, and with one ferocious concert he propelled it into the public consciousness forever.

If you like this try: Other good piano concertos of widely varying styles: Sergei Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3., Piano Concerto No. 5 by Beethoven (the ‘Emperor’ concerto,) Piano Concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg. Piano music generally: Beethoven’s piano sonatas (try the Hammerklavier or Sonata quasi una fantasia (‘Moonlight.), anything by Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt.

10. Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor
Shostakovich was a tragic figure whose genius managed to shine even through the stifling censorship of the Soviet regime under which he lived. The string quartet is one of the most important compositional vehicles in classical music, and Shostakovich (along with Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bela Bartok) is considered one of the masters of this form. This particular work was written over the course of a few days in Dresden in 1960 when the composer was said to have been contemplating suicide. Dark, furious, intense, melancholy, brooding—officially this work was composed as a memorial for the victims of fascism, but Shostakovich may have really intended a broader message, that of repudiation of totalitarianism in general (which would of course include the Soviet government…)

If you like this try: other Shostakovich string quartets, definitely the Beethoven string quartets (the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets are some of my favorites), String Quartet No. 12 in F (the ‘American’) by Antonin Dvorak. String quartets by Bartok, one delightful one by Debussy.

Well there you have it: my list, highly subjective, intensely ruminated over, and by no means complete. If you were to listen to all of these recordings it would give you a well-rounded feel for the vast sweep of ‘classical music,’ and expose you to the tremendous variety therein. Hit me up in the comments sections with any questions or complaints; I’ll be happy to address them.

Lorin is a long-time classical music lover and performer in the Portland area. He plays piano, mandolin, harmonica, and percussion. You can visit his blog, Musical Oozings.

  • Thomas

    Great list! I sang the top C in Allegri’s Miserere as a boy chorister. It’s a beautiful piece of music.

    One composer you didn’t mention was (the sometimes maligned) Jean Sibelius. His Second Symphony is masterful.

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  • http://scorciapino.com k

    This is just wrong! The 10 pieces every man should know are:

    Goldberg Variations
    St. Matthew Passion
    Art of the Fugue
    The Musical Offering
    The famous ciaccona for solo violin
    The well tempered clavier
    The french suites
    The italian concertos
    BWV82 – Ich habe genug
    BWV147 – Stirb in mir

    All by Master J.S. Bach

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  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    @K, that wouldn’t be very diverse, would it? ;)

  • http://propsblog.com Blake @ Props Blog Ideas

    That’s a really awesome list. I don’t know each of those pieces, however I do recognize all of those composers. Good stuff ;-) I feel more manly already
    .-= Blake @ Props Blog Ideas´s last blog ..5 Flash Maze Challenges to Strain Your Brain =-.

  • http://everythingishistory.com Tamahome Jenkins

    This is a good list, but every man should know at least 50 pieces of classical music…that way, my favorites like “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber or “Deux Arabesques” by Debussy could make the list ;)
    .-= Tamahome Jenkins´s last blog ..Who was Alfred Nobel? =-.

  • Scott

    I think it is important to note that this should be a list for men who have no interest in seriously pursuing classical music but who never-the-less feel the desire to be more culturally literate.

    This list should NOT be for the man who wishes to pursue classical music more fully and who wants to actually enjoy it, long-term. For such a man, there are no lists; pleasure is the law. Listen to what you like.

  • Lorin Wilkerson

    Scott–

    I get what you’re saying, but the way you’re saying it might make someone who used this list as it is intended feel like a dick. Most men who do have a desire to ‘pursue it seriously’ (whatever that may mean) probably are already doing so, and this article was in no way intended as a ‘be-all-and-end-all’ of classical music. It is intended as a jumping-off point, a reference for someone who may be curious but is unsure just how wide a variety of music fits under the term ‘classical,’ or what might appeal to them.

    I completely reject the notion that one has to ‘pursue classical music’ seriously; in fact I think that idea is closely related to the snobbish effrontery that is one of the biggest problems with the overall perception of this great music, and one of the biggest barriers to more people exposing themselves to it: that is is somehow only for those with serious intent. The fact is, it is another style of music that someone may enjoy completely without feeling the need to make it a primary focus of their life or making it their favorite type of music.

    If I had to name a goal for this article, it would be for as many guys as possible to at least dabble their toes a little bit and include a couple Bach or Mozart discs in their collection, not to convince one guy to become a total classical music geek like me. Listen to what you like–absolutely. But it’s a little hard to listen to what you like if you’re unsure of what that is. That’s the whole point of this little list of mine.

  • http://www.listerart.com Gary

    Those are all great! I also recommend Gustav Holst – The Planets Suite, esp. ‘Mars – The Bringer of War’. John Williams’ orchestral music for Star Wars was not much more than a swipe from this suite.

  • sophiee

    Great list!
    I also really like Claire de Lune (by Debussy) and i’m in love with Comptine D’Un Autre Ete (by Yann Tiersen) at the moment. It is such a beautiful piece of music (listening to it right now ;p)

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      Sophiee thank you for the suggestions! I’ll have to check those out also.

  • Mike

    Mozart’s C major “Jupiter” symphony is Symphony no. 41, not Symphony no. 25 (Symphony no. 25, K183, is the famous G minor symphony at the beginning of Amadeus).

  • Lorin Wilkerson

    Thanks for the correction Mike; you are right. My error notwithstanding, I think either the Jupiter (#41) or the famous G minor (#25) are both great introductions to the symphonic milieu.

  • Devin

    WHERE’S CHOPIN?!

  • Lorin Wilkerson

    Devin–

    Right there in No. 9.

  • Palmetto

    Lorin, asking as a complete newbie, what do you mean when you refer to a work as ‘programmatic’ or a ‘program music’?

  • Robin

    Thank you!!I am absolutely new to the classics and this is a great jumping-off point.Thanks also for defending us that are not so”literate” and are not pursuing the classics for long-term study.I just love the sounds so much.Everyone should be able to experience fine music!:):)

  • Lorin Wilkerson

    Palmetto– Dictionary definition of programmatic (or program) music: a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The artist (Vivaldi in this case) attempts to paint a musical picture if you will–there are very specific scenes and images associated with the music, like shepherds sleeping under a tree on a lazy afternoon, a violent storm rolling in, peasants partying at a barn dance in autmn after the harvest, walking across slippery ice on a cold winter’s night.

    Robin–Good to know! Have fun enjoying the incredible, limitless sound worlds of classical music! It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, except every ending is good.

  • Paul Weinstock

    Interesting selection.  I place Mendelssohn’s 4th symphony first, because of the great joy it exudes.  It is closely followed by Brahms’ 3rd symphony because of its beauty.  Third must be Pictures at an Exhibition, the version orchestrated by Ravel.  The Great Gate of Kiev will educe emotion in anyone!  Next is the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.  It has great beauty without being impossible to play.  I have to put Four Seasons by Vivaldi next, but the Eddie Daniels jazz fusion version, substituting jazz clarinet for the violins.  It is absolutely awesome.  I agree the Beethoven’s 6th, especially movement 1, should come next, then the Tchaikovsky #1 Piano Concerto, then Schubert’s Unfinished #8.  If we can classify Rhapsody in Blue as classical, that is #9.  Let us finish with Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.  By the way, if any of you went to the NY World’s Fair in 1964-65, that piece was the theme of the Traveler’s Insurance Exhibit.

  • Klacy2000

  • Wendell

    These pieces are all over the map, and it is highly unlikely that any neophyte is going to like more than a few of them. In addition, they are works that you probably favor. I would have made a completely different list. Also, we have all been listening to classical music whether we know it or not, as movie background music, and even cartoons.

  • Patterman

    The question which is the greatest piece of music ever written is absurd, of course. But this is a very good list, anyway.

  • as is

    #7 reminds me of some of the old startrek tv show lol