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Seven of My Favorite Classical Music Pieces

Updated on May 14, 2018
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Liz has been an online writer for over a decade. Her articles often focus on music and culture of the 20th century. She also writes poetry.

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What Is Classical Music?

Strictly defined as an era of musical sytle, classical music is anything from about 1750 to 1820. However, it may not be as cut and dried as that, given it overlaps on both ends with preceeding and following styles: the Baroque (1600 --1750), and the Romantic, (1810 - 1910).

The entire span of what many now consider as classical music can run all the way from 'early' music, dating from the Medieval (c. 500 - 1400), and the Renaissance (1400 - 1600). It rather depends upon the person to whom you are speaking, and how nit-picky you want to get.

1) Pachelbel's Canon in D

Written in about 1680 - 1690 (date references state uncertainty), by Johann Pachelbel, this has to be one of the most widely played and familiar pieces of classical music heard today, as well as the composer's most popular and often-played piece.

The full name of the piece is actually "Canon and Gigue in D Major." Originally written for violins and bass, it is often heard played on piano. Depsite the early date of the composition, fitting it solidly into the Baroque era, it was never actually published until the early 20th century.

In fact, I used a snippet of this piece myself, in a portion of a video documentary I made back in 1987. I find it so relaxing and mellow; it's an excellent choice for a meditation exercise or just to chill out and destress.

Listen to Its Soothing Sounds

2) Fur Elise

One of Ludwig van Beethoven's most enduring and familiar tunes, Für Elise comes in, as written, right at the start of the Romantic period, with an original composition date of 27 April, 1810. However, it was somehow 'lost,' until some 40 years after Beethoven's death.

Its subsequent discovery by Beethoven scholar, Ludwig Nohl, caused a bit of controversy, as to whether or not the 'original' ever actually existed; but that's a whole other article.

Formally titled, "Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor," Für Elise is heard in the background of several of movies, including such diametrically opposite flicks as "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," and "Patch Adams."

Fur Elise; Piano Solo

Which Version Do You Prefer?

Für Elise is most frequently heard in its piano format, above, but it is also transcribed for orchestra, below.

Which do you like better? Let me know in the comments.

Fur Elise With Piano and Full Orchestra

3) Also Sprach Zarathustra

This energetic gem by Richard Strauss, composed in 1896, is considered a 'tone poem. It was inspired by a Friedrich Nietzsche philosophical novel bearing the same name. This piece is formally titled "Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30."

The music has gained popularity in modern times as well. Oh, come on! Don't tell me you don't recognize this epic and dramatic opening to the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." This theme ran at the beginning, and is heard again at the movie's end.

In the middle of the movie, during a space docking sequence, we are also treated to Johann Strauss II's "Blue Danube," composed a few years earlier than the Zarathustra piece, in 1866.
(It should be noted that there is no relationship between these two Strauss composers. Johann became known as 'the Waltz King,' of which Blue Danube is one.)

Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

4) The 1812 Overture

Written by Peter Iliych Tchaikovsky in 1880, it was a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon's army in 1812. This piece, though most often heard alone, is the actual overture of a full concert, otherwise known as "The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E♭ Major, Op. 49." Since that's rather a mouthful, it's normally just called by the shorter name.

At times soft and sentimental, and other times raucous and thundering (complete with real cannon fire), it's the almost perfect piece to do housework by. Soft, flourishes with a dustcloth; slowly move to the windows, and then, off to the races, and dance like a dervish, with the vacuum cleaner as your dance partner.

Okay, maybe I'm a little bit nuts, but so are most musicians; I've never run across a lot with a more twisted sense of humor!

Listening to the piece, you at first hear snatches of Russian folk tunes, and "God Save the Tsar," and suddenly, as Napoleon approaches, in come the strains of the French national anthem, "La Marsielle!" See it performed below, by an army band, complete with actual cannon fire.

It has been used extensively in movies and ad campaigns, and poor Tchaikovsky is no doubt rolling in his grave. For, ironically, he hated this composition of his. Yes, we are all our own worst critics!

The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E♭ Major, Op. 49

5) Ode To Joy

Beethoven's Ode To Joy, from his Symphony No. 9, is a favorite toe-tapper. The first version I've chosen is a flash mob. If you don't believe me about how this piece just seems to instinctively make you want to get up and move, look around at the kids in the audience. I especially like the light-pole-climbing future conductor!

This "Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125," was Beethoven's final compositon, taking him 2 years to complete, between 1822 and 1824. The finale, "Ode to Joy" is the most commonly heard portion. His inclusion of voices with the orchestra makes it a choral symphony. This piece fits in with the Romantic era of Classical music; it was first performed in Vienna, in May of 1824.

Ode To Joy From Beethoven's 9th Symphony

Another Version

Flashmobs are always fun to watch; I only wish I could have the good fortune to stumble across such a performance one of these days.

Below, is an entirely different style of the same piece, performed by the Andre Rieu orchestra. This is full-on professional showman style, complete with some surprising special effects projections in the background. Wait for it...

Andre Rieu Orchestra

6) March of the Toreadors

This popular tune from the opera "Carmen" (Suite No. 1), by Georges Bizet, is another of the easily recognized pieces from the classical music genre.

I defy anyone to listen to this and remain sitting perfectly still. Even if you don't get up and jog about, I bet you'll still find your toes tapping!

Bizet was not a success during his lifetime, despite being a precocious young student who studied at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, being admitted a few weeks early of the minimum age requirement.

Sadly, he died at the early age of just 36 years, with only "Carmen" as a surviving compostion of his. None of his other works were appreciated in his day, and most were lost, or re-arranged by others.

As the opera is in French, I don't know the words, as indeed, I don't know the words to any of the pieces in my list, save for short snatches here and there. But, my father used to sing a very burlesqued version of the familiar mid-section of this piece, commonly called just "The Toreador Song." It is the only thing that sticks in my head: "Toreador, don't spit on the floor; use the cuspidor! Whaddya think it's for?"

I would hear my dad sing this bit when I was but a young child, and of course, being at an impressionable age, it sure stuck in my memory. I sometimes today lose track of important bits of paper, but I have never forgotten that!

March of the Toreadors From "Carmen"

7) Turkish March For 8 Pianos

This is a moderately familiar piece by our friend Beethoven, but this is a whole new way of hearing it--and seeing it--played. This is another 'get up and move' selection.

I would re-title this as "Turkish March For 8 Naked Pianos." The video makes the reason for this abundantly clear.

The piece was composed in 1811 as movement 4 of a suite of "incidental music" for a play, "The Ruins of Athens" by playwright August von Kotzebue. It was originally played with woodwinds, and was much later arranged for piano by Rubinstein.

Turkish March For 8 Pianos

In Conclusion

It is my hope that these offerings have brought you some relief from daily stressors.

Some are calming; some make you laugh; some make you want to get up and dance the hokey-pokey, or something like it.

Classical music, you see, is not all unintelligible operatic sopranos; much of it is, in fact, the basis for all music we listen to, to this day. Even modern composers often use bits of the old masters in their works, or are inspired by them to create masterworks of their own.

The number of popular songs using classical tunes is nearly too many to count. But that's material for another article.

© 2018 Liz Elias


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