Newcomers to Classical music are often a bit overwhelmed at the sheer number of composers, works, sub-genres and interpretations that are out there. To make things easier, we’ve picked our Top 50 favorite pieces of classical music – what we think of as the best of the best (you can find them on the album 50 Best Classical Hits). We’ve listed them below with a little info and a streaming link to the recording. We hope you enjoy and learn something.
1. Ludwig Van Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67: I. Allegro con brio
With its immortal opening four-note theme (“Fate knocking”), Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is one of the most instantly-recognizable pieces of Classical music. It is widely regarded as one of the most important works of its time and has been riffed on by everyone from Snoopy to Robyn Thicke, even being made into a disco hit!
2. Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 1 ‘Spring’ (Op.8 No. 1): I. Allegro
The Four Seasons is Vivaldi’s best-known work and one of the best known pieces in all of Classical music. The opening of Concerto No. 1 “Spring” is a bouncy, cheerful tune which has been used in many forms of mainstream entertainment.
3. George Frideric Handel – Messiah: Hallelujah (Chorus)
One of the most recognizable pieces in Handel’s Messiah highlights and in all of Classical music, Handel’s “Hallelujah” if featured in Part II of his Messiah oratorio which covers the Passion, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus.
4. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture, Op.49 (conclusion)
Written in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s army in 1812, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is mostly recognizable by its climactic ending featuring cannon fire, ringing chimes and brass fanfare.
5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Ave verum corpus, K.618
Mozart was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of all time, a talent unlike any other. He wrote the Ave verum corpus for his friend Anton Stoll who was the musical coordinator in the parish of Baden bei Wien, near Vienna. This piece was written less than 6 months before Mozart’s death.
6. Johann Sebastian Bach – Toccata: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is easily one of the most famous pieces in the Organ works – famously featured in the Walt Disney classic Fantasia (and haunted houses around the world!). The piece has a dark, spooky feel to it, particularly the striking opening motif.
7. Ludwig Van Beethoven – ‘Ode to Joy’ from Symphony No. 9 in D minor ‘Choral’
The ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a stirring, transcendent melody which speaks of the spiritual brotherhood shared by all people, and the joy of life. The symphony itself is an eighty-minute journey from darkness to light, its choral finale unprecedented at the time Beethoven wrote it. The story goes that Beethoven, sitting in the front row at the premiere, was so deaf at that point that his friend had to turn him around in order to see the furiously applauding audience.
8. Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings, Op.11
Often described as the “saddest classical work ever”, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings has an almost inexorable quality in the slow, steady upward movement of the haunting melody towards the hair-raising climax, before finally settling back to the subdued sorrow of the opening. The piece was famously featured in the film Platoon, and was played at the funerals of Albert Einstein, Princess Grace of Monaco and during the announcements of the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
9. Edvard Grieg – Prelude (Morning): Peer Gynt
Edvard Grieg composed Peer Gynt as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. A short piece of this work, Morning, which depicts a sunrise, is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces in music as it has been used in many different forms of entertainment, most notably in the Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny.
10. Sergei Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor: II. Adagio sostenuto (excerpt)
Rachmaninov gained immense popularity as a concerto composer and this was his most popular piece. You can hear the melody used in Eric Carmen’s popular hit “All By Myself.’
11. Jean Sibelius – Finlandia
Jean Sibelius was one of the most important figures in Finland’s struggle for independence – his music inspired the masses and instilled a powerful sense of patriotism and solidarity amongst his people. Sibelius wrote Finlandia as a protest against increasing censorship from the Russian Empire, and the gorgeous, hymn-like theme that concludes the piece became the melody for the Finnish national anthem.
12. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet (extract)
The “love theme” from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet has been used on hundreds of television shows and movies, most often during that moment when one character first spots their true love. Following a frantic opening and moody second park, the love theme comes in during Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, with the horn representing Romeo and the flute representing Juliet.
13. Gustav Holst – The Planets, Op.32: Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (conclusion)
Gustav Holst’s The Planets is a seven movement orchestral suite with each piece named after a planet in the solar system and the corresponding Roman god. The Jupiter movement depicts a parade for the King of the Gods, and the majestic main theme has been used for the melody of one of the most popular British hymns.
14. Pietro Mascagni – Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s one act operetta Cavalleria Rusticana has become the most well-known part of the work. It was famously featured at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather, Part III and the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
15. Edward Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D (Land of Hope and Glory) (conclusion)
A piece which is now associated with graduations, Pomp and Circumstance is one of the most well known pieces of classical music. The title of the piece was taken from Shakespeare’s Othello and is one of Elgar’s most popular works, with the memorable middle theme being used in the hymn “Land of Hope and Glory”, the version heard here.
16. Giuseppe Verdi – Triumphal Chorus & Grand March from Aida
Verdi’s Triumphal Chorus & Grand March is taken from his four act opera Aida, telling the tragedy of the Egyptian princess. This piece is used during one of the most exciting and extravagant scenes in the opera.
17. Jules Massenet – Méditation from Thaïs
The symphonic intermezzo is taken from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. This enchanting piece was played in between the scenes of Act II, and has become famous for the soothing, searching beauty of its violin part.
18. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1: I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso (opening)
The lushly romantic first theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 has been a mainstay in pop culture including being used as the theme to Orson Welles’s famous radio series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
19. Joseph Haydn – The Creation: The heavens are telling
The heavens are telling is taken from the beginning of The Creation by Joseph Hayden – a choral work which dramatically describes the creation of the world from the book of Genesis – and features a lovely interplay between the soloist and the chorus.
20. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat K495: III. Rondo (Allegro vivace)
The manuscript to Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 was written in red, green, blue and black ink, leading to some to question whether it was some kind of color code. Others consider the colors Mozart’s attempt to rattle his friend and performer Joseph Leutgeb. Regardless, it’s a rousing, charming piece.
21. Sergey Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet – Suites Nos.1 & 2: Montagues and Capulets (Dance of the Knights) (extract): Suite No. 2, Op.64 b
Montagues and Capulets is taken from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, which tells the tragic story of the star cross’d lovers musically. The scene described is one of violent marching and fighting.
22. Alexander Borodin – Polovtsian Dances (beginning) from Prince Igor
The Polovtsian Dances open the third act of Borodin’s unfinished work Prince Igor. It is the most popular piece in the play, with delicate melodic lines leading up to an exciting conclusion.
23. Gabriel Faure – Requiem, Op.48: IV. Pie Jesu
The heart-breaking melody in this solo movement from Fauré’s Requiem sings of a prayer to Jesus to have mercy on the souls of the departed.
24. Ludwig Van Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 in A Op. 92: II. Allegretto (abbrev. version)
At its debut, Beethoven claimed that Symphony No. 7 was one of his best works, with its second movement, allegretto, being so popular that it was played again as an encore. The piece has a repeating theme which gradually builds as other instruments continue to come in on top.
25. Aram Khachaturian – Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 2: Adagio
Taken from Khachaturian’s ballet SpartacusM., the atmospheric Suite No. 2 was also used in the Athens Olympics during the ball routine, the 2009 World Figureskating Championships Ice Dance competition and in major motion pictures such as Caligula and Disney’s Ice Age films.
26. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Op.35: The Story of the Kalender Prince (opening)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade is on a staple of the classical music repertoire, telling the swashbuckling tale in musical form. The Story of the Kalendar Prince movement features an extended violin intro and moody, exotic melodies.
27. Edvard Grieg – Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.16: I. Allegro molto moderato (excerpt)
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s windswept Piano Concerto in A minor the composer’s most popular work and has appeared in various forms of pop culture including film, television and theatre.
28. Gabriel Faure – Requiem, Op.48: In Paradisum
The celestial, peaceful nature of Fauré’s Requiem mass is encapsulated in the In Paradisum movement, where the composer shows us a blissful eternity of rest following death. The entire requiem portrays death as a happy deliverance, contrary to some of the more dramatic Requiem masses composed around the same time.
29. Johann Sebastian Bach – Concerto for 2 Violins in D Major, BWV 1043: Largo ma non tanto
The lovely Largo ma non tanto from Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins is a quintessential baroque slow movement, stately and elegant with the intertwining lines of the two violins balanced by the gentle rocking accompaniment from the orchestra.
30. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Requiem in D Minor, K.626: 6. Lacrimosa
Taken from Mozart’s final work – his Requiem mass, which has long been surrounded in mystery and myth – this somber, wrenching piece tells of the “day of tears,” when the final judgment of Heaven is passed on mankind.
31. Sergei Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor: I. Allegro ma non tanto (excerpt)
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is one of the most technically challenging works in the standard classical repertoire. It is often feared by many of the finest pianists in the world do to its immense difficulty, and you can hear from the flurry of notes that this is on piece for the faint of heart…
32. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular ballet The Nutcracker remains to this day a childhood favorite and a tradition around the holidays. The Dance of the Reed Pipes is one of the most memorable sections.
33. Ludwig Van Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’: V. Allegretto (Shepherds’ Hymn)
Beethoven’s famous five-movement Symphony No. 6, often referred to as the ‘Pastoral Symphony’, is one of Beethoven’s few works that contained explicitly programmatic content – describing the composer’s various visions of nature. The finale describes a scene where shepherds give thanks with a hymn after the passing of a violent storm.
34. John Milford Rutter – Cantique De Jean Racine (arr. after Fauré)
John Rutter is a contemporary British composer of mostly choral music. The Cantique De Jean Racine was composed by Gabriel Faure, but Rutter famously arranged it for strings and harp, and this is the version most commonly heard.
35. Johann Strauss I – Radetzky March, Op.228
The Radetzky March was dedicated to the Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, as Strauss was asked to write a piece for a celebration of Radetsky’s victory at the Battle of Custoza. When the piece was first played in front of the Austrian officers, they started to clap their hands and stomp their feet, a tradition that is kept alive to this day when the piece is played in venues in Vienna.
36. Franz Schubert – Deutsche Messe D. 872: Zum Sanctus
Although not widely appreciated while he was alive, Schubert has come to be considered one of the leaders of the early Romantic era in music and he remains one of the most frequently performed composers. Even though he died at age 31, Schubert had written 600 Lieder, nine symphonies (including the famous “Unfinished Symphony”), liturgical music, operas, some incidental music, and a large body of chamber and solo piano music. This peaceful, pious “Sanctus” from one of his masses is an example of how the composer balanced emotion with restraint.
37. Cesar Franck – Panis angelicus
Panis angelicus, which means ‘bread of angels’, is hymn originally written for the Feast of Corpus Christie. Franck’s version of the hymn became the most popular and a highlight of his career
38. Camille Saint-Saens – Symphony No. 3, ‘Organ’ Op. 78: Maestoso Allegro
Commonly known as the ‘Organ Symphony’, Camille Saint-Saens himself admitted that the Symphony No. 3 was his greatest work. It was his last attempt at the symphonic form, and the composer claimed that he gave he gave everything he was able to give to this masterful piece.
39. George Frideric Handel – Zadok the Priest
One of four of Handel’s coronation anthems, Zadok the Priest is a choral symphony with its lyrics taken from the Saint James Bible. It was written for the coronation of George II of Great Britain on 1727 and has subsequently been used at every British Coronation ever since.
40. Johann Sebastian Bach – Zion hört die Wächter singen (from Cantata No. 140)
This Church Canatata from Bach is also known as ‘Sleepers Wake’. It is based on the hymn Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and remains popular today in both German and translations in English.
41. John Williams – Schindler’s List – Theme
John Williams may be the most famous movie soundtrack composer of all time. Creating timeless theme songs for some of the most popular movies of all time including Star Wars, E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones, Jaws and Jurassic Park, John Williams soundtrack from Schindler’s List won the Academy Award and the BAFTA Award for “Best Original Score” and the Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television.”
42. Jean Sibelius – Karelia Suite, Op.11: III. Alla marcia
Sibelius’ Karelia Suite is a series of works that he wrote in 1893 for a patriotic historical pageant, including the exhilarating march found here.
43. George Frideric Handel – Solomon, HWV 67: The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:
From his oratorio Solomon, this stately and elegant procession depicts the Ethiopian queen arriving to visit King Solomon, and has since become a favorite at weddings and other formal events.
44. Dmitri Shostakovich – Romance from the Gadfly
The Gadfly was a Soviet film based on the novel of the same name. Shostakovich’s “Romance,” with its beautiful violin melody, may be best known as the theme for the BBC/PBS mini-series Reilly, Ace of Spies based on Russian adventurer Sidney Reilly.
45. Gregorio Allegri – Miserere a 9 (vv.1-4 & 17-20)
Allegri’s “Have mercy on me, O God” as it is translated to English, is a setting Psalm 51 and was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII. It is a complex choral piece, with an eerie, mysterious ambience.
46. Hector Berlioz – L’Enfance du Christ Op. 25: L’Adieu des bergers (Shepherds’ Farewell)
L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), is based on the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece, and this tender choral section describes the shepherds saying goodbye to the baby Jesus as he leaves Bethlehem.
47. Charles Gounod – Sanctus: St Cecilia Mass
Gounod was taught to play piano by his mother and actually considered joining the priesthood before returning to composition. The Saint Cecilia Mass cemented Gounod’s fame as a noteworthy composer, and this Sanctus movement is full of energy and religious fervor.
48. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Solemn Vespers K.339: Laudate Dominum
The extraordinary beauty of this gentle hymn of praise is a perfect example of Mozart’s ability to infuse his music with a gentle, understated spirituality.
49. Giuseppe Verdi – Messa da Requiem: Ingemisco
Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, is a stormy, dramatic (almost operatic) requiem mass which was composed in memoriam of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and novelist whom Verdi much admired. This Ingemisco section is a tenor solo in which the soloist sings of the suffering of mankind (heard here is the world-renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti)
50. George Frideric Handel – Messiah: I know that my Redeemer liveth (soprano solo)
While not as popular as the “Hallelujah” chorus, this soprano solo is infused with optimism and hope, with a beautiful main melody and variations.