20 Iconic Works of Classical Music

French“Oh, I recognize that piece!” There are some classical pieces that have not only made their way into the musician’s repertoire but have also become popular in modern society. Maybe you’ve heard some of these pieces in movies, advertisements, or TV shows. I think you’ll have heard most of them – if not all! 

Sidenote: I know all the videos can look intimidating. You’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time to watch all those!” For this reason, I’ve started the videos at the exact point of “famousness.” Click “play” and you’ll hear the recognizable part of the piece right away. 


Also sprach Zarathustra, Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang – Richard Strauss 

Since its premiere in 1896, Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang has been a hit! It became even more popular when it was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  

Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor or “Fur Elise” – Ludwig van Beethoven 

Despite its reputation as the most overplayed work in classical music, “Fur Elise” remains a classic. No more to be said. 

The Barber of Seville, Overture – Gioacchino Rossini

The Barber of Seville is one of Rossini’s most popular operas – it’s no surprise that the overture has been hailed as a classic too. Despite The Barber of Seville’s ill-received premier, it became more popular and is still appreciated by millions. I’ve linked to the most recognizable part of the overture but I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety – it’s quite fantastic! 

The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss Jr.

“May I have this dance?” It would be hard to say no with this waltz playing in the ballroom. Without a doubt, The Blue Danube is the most famous waltz of all, composed by the King of 3/4 Time.

“Can-Can” from Orpheus in the Underworld – Jacques Offenbach

This is one of my favorite pieces on the list. It makes me want to dance around the room and type in rhythm with the music. Universally known as “Can-Can,” the real title of this piece is The Infernal Galop. It is part of an operetta by Offenbach called Orpheus in the Underworld. 

Canon in D – Johann Pachelbel  

Canon in D might be the most popular bridal processional piece out there. How many weddings have you heard it at? It’s Pachelbel’s only claim to fame, but boy is it a big claim! 

Carmina Burana, O Fortuna – Carl Orff

Sometimes called “the most overused piece of music in film history,” Carmina Burana is indeed a modern classic. O Fortuna is the most popular of the 24 poems within Carmina Burana.

Nutcracker Suite, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 

When I hear this piece, I think of fairies and perfectly white snowflakes. Few pieces are as dainty as Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies by Tchaikovsky. 

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Mozart 

Happy, happy, happy! Three cheers for Mozart! (I’m sorry. That’s just all that came to mind when I began to write a description of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, “happy, happy, happy!”) 

The Four Seasons – Antonio Vivaldi 

The Four Seasons is a true gem of the Baroque. It was originally scored as a violin concerto but has been transcribed for countless instruments, genres, and movie scores. Artists such as The Piano Guys, Hayley Westenra, Chloe Agnew, and David Garrett have added their own twists to the especially popular “Winter” movements. Here’s a video of Julia Fischer performing The Four Seasons at the gorgeous National Botanic Garden of Wales.  

Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wedding March – Felix Mendelssohn 

For my dream wedding, I would have an orchestra play Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as I make my way down the aisle. You’ve most likely heard this work in Disney films, played as Cinderella walks towards her prince. 

1812 Overture, Finale – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 

The 1812 Overture was written by Tchaikovsky to celebrate Russia’s successful defense against Napolean. It was performed at the opening of Carnegie Hall – conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. It has been hailed worldwide as a patriotic phenomenon and is often used as an accompaniment to firework displays. 

Peer Gynt Suite, Hall of the Mountain King – Edvard Grieg 

Most of you will recognize this piece from film scores. It’s often played when a character is in trouble or is realizing that he’s headed for disaster. It was composed in 1875 for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. 

Radetzky March – Johann Strauss Sr.

The Radetzky March was written in the 1840s and dedicated to Joseph Radetzky von Radetz. Since its first performance in Vienna, it has been especially popular with marching soldiers. For many years, it has closed the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert. 

Ride of the Valkyries – Richard Wagner

Originally written for the opera, Die Walküre, by Richard Wagner, this energetic work has been performed by orchestras across the world. It is especially popular as an orchestral encore and has been featured in multiple films, including The Birth of a Nation. 

Sabre Dance from Gayane – Aram Khachaturian

This work has been used in over twenty-five movies, multiple TV shows, and video games. Ice skaters have used it in their routines, and the Buffalo Sabres hockey team made it their theme song. It was even featured in the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony! This is definitely an iconic piece of classical music. 

Sleeping Beauty Suite, Waltz – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 

I can just imagine Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White dancing with their princes to this waltz. It’s one of my favorite waltzes. The bombastic beginning followed by the dreamy waltz section is just perfect in my opinion. Enjoy

Symphony No. 5 – Ludwig van Beethoven 

The first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony are the most famous in all of classical music. And not just people that listen to classical music will recognize the opening motif of “The 5th.” The famous melody has made its way into popular music and film scores. Take a listen to the Berlin Philharmonic perform possibly the most famous work of classical music. 

Symphony No. 9 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s final symphony is truly a masterpiece. Beethoven wrote it while he was almost completely deaf, yet it is applauded as one of his greatest works. It was the first major symphony to include a choir and soloists (they’re heard in the final movement). I’ve linked to one of the most famous themes, but be sure to check out the rest of the symphony when you get a chance. 

William Tell Overture, Finale – Rossini Gioacchino 

This is a piece of classical music that everyone will recognize. The finale of the overture to the opera, William Tell, has been featured in westerns, cartoons, game shows, and advertisements. For a piece of music that was written in 1828 (and for an opera, no less), it has certainly made an impact on modern society. 


I think we can agree that classical composers have produced some pretty amazing works, full of so much suspense, intensity, and beauty that we still play them hundreds of years after their composition. So, the next time you hear a disparaging remark about how “stuffy” classical music is, remember these pieces

What’s your favorite classical work? Tell me in the comments. 

Cammi 

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