For anyone studying popular classical music, it can be a daunting task to know where to begin. There are so many great pieces that a beginner can get overwhelmed. Here are 10 of the most popular classical pieces with a brief background of each. There are many others, of course, but these 10 are certainly among the most popular classical pieces of all time.
Clair de Lune is a piece by Claude Debussy, a French composer. It is the third and most popular movement of the larger Suite bergamasque. It is played pianissimo and is largely in D-flat major, with a shift to E major toward the end. Clair de Lune has been taught to students of popular classical piano for years and is prominently featured in movies and television shows.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, popularly called the Moonlight Sonata, was completed in 1801. Beethoven had begun to suffer from hearing loss prior to this and used a special rod attached to the piano’s soundboard in order to feel the vibrations and enhance his sense of the music. It was given the name Moonlight Sonata by a music critic who compared it to the moonlight shining on a lake.
Canon in D is the most well known piece by Johann Pachelbel. Originally written for three violins and basso continuo, it has since been given many different arrangements. Basso continuo refers to a group of instruments, one of which must be able to play chords. Other instruments must be able to play in the bass register, such as a cello. Canon in D is often played at weddings.
The Hallelujah Chorus is part of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. The text is from a libretto by Charles Jennens, who adapted parts of the Old and New Testaments for his composition. The Hallelujah Chorus is taken from the book of Revelation, and it is customary for audiences to stand during this movement of the Messiah.
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a piece that combines the elements of popular classical music with the popular jazz music of the era. It was commissioned as a classical element in an all-jazz concert to be presented by band leader Paul Whiteman. Known as Al Capone’s favorite song, Rhapsody in Blue has been featured in numerous films and advertisements.
The Piano Sonata in B minor is one of Franz Listz’s most popular classical solo piano works. It is a piece in the Romantic style and consists of small movements woven into a larger whole. Thematic elements are presented in each movement, although the different setting of the movements make the elements sound differently each time. In one section the melody may seem violent, yet later in the piece it becomes something beautiful in a different context.
Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler contains many of the common elements of Mahler’s work, such as the funeral march. Commentators have noted that when hearing Mahler’s Fifth “you forget that time has passed.” Scored for a large orchestra, the Fifth is considered to be Mahler’s most conventional symphony up to that point in his career. He was regarded as a highly unconventional composer until the Fifth was published.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed The Well-Tempered Clavier to instruct students in solo piano playing. He collected 24 pieces and published them in 1722 as The Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1744 he published a similar collection with the title Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues. Combined, these two books comprise The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi consists of four violin concertos. A Baroque piece from 1723, The Four Seasons is also considered a series of tone poems, as Vivaldi provided instructions with each movement. Phrases such as “the drunkards have fallen asleep” and “the barking dog” give conductors instructions about the feel of each concerto in this popular classical piece.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is one of his greatest pieces. Scored for orchestra with tympani, it contains three movements, which is common in the concertos of Mozart. Its brooding sound, enhanced by the tympani, has made it one of the most popular classical pieces of all time.
These 10 popular classical pieces are just the tip of the iceberg. Popular classical music contains thousands of compositions from composers all over the globe. Any student of popular classical music is venturing into a world full of surprises, with pieces that fit any season or mood.