Almost everyone is familiar with classical music thanks to its mainstream success throughout musical history. Far from stuffy, the genre epitomizes the technical and emotional complexity that music can achieve. For beginners who want to learn more about the genre, these four timeless pieces make for a great classical crash course.
The Firebird – Igor Stravinsky
In 1909, 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky composed the score for The Firebird, a ballet that introduced Russian folklore to Parisian audiences. The Firebird also introduced the world to the young Stravinsky, who would become one of the most influential and versatile composers of the 20th century. Here, he blends French and Russian orchestral techniques to craft a breathtaking score that is ominous and otherworldly in turn.
The Queen of the Night aria – Wolfgang Mozart
Opera is an essential component of the classical music genre. Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, premiered just two months before his death in 1791. In the performance’s second act, the Queen of the Night famously sings “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart” as she threatens to abandon and curse her daughter. Mozart wrote this aria for his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer. The tricky piece also requires an agile soprano voice with an incredible command of the upper register.
The Planets – Gustav Holst
This iconic seven movement suite shook the world upon its release in 1918. The Planets has inspired countless film scores; perhaps most notably John Williams’ Stars Wars theme. English composer Gustav Holst, who was also a music director and teacher, was inspired by the astrological personas of the seven known planets outside Earth.
He uses different orchestral styles to evoke the planets’ distinct moods. From Mars’ militant drums to Neptune’s ethereal choir, each movement paints a picture of a new world.
Symphony No.5 – Ludwig van Beethoven
One cannot discuss classical music without Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Its four opening notes alone are almost universally recognizable. Ironically, the four-movement piece premiered unceremoniously, to an exhausted crowd in a freezing cold auditorium in 1808. Only later would it be recognized as a cornerstone of classical music, and perhaps the most legendary symphony ever written.
Beethoven was in his thirties when he crafted Symphony No.5, beset by increasing deafness and the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars in Vienna. From this turmoil emerged a musical masterpiece brimming with the spirit of human triumph.