The best classical music for beginners
25 May 2018, 16:15 | Updated: 20 January 2020, 15:25
Do you want to find out more about Mozart, try out some Tchaikovsky or sample of Stravinsky? Here's our classical music guide to the pieces we think are the perfect place to start
Classical music is a very broad term that includes almost everything written over the past 1,000 years… so where to start?
Well here are some of our favourite pieces that, we think, provide the perfect introduction to the wonderful, rich, varied world of classical music.
Handel – Zadok the Priest
This miniature piece by Handel has played a big part in British history: it’s been performed at the coronation of every British monarch since it was written in 1727.
The words (‘Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King’) come from the biblical account of the coronation of Solomon. The piece is one of four ‘Coronation Anthems’ composed by Handel for the coronation of King George II. But this one is by far the most famous.
And what’s more, it was the first piece ever played on Classic FM when the station launched on 7 September 1992.
Holst – The Planets
The Planets is piece for orchestra in seven sections, or movements, by Gustav Holst. Each movement is inspired by one of the planets and their characteristics as defined by astrology.
So there’s ‘Mars, the bringer of war’; ‘Jupiter, the bringer of jollity’ and ‘Venus, the bringer of Peace’. ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ are the best know, but the whole piece is completely enchanting.
Beethoven – Symphony No.5
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opens with perhaps the most famous four notes in the history of music.
The symphony has the traditional four movements (or sections), but that’s where Beethoven’s adherence to tradition stops. This is a piece that broke the mould.
Before Beethoven symphonies were much shorter, much quieter and generally a less intense affair (listen to some of Haydn’s symphonies for a comparison). With his symphonies, Beethoven marked the beginning of a new era, an era of emotion and passion.
Listen to this piece and you’re listening to the beginning of what would become the Romantic era.
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2
You might not know its name, but you almost certainly know Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. This is the *the* quintessential Romantic piano concerto for the following reasons:
1 The piano part is unbelievably difficult. It’s the perfect showcase for pianists to really show what they can do.
2 The melody is utterly gorgeous. By the end of this three-movement piece there won’t be a dry-eye in the house.
3 That beautiful lush orchestral sound. Rachmaninov’s rich harmonies and the vast size of the symphony orchestra he uses means this is the musical equivalent of a dark chocolate truffle.
Mozart – The Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute
Heard about opera but not sure where to start? Here. Here is a great place.
The Queen of the Night’s aria comes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The opera itself is a slightly odd offering about the power of love, the strength of friendship… a bird-catcher and two enchanted musical instruments.
BUT ANYWAY, this is perhaps the most famous moment and as soon as you hear it, you’ll understand why.
It’s an incredible showpiece for the soprano and always brings the house down in any performance.
Pachelbel – Canon in D
You’ve definitely heard this one before – it’s a popular piece for weddings but it also appears in films, on TV and even as hold music when you’re just trying to pay your phone bill.
Johann Pachelbel is the original one-hit wonder. He was alive in the late 17th century and did write plenty of other stuff, but somehow none of it survived apart from this short, simple Canon in D.
But its simplicity is probably why this piece survived. With its steady rhythm and gentle repetition, Pachelbel’s Canon is the perfect piece to enjoy after a long, stressful day.
Stravinsky – The Firebird
This is perhaps the polar opposite of Pachelbel’s Canon. Do not listen to this piece if you’re trying to drift off at night.
Stravinsky was a Russian composer born in 1882. He’s famous for writing The Rite of Spring which might be the only classical piece to have caused a riot.
The Firebird was originally written as a ballet and told the story of Prince Ivan, an evil sorcerer and a magical firebird.
The music is magical, creepy and catchy all at once.
Debussy – Clair de lune
If solo piano is more your thing, Debussy’s exquisite ‘Clair de lune’ is one of the best. The name means ‘Moonlight’ and the twinkling melody are supposed to paint a musical picture of the light of the moon reflected in water.
The French composer Debussy was known as an ‘Impressionist’ partly because he was writing his music around the same time that the Impressionist painters were growing in fame. But also because his music seemed to share the sense of capturing the impression of a moment or place.
There’s certainly something nocturnal about this beautiful piano piece.