The International Observer’s 25 Greatest Classical Compositions

25. Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”) and Piano Sonata No. 8 (“Pathetique”)

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

Year of Composition: 1801 and 1798

Country of Composition: Austria

How do you create a list of 25 compositions and actually include 26? It’s easy. Just cheat and manufacture a “tie” at number 25. These two piano sonatas by Beethoven are beautiful, even if it’s very likely you have heard them both a million times before.

The arpeggios of the “Moonlight” Sonata create a trance-like vibe that was certainly not typical of sonatas at the time of its composition. It would probably not be an overstatement to state that this sonata is the most recognizable piano piece ever composed. The “Pathetique” Sonata owes much to the writings of Schiller and its title has more in common with the meaning of the word “pathos” than the modern term “pathetic.”

24. Midsummers Nights Dream

Composer: Felix Mendelssohn

Year of Composition: 1826

Country of Composition: Germany

This piece was composed as an accompaniment to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays about the darker aspects of love. When a member of the royal family used a portion of this work, The Wedding March, to mark her own wedding, Mendelssohn’s work became the overwhelming favorites of brides in which to walk down the aisle.

23. William Tell Overture

Composer: Gioachino Rossini

Year of Composition: 1829

Country of Composition: Italy

Will it ever be possible to separate the William Tell Overture from The Lone Ranger? Maybe not, but this piece may be the most appropriated classical composition ever. Cigarettes, tennis shoes, pizza, and cars have all tried to sell their products by featuring it in advertisements.

The original composition was meant to display life in the Swiss Alps and was featured in the opera William Tell, which told the story of 13th century Austrian occupied Switzerland.

22. Nessun Dorma

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Year of Composition: 1926

Country of Composition: Italy

Originally a part of a Puccini opera, “Nessun Dorma” did not achieve general fame until Pavarotti performed it during the 1990 World Cup. The original Puccini opera, Turandot, is among his most beautiful. The opera tells the story of the cold-hearted Princess Turandot whose heart is won by Prince Calaf.

21. Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”)

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Year of Composition: 1788

Country of Composition: Austria

This was Mozart’s last Symphony, composed in a flurry with other compositions during the final summer of his life. Sir George Grove called it the greatest orchestral work prior to the French Revolution. It was also the longest symphony ever composed by Mozart.

The “Jupiter” Symphony (a name not used by Mozart) bridged romantic and baroque music and drew heavily on the work of both Joseph and Michael Haydn.

20. Sonata in B Minor

Composer: Franz Liszt

Year of Composition: 1853

Country of Composition: Hungary

No body much cared for this sonata when Franz Liszt first published it in 1853. It was complicated and difficult to play. Composer Johannes Brahms reportedly found it so boring that he fell asleep while it was being performed. But, time has been extremely kind the “Sonata in B Minor.”

No one besides Liszt was able to so perfectly marry the symphony and sonata as he does here, in a piece dedicated to Robert Shumann, and is a perfect example of Liszt’s desire to create an entirely new form, rather than simply making incremental changes within the existing form of composition.

Sadly, the person for whom this piece was dedicated never got to enjoy it. Schumann was already in an insane asylum when the piece was completed. He died there a short time later.

19. String Quartet No. 14

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

Year of Composition: 1826

Country of Composition: Germany

This quartet, the best one that Beethoven wrote, takes its listeners on a journey from the C# minor key it begins in to its conclusion in C# major. Just what that journey is will vary among listeners.

The piece starts out with a slow heart wrenching fugue, which presents musical ideas that can heard and detected throughout the entire work. The opening fugue is alluded to again in the finale, creating a circularity to the piece that had not before been widely attempted. Beethoven also alludes to his own “Missa solemnis,” which would see to indicate that this string quartet had some religious significance for its composer.

After hearing the piece for the first time, composer Robert Shumann said, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

18. 7th Symphony

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

Year of Composition: 1813

Country of Composition: Germany

Europe’s Napoleonic Wars provided Beethoven with the raw material necessary to compose his 7th Symphony. Audiences in Vienna, weary from war with France, were instantly drawn to the compositions joy and optimism. One contemporary newspaper said that the reaction from the audience was so positive at hearing the new work that its “applause rose to the point of ecstasy.”

In a departure for Beethoven, rather than experimenting and communicating via melody, the attraction of the symphony is in its rhythm. Indeed, the introduction lingers on a single pitch at varying rhythmic intervals. The fever of the piece builds to a frenzy in its conclusion, where it becomes a celebration of overcoming obstacles and life itself.

17. Requiem (Verdi)

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Year of Composition: 1874

Country of Composition: Italy

Alessandro Manzoni was one of the most important Italian novelists who ever lived. In his most famous work, “The Betrothed,” he sharply criticized the Austrian Empire and threw his support behind an Italian state. He lived until he was 88 years old before dying in 1873. The Italian born Verdi was an enormous admirer of Manzoni and wrote this Requiem in his memory, after being so sad at his death that he could not even attend the funeral.

This “Requiem,” like all others, is a mass. Verdi himself was not a believer. That did not mean he was not a man of great spirituality and compassion. Those qualities shine through here.

A beautiful tale of the song’s impact comes from Theresienstadt Concentration Camp near Prague in 1945. The Jewish singers were continually rotated out because most of them perished in the gas chambers. Despite being mocked by the guards for singing their own requiem, the performances breathed life into those who were able to survive – particularly the sections illuminating God’s justice on the wicked.

16. Peer Gynt

Composer: Edvard Grieg

Year of Composition: 1875

Country of Composition: Norway

“Peer Gynt” was composed as a companion to the famous Ibsen play of the same name, the tale of the Norwegian title character who treks to North Africa, falls to rock bottom, and ultimately finds redemption. Grieg poured more of himself into this work than any of his others, spending eighteen months of his life on it before its completion.

Neither Grieg or Ibsen were initially happy with the results, despite audiences sharply disagreeing with their assessments. It led to Grieg refashioning the companion music into stand-alone pieces.

15. Air on G String

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

Year of Composition: 1730

Country of Composition: Germany

Bach’s “Air on G String” is so well known it would be shocking if someone had not been introduced to it. It is part of a larger work, Bach’s third Orchestral Suite, and achieved its present notoriety from a 1871 arrangement by August Wilmhelmj, who by transposing the key was able to have the entire piece played from a single violin string – the “G string.”

It has been played in numerous television shows, films, and advertisements. Procul Haram’s 1966 hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was also derivative of it.

14. Nocturne in Eb Major

Composer: Frederic Chopin

Year of Composition: 1832

Country of Composition: Poland

Music always seems miraculous in the moments when it defines thoughts and feelings in the absence of words, not matter how often it has risen to that occasion in the past. That makes Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb Major among the most miraculous compositions ever. A single melodic theme is continually re-spun and variated until being resolved in the conclusion.

Władysław Żeleński wrote in 1899: “Chopin was always enamored of flowing song, and we know that Italian song was always his ideal. The charms of Chopin’s melody never fade, as our master coupled it to a singularly deep harmony and highly original rhythms.”

13. Concerto No. 1 in Bb Minor

Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Year of Composition: 1875

Country of Composition: Russia

After receiving criticism on its first publication, Tchaikovsky reworked this piece throughout his life, completing the final version in 1888.

Today the Concerto remains as one of the great examples of romanticism. A 1958 recording by pianist Van Cliburn became the first classical composition to sell one million records.

12. The Rite of Spring

Composer: Igor Stravinsky

Year of Composition: 1913

Country of Composition: Russia

The early twentieth century was a time when fundamental assumptions about life and art were being challenged. Science was telling the world that space and time were different than popularly conceived, Freud was telling the same world that the invisible world of the mind is more important than outward behavior. The novel was on its way to being reimagined by the likes of Joyce and Proust. Within the musical realm, the reimagining of the period fell to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, whose ode to the mystical powers of the spring completely changed how music was written and perceived.

In order to focus attention on the intricate and dynamic rhythms, the melody is sparse. That focus shifted the twentieth century towards overlapping rhythms and away from complex melodies and harmonies. More than that, whereas music had traditionally been organic and evolving, Stravinsky organized “The Rite of Spring” with sharp changes that were reminiscent of the abstraction of Picasso and Kandinsky.

11. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff

Year of Composition: 1934

Country of Completion: Switzerland

Rachmaninov lived in a world that had passed him by – in his music, but also in his love for the Russian Czars and the home country he was never able to return to. The romantic composer gave every bit of himself to his compositions of sorrow and loss, mirroring his own frequent depression. There may not be another composer whose work is so personal.

“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” like many of Rachmaninov’s compositions drew upon the Catholic “Dies Irae” as well as Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24.”

10. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

Year of Composition: 1723

Country of Composition: Germany

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (commonly seen in German as Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe or Jesus bleibet meine Freunde) is from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, written in 1716 when the Bachs lived in Weimar and revised for later use in Leipzig in 1723.  The music appears twice, as both the sixth and tenth movements of the cantata, hence the two different German titles.  It has become famous separately from the cantata, and is often played at slow tempos.  However, Bach may have intended for it to be more upbeat: the text describes the author’s close and friendly relationship with Jesus in very familiar and joyful terms.

9. O Mio Babbino Caro

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Year of Composition: 1918

Country of Composition: Italy

From Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi,” this song (which translates as “Oh, My Beloved Father”) contains lyrics in which Lauretta attempts to convince her father that she is genuinely in love with Rinuccio, who her father disapproves of. In the song, Lauretta tells her father that she will commit suicide if she cannot marry Rinuccio. It turns out that Runuccio is not such a swell guy after all.

8. Adagio for Strings

Composer: Samuel Barber

Year of Composition: 1936

Country of Composition: United States

One of the more recent (and depressing) classics on the list, Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was composed in 1936. Barber sent the score of the composition to Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. When Toscanini returned the score without comment to Barber, Barber took great offense and assumed that Toscanini was unimpressed. In reality, the conductor had memorized the entire score and was preparing to perform it throughout Europe.

It was among John F. Kennedy’s favorite compositions and Jackie arranged to have it played after his death in his honor. The BBC also played it in memory of Princess Diana.

7. 1812 Overture

Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Year of Composition: 1882

Country of Composition: Russia

Seventy years after Russia’s successful defense of the motherland against Napoleon’s army, Tchaikovsky commemorated the event with the first performance of the “1812 Overture” in Moscow.

The piece begins with the sparse instrumentation of strings in prayer for God to deliver Russia, and then mirrors, in an almost literal sense, the battles that followed.

It is still a composition of great patriotic pride in Russia, and one of the most recognizable classical pieces throughout the world.

6. 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy)

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

Year of Composition: 1824

Country of Composition: Germany

It’s likely that there has never been a greater celebration of music than Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the final movement of the 9th Symphony. The composition was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” about the unity of mankind. About twenty other compositions setting this to music were done in addition to Beethoven’s. But, Beethoven’s is certainly the most famous and is particularly noteworthy for his use of singers – the reason why it is also known as the “Choral Symphony.” At its first performance, the audience threw their hats toward the composer in appreciation, knowing that the deaf Beethoven could not hear their applause.

“Ode to Joy” is the official anthem of the European Union.

5. Ave Maria

Composer: Franz Schubert

Year of Composition: 1825

Country of Composition: Austria

The “Ave Maria” is Latin for “Hail Mary,” a prayer offered by Catholics asking for the help of Mary and is based upon the Gospels of Luke and John.

Schubert’s direct inspiration was the narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake” by Walter Scott. One character in the poem, Ellen Douglas, prays to Mary and this prayer is what Schubert intended to put to music. The complete section from Scott is below.

Ave Maria ! maiden mild !
Listen to a maiden’s prayer !
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banished, outcast, and reviled—
Maiden ! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child !
Ave Maria !

Ave Maria !  undefiled !
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem with down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;
Then, Maiden ! hear a maiden’s prayer,
Mother, list a suppliant child !
Ave Maria !

Ave Maria !  stainless styled !
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled:
Hear for a maid a maiden’s prayer,
And for a father hear a child !
Ave Maria !

4. Brandenburg Concerto

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

Year of Composition: 1620

Country of Composition: Germany

The Brandenburg Concertos are the crowning achievement of one of the great minds of Western history. The six concertos were only referred to as the “Brandenburg Concertos” after Bach had already died, by a biographer. Bach presented them as gift for a Brandenburg Prince, never realizing how profound an influence they would have on future musicians.

An illuminating back story for the first performances of these Concertos also exists. Freidrich Wilhelm I ascended to the throne in Prussia in 1713. He was not someone given to artistic pursuits, caring about little but the military. The musicians that had been playing in Berlin needed a new home. They found it in Saxony with Bach, who would not likely had the talent to compose for otherwise.

3. Four Seasons

Composer: Antonio Vivaldi

Year of Composition: 1721

Country of Composition: Italy

Some artists struggle in anonymity in their work – refusing to divulge too much of the personal out of fear of making their accomplishments tied too greatly to anything specific. That was not true of Verdi, who published companion poetry to each of “The Four Seasons” to aid listeners in interpretation.

Verdi was particularly inspired by the painter Marco Ricci, who painted landscapes including the one shown below.

2. Claire de Lune

Composer: Claude Debussey

Year of Composition: 1890

Country of Composition: France

Debussey’s masterpiece was inspired by a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine, shown below. “Clair de Lune” means moonlight in French.

Athlyn Green once captured the power of “Clair de Lune” best by saying:

“Every once in a while, a person hears a piano piece and is so moved that even if only a novice piano player, they decide that if they learn one piece only, that that one is the one. For many, that one piece has been Claire de Lune. Unsurprisingly, this haunting piece has been played by pianists the world over who have strived to master its intricacies and do it justice.”

 

Your soul is a delicate landscapeWhere roam charming masks and

Where roam charming masks and bergamasques

Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost

Sad under their whimsical disguises.

While singing in a minor key

Of victorious love and easy life

They don’t seem to believe in their happiness

And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the sad and beautiful moonlight,

Which makes the birds in the tree dream

And sob with ecstasy the water streams,

The great slim water streams among the marbles.

1. Requiem

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Year of Composition: 1790

Country of Composition: Austria

The final composition of Mozart’s life, he had not fully completed “Requiem” at the time of his death. The piece was commissioned by an aristocrat whose wife had died. Mozart’s wife concealed the fact that the piece was unfinished when Mozart died so she could collection the amounts outstanding from the commission. To do so she commissioned other composers to secretly complete the piece.

“Requiem” plays a major role in the ending to the film Amadeus, as Salieri tries to get Mozart to finish the piece before his death. Although this tale is apocryphal it is hard to believe that anyone could not have an emotional reaction to hearing the “Requiem.” Requiems were common pieces to be played at a mass for someone who has died, but no requiem, and for that matter no classical piece, can rival the beauty that Mozart spit out on his deathbed.

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