Classical music has stood the test of time for many reasons, its beauty, complexity, and the vastness of repertoire have inspired audiences for hundreds of years. Within classical music, there are several pieces that have become iconic through use in special events such as graduations, weddings, classic films, and even cartoons! In this list, we’ll take a closer look at just a handful of the many iconic pieces of classical music.
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by J.S. Bach
This piece by Bach might not have the catchiest title, but we guarantee you’ll know the famous opening. It has become associated with intense or even scary moments in film and popular culture, perhaps because it famously made an appearance in the opening credits of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Bach’s extraordinary talent and powerful compositional voice are on full display in his Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the first on our list of some of the most iconic classical music compositions ever written.
Video Performance by Xaver Varnus.
Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, "Für Elise" by Ludwig Van Beethoven
This piece was never published during Beethoven’s lifetime. In fact, “Für Elise” wasn’t even discovered until forty years after his death in 1827. As a result, no one’s quite sure who the Elise of the title was. Some musicologists even think the title might have been copied incorrectly and it was originally called ”Für Therese.” But no matter the identity of the fortunate beneficiary of this work’s dedication, we can all agree that it’s one of the most charming compositions for piano ever written. With its simple yet catchy melody and timeless beauty, Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor has inspired countless reinterpretations.
Video Performance by Georgii Cherkin.
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No.2, "Moonlight" by Ludwig Van Beethoven
In contrast to “Für Elise,” the Moonlight Sonata became a popular favorite during Beethoven’s lifetime and remains one of the most beloved compositions of his life’s work to this day. Beethoven wrote his Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor in his early thirties and dedicated it to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, who studied piano with the composer. If you’ve ever taken piano lessons, been with someone taking piano lessons, or even just tried your hand at the keys to make some familiar music, you probably know the opening to the Moonlight Sonata very well.
Video Performance by Andrea Romano.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
This symphony by Beethoven opens with perhaps the four most famous notes of all time – known to many simply as: da da da duuum!. Some critics have suggested that this opening represents the sound of Fate knocking at the door. We can’t know for sure what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote this timeless opening to his Symphony No. 5 in C minor – but what’s beyond a shadow of a doubt is that this piece easily ranks in the top 10 most iconic, reaching beyond its genre and making an appearance in films, advertising, and even pop songs.
Video Performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
This piece is Beethoven’s final complete symphony. It was first performed in Vienna in 1824 and continues to be performed all over the world. The 9th Symphony marked the first time a major composer added voices to a symphony, opening a new door for creative expression and giving the human voice new power and placement as an instrument that belongs among the finest orchestra members, in the grandest compositions. Lots of listeners feel Beethoven “saved the best for last”, with the symphony’s final movement based on the Ode to Joy. Whatever your favorite moment is, it’s clear that Beethoven’s Choral Symphony is groundbreaking, powerful, and truly iconic.
Video Performance by London Symphony Orchestra.
"Ave Maria" by Charles Gounod
When a thirty-something Charles Gounod decided to improvise a melody for the “Ave Maria” text, he designed it to be superimposed over a well-established keyboard piece: Prelude No. 1 in C major, BWV 846, from Book I of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Written for solo voice and piano, Gounod’s “Ave Maria” is also frequently performed in a wide array of instrumental arrangements. We think this composition is a stunning example of how borrowing from one of the best, and repurposing with great talent and thoughtfulness, can result in something both new and familiar, and altogether extraordinary.
Video Performance by Maria Callas.
"Messiah" by George Frideric Handel
It is difficult to put into words just what makes Handel’s Messiah iconic. This Baroque oratorio, originally composed to be performed in celebration of the Christian Easter holiday, is now a near-permanent fixture during the Christmas season as well, and its artistic power expands well beyond any specific holiday or faith. From its memorable melodies to its celebrated choruses, Messiah is a grand and radiant display of the power of classical music to move humanity, and share stories as no other art form can.
Video performance by Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Serenade No. 13 in G Major, K 525, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The incandescently brilliant Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed music for 30 of his 35 years, and today his name is known by nearly everyone in the world. Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) is arguably his most recognizable work, especially its first movement. Outside of the concert hall and classical recordings, you’re likely to hear it pacifying phone users on hold and to sell a dizzying array of products. With his infamous sense of humor, the composer may have had quite a laugh at this!
Video performance by Slovak Chamber Orchestra.
"The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II
Known even in his day as “The Waltz King”, Johann Strauss is a somewhat example of a classical composer who attained the equivalent of modern rock-star acclaim in his lifetime. The Blue Danube* is the best-known of his works—a significant ranking as Strauss’ written repertoire includes 500+ pieces of dance music (waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, etc.) plus several operettas and a ballet. But even casual listeners unfamiliar with the composer will recognize this piece as the epitome of a waltz—and so we also rank it among the top ten most iconic pieces.
* aka An der schönen, blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube), Op. 314
Video performance by Zubin Mehta & the Vienna Philharmonic.
"Introduction, or Sunrise," from Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Richard Strauss
Richard and Johann Strauss were not related, but they share a posthumous debt to Stanley Kubrick, who included Johann’s most famous piece (see above) and Richard Strauss’ Einleitung (Introduction) in the soundtrack of his now-iconic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since the film, The Einleitung* has been widely used in pop culture and advertising. It can’t be denied that this is some of the most compelling and engaging music ever written—but it is only the beginning of an astounding musical experience.
* aka Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang
Video performance by the New York Philharmonic.