Famous Classical Music

Famous Classical Music Explained

Ba Ba Ba Baaaaah – almost everybody will recognize this famous classical music piece, but fewer know that it is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and an even smaller number of people understands the structure of it.

Being the first article on music, I would like to introduce you to three famous classical masterpieces:

  1. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
  2. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Just these three pieces are used for everything from feature films to television commercials. Some even become shorthand for things like triumph, grandeur, or serenity. But surely these works offer so much more, if only we can leave all previous hearings of the works at the mental door.

Second painting of Ludwig van Beethoven by Michel Katzaroff

Second painting of Ludwig van Beethoven by Michel Katzaroff

The popularity of the works means they are included in numerous orchestra repertories and even more albums. Sometimes these recordings are jewels to behold, and other times they aren’t worth the mass-produced packaging they’re stored in.

Chosen works and omissions

The list of well-known classics is potentially endless. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise, Chopin’s Minuet Waltz, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier or St Matthew Passion, the Ride of the Valkyrie’s from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Handle’s Messiah, Mozart’s Magic Flute or Marriage of Figaro, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and so on and so on.

Each of these works possesses a beauty that preserves its reputation as one of the most recognized compositions of the last 300 years (well all except for the Moonlight Sonata, even Beethoven found people’s constant reference to that work tiresome). I have thus had to limit the article to works I consider to be best known (either due to use or to reference in popular culture) and thus have some merit in being listed here.

The graceful portrait of the elegant Mozart

The graceful portrait of the elegant Mozart

The Playful Classicist: Mozart

Works by Mozart such as the first movement of Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, the overture from the Marriage of Figaro and the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, are recognized, but often only the initiated know that the piece is by Mozart. The grace, poise, and delightfulness of the pieces are appreciated for their aural quality, or at least, were. Now, like the other works listed in this article, they are often caricatures, stereotypes, shorthand. Mozart’s works are used very often in advertisements, usually if a product is being marketed as ‘sophisticated’ or ‘prestigious’ and in films to indicate grace or affluence. I had to debate which of the three works by Mozart to discuss, and eventually chose Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, largely due to a roll of the die.

Something of a confession is needed: like some with a fondness for classical music, I do not have a particular fondness for Mozart. I acknowledge the genius of his work and the talent of the individual, but find it altogether too delightful. Whereas one would describe Beethoven as powerful and sublime, or Bach as masterful and majestic, Mozart is best described as delightful.

What Eine Kliene Nachtmusik best illustrates is the sonata-allegro form that is so vital to classical music. It may get a little technical here. The first movement of symphonies, concertos, string quartets and the similarly named sonatas are all in sonata-allegro from. Allegro, simply meaning a fast movement and sonata, which outlines the order in which themes are placed and how the composer can rework the material. The basic structure is as follows:

Theme OneReworking of themes, usually in other keysTheme One
(Tonic Key)(Tonic Key)
Theme TwoTheme Two
(Modulated, most commonly to the Dominant)(Reworked to end in Tonic Key)

This structure is followed to the letter in Nachtmusik. In the exposition, the first theme, the famous passage, is in G Major, the tonic key (00:06-00:55). There is then a modulation to D major, the dominant key, for the second theme (00:55-01.49). The exposition is then repeated (01:49-03:34) after which the development (03:34-04:13), beginning with a modulated playing of the first theme, moves through D minor and C major with a repeated motif from the second theme. The work then returns to G major during the recapitulation (04.13-08.50). However in this instance the second theme, although originally in D major, the dominant, is now in G major to bring the movement to a close.

This is a textbook use of the sonata-allegro form, and the development, although relatively short, is enchanting in its use of a simple phrase in numerous keys. The development is one of the most important parts of the sonata-allegro form, as it allows the composer to show off his mastery of the themes, bending them to his will. Beethoven, having had a large artistic ego, especially loved this part, and later composers in the Romanticist period likewise exploited it. Mozart however used it in a more restrained form, preferring to highlight well constructed phrases, and using the development as a way of creating a little bit of interest in the middle of the work.

A major difference between Mozart and Beethoven is the way listeners in their time would have approached the works. Mozart, coming from and highlighting the court listening period, expected that his music would be listened to in a light fashion, people having conversations in between, playing cards, indulging in courtly romances and so forth. The music was largely to fill silences in conversation. For Beethoven this was unacceptable. The egoist demanded utmost attention be given his works. This can be seen, for example, in the strong, repeated phrase opening of his Symphony No.5 in C Minor, which will be discussed at later.

The last push towards victory. The famous cannon fire of 1812

The last push towards victory. The famous cannon fire of 1812

The 1812 Overture

Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?

Niles: Was I ever that young?

Niles and Frasier Crane, Frasier (1993)

I debated with myself a great deal about the inclusion of this piece. Earlier I said that I chose works which are commonly thought of when classical music is discussed and which are not often given due credit. With Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture it is something of a mixed bag. There are those of the initiated stock that consider it a mundane, trivial piece that deserves its caricature reputation. For most people under 30 it’s the tune V used when blowing up parliament in V for Vendetta. For those between 30 and 60 it may arise reminiscences of the Hooked on Classics Vinyl’s they owned, or in the case of my mother, still own. In addition to that it’s been used, at least the dramatic ending, as a leitmotif for triumph, for success in a number of films, cartoons and advertisements.

Narratively the piece is not without merit. It essentially portrays and commemorates the victory of Russian forces over Napoleon’s French forces. The opening is essentially a call to God for help utilizing an old Orthodox hymn played on strings (Part 1 00:00-01:15). Worry is added to this section with a descending melody played by flutes, counter-pointed by violins, trombones and tubas (01:48-03:28). The army then prepares for battle with a fanfare cheering them on (03:28-04:23). The battle starts (04:23) and the French invade, playing La Marseillaise, their national anthem (05.04). Hope arises (06.22) and the Russian people, represented by the folk tune “At the gates, at my grandfather’s gates” (07.48), gain the courage and will to fight back in a second battle (Part 2 00:00). The second battle section works as a development for the piece, where Tchaikovsky reworks many of the previously introduced themes. At one point the French appear to be winning, indicated with a clear rendition of La Marseillaise (01.10) and the cannons start firing in a last push for victory. Russia ultimately wins through praise of God with the old Russian hymn from earlier in the composition (03.58) and the triumph is celebrated with an exaltation of “God Save the Tsar” accompanied by fireworks, celebratory canons and church Bells.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The success of the work is partly as an early exercise in pastiche, the composer using numerous well know melodies to paint a picture for the listeners, with the composers original material constructing the narrative around those pre-existing tunes. I can mentally appreciate this story telling element of the work, and while I do not share the Crane boys’ completely dismissive view of the 1812, I equally do not find myself reaching for a recording of it on a regular basis. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I hear the “dramatic” part every few months in one setting or another, or it could simply be that when it comes to a piece of music one desires to listen to, it fails to gain any significant interest.

Beethoven with the Missa solemnis oil painting, 1819 by Joseph Karl Stieler

Beethoven with the Missa solemnis oil painting, 1819 by Joseph Karl Stieler

The Big Daddy: Beethoven’s Fifth

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. E.M. Foster

Say to someone classical music, and they will do that single memorable motif: Ba ba ba baaaah! This is essentially to music what Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet is to poetry. (That’s the one that starts “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” although ask anyone, even literature students to recite the second or third lines and they get stumped.) We can at the very least be grateful for the fact that the piece is famous for one of its greatest features, the ever-present motif, the short, short, short, long.


The entire first movement (00:57-08:18) is Beethoven, the great craftsman, reworking the motif. Ok, some more technical stuff. The heart of great compositions is melody, the tune. It’s what we hum to ourselves. Successful melodies are generally 4 to 8 bars long. Any longer and they become difficult to follow and lose their impact. As you can imagine, for a composer to write a work that lasts for more than two minutes or so it is required that there is some reworking of that basic motif, otherwise it could become incredibly boring. With his Symphony No.5, Beethoven explores one of these techniques over the course of an entire movement.

Think about the first few minutes. It is with the same single rhythm, the short, short, short, long. Start playing the clip, or better yet, if you are familiar with the piece, sing it from memory, using the “ba ba ba baaah” the whole way through. This is especially the case with the first theme (00:57-01:44), where the motif is given to various instruments in a series of imitations and sequences that chase after each other, concluding with a firm repetition of the motif by the horns. The second theme (01:44-02:22) is far more lyrical, but likewise utilizes the motif, gradually becoming clearer before the first and second themes are repeated (02:22-03:48). Then comes the lengthy development section (03:49-05:11), where Beethoven uses key changes, sequencing and imitation to transform the theme in as many ways as his imagination allows. There is a deceptively vigorous return to the original motif (05:11), but this is short lived as although the first and second themes will now be played again in the recapitulation, they have been altered by the experience of the development. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven does not feel obliged to return as before with a simple modulation to the tonic. He demands greater attention from his listeners.



This reworking is not really what I would call subtle. Lets face it; we don’t really think Beethoven when we think subtlety. But there is subtlety within the working, in the way he moves through different keys, in the way he expands and reduces the motif momentarily. The attention Beethoven expects from his listeners is rewarded with the varying levels of interest, from the grand pronouncements of the opening bars to the fine reworking of the themes he presents.

Now start (and then keep on) listening!

The aim of this article was to help you get through and really appreciate some of the better-known classical pieces. To give you an idea of some of the things to look out for while listening. Now go and start listening. YouTube has many full performances of various pieces, the i-Tunes store likewise has many albums available, and if you’re an old fashioned gent, go to your nearest record store and start listening. Yes some are problematic, but as long as you avoid the extremes of sentimental or boisterous images on the covers of albums you should be safe.

What piece of classical music stays most in your mind?

27 replies
  1. Drake Osaben says:

    I myself have always had a weak spot for waltzes. Thanks 2001: A Space Odyssey (sarcasm). All that aside, if you’re looking for some of the overused pieces found it commercials I suggest: The Blue Danube Waltz, Habanera, or In the Hall of the Mountain King. I’d be impressed if you’d didn’t recognize one of those.

  2. JC says:

    Excellent article. While my primary interest in reading your articles is traditional mens clothing, I agree that a gentleman should have some knowledge of classical music. The same is true for art, literature, other languages, etc. By the way, I liked the picture of the conductor in white tie.

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Dear JC,
      We understand that the primary focus for many readers is first and foremost the clothes and we will always keep our focus on that. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to educate on many levels, so we hope you all show interest in these off-topic articles.

      Kind regards, Raphael

  3. Daniel Gerson says:

    Any particular reason you avoided to use recordings of Herbert Von Karajan conducting these pieces? I always thought he did manage to elevate even the most worn-out pieces to a level that does offer something special that makes them worth listening to.

    Apart from that, I do apprciated your article, along with future ones, I am sure, as a neat introduction to this kind of music. There are a great deal of people out there who are in dire need of a bit of classical education, no matter the field of interest.

      • Daniel Gerson says:

        His approach to the whole process of bringing music to life. Very strict, an absolute no-nonsense attitude, always putting the sound first. You can feel the power that is created by absolute obedience to the notes and not letting the orchestra lose “doing their thing”.

        Though don’t be deceived, he has gotten and still does get a slanting for this very “Germanic” work ethic.

        I guess at the end of the day it is down to love it or hate it.

          • Daniel Gerson says:

            Though one would have to make sure that it is the same orchestra and recording location, otherwise the results would be distorted. Not necessarily enough to disguise the character of the conductor, but why take chances?

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Although I do enjoy some of Karajan’s recordings and have found a few available online the focus for the article was more on the music and the videos. The 1812 video has a certain showy flashiness I associate with that piece and the Beethoven one is quite well polished as a whole, and I found it quite pleasant to watch as well as listen.
      Karajan did have a certain magic in many of his recordings, but I liked the idea of making the music the main focus. It is more enlightening to give someone an appreciate a great tune played on a Casio keyboard than playing a pop tune on a Bechstein.
      An article specifically on different recordings and so forth would definitely feature Karajan.

      • Daniel Gerson says:

        I would enjoy that kind of article, as I have to admit that I am not very clued up about the vast number of recommendable conductors and their individual styles. Once I discovered Karajan at an early age for me it was pretty much him or no one else, regrettably. So I might miss out on quite a few treats that are out there.

  4. Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken says:

    At first I’d like to thank for this article. I’m glad to see this gazette is about more than just fashion, but the admiration of beauty as such.
    The pieces presented here also belong to those that are staple in the music I listen too.
    Yet, personally, I am much more fond of piano music, being the son of a piano instructor and playing this instrument myself for a while.

    Greetings to all readers and bel-esprits from across the Atlantic.

    • Daniel Gerson says:

      Any particular piano suites you would recommend as a “must” to have in the record collection? Händel, Rachmaninoff or even Tchaikovsky come to mind.

      • A.C. Mertin says:

        For piano concertos I would recommend Mozart. His No.21 in C (Elvira Madigan) just missed out from being in the article. The second movement in particular is used as light, ethereal music in a lot of films and commercials. Others by Mozart would be the D Minor K466, E-Flat Major K271, the G Major K453 and the A Major K488.
        You could also check out Bach’s Brandenburg, although that’s more for harpsichord.
        For Beethoven I would recommend his piano sonatas, in particular the Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13 (Pathetique). Ignore the Moonlight. Beethoven would prefer if you did.
        Chopin IS piano music, with pretty much anything being worth a listen. I would perhaps start with the Preludes. Mostly short, impressionistic pieces, but very idiosyncratic of Chopin. Its the intimacy of the solo piano that defines him.

  5. Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken says:

    @ Daniel Gerson

    As already mentioned, Beethoven’s piano sonatas should have a place in any music collection. I think that A.C. Mertin has made quite a good point with his reccomendations, aswell as with his objection concerning the Moonlight sonata.

    I would not dare to list anything as a must-have but there are some works that I enjoy and that I would like to invite you to give a try.

    First, I would name my personal favorite Franz Schubert, to be exact to his Impromptus and his posthumously published piano sonatas Nr. 20 in A and Nr. 21 in Bb. His music is incredibly intense and yet simple. With regards to his Lieder, that belong to his piano works in a broader sense, I would recommend his two Lieder cycles Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin.
    If you like his music, you should also try the piano works of Jean Sibelius.

    Then, Edvard Grieg comes to my mind. His Stemminger (moods) are precious gems I like to hear every now and then.

    Of Robert Schumann’s works, I would recommend his sonatas Nr.1 in f sharp minor and Nr.2 in g minor and his Kinderszenen Op.15.

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Schubert is a certainly a favorite. Interestingly enough the intensity and simplicity of his music are linked. His modulations, for example, are very sudden, being in one key and then another in the space of a few bars. Beethoven by contrast (although also very intense) would drag out his modulations, almost explaining them as he was doing them. Again, the great technician at work. Schubert also used a considerable degree of chromaticism (no where near as much as Wagner, but still more than the classicist). The use of chromaticism creates an even greater, more intense yearning for the tonic key, yet is a very simple technique.

  6. Gary Davidson says:

    I still remember after about 50 years that the 1st piece of ” classical” (actually impressionist) music that (excuse the unintended pun) that made an impression on my was Debussy’s ” Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun”. I tend to ” know what I like” in ‘classical music’ agreeing that much of it suffers from the trivialization in commercials, cartoons and movies. I have also developed an appreciation for Opera.

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Debussy is marvelous. A lecturer once summed it up perfectly: “I admire Bach, but I adore Debussy.” In particular the “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun.” There are scholars who place that work as the beginning of modernism in music, although I find this a very simplistic statement.
      Although many consider him an “impressionist” I’ve always found this problematic. I find him more linked with the Symbolism and Decandent artist and writers than the Impressionist.
      For those looking for piano music, his Preludes are wonderful.

  7. Geo. Winters says:

    Classical music is a huge area, with enormous variety, so it’s well-nigh impossible to select a “best-of” list. Having said that, this is a fine article.

    For those who want to start exploring on their own, YouTube is a good place to start: watch a video, and when it’s done, click on any of the suggested links. Take notes on what you enjoy, then get a CD of those composers’ works.

    You can also find classical compilation CDs in music stores and off-price retailers. These are also fine starting points, and are easier to play in your car than YouTube videos. 😉

    There’s a degree of snobbery in classical music appreciation, especially opera, but don’t let that keep you from it. A hundred years from now, no one but musicologists and die-hard sub-genre fanatics will know anything about early 21st century pop music, but people will still be listening to classical music. (Come to think of it, I know music snobs who exude their “superiority” when talking about pop music, so the phenomenon is hardly exclusive to classical music.)

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Absolutely agree with you on many things. The category is enormous and I try, whenever possible, to distinguish the different eras that make up classical/art music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism, Modernism, Contemporary) but even with these there are stark differences (the program romanticism of Berlioz in contrast to the absolute music of Brahms). As a result of this large scope an attempt at a ‘best of’ is impossible and even demeaning. ‘The best’ is a phrase used by those who cannot distinguish and should be discarded into the waste bin of language. The article was more to highlight the better known, caricatured pieces of music than to explore ‘the best’.
      Youtude is a great place to start as well as compilation CDs. Even if it is a poor orchestra or conductor you can still gain an idea of the music and see which composers and eras you prefer.
      Your comment about the snobbery is spot on. No other school of music has such a degree of poshlust (or poshlost if you prefer). I do know of blues and jazz fans who could be call purists, but there isn’t that condescending tone that is often used in classical circles. It is the beast that comes with the beauty of this music, but alas it will never become a handsome prince.

  8. Geo. Winters says:

    Mr. Mertin,

    Please don’t misunderstand me: I was trying to say that you did an excellent job of introducing three outstanding pieces of music, while pointing out how extraordinarily difficult it is to choose just three! Perhaps the reason that these three are so (over)used is precisely because of their greatness.

    You are correct about jazz snobbery: too many jazz aficionados look down their noses at those who do not care for their preferred music. I find this gets worse the more towards the avant-garde/bop end of the scale the jazz gets.

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