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Music : Classical & Opera » Lists » Greatest Works of Classical Music, Opera, and Ballet

Greatest Works of Classical Music, Opera, and Ballet

  • Dec 1, 2009
I've always had eclectic tastes in music ranging from one genre extreme to another. But perhaps one form of music that is seriously under-appreciated in our modern culture is classical. Classical music is timeless in its ability to evoke intense emotional responses from its listeners, as well as in its ability to inspire composers and musicians in other genres. This list, albeit far from exhaustive, is my attempt to give some much-deserved exposure to an artform that is becoming forgotten in contemporary culture. Most peoples' exposure to classical, opera, and ballet comes from the soundtracks of popular movies... but there is an entire world of music that needs to be explored.

Note: I apologize that many of these data points don't have photos to accompany them... but what does one use for an image when the data point is a work of classical music that may not be available individually on either CD or vinyl?
Symphony #9
To think that Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed what many consider to be his greatest achievement makes this the most stunning piece of music to listen to. Not only does it successfully lift the spirits of the listener and fill them with a sense of invincible energy, but it also features the most inspiring choral section. Who else and what else could top this?
Chrisrian Thielemann conducts the Carmina Burana
From the dramatic first notes of Carl Orff's masterpiece, the Carmina Burana, and when you hear the booming "O Fortuna", you feel as though you've been sent back through time to an ancient world of passion and adventure. The Carmina Burana is truly the single greatest work of the classical or opera genres in the 20th century, despite any controversy around Carl Orff.
The Sleeping Beauty

Tchaikovsky's most poetic and expessionistic work. The Sleeping Beauty has the power to seduce listeners with its gentle, soothing melodies and then to awaken and startle them with the harsher ones. Not only does it conjure up classical fairy tale images, but it also evokes new ones. The most successful marriage of a dramatic theme and a work of music.
In the Hall of the Mountain King

Depending on who is playing this and how it is arranged, In the Hall of the Mountain King can either be whimsical and comical or deeply impressive and intimidating. Another astoundingly evocative work that never fails to excite me. I can't tell you how many times I've found myself humming this while writing.
Moonlight Sonata
Personally, I've always found both this and Fur Elise to be the most beautiful compositions ever written. For an emotionally disturbed man, with syphilis and going deaf, Beethoven sure knew how to write romantic music.
For Elise (Fur Elise)
Another gorgeous work by Beethoven that conjures up feelings of love and contentment, all the while stirring bittersweet emotions in the listener. Magical.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
In terms of telling a story with music, this may be the most successful tone poem ever composed. From its heightened majestic opening chords to its dark and sinister latter ones, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is truly a masterwork. Sadly, when most people hear this they think of Mickey Mouse.
A Night on Bald Mountain

Not only is A Night on Bald Mountain likely the creepiest and most haunting piece of classical music, but it also holds the honor of being the most memorable in terms of its use in commercial and artistic ventures. Modest Mussorgsky's extremely atmospheric and eerie composition has been used time and time again in films (most notably in The Wizard of Oz and Fantasia) and commercials to create a sense of the supernatural.
Swan Lake
Tchaikovsky's ballet based upon Russian folklore proved to be more successful with the passing of time. Surely a masterpiece, but the real astonishing thing about it is how seamlessly it adjust from moments of serenity to emotional intensity. Depending on how it is conducted and performed, it can provide a terrific setting for a transformative atmosphere; from light frivolity and joy to dread and anxiety.
Danse Macabre
One of the most haunting and unsettling works ever. I often find that it's perfect to listen to this while reading Gothic horror novels of the 19th century.
1812 Overture
Written to commemorate the battle between Russia and the invading Napoleonic forces, Tchaikovsky's was written in 1880, despite what some felt that the title implied. Certainly, the most whistled piece of classical music and likely the most truncated as well in terms of radio play. In its entirety, the 1812 Overture is one of the best things Tchaikovsky ever did. How many other compositions combine La Marseillaise with the sound of cannon fire? Undoubtedly one of the most evocative and classic works of its time... even for the French.
The Nutcracker
Probably, this is Tchaikovsky's most famous and beloved work, however I tend to agree with him that it is one of his weaker pieces. Still, even Tchaikovsky on a bad day is brilliant when compared to the works of other composers. Also, despite its being uneven melodically, The Nutcracker Suite remains one of the most cherished holiday themes and an incredibly evocative work.
Peter and the Wolf
Like many children, I grew up with this timeless work by Prokofiev and to this day I find it to be the most charming piece of music ever written in regards to works specifically for children. With its various themes and its folkloric story, this is truly a classic in all respects.
Der Ring Des Nibelungen
Regardless of Wagner's anti-semitism and his music being made the official music of the Nazi Party, his Der Ring Des Nibelungen is the most epic, in terms of both length and sound, opera ever composed. The Ride of the Valkyries remains an iconic theme if ever there was one.

Easily the most intense opera I've ever heard. One moment it soars from beautiful and voluptous melodies, and the next it plunges you into the very depths of torment and damnation. Truly a work of genius.

Symphonie No. 5
Again, the opening notes are remarkably memorable. Ludwig Van Beethoven remains my favorite composer to this day and this symphony is evidence as to why.
Also Sprach Zarathustra
With its heavy percussion and epic simplicity, Also Sprach Zarathustra has become one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable pieces of music ever written.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Quite likely the single most impressive composition for the organ. Not only is Bach's music evocative and exciting, but it is also complex in its musical structure.

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August 21, 2010
Great list, since I start teaching next week, I did an inter library loan through the university on some of these.
August 21, 2010
Do you listen to much classical music?
August 21, 2010
90% of the music I listen to is classical and opera. I will have to write a few reviews and do some lists for the community.
April 01, 2010
Awesome! I think I'll have to search through my classical compilations to find out what I've at the back of my mind. I think they had been put to sleep for years! But it's in my gene anyway, my mom is a music teacher. I may not know the theories but I certainly know the tune :-)
December 02, 2009
I know zilch about classical music except for the occasional Beethoven. Nice informative list!
December 02, 2009
You seem like a Wagner kind of guy, Woo. Either that or Tchaikovsky.
December 02, 2009
I know I may know the music but I am totally clueless when it comes to the composer LOL!
December 02, 2009
Good list! I really love the commentary here also. I'm impressed.
December 02, 2009
Care to join in?
December 02, 2009
I might actualyl create one of these one day. I still have that silent film list to make also. Ahh, the possibilities are endless!!
December 02, 2009
You mean "Lunchabilities"?
December 02, 2009
You make it sound like a delicatessen snack. Haha! Just kidding Orlok.
December 01, 2009
Great list!  This, along with your Favorite Works of Art list, makes me want to visit the Count Orlok Museum!  It'll feature only the finest of visual, performing, and literary arts.  I'll come up with the menu for the museum restaurant ;)
December 01, 2009
Aw, but the food is the best part. I suppose I can let you come up with the menu so long as it's vegetarian and it serves some of my own specialities. ; )
December 02, 2009
bah! I have got to have some sashimi and meat! LOL
December 02, 2009
Sorry, not gonna happen at my museum. Soy-based meat replacements only. : p
December 03, 2009
Of course, Sean! I can even do sugar-free :)

(Woo, I'll sneak you some sushi ;)
December 03, 2009
You do know that when you whisper in type, every one knows what you're saying, right? ; )
December 03, 2009
April 01, 2010
Unless you type that... in which case I'm scratching my head in confusion.
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