What Is the Best Classical Music of All Time?
You've probably heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johannes Brahms, but don't realize their musical significance.
When you aren’t versed in classical music, it can be all too easy to conflate the genre with pre-teen ballet classes or elevator-style Muzak. But remember: the style was nothing short of revolutionary in its heyday, prompting Nietchze to write, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” It’s thanks to classical music and the introduction of the piano concerto, string quartet, violin concerto, and other musical forms that still shape today's music. Classical musicians also set the standard on how musical notes like F major, G major, D minor, and D major can be arranged to invoke emotions and even convey a story.
The unique, exquisite power of classical music (and the leviathans who pioneered it) has inspired literature, film, dance, art, and ears for more than a millennium. Even the first few bars of some of the genre’s most spectacular recordings can evoke a sweeping wave of ineffable emotion—and it would be a loss not to give some of the best classical music of all time an earnest listen. It has even evoked the question, “Does listening to classical music make you smarter?”
Whether you’re diving into the form for the first time or listening to Beethoven and Bach daily, chances are you’d like to spoil your senses with the créme de la créme of the classical genre. And while every listener will doubtlessly have their own opinions on which makes the cut, these classical pieces are the ones that leave our spines tingling.
#1 “Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbel
Johann Pachelbel has become one of the signature sounds of the middle Baroque era. Little did the German genius know that his melody “Canon in D Major” would shoot to stardom in the 20th century after Prince Charles and Princess Diana waltzed down the aisle to the tune and ushered in newfound interest in Baroque composers.
Since then, “Canon in D Major” has been heard worldwide—not just at weddings, but also in cinema classics like Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. True, it has a polarizing effect, perhaps due to its popularity. Still, we would suggest its magic results from its apparent simplicity, even if the song was designed for no fewer than three violins.
Tonally and metaphorically, “Canon in D Major” mirrors life itself. It conveys a sense of unstoppable progression, but is nonetheless filled with moments of melancholy, awe, and pure, heart-shattering beauty.
#2 “Symphony No. 5” by Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler’s monumental talent was recognized at an early age. The Bohemia-born prodigy gave his first piano performance at the age of 10 in Jihlava, Germany and was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory at 15.
Throughout his lifetime, Mahler faced triumphs and tragedies of epic proportions, among them:
- His marriage to the highly controversial Alma Schindler
- Shouldering a ban on his music throughout a large swath of Europe
- Losing his daughter Maria to diphtheria when she was 5 years old
- Losing his title as director of the New York Metropolitan Opera
The range of his experiences, coupled with the influence of Wagner, inspired the ten symphonies he wrote in the course of his life.
“Symphony No. 5” is perhaps the most innovative and beloved. Written for a large orchestra, it features the depth and richness of a panoply of instruments, including horns, harps, violas, and cellos. The result is a hypnotic, hour-long ride through the incredible highs and lows of Mahler’s storied life.
#3 “Gymnopedie No. 1” by Erik Satie
Melancholic, brooding French composer Erik Satie is lauded as one of the world’s most influential and soul-stirring musicians—in his lifetime, his work was routinely dismissed for the “simplicity” of his compositions.
Today, critics credit the former cabaret pianist, for laying the foundation of modern music and Neoclassicism. There is an incredible depth of emotion displayed in his work, most notably the famed 1888 Gymnopedies. “Gymnopedie No. 1” was the chosen theme song of the 2008 documentary Man On a Wire, forever connecting the lonely, gorgeous notes of the song to the tragic fall of the Twin Towers.
So, say what you would like about Satie—that he is overblown or overplayed. But we side with LA Times music critic Mark Swed’s take on the composer: that in the darkest of times, “Gymnopedie No.1” illuminates precisely what we’re feeling, all without uttering a word.
#4 “Nocturne No. 2” by Frederic Chopin
Polish folk music, Mozart, and the 19th-century Paris salon scene are just a few of the influences that contributed to the poetic sounds of Frederic Chopin. The Warsaw-born virtuoso supported himself as a piano teacher while creating some of the most important compositions in music history.
“Nocturne No. 2” personifies the profound bond Chopin had with this instrument. Carrying elements of a waltz, its allure is thanks to its tonal range: from soft, delicate notes to clamorous, dramatic vignettes; complex, rapid-fire finger play to moments of extraordinary slowness.
Suffice it to say, Chopin and his works have forever changed our sense of the sounds a piano is capable of producing. At just 34 measures long, “Nocturne No. 2” may be short, but the nuance captured in the piece’s brevity only contributes to its timelessness.
#5 “St. Matthew Passion” by John Sebastian Bach
Classical music is essentially synonymous with John Sebastian Bach—and for a good reason. The profoundly religious, German-born composer and organist gave us some of the most astonishing music in human history, including:
- Brandenburg Concertos
- Cantata No. 21
- The Well-Tempered Clavier
- Six Cello Suites
Selecting his most memorable work is one of the most untenable challenges of any best classical music list—but we think “St. Matthew Passion,” written in 1727, exemplifies Bach’s style like no other. Stirring, remorseful, and gorgeous, this piece embodies Bach’s unyielding dedication to the church and study of the Luther bible. Moreover, it personifies some of his most famous words: “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.”
#6 “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” by Ludwig van Beethoven
Merely uttering the words “classical music” calls Ludwig von Beethoven to mind. Along with Bach and Mozart, the composer is arguably one of the most recognizable, celebrated, and prolific composers ever to live—a distinguished title made all the more remarkable when you remember that he became deaf in his mid-40s.
“Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” debuted at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1808. And today, it’s one of the most famous and frequently performed symphonies. The bold, dramatic opening motif has been sampled by artists like Busta Rhymes and featured in dozens of films, like Disney’s Fantasia.
Examined in the context of Beethoven’s life, “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” signifies his impressive resilience amid public and private turbulence: the volatility of war-torn Europe and the anguish of losing his capacity to hear the very music he was making. Indeed, it is said that Beethoven remarked to his assistant and biographer Anton Schindler that the symphony’s motifs embodied the sound of “fate knocking at the door.”
#7 “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Austrian-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 626 pieces in his lifetime. He was one of the few classical music composers whose work spanned genres, including:
- Chamber music
- Operas, including “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro”
For many, Für Elise is one of the most striking and memorable of Mozart’s contributions—but our ears perk up with the first movement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”: a lively, elegant serenade that roughly translates to a “little night music.” Play this record, and we’d be surprised if it didn’t immediately bring a smile to your face.
#7 “The Nutcracker” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Whether you’ve seriously explored the classical genre or not, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard at least some of the most well-known ballet scores the world over. Sure, Tchaikovsky’s classic is well-loved (some might say overplayed) during the winter holidays, but it’s also one of the most splendid displays of the Russian composer’s inimitable genius.
Composed in 1892, “The Nutcracker” has given us a host of fascinating numbers, among them:
- Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy
- Arabian Dance
- Dance of the Reed Flutes
- Waltz of the Flowers
Full of heart, tempo, and excitement, this classical album is more than a soundtrack to trot out the advent calendar to. It’s a waltz through the meaning of enchantment at every time of year, and it deserves to be listened to on a genuinely absorbing sound system, like Victrola.
Best in Classical Music: Honorable Mentions
Music historians will tell you that so-called “classical” music is a diverse, rich form comprised of many influences and subgenres that straddle centuries.
But regardless of where (or when) you begin your foray into the genre, our best classical albums list wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t encourage you to seek out these works as well:
- “The Valkyrie,” Richard Wagner
- “Claire de Lune,” Claude Debussy
- “The Four Seasons,” Vivaldi
- “Bolero,” Ravel
- “Ave Marie,” Franz Peter Schubert
- “Le Sacre du Printemps,” Igor Stravinsky
- “La Traviata,” Giuseppe Verdi
- “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” Johannes Brahms
- “A Midsummer Night's Dream," Felix Mendelssohn
Because of the influence of these classical musicians, there are still gifted individuals keeping the influence of classical music alive and well. These include:
- Leonard Bernstein - Regarded as the greatest American conductor of all time, he is also one of the first to reach international acclaim. He was known to collaborate with the New York Philharmonic often.
- John Williams - Arguably known as the greatest film composer of all time. His most well-known scores include Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter.
- Yo Yo Ma - This cellist prodigy is perhaps best known for impressing the likes of President John F. Kennedy, whom he and his sister were invited to perform at the White House.
- Dmitri Shostakovich - This classical composer and conductor first gained international acclaim for his first symphony, Symphony No. 1 in F Minor.
Curate Your Classical Hit List with Victrola
Intoxicating, uplifting, devastating, life-affirming—the complex emotions classical music can conjure don’t just make it essential for a well-rounded music collection, but elemental to the human experience.
Don’t know which classical music album to start with? Start your journey into the classical world with Victrola’s vinyl record store of some of the best classical pieces ever created. From enduring composers like J.S. Bach to Erik Satie, there’s no more prosperous way to listen, relish their virtuosity, and soak in the emotional depth contained in each historical piece.
- The Marginalian. Nietzche and the Power of Music. https://www.themarginalian.org/2015/09/18/nietzsche-on-music/
- New York Times. How Canon in D Major became the wedding song. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/fashion/weddings/canon-in-d-major-wedding-song.html
- LA Times. Commentary: Why Satie? Why now? How one composer embodies our time of loneliness and angst. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-06-17/erik-satie-composer-vexations-gymnopedies
- Britannica. Erik Satie, French composer. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Erik-Satie
- Mahler Foundation. Symphony No. 5. https://mahlerfoundation.org/mahler/compositions/symphony-no-5/symphony-no-5-introduction/
- Britannica. Frederic Chopin, Polish-French composer and pianist. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederic-Chopin
- New York Times. Thus fate knocks. https://www.nytimes.com/1941/08/03/archives/thus-fate-knocks-beethoven-expressed-in-the-fifth-symphony-defiance.html
- PBS NewsHour. What caused Beethoven’s deafness? https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/what-caused-beethovens-deafness
- Mozart Project. The alla turca sonata: a popular work by wolfgang amadeus mozart. https://www.mozartproject.org/the-alla-turca-sonata-a-popular-work-by-wolfgang-amadeus-mozart/