10 famous orchestral pieces you should know

08.06.2022 Ben Maloney Music education

The orchestral repertoire. You could legitimately describe it as the heart of classical-music practice. Composing for orchestra is seen as the ultimate test of a composer’s ability, and it’s in this category that we find many of the world’s most historic musical artworks. The ensemble represents a beautiful egalitarian ideal in its assembly of diverse musicians, coming together to think and play as one. 

Nothing quite beats its prestige, and nothing better explains why than the great works themselves. Time to get familiar with the length and breadth of the repertoire - that’s why you’re here.

Presenting ten of the finest and most famous pieces composed for the orchestra, drawn from a range of eras, covering a medley of styles and created by a diversity of individuals. It doesn’t get any better than this.   
 

Top famous orchestra songs
 

  1. Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven
  2. Black, Brown and Beige by Duke Ellington
  3. Faust et Hélène by Lili Boulanger
  4. ‘Nimrod’ by Edward Elgar
  5. Finlandia by Jean Sibelius 
  6. Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach
  7. Symphony No. 1 by Philip Glass
  8. Raga Mala by Ravi Shankar
  9. Passacaglia by Ljubica Marić
  10. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

1. Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven

The iconic opening gesture of this magnum opus has been named the most recognisable snippet of music in the entire classical repertoire. Play anyone that famous four-note call and they’ll respond intuitively with its answer. When Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, consolidating his so-called ‘Heroic’ style and making a firm break with the Classical era, he couldn't have known just how historic the composition would prove to be.

What to say about this work that hasn’t been said already? For many it’s the finest entry in Beethoven’s extraordinary body of work, a piece that marks a watershed in the history of the orchestra, of the symphony and of Western music itself. Between the tempestuous allegro to the triumphant finale, each movement is a masterpiece in miniature, perfectly poised and organically developed from that cornerstone motif. 

The shadow that the legacy of this work casts is unique. You find it everywhere in popular culture, in countless adverts, films and indeed other pieces of music. Take the notorious disco version, for example, which lit up the popular 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, or the performance of the original attended by the character’s in E. M. Forster’s great novel Howards End. Barely a conductor or orchestra hasn’t left their mark on the titanic work, but Carlos Kleiber's electrifying 1974 recording with the Viena Philharmonic could be the definitive version.

2. Black, Brown and Beige by Duke Ellington

January, 1943. At New York’s Carnegie Hall, the epicentre of the American classical-music community, the composer, pianist and legend Duke Ellington and his jazz orchestra take to the famous stage to perform Black, Brown and Beige, the great man’s personal tribute to the story of the African diaspora in America. Few works in the esteemed jazz tradition make a better case for the genre being the nation’s very own indigenous classical music. 

The monumental composition is in three movements, each named after one of the three colours in the work’s title. Given Ellington’s declared dedication, the suite is appropriately wide-ranging in its influences, drawing on genres as diverse as spirituals, dances of the West Indies, and the blues. Ellington then effortlessly fuses these idioms with his familiar big-band style in a compositional setting constructed according to classical principles of extended form.

That landmark performance was captured for posterity, recorded and then released over three decades later on the 1977 album The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943. It is an album that merits a place in the collection of every jazzer, and of every fan of the orchestral music. Ellington would rework the composition for the eponymous album of 1958, featuring vocals by gospel icon Mahalia Jackson icon - also a must-have.

3. Faust et Hélène by Lili Boulanger

In 1913, nineteen-year-old Parisian composer Lili Boulanger finished a large-scale cantata for solo vocalists and orchestra, to text by librettist Eugène Adenis. It was entitled Faust et Hélène and submitted by Boulanger in the composition category of the Prix de Rome, a French arts scholarship previously awarded to the likes of Debussy and Bizet. For Faust et Hélène, Boulanger became the first female recipient of the prize, marking a turning point in the history of women in classical music.   

The cantata was an old genre even then, the legend of Faust - which stars the ancient Helen of Troy - even older. But with these homages to the past, Boulanger juxtaposed a fiercely contemporary language that stunned the judges on the Prix’s panel. Composed in one continuous movement, 30 minutes in length, this tour de force is a work of extraordinary guile for a composer who was not yet twenty. 

Between brooding, colouristic dissonances and delicate, Impressionistic textures, Boulanger draws the gripping drama from Faust’s famous tale. She’s able to treat the orchestra holistically, as one instrument, to the extent that you can’t always tell which instruments are contributing to the material at a given time. Even bolder inclusions - celeste and sarrusophone - she manages to assimilate seamlessly into the ensemble. Boulanger had already become a masterful orchestrator. Think what she might have achieved had she not passed away at the tragically untimely age of 24.

4. ‘Nimrod’ by Edward Elgar

In 1899, on the cusp of the century that saw music quickly undergo such incredible transformations, Edward Elgar completed his opus 36, the Enigma Variations. Assuming traditional theme-and-variations form, it involves fourteen orchestral reworkings of the haunting ‘Enigma’ motif, each depicting a significant figure in Elgar’s life. One variation stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, however: ‘Nimrod’. The figure honoured by this remarkable piece was a close friend, who on numerous occasions helped the composer overcome severe self-doubt regarding his creative ability. 

There aren’t many works in the repertoire that are able to match the emotive power of this solemn adagio, bound by the most majestic, yearning melody, steadily restated with growing intensity to a breath-taking and - often tear-jerking - climax. The violins take the lead in a string section handled richly and intricately by Elgar, who displays his characteristically Victorian restraint by holding back the big tutti for the final, life-affirming statement. 

Enigma’s London premiere that same year was a complete triumph, and established Elgar’s international status as one of Europe’s leading composers. In his native Britain, ‘Nimrod’ has become a cultural treasure, frequently heard at memorial services and state occasions. But it has touched the hearts of listeners the world over - in 2013 it was chosen as the penultimate piece to ever be performed by the Greek National Orchestra, forced to disband due to funding cutbacks. Only the national anthem itself came after. 

5. Finlandia by Jean Sibelius

On the subject of music powerfully associated with national identity, we turn fittingly to Finlandia, the most renowned and beloved work by the late Romantic master, Jean Sibelius. As Elgar was adding the finishing touches to Enigma in rural Worcestershire, over a thousand miles away in Finland, Sibelius was completing his own career-defining work, a tone poem inspired by scenes from his country’s history and folklore.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, the Finns were being increasingly subjugated by the Russian Empire into which they'd been absorbed. This came after centuries of Swedish rule, during which they had been viewed as second-class citizens. Anguished by this history of past and present, and inspired by a wider awakening of Finnish identity, Sibelius created Finlandia in protest against imperial oppression. On its premiere, it immediately became a rallying cry in the people’s fight against tyranny. Few compositions are as historic as this one, in which you can all but hear a nation emerging.  

Charting this turbulent story, the work takes you on quite a journey, and Sibelius explores a range of atmospheres and orchestrations. There’s the defiant, stormy marching brass of the introduction. Then come the jubilant outbursts, exchanges of calls between divisi horns and staccato trumpets, with support from sweeping strings and percussion. Finally there’s the arrestingly beautiful melody first announced by the winds over hushed tremolo strings - the so-called Finlandia Hymn. It’s all textbook tone poetry. 

6. Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach

Well before these later masterpieces were conceived, the orchestral medium itself began to consolidate in the Baroque era. Not only can we see in this period the ensemble itself coming together, but also the compositional forms that would exploit it. Bach's four orchestral suites represent some of the greatest works of the era’s greatest composer, in which the full resources of the orchestra begin to be tapped in a range of ways. 

Of these the third in D major (BWV 1068) is the best known. This is largely due to the massive popularity of its second-movement air, which was rearranged in 1871 by German violinist August Wilhelmj as ‘Air on the G String’, and performed and recorded profusely in the early 20th century. But the composition more widely is a tremendous achievement in embryonic orchestral writing, and of course in composition generally.

Typical of the period, the strings and basso continuo are the very heart of the ensemble, doing the heavy-lifting in the incredible fugue in the overture, bringing the lush harmonies of the air, and seeing to the stately rhythms of the later dances. But the trumpets - which are still without valves - are responsible for some of the most ear-catching moments, and the oboes continuously add extra dimensions to the texture. Bach even involves timpani to a startling degree. The later orchestral innovations of the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are all anticipated in this exemplary piece.

7. Symphony No. 1 by Philip Glass

From 18th-century Baroque to 20th-century Minimalism, we jump in an instant to the work of Philip Glass, unquestionably one of the finest composers alive today. He first exploded on to the scene with his groundbreaking 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach, in the wake of which works came thick, fast, and in a range of compositional genres. But operas nonetheless remained at the core of his output and reputation, with Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983) soon making up the ‘big three’.

‘I'm not going to let you ... be one of those opera composers who never write a symphony.’ Those were the words of conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who then commissioned Glass to write two works in that genre. In a new spin on the old form, the composer decided to base his first symphony, a three-movement work, on three songs recorded by David Bowie for his 1977 album, Low. Hence the work's nickname, the ‘Low Symphony’. 

The work is a landmark, symbolic fusion of the worlds of classical and popular music, and of the art of two great creators. Bowie’s abstract and extended songs from Low, themselves a real departure for the singer, are a natural fit for the orchestral setting, in which Glass extracts the boundless developmental potential in every motif, every line.  Fragmentation, superimposition, repetition, evolution. It’s all integrated in this tremendous composition. The GlassBowie marriage continued in symphonies four (1996) and twelve (2019), respectively based on music from the other two albums making up Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ trilogy: Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979) 

8. Raga-Mālā by Ravi Shankar

Let’s step outside Western traditions for a moment, and into another major musical lineage: Hindustani classical music. This is the art music of the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, an oral tradition that has been passed down from guru to student for nearly a millennium. The great modern practitioner of this tradition was Ravi Shankar, who was largely responsible for bringing it to the ears of the world in the mid-20th century.  

Shankar was a composer and virtuoso sitarist, whose incredible fretwork - on a far tricker instrument - puts most of the greatest guitarists to shame. Through collaborations in the 1960s with household-name musicians like Yehudi Menuhin and the Beatles (and later Philip Glass), Shankar was able to explore extraordinary and untapped musical fusions. When the London Symphony Orchestra came knocking in 1970, he embarked on a journey into orchestral writing that would bear some remarkable fruit. 

That journey culminated in Shankar’s Raga-Mālā, his second sitar concerto, recorded a decade later with the LSO, under the Indian conductor Zubin Mehta. In this piece Shankar reconciles the scalic raga patterns so fundamental to Hindustani practice with the demands of arranging notated material for an enormous instrumental ensemble. No one had attempted this before Shankar. Through his innovations the orchestra was empowered to chart entirely new musical territory.  

9. Passacaglia by Ljubica Marić

A quarter-century before Shankar, Mehta and the LSO recorded that phenomenal work, a central figure in the story of Balkan music produced one of her peak achievements. This is Ljubica Marić, regarded by many as the leading Serbian composer of the 20th century - and by some of all time. She studied under the great Josef Suk and went on to teach the next generation of her country’s composers as a professor at the University of Arts, Belgrade.

The orchestral masterpiece in question is the Passacaglia of 1957, a work demonstrating its creator’s engagement with the most challenging avant-garde practices of the day. Like Boulanger’s cantata, the passacaglia is an age-old genre given a contemporary overhaul by Marić. While doing away with the melodic forms, functional tonality and stylistic elegance of the Baroque period, she retains the concept of relentless variation of a simple motif.

Usually Marić turned to Orthodox liturgical music for her source material - innovations for which she’s rightly celebrated - but here she employs a folk melody of the Morava river valley. She takes its barest construction and develops it exhaustively in 34 variations, each expressed by the most vivid colours, explosive dynamics, and shapes as spontaneous and subversive as the water of the great river itself.

10. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

There’s a select handful of compositions in the repertoire that you can truthfully describe as having changed the world. Some do this by giving voice to a zeitgeist, others by being part of a landmark historic event. Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony is one such example. But some spark change through the sheer radicalism of their innovations.   

Without a doubt, this can be said of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. So extreme was the musical and choreographic idiom that it exhibited to a stunned audience present at the 1913 Paris premiere, a riot erupted in the auditorium - or so legend has it. It was, to be sure, like nothing else that had come before it. Not even the two previous ballets that Stravinsky created for the Ballet Russes troupe - The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) - really came close. Few works in the history of music single-handedly pushed the cutting edge quite so far forward.

You could write a tome about Stravinsky’s compositional achievements in the Rite - many have done just this - but its orchestrational brilliance is closely aligned with his trailblazing approaches to metre and tonality. Exploiting the opportunity provided by writing for such a massive collective of musicians, he experimented with the juxtaposition of rhythms and time signatures, as well as simultaneous combination of different tonal centres, to create a multi-faceted and overwhelming edifice in sound. In one swoop, he blew the orchestra’s horizons wide open. Music was never the same again.  

Your next steps for orchestral music
 

These are little more than ten, albeit major chapters in the infinitely varied, never-ending story of the orchestra. From the iconic concertos of Antonio Vivaldi, through the titanic operas of Giuseppe Verdi, to the waltzes of Johann Strauss II and beyond, countless more masterpieces are waiting, many of which are arguably just as deserving of a place on this list. Below you'll find quick links to some of the most popular titles on nkoda:

nkoda’s digital sheet music library is your gateway to this world, only a click away. Start a free trial and begin your journey of discovery. And if you happen to feel like contributing music of your own to this body of work, have a read of the post on how to compose orchestral music

Orchestra forever.

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