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Ten Famous Classical Works You Actually Know

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Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti, of The Three Tenors fame


You know more classical music than you think. Below I’ve selected 10 very well-known works of classical music, plus where you likely heard them, and included a link to a standard concert performance or recording of the work, as heard by classical aficionados.

1) “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque by Debussy
This intimate piano piece isn’t specifically known for being something else, but it does turn up in films and TV now and then, often in an orchestrated version. It appeared in the movie “Ocean’s Eleven”, and many others.


2) “O fortuna” from Carmina Burana, by Karl Orff
This huge, over-the-top work for choir and orchestra always shows up in movies with epic battle scenes, journeys, and adventure. It was used in the 1981 film Excalibur and in recent years in TV shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and commercials hawking everything from pizza to ribs and chicken tenders.


3) “Nessun dorma” from the opera Turandot, by Puccini
This aria, the “big song with all the feelings” is from the opera, Turandot. It’s incredibly moving and emotional, and became a huge hit at the 1990 FIFA World Cup when Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo sang it as a trio (which lead them down the Three Tenors path). This clip was shot four years later in Los Angeles. Which tenor is your favourite?


4) “Morning Mood” from the opera Peer Gynt, by Grieg
Any time there’s a scene depicting the early hours, Morning Mood is featured. It’s been on episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory”. This piece also shows up on a few of those “relaxing classical music for studying” videos on YouTube.


5) “Menuet” from String Quintet in E major, Op. 11, No. 5 by Boccherini
I call this the “hotel brunch scene” music as any elegant dining moment in a film or TV show features this music. Expect it to turn up in a Hallmark movie where the fancy brunch is disrupted by the handsome dark horse from the heroine’s quaint small town who interrupts everything to declare his undying love for her, a woman who secretly wants to move back to their small, picturesque home town and open a bakery.


6) “Habanera” from the opera Carmen, by Bizet
I like to think the reason people know this work is because of a cute Sesame Street short from the 1970’s featuring the singing orange in the kitchen. Normally I’d post a concert featuring a mezzo singing this, but I just couldn’t resist this sultry citrus singer.
“Habanera”, from Bizet’s opera Carmen from Sesame Street.


7) The Overture from “The Barber of Seville”, opera by Rossini
This is a no-brainer thanks to that wascally rabbit and Elmer Fudd, always in pursuit of him.


8) The “Bridal Chorus” from the opera Lohengrin, by Wagner
This was featured in the opera during a wedding scene and once Victoria, the Princess Royal (daughter of Queen Victoria) used it at her wedding to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858, it became a standard wedding march to this day.


8.5) “The Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn
Also used by Victoria, the Princess Royal at her wedding, as the recessional. It also became standard wedding music.


9) Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt
Back to the world of animation; let’s not forget the Cat Concerto featuring Jerry (of Tom and Jerry) fame, portraying a very serious and very famous classical pianist. Was it Vladimir Horowitz?


10) The “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane, by Khachaturian
This piece became a jukebox hit in 1948 and has gone on to show up in countless TV shows, films, figure skating routines, cute animal videos, and video games, often to comic effect.

Are there questions you have about classical music you’d like answered? Please email [email protected]

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