I recently wrote an article “Twelve Musical Works that Every Student Should Know,” for the Classical Archives Newsletter.
In the weeks since then, I’ve been thinking about cultural literacy, which can be roughly defined as a person’s knowledge about the most important stuff that ever happened.
I don’t know about you, but I have come to know many people who have graduated from college – even very prestigious ones – who don’t know a dog-eared thing about some of the most important cultural milestones ever.  Here are some examples, which don’t pertain only to music . . .
  • A friend of mine who graduated from an Ivy-league university had never heard of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He was also surprised to hear that not all opera is performed in Italian, and that it is acted out on a stage with sets. I guess he thought opera was some kind of concert.
  • Another friend, similarly well educated, looked at me blankly when I mentioned the Battle of Hastings. Later when I mentioned Martin Luther and Hugh Hefner (not in the same sentence), I realized he had no idea what I was talking about.
  • I was listening one day and heard an announcer on a classical music station in Boston play the final chorus from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion one December, saying it was “music of the Christmas season.”
  • A woman who taught a history class that my daughter took in school told the class that Wagner’s Ring Operas included Tristan und Isolde and die Meistersinger. (I guess I should have been glad that she mentioned Wagner at all.)
  • I was observing an art history class at a Catholic university a few years ago and the instructor asked “what was the Annunciation?” Only two students out of about 25 in the room had any idea what he was talking about. And remember, it was a Catholic university.


I am not being a snob here – at least I don’t think I am. And I am not writing about incredibly arcane, high-level knowledge, just the very basic stuff that educated people should know about.
Why should they know about it? For one thing, having basic cultural literacy makes for a more rewarding and informed life. But there are more practical reasons too. Let’s say your kid, who just graduated college, is in a job interview where the interviewer makes a passing reference to the Watergate Scandal, Proust, Mozart, Picasso or the Axis Powers. Is your kid going to be able to engage references like that and show some sophistication, or stare back blankly, or try to fake it?
Which Brings Us to Classical Music
In my recent article for Classical Archives, I included a list of a dozen pieces of classical music that every college or high school student should know about. I included some very basic cultural references for each.
I’m sharing that list below, along with my comments. I have also added a few more pieces of classical music. The result is a sort of Bluffer’s Guide to Classical Music that you might want to share with students you know.
Monteverdi’s Orfeo
The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote the opera Orfeo in 1607. Many people inaccurately characterize it as the first opera ever written – yet it has earned that reputation, and if you hear it referred to in that way, smile and nod.  In fact, it was one of several early operas that Monteverdi and a group of other composers and poets (notably Peri and Rinuccini) created while attempting to recreate what they thought was ancient Greek drama. (Remember, “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and artists of all kinds were attempting to revive the ancient art of Greece and Rome.)  Orfeois therefore a very lean and spare opera, with words simply declaimed over a rather static accompaniment. But within the next few decades, Monteverdi’s immense genius led him to create more elaborate operas that sound almost modern to us today. These include Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (“Ulysses’s Return to His Country,” in 1641) and I’Incoronatione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppea,” in 1642).
Extra Monteverdi credit:  Monteverdi’s vast and astonishing choral work, the Vespers of 1610.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) presented this group of six orchestral works to an official of the city of Brandenburg in 1721. They are considered to be among the finest orchestral pieces of the Baroque era.
Extra Bach credit:Your student should also know about the Saint Matthew Passion and Saint John Passion.
Handel’s Water Music  
Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1859), a contemporary of Bach, was a German composer who moved to England and became highly successful there. His Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements that King George I asked Handel to write for a concert that took place on barges in the River Thames on July 27, 1717.
Extra Handel credit:Your student should also know about Messiah, an oratorio (a work for chorus, solo singers and orchestra) that contains the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons
The Venice-born Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) published these four violin concertos in 1725. Each evokes images of a different season. They are among the most beloved pieces of Baroque music ever written.  Vivaldi wrote lots of other important music of course, including some operas that are a lot more accomplished than The Four Seasons.But if your student friend has a basic knowledge of what the Seasons are, he or she will be showing some cultural literacy.
Haydn’s The Creation
Josef Haydn (1732-1809) wrote this oratorio (a work for chorus, solo singers and orchestra) between 1796 and 1798, right in the middle of the “classical” period of western music. It was revolutionary at the time because it was the first work to use both sung and musical language to paint events like God’s creation of the sun, of Adam and Eve, and of animals.
Extra Haydn credit:The Surprise Symphony.
Mozart’s Requiem
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) left his remarkable requiem (a choral mass performed in memory of the dead) unfinished at the time of his death, when it was completed by another composer named Süssmayr. It is a magnificent work that many people believe was the composer’s meditation on his impending death. It was featured in the 1984 film “Amadeus.”
Extra Mozart credit:The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute (operas) and the Jupiter Symphony, Mozart’s 41st and final symphony.
Beethoven’s Ninth “Choral” Symphony
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote this monumental symphony in 1824, when he was already deaf. It is the last symphony that he composed, and the first by any composer that includes a chorus and vocal soloists, who enter in the fourth and final movement to present the famous “Ode to Joy.” It was famously performed by Leonard Bernstein and an international group of musicians in 1989 to commemorate the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
The famous “Beethoven’s Fifth,” premiered in 1808, is one of the most famous and beloved symphonies ever written. Its revolutionary four-note opening theme became a symbol of Allied victory in World War II because it seems to replicate Morse Code for the letter “V,” which people believed stood for “Victory.”
Extra Beethoven credit:The late string quartets, which bear a strong resemblance to music written in the early 20th century.
Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) wrote the atmospheric overture to this set of music in 1826, when he was only seventeen. He added more sections, intended to be performed during performances of the Shakespeare play, throughout his short life. If you don’t think you know this music, you are probably wrong because his often-performed Wedding March is part of it.
Verdi’s Aida
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the leading Italian opera composer of the 19th century, wrote this opera, set in ancient Egypt, for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1871.  Verdi created a unique and ethereal orchestral sound that is unlike anything else ever composed.  Its plot formed the basis for the Broadway musical of the same name.
Extra Verdi credit: The operas Otello and la Traviata.
Wagner’s Four RingOperas
Among the many operas composed by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), these four connected operas probably rank as his greatest accomplishment. Over their 16+ hours of music, they tell the story of the theft of gold from the bottom of the Rhine River and its eventual return.  Along the way there is love, murder, betrayal and lots more – plus in the second opera, die Walküre, you can hear the famously stirring “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Extra credit: The “Liebestod” (“Love-Death”) from the opera Tristan und Isolde and the overture to the opera die Meistersinger.
Puccini’s La Bohème and Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote La Bohème in 1896 and Madama Butterfly in 1904. They are among the most popular operas ever composed. La Bohème, which tells the story of a group of young ragtag artists in Paris, was the foundation for the popular Broadway musical Rent.  Madama Butterfly tells the story of Cio-Cio San, a young Japanese woman lured into a sham marriage to a young American sailor named Pinkerton. After he returned to America, she gave birth to a child. Later, when Pinkerton returns to Japan with his “real” American wife, Cio-Cio San commits suicide after singing “Un bel di vedremo” (“We shall see a beautiful day”), one of the most popular opera arias ever composed.
Extra credit: The aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” (“O, my dear little uncle”) from the opera Gianni Schicchi, which is a perennial favorite performed by contestants in beauty pageants;  it impresses judges because it is an “opera aria,” yet it does not have a wide range and is fairly easy to sing.
Tchaikovsky’s NutcrackerBallet
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote this work – probably the most beloved ballet of all time – in 1892. Its movements include the “Waltz of the Flowers,” the ”Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and more. “Sleeping Beauty,” another ballet by the same composer, is nearly as popular. Yet attending performances of The Nutcracker during the December holidays has become a beloved tradition for many families.
Extra credit: The Pathetique Symphony.
Strauss’s Salome
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote this provocative opera in 1905. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, its eroticism and brutality caused a sensation.  The setting is Herod’s palace, where his stepdaughter and niece Salome performs the erotic “Dance of the Seven Veils” for her uncle and then demand the head of Saint John the Baptist as a reward. After receiving the head on a platter and kissing its mouth, she is crushed to death by Herod’s soldiers.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote this revolutionary ballet in 1913. Its brutal tribal rhythms and lurid story of a prehistoric maiden who dances to her death triggered one of the greatest scandals in the history of classical music, when fistfights literally broke out in the auditorium and the performance was stopped. More than any other piece ever composed, this work ushered in a new musical age – in its case, the era of 20th Century music.
Extra credit: The Firebirdand The Rake’s Progress.
Copland’s Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) wrote this quintessentially American music in 1944 for a ballet created by the legendary choreographer Martha Graham.  Copland, a native of Brooklyn, New York who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, is credited with creating a uniquely American orchestral sound.  It famously included the Shaker melody, “Simple Gifts.”
Extra credit: The ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid.
Bernstein’s West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) wrote the incredibly successful Broadway musical West Side Story in 1957.  Its tale of star-crossed lovers is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet . West Side Story was collaboration, with lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim and dance numbers choreographed by Jerome Robbins – both titans of the American musical theater.  It features songs that include “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Tonight,” which have all become vastly popular.  West Side Story was made into a film in 1961, also vastly popular, that starred the young American actress Natalie Wood.