DISCLAIMER: I am putting this RIGHT HERE AT THE TOP. In the entire world of classical music it is impossible to list every 'good' piece. SOMEONE thinks nearly everything is good - it's all a matter of taste and personal preference. What I'm shooting for is well-known stuff that you've likely heard before, that is EASY TO LISTEN TO (specifically, melodic and fairly short). I'll try to explain my choices. Inevitably I will forget something. Feel free to leave your own favorites in the comments.
Needletart asked yesterday why the bassoon players were maniacs to do the Sorcerer's Apprentice. SA is basically a ten-minute bassoon duet with symphonic accompaniment. Our two bassoon players were a pair of type A personalities and perfectionists (and flaming smart). The director asked them first if they were game, and they were, so we played it. At the concert the entire symphonic band gave them a standing ovation.
So... what to listen to.
For modern folks (like, you know, the ones who read knitting blogs babbling about classical music), the big issue with classical music is time. We're so used to listening to three and a half minute pop music songs, that to plop down and listen to an entire symphony, well, our brains run out of space. It's something you kind of work up to. I'm going to list stuff sort of by timing - shorter things first, so if you like you can half-assedly work your way down the list.
Another thing that makes a big difference - more than you'd think, at first - is who directed it. It can make a HUGE difference. This could be a blog post all by itself, but given a choice, go with stuff directed by Leonard Bernstein or Leopold Stokowski, or for Wagner, things recorded at the Bayreuth Festival (Wagner's music was a favorite of the Nazis in the '30s and '40s, and they supported Hitler... if that offends you, well, skip that last suggestion). Personally I also find the Royal Philharmonic a bit stale, but you might wanna give them a listen and come to your own conclusion.
As in the last paragraph, where possible I will link to Wikipedia articles for the pieces. Often they have discography discussions in them, with suggestions on which recordings (by which director and symphony) are best. Often Wikipedia has recordings, right in the article, that play the main themes of the piece. Very cool.
Originally, an overture was sort of a 'coming attractions' advertisement for an opera. The composer took all the major themes (leitmotifs if we wanna get technical) from all the songs in the opera, smushed 'em together, and played that resultant mashup at the start of the opera to get the audience's attention. Like an appetizer before a meal. After a while, composers decided overtures were more fun than slogging through a whole opera, and started skipping the opera part and just writing the overture. For obvious reasons, then, these are a great way to start listening to classical; many recognizable melodies, and not enough time to get bored. (For a modern version of this, check out "Overture" on "Oi To The World", an album by the Vandals. It is exactly what an overture is, only using melodies from the other pop songs on the album. Very entertaining.) A certainly not comprehensive list:
-Barber of Seville, Gioachino Rossini. You will likely sing Bugs Bunny lyrics. And that's JUST FINE.
-1812, Tchaikovsky. Fucketh thee not with the Russians. Ever.
-William Tell, Rossini. This is best known for the "Lone Ranger Theme" which is actually a leitmotif named "Overthrow of the Austrian Oppression by the Swiss". It's a political opera I find quite tiresome, but the overture rocks. Supposedly Rossini wrote this, said he'd never do better, and quit composing. What an ass.
-Flying Dutchman, Richard Wagner. I've never seen the opera, and from what I know of the story, it's gotta be pretty dismal. But like William Tell, the overture is awesome. Yes, this is the opening of "What's Opera, Doc?"
-Ruslan and Ludmilla, Mikhail Glinka. Based on a Russian folk tale; a little obscure, but a personal favorite. Very lively, you can hum along.
-Marriage of Figaro, Wolfie Mozart. Actually, the entire opera kicks ass, but you may wanna start off with just the overture. You'll likely recognize it. It was banned in Vienna for Mozart's lifetime. Of course. He was such a hell-raiser. (I consider him the world's first rock star.)
-The Magic Flute, Wolfie Mozart. Like Figaro, the whole opera's good. Unlike Figaro, Magic Flute was wildly popular and probably would have been what made Mozart's name in his lifetime. Unfortunately he croaked soon after it was finished.
-Die Fledermaus (roughly translated, the flying mouse, or the bat), Johann Strauss Jr. Can't list overtures without throwing in something from the Strauss boys. Even the simple melodies sound overblown; it takes a certain skill. You'll recognize the main theme. It's in several cartoons, including some Tom and Jerry.
-Carnival Overture, Antonin Dvorak. Just what it sounds like. A trip to the carnival. Magnificent writing. Listen for the lion roaring.
These are a group of shorter songs, loosely grouped around a theme. The pre-rock music version of a concept album. Liked Sgt. Pepper and The Wall? You'll like these.
-Nutcracker Suite, Tchaikovsky. Probably the best-known, and it never gets old. Supposedly Christmas music, I'm willing to listen any time. It's also a ballet. But for our purposes, it's a suite, darn it.
-Carmen, Georges Bizet. Originally an opera, (the overture is good too, but I'm trying to list this stuff once per song), the songs were so popular, the composer made them into a suite. Sort of like the opera without the needless dialogue (old joke). According to Wikipedia, there's just the opera, but damn it, I've got the album RIGHT HERE.
-The Planets, Gustav Holst. Yup. A series of songs written about the planets. He uses the astrological interpretation of their 'personalities' as a starting point. Jupiter and Mars are the most commonly played in concert; I've played Jupiter myself, and it's my favorite of them.
-Carmina Burana, Carl Orff. (Remembered because Louiz suggested it, and she's right, it kicks ass.) The writings of a pissed off monk, set to music. You'll recognize it, especially "O Fortuna", which is used in movies ALL THE TIME. In fact, that's how I learned of this suite of songs; I sang the theme to my mother-in-law, who identified it immediately. There is a sample of O Fortuna at the link, and I am amused to see KMFDM has covered it. Bwahaha.
BALLETS AND DANCES:
Obviously good fun. Lively, and you can dance to them. Get the kids up and make them choreograph. It's hilarious.
-Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky. You'll recognize the waltz, from Disney.
-Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky was into experimental, well, everything. It shows. But some of it will be recognized. It is supposedly based on pagan rituals (having BEEN to pagan rituals, I gotta give a big 'yeah RIGHT' to that), and shocked EVERYONE when it came out. Sixty years later Berntsein was still claiming it was fresh and new. He also did The Firebird.
-Hungarian Dances, Johnny Brahms. You should know them all. And you'll want to dance, or at least bob in your chair. Even if you don't.
-Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. I think it was Mark Twain who said "Listening to a Copland symphony is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes." Not my gig, but lots of other people like him and the music is used everywhere.
-Slavonic Dances, Antonin Dvorak. I once played this. The syncopation kicked our asses. But it's great stuff.
All the good stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else.
-Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Wolfie Mozart. Looking at Mozart's music catalogue makes me feel like a frightful slacker (all that and the guy croaked at 35). Anyway, Eine kleine Nacht is THE example of 'question and answer' musical writing. Officially it is considered a serenade. I think. Good stuff.
-Brandenburg Concertos, J S Bach. Great example of his keyboard pieces. The guy was a bloody genius. My personal fave of them is number three. Me and everybody else. (I just played it and the Goob demanded 'The Rabbit'. Classical music = Bugs Bunny at MY house.)
-Etudes (or anything else) by Frederic Chopin. The guy was a hound, but he could write keyboard music, let me tell you.
-Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz. This one is an entire symphony in five movements, so it'll take a little working up to, or a couple breaks. The last half was written on opium, and it shows. Classical music with rock and roll attitude. We listened to this every year in music appreciation. At Halloween. In the dark. Freaked out the new kids.
-Bolero, by Maurice Ravel. Quite possibly the most ridiculous piece of classical music ever written. Okay, okay, I'm biased because they used it in the movie 10 (as usual, Blake Edwards has a lot to answer for). But good grief. Obvious, much? Go get laid already.
-Piano Concerto in F Minor, by JS Bach. Since we're talking movies. It's used in them, a lot. The Wikipedia link goes to a huge listing of all Bach's concertos. I feel like a slacker again.
Okay. I've got to lay off this, or I'll be here all day. I've already been at this two hours. But I've got to include one last bit.
Ninth Symphony, Ludvig Von Beethoven. This is the most inspiring piece of music I know of, and whenever I need a good kick in the ass for my attitude, I play it. Loud. Not only is it inspiring in it's own right (it is best known for the "Ode to Joy" theme), BEETHOVEN WAS DEAF AS A POST WHEN HE WROTE IT. How's that for a kick in the ass, and making your own problems look a bit smaller? For a fast kick, listen to just the last movement.
Crap. Forgot the opera.