Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Music > European classical music
Though many civilizations around the world have a tradition of classical music, when used as a generic term, the phrase is usually understood as referring to the type of classical music that arose in Europe.
While classical music has roots in the Middle Ages, the best-known epochs are the Baroque period (late 16th to 18th century), the Classical period (late 18th to early 19th century) and the Romantic period (19th to early 20th centuries). Of course, in practice the transition from one period to the next occurred gradually over a number of years, and music written during the transition periods often featured aspects of the periods they were straddling. Much classical music also continues to be written today, and contemporary classical music has at least a niche following in many parts of the world.
Since the late 19th century, European classical music has been greatly influenced by music from throughout the world. In particular, Impressionist composers (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel being the most famous) were influenced by Javanese and Balinese gamelan music and music from China; African-American music such as ragtime, jazz and the blues influenced numerous classical composers; and the complex polyrhythmic music of Africa inspired many Modernist composers to use intricate rhythms and emphasize percussive sounds. In turn, colonization and cultural exchange spread the performance and composition of European-style classical music and classical music clearly influenced by both local and European traditions throughout the world.
Although classical music is somewhat a niche area in modern times, much of the music from the great classical composers of years gone buy continues to be pervade modern life, with such music often used in film scores, advertising and even quoted in modern pop music.
Some genres of classical music are ballet, the opera, the symphony, the concerto, chamber music, and liturgical music.
- 1 Amsterdam, Netherlands. Amsterdam is home to the famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra which regularly performs at the Concertgebouw concert hall together with an array of well-known visiting orchestras. The Dutch National Opera and Ballet offer a first class season for aficionados. Throughout the summer, Amsterdam also hosts three fantastic music festivals: the Holland Festival, Robeco SummerNights and the Grachtenfestival.
- 2 Aranjuez, Central Spain. Made famous by the exquisite eponymous Guitar Concerto by Joaquín Rodrigo.
- 3 Bayreuth, Germany. Famously associated with Richard Wagner. Its Festspielhaus hosts the Richard Wagner Festival every summer.
- 4 Bergen, Norway. Bergen was the home town of composer Edvard Grieg and is the home of Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, established in 1756 and now one of the oldest orchestras in world. The Bergen International Festival is held every year for two weeks in May-June, it was modeled after the Salzburg Festival.
- 5 Berlin, Germany. Germany's capital has a vibrant music scene, including two major opera companies. Its Philharmonic Orchestra has a storied history and has long been considered one of the top 3 or so in the world.
- 6 Bonn, Germany. Beethoven's city of birth. The Beethoven Orchestra plays both symphony concerts in the Beethovenhalle and accompanies opera perfomances in the opera house. The Beethoven Festival takes place annually in September and October.
- 7 Budapest, Hungary. The Hungarian capital and former second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has a beautiful 19th-century opera house, and its conservatory, named the Music Academy Liszt Ferenc after one of Hungary's national musical heroes, is also a lovely building with an excellent concert hall. The great 20th-century composer, pianist, piano pedagogue and music folklorist, Béla Bartók (called Bartók Béla in Hungary) lived and had his studio at Csalán Road in Buda from 1932 until his departure for New York in 1940, and it is maintained as a memorial house by the Budapesti History Museum today.
- 8 Český Krumlov, Czech Republic. Home to the picturesque Český Krumlov Castle, whose theatre is the world's only 18th-century opera house that survives in its original form with no modern additions. Historically-informed opera performances are still occasionally staged here, making use of the still functional 18th-century sets, props and stage machinery. The stage and orchestra pit continue to be illuminated by candlelight during performances.
- 9 Dresden, Germany. The Semperoper is considered to be one of the most beautiful and famous opera houses in Germany, the Staatskapelle is one of the country's leading symphony orchestras. Composers whose biographies are linked to Dresden include Heinrich Schütz, Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner and Sergei Rachmaninoff
- 10 Eszterháza, Hungary. Country estate of the Esterházy family, home of Joseph Haydn from 1766 to 1790, where he had a whole orchestra for himself to direct and rehearse. He would conduct his own and others' operas, often with more than a hundred performances per year.
- 11 Esterházy Castle, Eisenstadt, Austria. Principal residence and center of administration of the Eszterházy family. Its main attraction is the Haydnsaal, ranked by experts among the most beautiful and acoustically perfect concert halls of the world, the very venue where many of Joseph Haydn's works were composed and premiered.
- 12 Florence, Italy. Florence is one of the most historically significant cities and arguably the foremost wellspring of secular music in Europe. In the 14th-century, composer, performer and poet Francesco Landini served the city's growing merchant class by writing secular music exclusively. Also regarded along with Venice as the vanguard of the Renaissance, Florence was ruled for centuries by the famed Medici family, who were great patrons of the arts. Florence is also the birthplace of opera: Jacopo Peri's Dafne (now lost), the first opera to ever be composed, was premiered at the Palazzo Corsi in 1598.
- 13 Genoa, Italy. Birthplace of master violinist Niccolò Paganini. A local museum displays one of his violins. It's also home to the prestigious Teatro Carlo Felice, where Giuseppe Verdi, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, among others, conducted presentations.
- 14 Halle, Germany. Birthplace of George Frideric Handel, a museum and an annual music festival (May/June) are dedicated to the city's most famous son. Moreover, there is the Staatskapelle symphony orchestra and the Stadtsingechor, one of Germany's longest-standing boys' choirs.
- 15 Hamburg, Germany. Composers Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Johannes Brahms were born in Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann, George Frideric Handel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Gustav Mahler each spent several years of their lives here. The city is famous for its State Opera (the first public opera house in Germany), the Hamburg Philharmonic orchestra, Hamburg Ballet and its conservatory.
- 16 Helsinki, Finland. The home of Jean Sibelius, and a modern opera house opened in 1993.
- 17 Leipzig, Germany. Johann Sebastian Bach worked here as the cantor (musical director and teacher) of St. Thomas church, from 1723 until his death in 1750. His remains are buried under a bronze epitaph near this church's altar. The Bach Museum is right next door. There is an international Bach festival in June of each year. Romantic composer Richard Wagner and piano virtuosa Clara Schumann were born in Leipzig; Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy spent several years of their lives here. There are museums dedicated to these musicians and their works in their respective homes. Another museum displays rare and historic musical instruments. Both the Gewandhaus orchestra and the St Thomas boys' choir are classical music groups of international renown. Finally, the city has a notable musical conservatory (you may have an opportunity to listen to its advanced students).
- 18 London, England. London has a long and distinguished musical history, first as the centre of Elizabethan musical greatness and then as the city which many composers from the Continent toured or moved to to make their fortunes, among them Handel, Johann Christian Bach, Haydn and Mendelssohn. While England has for the most part lacked composers with the fame of Mozart and Beethoven, it has nevertheless produced several internationally renowned composers such as Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, all of whom spent much of their careers in London. Today, London is one of the world's leading cities for classical music. It is home to the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and numerous other performing organizations and features a fantastic concert hall, the Royal Albert Hall, from where the Proms (see "Events" below) are broadcast every year. In modern times, London is also known for its conservatories of music, the most famous ones being the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music.
- 19 Mantua, Italy. Claudio Monteverdi's favola in musica, L'Orfeo (1607), one of the earliest operas and the oldest one that's still much performed today, was written for the city's ruling Gonzaga family and premiered in one of the rooms of the Ducal Palace (which room is not known).
- 20 Milan, Italy. La Scala is arguably the world's single most famous and prestigious opera house, where immortal names like Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas built their reputations.
- 21 Moscow, Russia. Another important city in the history of classical music where many Russian composers of the Romantic period worked. Home to the stately Bolshoi Theatre, whose Bolshoi Ballet is one of the best regarded in the world, and where Tchaikovsky's famous ballet Swan Lake (1876) premiered.
- 22 Munich, Germany. Home to the Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper), one of Germany's premier opera companies, which is housed in the historic National Theatre (Nationaltheater). Several famous works, such as Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1865) had their premiere here.
- 23 Naples, Italy. Better known as the home of pizza, Naples was a very important centre of classical music from the 16th to early 20th century. The Neapolitan school of opera was founded by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), whose family members included other well-regarded composers such as his son, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), as well as his nephew or grandson, Giuseppe Scarlatti (1718/1723-1777). Though largely forgotten today, it was one of, if not the most important schools of opera during the Baroque and Classical periods. Composers of this school who were famous during their lifetimes, though largely forgotten today, included Nicola Porpora, Johann Adolph Hasse, Giovanni Battitsta Pergolesi, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci (not to be confused with the Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci), Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello and Giuseppe Sarti. Naples' 18th-century opera house, Teatro di San Carlo (founded in 1737), still hosts opera and other performances today.
- 24 Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany. The castle's architecture and decoration are wholly inspired by Richard Wagner's epic operas, greatly admired by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who ordered its building.
- 25 Paris, France. As the capital of France for hundreds of years, Paris has played a major role in the history and development of classical music in Europe. Leoninus and Perotinus, the most famous early composers of organum, wrote their music for performance at the Romanesque and Gothic versions of the Notre Dame Cathedral, respectively. During the Baroque period, quite a few great composers, such as the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli), the inventor of French opera, as well as a few others such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau, worked for the royal court in Versailles, now a suburb of Paris. The Baroque period also saw the development of the high tenor, or haute-contre voice in the heroic roles of French opera, due to the fact the famed castrati who were popular in the rest of the continent never manged to get a foothold in France. Later in the 18th century, several of Haydn's symphonies and other works were performed to great acclaim in Paris, and the French opera tradition continued with composers such as the German Christoph Willibald Gluck, the Italian Antonio Salieri, and the Belgian André Grétry composing many critically acclaimed works.
In the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, a long list of famous composers lived and worked in Paris, including the Belgian César Franck, the Frenchmen Hector Berlioz, Jules Massenet, Georges Bizet, Gabriel Fauré, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, the Italians Gioachino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi, the Pole Frédéric Chopin (Fryderyk Szopen) and the Russians Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Several famous organist/composers had regular jobs at churches throughout town, including St. Sulpice and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. The operetta was also invented here by the German composer Jacques Offenbach, whose operetta Orphée aux enfers (1858) contains a few pieces still instantly recognisable by current-day listeners.
The Opéra Garnier is a lovely, historic and iconic building that houses the world-renowned Paris Opera Ballet (Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris). The newer Opéra Bastille, widely considered one of the best in the world, houses the Paris Opera (Opéra National de Paris), one of the world's premier opera companies. Another significant though less well known venue is the Opéra-Comique, where Bizet's famed opera Carmen had its premiere in 1875. Paris today has a very varied performance scene and remains vital as a center for new and experimental music, as exemplified by the ongoing work at IRCAM, the Institute for Acoustic/Musical Research and Coordination founded by the recently deceased Modernist composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which he also founded.
- 26 Palermo, Italy. Its Teatro Massimo is an architectural and acoustical masterpiece, the third largest opera house in Europe, and served as scenery to the final scenes (which feature the opera Cavalleria Rusticana) of the film The Godfather Part III.
- 27 Prague, Czech Republic. Capital of the Czech Republic in modern times, and capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia in the time of Mozart, with arguably the best preserved 18th-century downtown core of any major city in Europe. Mozart was actually more popular in Prague than he was in either Salzburg or Vienna during his lifetime, and his famous opera Don Giovanni (1787) premiered here at the Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo), which has the distinction of being the only surviving venue in the world in which a Mozart opera had its world permiere, as well as the only surviving venue in which Mozart had personally conducted his operas. Fittingly, the Oscar-winning movie Amadeus was entirely shot in Prague. It was also the birthplace of Josef Mysliveček, one of Mozart's contemporaries who was hugely popular in his time but largely faded into obscurity today, and also where many later Czech composers of the Romantic period, such as Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček spent most of their careers.
- 28 Rome, Italy. The popes have been patrons of music for over 1,000 years. Famous composers in the Papal Court have included the Renaissance masters Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Giacomo Carissimi, a Roman composer in the early Baroque style of the early 17th century, is widely credited as being a seminal figure in the development of the oratorio, as he wrote opera-like compositions on Biblical themes for sacred concerts he directed at the Oratorio di Santissimo Crocifisso. In spite of the fact that the Church officially prohibited castration, nevertheless, due to the fact that women were banned from singing in public in the Papal States, Rome saw the rise of the castrati (men who had been castrated before they hit puberty), starting in the second half of the 16th century. From ear-witness reports, castrati were able to sing in ranges from alto to soprano like women, but with the tremendous lung power of a big man (as castrated men grow taller than non-castrated men), with the great Farinelli said to have had a tessitura from the tenor all the way up to the high soprano range, and to have been able to sing continuously for over a minute without taking a breath. The appeal of castrati spread beyond Rome to the rest of the continent (except France), with some castrati becoming sex symbols and superstars on the opera stage, such that the heroic roles in Italian Baroque operas were almost always assigned to castrati. Although technically in the Vatican, visitors to Rome can visit the Sistine Chapel where the castrati first rose to prominence, and also where the practice continued to survive long after the castrati lost their prominence on the operatic stage until Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, died in 1922. Today, Rome is home to the Santa Cecilia conservatory, which also hosts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, probably Italy's best symphony orchestra other than the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, which is based in Turin.
- 29 Saint Petersburg, Russia. Former imperial capital of Russia, which was also where many famous composers of the Romantic period such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky worked for a significant amount of time during their careers. The city boasts the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Mariinsky Ballet, one of the world's most renowned ballet companies, which was most notably the location of the premiere of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, "The Nutcracker" (1892).
- 30 Salzburg, Austria. Mozart's birthplace. Apart from the compulsory visit to his birth house, music lovers may visit a concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra, an opera performance at the Salzburger Landestheater or one of the frequent Salzburger Schlosskonzerte of chamber music. In July and August of each year, the world-famous Salzburg Festival takes place.
- 31 Venice, Italy. The Cathedral of San Marco was the workplace of great composers, and especially Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. The Gabrielis were known for their music for antiphonal choirs of voices and instruments, which was produced by placing two choirs in choir lofts on opposite sides of the church for a stereophonic effect. The music also symbolized the unity of the church and state, whose representatives in those days sat on opposite sides of the pews. This contrast and unity of choirs with different tone colors and dynamics (piano and forte, as in Giovanni Gabrieli's Sonata pian'e forte, the first musical work to be notated with dynamic markings) helped to bring about the stilo moderno (modern style) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that we now call the Baroque style. The 18th-century composer Antonio Vivaldi, renowned in his day for his operas as well as his instrumental and sacred music, was another famous Venetian. The Venetian school, which included Vivaldi and other then-famous composers such as Antonio Caldara and Baldassare Galuppi, was one of the great schools of Baroque opera, rivalling the Neapolitan school. Venice was the home of the first large public opera house, built in 1642, and has since 1774 hosted the Teatro la Fenice, Venice's opera house which has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt three times.
- 32 Vienna, Austria. Vienna was a very influential city during the days of the multinational Austrian Empire and could arguably be considered the world's historical center of the universe of classical music, or at least classical instrumental music, from the 2nd half of the 18th century to the early 20th century. Many prominent classical music composers lived and worked in Vienna — most prominently, those of the First (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Salieri) and Second (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) Vienna Schools — and the city even today boasts famous venues like the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) and the Festival Hall (Festsaal) of the Hofburg Palace. It was also the birthplace of Johann Strauss II, famous for his waltzes and other dance music, as well as his operettas. Many fans of classical music consider the Vienna Philharmonic to be among the world's very best symphony orchestras. Vienna is also home to the Burgtheater, the former imperial theatre of the Austro-Hungarian empire, built in 1888 to replace an older, now demolished, theatre of the same name in which Mozart premiered his famous operas Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Così fan tutte (1790). Yet another important location in the history of classical music is the Theater an der Wien, built in 1801 by the troupe for whom Mozart composed his final opera, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) (1791), with its Papageno Gate (Papagenotor) being built in honour of one of the characters in that opera. The theatre also served as the premiere venue for several famous operas such as Beethoven's Fidelio (1805) and Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus (1874).
- 33 Weimar, Germany. While primarily linked with authors and playwrights Goethe and Schiller, Weimar was also a home to classical composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss. Nowadays, classical music is played in the opera branch of the Deutsches Nationaltheater, by the Staatskapelle orchestra and by students of the Weimar conservatory.
- 34 Żelazowa Wola, Poland. Birthplace of the famed piano virtuoso and composer Fryderyk Chopin, who later went on to a hugely successful career in France. A museum devoted to him is here, and summer concerts of his music are often performed in his honour.
- Boston, United States of America. Best known for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which plays in beautiful Symphony Hall, Boston is also the home of the oldest performing organization never to miss a season in the U.S.: The Handel and Haydn Society. Founded in 1815, when Haydn was recently deceased and premieres of some of Handel's works were still a living memory, this ensemble dedicates itself to performing Baroque music today and is a highly respected original instruments group and chorus.
- Chicago, United States of America. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with its great history of touring and recording starting under Fritz Reiner and accelerating under Sir Georg Solti, has often been considered the best or one of the top two orchestras in the United States. Chicago is also home to the Civic Opera House, one of the finest Art Deco opera houses in the world. In modern times it is home to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the most renowned opera companies in North America.
- Los Angeles, United States of America. Los Angeles may not be the first city a traveler thinks of as a hotbed of classical music in the United States, but it is a major center of classical music, nonetheless. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, a great orchestra, performs its season at Disney Hall, a striking building downtown designed by Gehry and known for its acoustics. Also, don't overlook the absolutely crucial contribution of classical composers to Hollywood films. The sound of classic Hollywood film music was supplied by highly skilled European classical composers such as Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dmitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rózsa — many of them refugees from fascism or communism in Europe — and also by various native-born Americans, quite a few of whom were trained either in Europe or by Europeans. Today, classical music is still of great importance to Hollywood, and though many names could be mentioned, that of John Williams suffices to make the point.
- New York City, United States of America. New York has two major world-class halls: Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Carnegie also has an excellent, smaller recital hall, Weill Recital Hall, where many debut recitals and chamber music concerts take place. The Metropolitan Opera is one of the most famous in the world and has a storied history. People interested in the way the opera works behind the scenes can sign up for backstage tours, which cover such things as the construction and maintenance of the house, the movement of sets on the stage, the construction of sets and costumes, the special loading dock for animals needed onstage and the rehearsal stage where the singer/actors can work on blocking. The New York Philharmonic performs at Geffen Hall, formerly called Avery Fisher Hall and like the Met, at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side. Other major halls include Alice Tully Hall, where Chamber Music at Lincoln Center and Mostly Mozart have their seasons and also the Kaufmann Center at the 92nd St. Y and Merkin Hall, both of which among other things often feature contemporary classical music. New York also has several conservatories of music, the most famous of which is the Juilliard School, also at Lincoln Center. New York was also the birthplace of the famous composer, songwriter and pianist, George Gershwin (1898-1937), arguably (with Ives the most frequent alternative choice) America's greatest classical composer, who was also famous for his Broadway shows and popular songs, and as a jazz musician. New York is also generally considered to have succeeded Vienna as the center of the classical music world and especially musical Modernism for the remainder of the 20th century after the rise of Nazism in Europe. Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse and Béla Bartók are among the many Modernist composers who lived in New York.
- Philadelphia, United States of America. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the most famous in the United States. The city also hosts the Curtis Institute, widely considered the country's foremost conservatory of music, which is free for all students who pass their extremely demanding audition.
- Sydney, Australia. Home to the famed Sydney Opera House, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, and the only one to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site during the lifetime of its architect. The opera house is home to Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, all of which regularly stage performances.
- Rheingau Musik Festival: 31 January - 11 August 2016 Rheingau. Annual cultural event, mainly classical music, takes place in a number of locations in the region, often in historic buildings or their grounds. (date needs updating)
- Bachfest Leipzig: 9-18 June 2017 Leipzig. International festival with more than 100 concerts of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers.
- Festival d'Aix-en-Provence: 30 June - 20 July 2016 Aix-en-Provence. One of the oldest and most famous festivals of classical music in France. (date needs updating)
- Salzburg Festival: 22 July - 31 August 2016 Salzburg. For almost a century, Salzburg has hosted the world famous festival, with operas, concerts, and theater plays in different locations throughout the city. It was founded by Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Max Reinhardt and Richard Strauss in 1920. It takes place in July and August, the most famous piece is the "Jedermann" ("Everyman") by Hugo v. Hoffmansthal, being conducted in front of the Dom (Cathedral) every year. (date needs updating)
- The Proms (The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC): 15 July - 10 September 2016 London/South Kensington-Chelsea. Orchestral concerts in the Royal Albert Hall. (date needs updating)
- Bayreuth Festival (Richard Wagner Festival): 25 July - 28 August 2016 Bayreuth. for 30 days every year in July and August, when his operas are performed at the Festspielhaus. During the festival, huge crowds flock to Bayreuth for a chance to see the performances. It is estimated that the waiting time for tickets is between five and ten years. For inquiries, contact the Tourist Information office for ideas on the best ways to obtain tickets. Sometimes (with a little luck), last minute tickets can become available. (date needs updating)
- Lucerne Festival: 12 August - 11 September 2016 Lucerne. Thrice a year, visiting world-class orchestras and star conductors. (date needs updating)