We often discover our favourite composers through hearing their most well-known pieces repeated on concert programmes or on the radio. If you’re looking to expand your listening library, though, we have just the guide to help you start discovering some of the more obscure—but nonetheless rewarding—works by great composers.
Aria for soprano and harpsichord (1713)
by Johann Sebastian Bach
In June 2005, Leipzig Bach Archive scholar Michael Maul discovered a Bach score in a shoebox, nestled among birthday cards for Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar’s 52nd birthday. It turned out to be a charming aria for soprano, strings and basso continuo that had been forgotten soon after it was written in 1713.
When news of the discovery reached the ears of the classical music establishment, it took US radio station NPR less than 48 hours to piece together the score and arrange a performance of the work, likely the first in 292 years. John Eliot Gardiner performed the work at Cadogan Hall in London later that year.
Davide penitente, K469 (1785)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart was a prolific composer of symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber works and sacred choral music, and seemed to excel in any genre he put his mind to. Indeed, it’s almost hard to believe that he composed over 600 works in his short lifetime (he died of fever at the age of 35). Whilst the majority of his works are celebrated as we’d expect, a few seem to have fallen through the cracks, including Davide penitente, K469.
A cantata commissioned by the Viennese Society of Musicians in 1785, the work shares material with the unfinished C minor Mass and, with its memorable choruses and some beautiful woodwind writing, makes for a satisfying and heartrending listen.
Wellington's Victory, Op.9 (1813)
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Love Beethoven’s nine symphonies but don’t know where to turn next? Look no further than Wellington’s Victory, Beethoven’s 1813 orchestral work celebrating the defeat of Joseph Bonaparte (the brother of Napoleon) at the Battle of Vitoria.
The jubilant piece splits the orchestra into two and pits variations of popular national melodies from both sides against each other: Britain’s God Save The Queen and Rule Britannia versus the French Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre. The incorporation of bombastic military-style brass makes for a thrilling listen.
Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W. (1852)
by Richard Wagner
We know that Wagner’s operatic masterpieces changed the face of music but what is less celebrated is his contribution to the chamber music canon. Among a selection of works for trio and quartet are several terrific solo piano works.
The grand sonata in A (1832), a gem from Wagner’s student days, would make for a good starting point and we also recommend listening to Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W., the piano work Wagner composed for his muse Mathilde Wesendok in 1852 before he embarked on the score for the first opera in his famous "Ring" cycle, Das Rheingold.
Read more: Where to begin with Richard Wagner
En Blanc et Noir (1915)
by Claude Debussy
Debussy’s lesser-known En Blanc Et Noir is a virtuosic work in three moments for piano duo. One of only two original piano duo compositions (he wrote many arrangements of existing works for the combination), the piece was written at a time when Debussy was preoccupied with despair at the devastation of the First World War.
Debussy insisted that there wasn’t a link between this work and the war, however, and instead saw it as an exercise in really exploring the colour of the instrument: [the movements] “derive their colour and feeling merely from the sonority of the piano.” Whatever the motivation for the piece (the second movement is dedicated to the memory of a French army officer killed in action) it's an intensely emotional listen and a welcome addition to any Debussy fan’s playlist.
Symphony No. 3 (1971)
by Arvo Pärt
Symphonies are not the first things that come to mind when you think of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s music. Choral works, yes. Chamber pieces in Pärt’s "tintinnabuli", bell-like style, of course. Film soundtracks, perhaps. But Pärt has written four symphonies and they are well worth discovering.
Three of the symphonies were written before Pärt developed the "tintinnabuli" style in the late 1970s, and the third especially is a highlight in his output. Give it a try for delicate orchestration and powerful brooding moments that bridge the gap between late-Romantic influenced orchestral writing and more simple, spacious writing which hints at famous Pärt works like Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten.