13 beautiful pieces of English classical music


8 July 2021, 16:18

The greatest pieces of classical music by English composers.

Image: Getty

From George Frideric Handel to Edward Elgar, here is our edition of some of the most delightful English instrumental, orchestral and choral music ever written.

The contribution of English composers to the canon of classical music is rich, varied and centuries old.

From the works of Renaissance masters like William Byrd and John Dowland, to the indomitable Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and modern masters like John Tavener, Errollyn Wallen, Judith Weir and Thomas Adès, it is an inescapable contribution.

In the middle of the masterful list are a few notable pieces of English classical music whose music history and classical music tastes today tell us audiences can’t get enough – whatever. because of how revolutionary they were in their day, or just because of the damn wonderful melodies they present.

So, without further ado, here are some of the greatest and most beloved pieces of English music ever written.

Read more: 10 of the best English composers

  1. Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Rising Lark

    Vaughan Williams’ work for violin and orchestra based on the pastoral poem by George Meredith is the typical English piece of music.

    Programmatic, retracing the flight of this rise Lark, the work is characterized by delightful orchestral moments and soaring solo violin writing.

  2. Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto

    Edward Elgar completed his Cello Concerto in 1919, and it is a contemplative and painful exploration of the composer’s experience of World War I and a reflection on old age and beyond.

    From the first dramatic chords, the writing is both beautiful and poignant. A true masterpiece of classical English canon.

  3. Gustav Holst: The planets

    Composed between 1914 and 1916, Holst’s The planets is a seven-movement orchestral piece named after all the planets in our solar system then visible from Earth: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

    Holst took inspiration from the corresponding astrological characters from the planets, which provide subtitles for the movements, and he composed in distinct moods and styles for each.

  4. Hubert Parry: Jerusalem

    Parry has put here a short poem by William Blake, titled “And Those Feet In The Old Times”, in a dignified and swelling hymn.

    The 1916 song was picked up by suffragists in 1917, and King George V reportedly said he preferred to think of “Jerusalem” as the English national anthem, rather than “God Save the King”.

  5. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Hiawatha Song

    Hiawatha’s song is one of the most famous works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a contemporary of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst (above).

    Hiawatha is a three-part choral work based on the epic poem of the same name by American poet Henry, Wadsworth Longfellow.

  6. George Frideric Handel: Zadok the priest

    “Zadok the Priest” is an energizing choral hymn, written by the English-German-born composer Handel.

    It was written for the coronation of King George II in 1727, and is part of the composer’s coronation hymns alongside “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened”, “Thy King Shall Rejoice” and “My Heart is Inditing” – all from great works, but “Zadok” is the lasting banger.

  7. Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations

    from Elgar Variations of the enigma is an orchestral work composed of 14 variations on an original theme.

    Not content with just writing a beautiful piece of music, Elgar confessed to hiding a cryptic musical mystery deep inside his. Variations of the enigma, writing: “The riddle I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ is not to be guessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture …”

  8. Henry Purcell: “The Lament of Dido”

    ‘Dido’s Lament’ is the colloquial name of a sublime aria, ‘When I’m Laid in Earth’, from the heartbreaking 17th century opera by English Baroque composer Purcell, Dido and Aeneas.

    The aria comes to the climax of the opera when the tragic heroine Dido swears to commit suicide following a betrayal of her love Aeneas. She sings “When I am lying on the earth, may my wrongs not create any problem in your chest …”, as her lover pulls away from her, and she ends up putting an end to it all.

  9. Rachel Portman: Emma

    English composer Rachel Portman won an Oscar for her lovely score for the 1996 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

    The music is perfectly English and evocative of the world of Austen, making it an essential cinematic addition to this most English classic collection.

  10. John Dowland: “Flux, my tears”

    In the style of John Lennon and “Imagine,” “Flow, my tears” was the signature song of Renaissance composer, lutenist and singer John Dowland.

    A beautiful melancholy melody, it was originally composed as an instrumental piece called ‘Lachrimae pavane’. History actually shows that Dowland signed his name with “Jo: dolandi from Lachrimae” – what did we say about his signature song?

  11. Edward Elgar: pompous and circumstantial marches

    the Pump and circumstance steps are a whole collection of five or six marches (one was completed from notes left by Elgar, after the composer’s death), the most popular and heard being the March Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, “Earth hope and glory ”.

    A huge fan of chivalry in all its forms, Elgar took the title of his marches from the line in Act III, scene 3 of Shakespeare. Othello, “the pride, the pomp and the circumstances of the glorious war”. Well done, old man.

  12. Benjamin Britten: A Guide for Young People in the Orchestra

    This wonderful English orchestral piece does what it says on the tin: it introduces young people (and not so young, ahem) to each instrument in the orchestra by sharing a catchy melody between the different instruments in turn, in an extravaganza of orchestral variations to compete with the best of them.

    Britten took a tune from his fellow English composer Purcell for the piece, which was commissioned for a UK documentary titled Orchestra Instruments.

  13. John Tavener: “The Lamb”

    Sir John Tavener was an English composer famous for his sacred choral works. ‘The Lamb’, composed in 1982, is a sparse, at times dissonant and sublimely beautiful setting of William Blake’s poem of the same name.

    It premiered at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on Christmas Eve of the same year it was composed, and Italian director Paolo Sorrentino used it with striking effect in the score of his 2013 film. The great beauty (The great bellezza).


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