75 Quotes About Classical Music

From the cantatas of Bach to the sonatas of Mozart to the passion of Tchaikovsky to the extroversion of Bernstein, the centuries-old classical music tradition has gripped audiences for generations.

In this collection of 75 quotes, we’re traveling across the generations and delving into the hearts, minds, souls, and wit of some of classical music’s greatest composers.

Let’s get started:

Quotes by Johann Sebastian Bach

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach © biography.com

Like all music, the figured bass should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting.

Johann Sebastian Bach, as quoted in Ludwig Prautzsch’s book Bibel und Symbol in den Werken Bachs

Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.

– Johann Sebastian Bach, annotation from his copy of the Calov Bible

Glenn Gould – Bach – Goldberg Variations BWV 988 – Aria Da Capo

Quotes by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Statue of Mozart

Statue of Mozart

I write as a sow pisses.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in a letter to his sister, 1770

When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as quoted in The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1928

Passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain Music…

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in a letter to his father, 1781

I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in a letter to his father, 1777

The most necessary, most difficult and principal thing in music, that is time.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as quoted in Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words, 1905

Melody is the essence of music. I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists to hack post-horses; therefore be advised, let well alone and remember the old Italian proverb: Chi sa più, meno sa—Who knows most, knows least.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as purportedly told to Michael Kelly and reported in his 1826 book Reminiscences of Michael Kelly

You know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as quoted in The Letters of Mozart and his Family, 2016

I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as quoted in The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 1966

Mozart: Piano Sonata No 16 C major K 545 Barenboim

Quotes by Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven Monument at Beethovenplatz, Vienna

Beethoven Monument at Beethovenplatz, Vienna

Music is like a dream. One that I cannot hear.

Ludwig van Beethoven, from his conversation books, 1804

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.

– Ludwig van Beethoven, as reported by Bettina von Arnim in a letter to Goethe, 1810

I have never thought of writing for reputation and honor. What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason why I compose.

– Ludwig van Beethoven, as quoted in Beethoven, as Revealed in His Own Words: The Man and the Artist, 2009

Only art and science can raise men to the level of God.

– Ludwig van Beethoven, as quoted in Letters, 1961

Do not merely practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; it deserves that, for only art and science can exalt man to divinity.

– Ludwig van Beethoven, in a letter, 1812

Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?

– Ludwig van Beethoven in a letter to Bettina von Arnim, 1810

It is a recognised fact that the greatest composers were likewise the greatest virtuosos; but did they play like the pianists of the present day, who run up and down the keyboard with passages studied beforehand? Pooh! pooh! pooh! Don’t tell me! A real virtuoso, when extemporizing, plays pieces which hold together and possess a form. Were the ideas in them fixed instantly on paper, they would be taken for pieces written at leisure. That is what I call playing the piano; everything else is a bad joke.

– Ludwig van Beethoven, told to his friend Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek, 1814

Evgeny Kissin plays Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”

Quotes by Felix Mendelssohn

And do you agree with me, that the first condition of an artist should be to bear respect towards what is great, and to bow to it and acknowledge it, and not attempt to extinguish great flames for the sake of making his own rushlight burn more brightly?

Felix Mendelssohn, letter to his friend Wilhelm Taubert, August 27, 1831

People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

– Felix Mendelssohn, letter to his friend Marc-André Souchay, October 15, 1842

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 (Italian) First Movement

Quotes by Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin

One needs only to study a certain positioning of the hand in relation to the keys to obtain with ease the most beautiful sounds, to know how to play long notes and short notes and to [attain] certain unlimited dexterity… A well formed technique, it seems to me, [is one] that can control and vary a beautiful sound quality.

– Frédéric Chopin, as quoted in Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger

Concerts are never real music, you have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things of art.

– Frédéric Chopin, as quoted in Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger

Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano.

– Frédéric Chopin, as quoted in Chopin’s Letters, 2013

I am not fitted to give concerts. The audience intimidates me, I feel choked by its breath, paralyzed by its curious glances, struck dumb by all those strange faces.

– Frédéric Chopin, as quoted by historian Zdzisław Jachimecki in his Chopin article for Polski słownik biograficzny, 1937

Chopin Nocturne, op 27 no 2 – Maria João Pires live at Jardin Musical

Quotes by Richard Wagner

The oldest, truest, most beautiful organ of music, the origin to which alone our music owes its being, is the human voice.

Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, 1851

The language of tones belongs equally to all mankind, and melody is the absolute language in which the musician speaks to every heart.

– Richard Wagner, Beethoven, 1873

It is a truth forever that where the speech of man stops short, there Music’s reign begins.

– Richard Wagner, Pilgrimage to Beethoven and Other Essays, 1840

Certain things in Mozart will and can never be excelled.

– Richard Wagner, quoted in Cosima Wagner’s diary, 1878

What Music expresses is eternal, infinite, and ideal; she expresses not the passion, love, desire, of this or that individual in this or that condition, but Passion, Love, Desire itself, and in such infinitely varied phases as lie in her unique possession and are foreign and unknown to any other tongue…So…Here’s to Victory, gained by our higher sense over the worthlessness of the vulgar! To Love, which crowns our courage…To the day, to the night!…And three cheers for Music.

– Richard Wagner, Pilgrimage to Beethoven and Other Essays, 1840

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Vorspiel ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Alain Altinoglu

Quotes by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Painting of composer Tchaikovsky

Painting of Tchaikovsky © spectator.imgix.net

Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, 1878

Just as I was starting on my journey the idea came to me for a new symphony, this time with a program, but a program which will remain an enigma to all— let them guess it who can. It will be called “A Programmatic Symphony” (No. 6). During my trip, while composing in my mind, I frequently shed tears. When I got home I settled down to sketch it, and the work went so furiously that I had the first movement completely ready in less than four days and the remaining movements are already clearly outlined in my head. Half the third movement is already done. There will be much innovation of form in this symphony— and incidentally, the finale will not be a noisy allegro but, on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can’t imagine what bliss I feel, being convinced that my time is not yet passed and I can still work. Perhaps, of course, I’m mistaken, but I don’t think so.

– Pyotr Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his nephew, 1893, shortly before his death

P.I.Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake (THEME) – Wolfgang Sawallisch

Quotes by Edward Elgar

My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.

Edward Elgar, said in a conversation with a friend in 1896, as reported in Sir Edward Elgar by R. J. Buckley

This is what I hear all day—the trees are singing my music—or have I sung theirs?

– Edward Elgar, in a letter to his friend August Jaeger, July 1900

Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (Prom 75)

Quotes by Antonín Dvořák

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.

Antonín Dvořák, New York Herald, 1893

The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing amidst encroaching weeds. Thousands pass it, while others trample it under foot, and thus the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else. The fact that no one has as yet arisen to make the most of it does not prove that nothing is there.

– Antonín Dvořák, “Music in America”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 1895

To have a wonderful idea is nothing special. The idea comes of its own accord and, if it’s fine and great, man cannot take the credit for it. But to take a fine idea and make something great of it, that is the hardest thing to do; that is what real art is!

– Antonín Dvořák, in a lecture at the Prague Conservatory

Gustavo Dudamel Dvorak Symphony no 9 4th movement Allegro con fuoco

Quotes by Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

If my works are good and of any importance for the further development of our art, they will maintain their position in spite of all opposition on the part of critics, and in spite of all denigration of my artistic intentions. If they are worthless, not even the most gratifying box office success or the most enthusiastic acclamation of augurs will keep them alive. Let the pulping press devour them…I shall not shed a tear over their grave.

Richard Strauss, On Criticism, 1908

The left hand has nothing to do with conducting. Its proper place is the waistcoat pocket from which it should only emerge to restrain or make some minor gesture for which in any case a scarcely perceptible glance should suffice.

– Richard Strauss, Recollections and Reflections, 1949

The melodic idea which suddenly falls upon me out of the blue appears in the imagination immediately, unconsciously, uninfluenced by reason. It is the greatest gift of the divinity and cannot be compared with anything else.

– Richard Strauss, On Inspiration in Music, 1903

Joyce DiDonato – Richard Strauss – Morgen

Quotes by Gustav Mahler

For myself I know that, as long as I can summarize my experience in words, I would certainly not make any music about it.

Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his friend Max Marschalk, 1896

A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.

– Gustav Mahler, to his colleague Jean Sibelius

The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.

– Gustav Mahler, as quoted in Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, 1973

Gustav Mahler – Adagietto | Leonard Bernstein

Quotes by Dmitri Shostakovich

If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1936, quoted in Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel Fay

A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo, with or without rhythmic nuances, and it will still be great music. That’s how music should be written, so that no-one, no matter how philistine, can ruin it.

– Dmitri Shostakovich, in a letter to his friend Isaac Glikman, August 1955

A creative artist works on his next composition because he is not satisfied with his previous one. When he loses a critical attitude toward his own work, he ceases to be an artist.

– Dmitri Shostakovich, New York Times, October 1959

Music is a means capable of expressing dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment – and the subtlest nuances and interplay of these feelings which words are powerless to express and which are unattainable in painting and sculpture.

– Dmitri Shostakovich, The Power of Music, 1964

Shostakovich: Symphony No 5, IV. Allegro non troppo | Michael Tilson Thomas

Quotes by Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky conducting

Stravinsky conducting

As for myself, I need music for hygienic purposes, for the health of my soul. Without music in its best sense there is chaos. For my part, music is a force which gives reason to things, a force which creates organization, which attunes things. Music probably attended the creation of the universe.

Igor Stravinsky, The Musical Digest, 1946

In order to create there must be a dynamic force, and what force is more potent than love?

– Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography

We have a duty towards music, namely, to invent it.

– Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 1970

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.

– Igor Stravinsky, Subject: Music, New York Times Magazine, 1964

A good composer does not imitate; he steals.

– Igor Stravinsky, Twentieth Century Music by Peter Yates, 1968

Stravinsky: Finale – Suite from The Firebird / Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel

Quotes by Sergei Rachmaninoff

A good conductor ought to be a good chauffeur; the qualities that make the one also make the other. They are concentration, an incessant control of attention, and presence of mind; the conductor only has to add a little sense of music.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, 1934

I can respect the artistic aim of a composer if he arrives at the so-called modern idiom after an intense period of preparation…Such composers know what they are doing when they break a law; they know what to react against, because they have had experience in the classical forms and style. Having mastered the rules, they know which can be violated and which should be obeyed. But, I am sorry to say, I have found too often that young composers plunge into the writing of experimental music with their school lessons only half learned. Too much radical music is sheer sham, for this very reason: its composer sets about revolutionizing the laws of music before he learned them himself.

– Sergei Rachmaninoff, The Etude, 1941

I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.

– Sergei Rachmaninoff, as quoted in Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda

The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.

– Sergei Rachmaninoff, as quoted in Great Pianists on Piano Playing, 1999

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2 op.18 – Anna Fedorova

Quotes by Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

The time is past when music was written for a handful of aesthetes. Today vast crowds of people have come face to face with serious music and are waiting with eager impatience. Composers, take heed of this…But this does not mean that you must pander to this audience. Pandering always has an element of insincerity about it and nothing good ever came of that.

Sergei Prokofiev, written in a notebook, 1937

In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it.

– Sergei Prokofiev, Music and Life, 1951

Yuja Wang – Prokofiev : Toccata in D minor Op 11S

Quotes by George Gershwin

The composer does not sit around and wait for an inspiration to walk up and introduce itself…Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion. In composing we combine what we know of music with what we feel.

George Gershwin, quoted in Tin Pan Alley by Isaac Goldberg, 1930

I like to think of music as an emotional science.

– George Gershwin, The Composer in the Machine Age, 1933

Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas.

– George Gershwin, The Composer in the Machine Age, 1933

Khatia Buniatishvili – Rhapsody in Blue

Quotes by Leonard Bernstein

Any great work of art … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world — the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.

Leonard Bernstein, Vogue Magazine, 1958

Einstein said that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” So why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?

– Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, 1978

It is the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams.

– Leonard Bernstein, Findings, 1982

A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.

– Leonard Bernstein, as quoted in The Infinite Variety of Music, 2007

The gift of imagination is by no means an exclusive property of the artist; it is a gift we all share; to some degree or other all of us, all of you, are endowed with the powers of fantasy.

– Leonard Bernstein, Findings, 1982

Music, because of its specific and far-reaching metaphorical powers, can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.

– Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, 1976

Perhaps the chief requirement of [the conductor] is that he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience; that all his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer’s meaning – the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor’s existence.”

– Leonard Bernstein, The Cambridge Companion to Conducting

Candide Overture: Leonard Bernstein conducting

Quotes by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams last compositions

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1954

It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1964, quoted in The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams by Michael Kennedy

Film composing is a splendid discipline, and I recommend a course of it to all composition teachers whose pupils are apt to be dawdling in their ideas, or whose every bar is sacred and must not be cut or altered.

– Ralph Vaughan Williams, The R. C. M. Magazine, February 1944

The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.

– Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music, 1934

Hilary Hahn – V. Williams “The Lark Ascending”

Quotes by John Cage

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1937

I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson. And so we make our lives by what we love.

– John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1949

Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music. The very practice of music is a celebration that we own nothing.

– John Cage, as quoted in Silence: Lectures and Writings, 2010

A ‘mistake’ is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.

– John Cage, The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, 1995

It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of ‘culture.’

– John Cage, as quoted in Silence: Lectures and Writings, 2010

Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

– John Cage, Experimental Music, 1957

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