In this article we’ll introduce you to the top 10 classical pieces for ukulele. Surprisingly, many pieces of classical music fit nicely on the ukulele. Some even take on new life and the sweet sounds of the ukulele enrich these masterpieces of Western music.
So here’s our list of the Top 10 Classical Pieces you can play on ukulele, in no particular order. (One thing you’ll note is that we have four pieces from the same composer in this list. But they’re all indispensable pieces of classical music and it would be hard to have such a list without each of them on it!)
Top 10 Classical Pieces for Ukulele
1. Arioso (or Sinfonia) BWV 156 by J.S. Bach
This beautiful “Arioso” was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach as the first movement for Cantata No. 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I stand with one foot in the grave). One of Bach’s sacred compositions, this piece was written as a prayer for those near death. The original instrumentation is for solo oboe with strings and continuo. Bach reused the same material in the second movements of both his concerto for oboe in D minor (BWV 1059) and the concerto for harpsichord in F minor (BWV 1056). Other names given for the piece are Sinfonia, Adagio, Largo, and Largo Arioso.
2. Capricho Arabe by Tárrega
Capricho Árabe by Francisco Tárrega is one of the most well-known pieces written for the classical guitar. Drawing from the Arabic influences on Spanish culture, Tárrega explores virtuosic material for the guitar mixed with beautiful melodies. The piece has two main sections, one in D minor and the other in the brighter D Major. Classical guitar music is easily adaptable to the ukulele and this piece in particular finds a happy home on the four-string dancing flea!
3. O Mio Babbino Caro by Puccini
O Mio Babbino Caro is an aria from Puccini’s Opera entitled Gianni Schicchi. The title translates to “Oh my dear Papa” as the character Lauretta pleads with her father to be with her love in marriage. It is a beautiful and simple melody that Jeff has masterfully arranged for Ukulele.
The piece requires a steady pulse, a clear melody, and some expressive use of tempo rubato.
4. Für Elise by Beethoven
Für Elise (also known as Bagatelle No.25 in Am, WoO 59) is one of the most famous compositions by Beethoven. A surprising fact about this piece is that it was not published during Beethoven’s lifetime. In fact it did not appear in print until 1867, 40 years after Beethoven’s death! Moreover, the original manuscript has been lost so this famous piece is actually a reconstruction. With all that said, it is still one of the most recognizable pieces of music from the Western Classical music tradition.
While many people know this piece in its piano version of course, there are many arrangements for other instruments as well. However, this classic takes on new life on ukulele. There is a softness and intimacy to the sound that only the ukulele can achieve.
5. Prelude from the 1st Cello Suite by J.S. Bach
One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most iconic pieces of music is the beautiful Prelude from his 1st Cello Suite in G Major (BWV 1007). It has become an integral part of modern culture, appearing in movie and TV soundtracks, played as background music in video games, taking up a fair amount of classical radio stations’ air time, and has been arranged for countless instruments and instrument combinations. But have you heard it on ukulele?
6. The Mysterious Barricades by Couperin
The title of François Couperin’s most well-known piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses (The Mysterious Barricades), is itself a bit of a mystery. Many have speculated as to its meaning, but scholars still aren’t quite certain what it refers to. What is not a mystery, however, is just how beautiful this piece of music is. The piece has been arranged many times for classical guitar, but it sounds great on ukulele too!
7. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by J.S. Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Jesus bleibet meine Freude) is perhaps J.S. Bach’s most well-known pieces of vocal music. It is one of the chorales from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147). Bringing four-part harmony plus an orchestra to four strings on the ukulele is a challenge. Jeff’s arrangement here uses “campanella” (which means bells) for the left-hand fingering. This is a tool that allows fretted notes and open strings to ring over one another to create a “bell”-like resonance.
8. In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg
In the Hall of the Mountain King is an evocative melody by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. The piece is part of Peer Gynt, a play by Henrik Ibsen put to music by Grieg.
It provides a great opportunity to develop coordination between the hands when alternating the index and middle fingers in the right hand. The 3rd finger plays the Bb note on the 3rd string 3rd fret below this to create sustain between the notes. You can practice repeating the melody and gradually pick up the tempo with an accelerando until it is really flying!
9. Sheep May Safely Graze by J.S. Bach
Sheep May Safely Graze is originally a soprano aria from the cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV208), which was composed for the birthday celebration of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Duke’s birthday was on February 23, 1713 and so we can date this as one of Bach’s earliest secular cantatas. Thus Bach composed this piece while he was still court organist at Weimar. It was written for soprano, two recorders, and continuo.
The title of the cantata means, “The Lively Hunt is All My Heart’s Desire.” The Duke was an avid hunter. However, the lyrics of this famous aria speak about the significance of leaders ruling with a shepherd’s guiding wisdom, leading the sheep to a pasture where they can safely graze.
10. Danza Paraguaya by Barrios
Danza Paraguaya was composed by Agustin Barrios Mangoré (1885 – 1944) for classical guitar. Barrios was a Paraguayan virtuoso classical guitarist and composer, largely regarded as one of the greatest performers and most prolific composers for the guitar.
So that’s our list of the Top 10 Classical Pieces for Ukulele! Please share with us in the comments below some of your favorite classical pieces on ukulele, or pieces you’d like Jeff to arrange. All of these pieces can be found in our Graded Repertoire for Classical Ukulele, Volume 1 book. At Ukulele Corner Academy each of these pieces also has full lessons. Join Ukulele Corner Academy today!