As a classical music fan, I love seeing how the music of different composers reflects both their personal lives and the times they lived in. Much like contemporary and pop artists today, the personal becomes universal through adept storytelling, recurring themes, and the strength of human emotion.
You can’t deny the impact her work has had — not only on those who listen to her but also the musical landscape as a whole. Her country-tinged roots inform her storytelling, creating a narrative in her music that can’t help but draw you in. And with recurring motifs and characters, and emotional arcs that shine like a mirrorball on our world, her lyrics have fans slicing and dicing to find hidden meanings.
I’m not saying Taylor Swift is Johann Strauss, Clara Schumann, or J.S. Bach. But there are more connections than you might think between today’s pop behemoth and yesterday’s classical stars — and I just can’t shake it off.
Whether you’re a hardcore Swiftie or a curious classical fan, explore this playlist from Classical KC pairing some of classical music’s iconic works with Taylor Swift’s iconic eras and learn more about each piece.
Taylor Swift (self-titled debut, 2006) // Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat major (1825)
Taylor Swift’s debut album came out when she was 17, immediately catapulting her into Billboard success with hits like “Tim McGraw” and “Our Song.” As a teenager, she began what would become a long-lasting career.
Much like Swift, many composers started their musical careers at a young age. Felix Mendelssohn was one of them, with his well-received String Octet in E-flat major debuting when he was just 16. The youthful energy, verve, and honesty of emotions is felt through this work as well as Swift’s first album.
Fearless (2008) // Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite No. 2 (1913)
Written while on tour for her first album, “Fearless” outlines Swift’s teenage experience, facing love and heartbreak and having the courage to navigate those experiences, ultimately moving forward and being stronger for it. Still, her songwriting reflects hopes for a fairytale romance and a whirlwind adventure, a sort of idealism for the perfect love.
Based on an ancient Greek story, Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” tells the tale of two orphaned children that are raised together and fall in love, with hijinks ensuing along the way before their eventual marriage and fairytale ending. The lush orchestration of Ravel’s Suite No. 2 transports you to a magical setting, where it seems as if anything is possible. It’s a love story! Baby, just say yes.
Speak Now (2010) // Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2: “Intimate Letters” (1928)
As Taylor Swift moved from adolescence into adulthood, she faced accolades as well as critique. She wrote the entirety of “Speak Now” by herself — not only to address claims that she wasn’t a skilled songwriter but also to fully embrace her musical identity. This loose concept album explored what she wanted to say to people but never had a chance to, in terms of love (“Enchanted”), heartbreak (“Dear John”), career success (“Mean”), and more.
Those missed connections and moments of being lost in translation transcend time. Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) was a manifesto on love and friendship enduring. He exchanged more than 700 letters with Kamila Stösslová, a friend and married woman 38 years younger than him.
While it was purely platonic, the strength of their bond inspired Janáček to write this string quartet reflecting on their lifelong relationship, expressing in music what he couldn’t say in words. Tragically, the work premiered a month after his death, forever trapping those unsaid feelings and adding new layers to the music.
Red (2012) // Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” (1830)
Taylor Swift’s 2012 release “Red” sought to navigate the more tumultuous, complex emotions one might experience in a fading romance. From the power ballad “All Too Well,” detailing a relationship from beginning to end, to the scream-in-your-car pop hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift captures the myriad of feelings when love is lost.
Hector Berlioz and Taylor Swift would probably have bonded over his “Symphonie Fantastique,” a programmatic symphony that tells the story of an artist spiraling over an unrequited love. To manage these feelings, he slips into an opium-induced fever dream that leads him on a fantastical adventure, questioning and searching for his beloved.
1989 (2014) // George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924)
“1989” was Taylor Swift’s complete dive into pop music. Singles like “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space” pierced our collective conscience, with the refrains bouncing around in grocery stores, in car radios, and in commercials. Shedding her country identity, Swift embraced a more ’80s new wave/synth sound.
Blending sounds and bucking expectations can be found in George Gershwin’s career as well. His “Rhapsody in Blue” melded together jazz and classical, challenging what either of those genres were. This concerto-like work defined the Jazz Age in the U.S. and its recognizable melody is still widely known today.
Reputation (2017) // Gustav Holst’s “The Planets: I. Mars, the Bringer of War” (1916)
“Reputation” marked an even bigger shift in Taylor Swift’s writing and style than her last album. Her public persona exploded during the “1989” era, exposing her to excessive tabloid and media scrutiny. She secluded herself to write “Reputation,” the title of which is a direct call-out to rumors and speculative comments — shaping her anger and resentment towards what fame had brought her. The album is influenced by electronic music, featuring bass drops, synthesizers, and heavily-produced percussion. The resulting songs are simultaneously armor against negativity and weaponized love, showing that despite it all, Swift can find security and tenderness outside of the public eye.
Like “Reputation,” the first movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” starts with guns blazing. Inspired by astrology, he embodied the character of each planet in an astrological chart. Mars is the planet of action, energy, and aggression in astrology and the god of war in Roman mythology. The music suggests vengeance, fighting, and a march forwards towards enemies that ultimately results in victory.
Lover (2019) // Clara Schumann’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit (“If You Love for Beauty”)’ (1841)
After the turmoil that resulted in “Reputation” and the catharsis from presenting it on tour, Swift took the time to recuperate and embrace new artistic freedom after separating from her former record label, Big Machine Records. This album is a “love letter to love,” showcasing a more playful, whimsical side to her writing.
Love is a common theme in classical music, but Clara Schumann’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit (“If You Love for Beauty”)’ outlines what true love means. A setting of Frederich Rückert’s poem of the same name, the singer decries love due to frivolous/surface-level reasons, and emphasizes that love is only worth it if “you love me for me.”
Folklore (2020) // Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 (1854)
“Folklore” was a pandemic release in 2020, with no big lead-up or promotion, and it rocked peoples’ view of Taylor Swift. This vulnerable indie-folk album was a stark departure from her previous work. And while most of Swift’s songs are autobiographical, Folklore outlined a story about a love triangle between fictional characters James, Betty, and August. It brought a new swath of Taylor Swift fans into the fold and went on to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMY awards.
The relationship between Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms is often speculated about in classical music history, but Clara denied liking him more than a friend — staying loyal to her husband Robert.
Brahms wrote his Piano Trio No.1 merely months after meeting the Schumanns, and his dark passions and yearning for Clara is evident in the music. While not a true love triangle, the dynamic between Brahms and the Schumanns has tension and passion that is reminiscent of the storyline in “Folklore.”
Evermore (2020) // Amy Beach’s “Gaelic Symphony” (1894)
Coming out less than five months after “Folklore,” “Evermore” was a surprise to Taylor Swift’s fans. An extension to the “folklorian woods” of her previous album, the sounds stay within the more indie-folk and Americana styles. Focusing on issues of grief, infidelity and loss, Swift’s storytelling seems piercing and yet comforting at the same time, creating a veil of softness across the entire album.
The woodsy autumn-esque mood of “Evermore” can also be found in Amy Beach’s “Gaelic Symphony.” Inspired by English, Irish, and Scottish melodies, the work is also heavily influenced by Antonín Dvořák’s music, which represents an era of the “American” classical sound. Pastoral yet exuberant, you can picture yourself in a wind-swept field in autumn enjoying this work as well as “Evermore.”
Midnights (2023) // Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight Sonata” (1801)
Taylor Swift’s most recent album focuses on the ruminations you experience only during sleepless nights or anxiety-induced early mornings. While Swift is known for her autobiographical writing, this album seems especially confessional, exposing insecurities and candid declarations about her fears. All of this is wrapped up in a package of bedroom pop, which has listeners bobbing their heads while examining their sense of self.
Not only does Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 have the fanciful title “Moonlight Sonata,” it exhibits a moody and mesmerizing quality that is complementary to “Midnights.” The first and third movement seem weighty, lamenting, and darkly nocturnal, with the second movement providing a sliver of moonlight. Both Beethoven’s popular work and Swift’s “Midnights” show that amidst the darkness, there can be the promise of light.