“Bite-sized” Masterpieces

Want to hear to some great music but don’t have the time (or attention span) to sit down and listen to a whole opera or an hour-plus-long symphony? Have no fear! There are plenty of pieces of classical music out there that don’t take a Bruckner-sized chunk out of your day; works that are mere minutes long, in fact. (Interestingly, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote three operas that are each around ten minutes long!) Here are a six of my favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces, all of which are self-contained works that are seven minutes or less (not movements from a longer piece). Overall, it’s only about twenty-five minutes of music total. That’s basically one episode of The Office!

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 3?

1. Igor Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955)

Combine one of the most famous composers of the twentieth-century with one of the most famous tunes in the world and you get Igor Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky composed this short orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in 1955, as an 80th birthday present for the French conductor Pierre Monteux (who had conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring back in 1913). Clocking in at less than a minute long, the Greeting Prelude is far from a straightforward adaptation. Stravinsky transforms this simple (and rather banal) melody into a brief showpiece for orchestra, full of wide leaps, unusual chords, and cheeky wit, resulting in a surprisingly amusing setting of the song that has been embarrassing birthday “guests of honor” for decades.

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Beauty in Silence: The Music of Arvo Pärt

Let’s face it, amidst our technology-saturated, go-getter culture, silence can be difficult to come by. We’re almost constantly surrounded by sound, whether it be from our devices, conversation with others, or ambient noise from our everyday activities. Silence, while sometimes sought out for a means of escape or reflection, is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon.

In classical music though, silence can be a powerful tool. Say what you will about contemporary concert hall etiquette, but when an audience quietly respect the breaks between the movements of a symphony, it can be a wondrous moment. For composers too, silence can be a great asset. In an article entitled “Forerunners of Modern Music,” the American composer John Cage observed that, “The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.” (Cage is perhaps most famous – or infamous – for his 1952 piece 4’33”).

One figure who makes an especially profound use of this idea is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. In addition to utilizing simple tonalities and sparse textures, many of his pieces make ample use of silence, which is often meticulously composed into the score. Together, these features give Pärt’s music a strikingly original and contemplative quality, which has left a lasting impression on contemporary classical music.

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