“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.

2. George Frideric Handel: Zadok the Priest (1727)

A quintessentially British piece from, paradoxically, a German-born composer. Zadok the Priest is the first of four Coronation Anthems which Handel composed to celebrate the crowing of England’s King George II in 1727. The piece has achieved enormous popularity over the years and has since been performed at the coronation of every single British monarch. Plus, it contains one of the most “knock-your-socks-off” choral entrances in the entire classical repertoire.

3. Jean Sibelius: Valse triste (1903-04)

I first encountered this piece when my family and I were visiting the East Coast in the summer of 2011. Near the tail end of our trip, we stopped by Tanglewood to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearse for their concert that evening. It was to be an all-Sibelius program and I was fascinated by the fragments we heard, especially when the orchestra worked to perfect the curious ending of his Fifth Symphony. I also fell in love with a short little piece of his called Valse triste (“Sad waltz”). The work is scored for small orchestra and was originally written in 1903 to accompany a play by Sibelius’ brother-in-law. Despite its duration, the stand-alone piece is beautifully atmospheric – both reflective and melancholic, with some fleeting hints of optimism.

4. Charles Ives: General William Booth Enters Into Heaven (1914/1934)

In addition to his large-scale, eyebrow-raising orchestral works, the output of Charles Ives contains an impressive array of short songs. These pieces are a delight; many brim with Americana, humor, and nostalgia, in additional to his idiosyncratic musical language. One of the most noteworthy is General William Booth Enters Into Heaven, a partial setting of a 1912 poem by the American poet Vachel Lindsay. The text paints a vivid image of the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, leading a multitude of both saints and sinners through the gates of heaven. The original version was written for solo voice and piano and requires a striking amount of stamina, musicality, and concentration for such a short piece. A number of years after its inception, the song was orchestrated (with Ives’ blessing) by the composer John J. Becker, giving the thorny, yet transcendent piece a layer of kaleidoscopic colors. Both versions are equally powerful in their own right and are well worth a listen. (The original is posted below and the orchestral arrangement can be found in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.)

5. Alexander Scriabin: Romance (1890)

Scriabin is perhaps best-remembered for his tonality-bending piano works, many of which were informed by his fascination with mysticism. (In fact, he believed that his massive orchestral work Mysterium, which was left unfinished upon his death, would bring about the end of the world when it was performed. Seriously, I’m not making this up.) However, some of Scriabin’s earlier works reflect the sounds of late Romanticism, which can be heard in his brief, but lovely Romance for horn and piano.

6. John Adams: Lollapalooza (1995)

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This John Adams, not the second president of the United States! (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s end with, coincidentally, another composer-to-conductor birthday present. John Adams composed Lollapalooza in 1995 to celebrate the 40th birthday of Sir Simon Rattle. (Adams’ four-minute long Short Ride in a Fast Machine, another piece that I almost put on this listwas written nine years earlier.) Lollapalooza exudes a playfulness that’s big, bold, and brassy. In typical “Adams-ian” fashion, layers of intricate rhythms are gradually built on top of each other as the orchestral texture grows increasingly complex. Underneath is a low brass motif that constantly pops its head out of the chaos (a rhythmic, five note figure that echoes the five syllables of the work’s title – “Loll-a-pa-LOO-za.” Trust me, you won’t miss it!) All of this eventually leads to a boisterous climax before grinding to a loud and assertive stop.

What are your favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces? Let me know in the comments below!

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