Musical Masters in Miniature


So much of classical music expresses Big Ideas--and can frequently take an hour or more to express them. But some works are not so lofty, and can have their say in a few minutes or less! Come and enjoy brief, but complete works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and a dozen or so others that show us how good things can come in small packages.


Composers were practical people. Writing music was their job, their way of feeding their families. Few composed because of some lofty artistic calling. What they created was usually what their listeners wanted or needed at the time. No matter the length, however, the music in question would be polished and complete. In the film Amadeus, Mozart's patron, Emperor Joseph, complained that the young man's music had "too many notes." Mozart replied: "No, your Highness, it has just enough notes." In Mozart's short life, he was assigned music for various occasions by very fussy higher-ups. As a young man, he had to provide music for church services in his hometown of Salzburg. The Archbishop, a humorless music-hater named Colloredo, demanded that the movements of each mass be short, so as not to draw time away from the day's sermon. And Mozart obliged. Imagine a "Gloria" lasting less than a minute. A century later, Brahms wrote numerous short-but-sweet piano pieces because he knew that playable sheet music was more likely to be purchased by Vienna's amateur musicians. In his letters to friends and critics, Beethoven loved to attach brief ditties whose texts often contained crude or playful insults. Back in the Baroque Era, the ever-busy Bach crafted small keyboard pieces designed to help his young students conquer a particular technical problem. No sense in rattling on, so that his pupils might get discouraged. Audiences in the last few centuries didn't have the 20-second attention spans many of us suffer from today, but they did have their limits. Haydn wrote dozens of four-movement symphonies that rarely lasted more than 20 minutes. He understood that his easily bored royal listeners wouldn't sit still much longer. In that spirit, 20th-Century composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote a "Classical" Symphony with a movement lasting 84 seconds. In each case, a composer's shorter works still contain all of the personality, individuality and invention of their works that may last a dozen times longer. When Chopin wrote his piano preludes, he chose a key and a specific musical device (rapid scales, a simple accompaniment, a chord sequence) and then said all that needed to be said in under two minutes -- sometimes under one minute! And every miniature is unmistakably Chopin. The same is true for Tchaikovsky, who wrote famous symphonies that lasted close to an hour. But when he was commissioned to compose music for story ballets, he knew he had to stick to the script: If the choreographer wanted 90 seconds for a solo or duet or set change, that's what Tchaikovsky provided. Remember the dancing mushrooms in Walt Disney's Fantasia? That segment from The Nutcracker is perfect and complete at one minute, ten seconds. Listening to these delightful little gems is great fun -- but knowing the reason why they are so brief adds to our enjoyment.

Selected examples include:

  • The Gloria from an early Mozart mass (43 seconds long)
  • A movement from a Beethoven violin sonata (1:10)
  • A Chopin prelude (40 seconds)
  • A piano piece by Mendelssohn (1:08)
  • A Gigue from one of Bach's violin suites ((1:18)
  • A piano waltz by Brahms (1:15)
  • A movement from a Prokofiev symphony (1:24)
  • A ballet divertissement from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" (1:10)

Exploration Questions

  • Which do you find more enjoyable -- short pieces or massive works?
  • Try compressing a short story into a single paragraph. Not easy, is it?
  • Have you heard compositions that you wish were only a minute long? And how about pieces you wish lasted more than a minute?

Reflective Questions

  • Why is it that our attention spans have become so short in this fast-paced world? How can we reverse that trend?
  • How is it that a 40-second Mozart piece can still sound like Mozart?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Schonberg, Harold, Lives of the Great Composers. W. W. Norton & Co., 1997. 656 pages. The highly respected music critic and historian offers readable, informative -- and occasionally opinionated -- biographies of nearly 100 composers. A wonderful introduction to the great men of music.
    Click here to order
  • Fawkes, Richard, The History of Classical Music, (audio book) Naxos Records, 1997. Four CDs. The narration is very British, but the content is down-to-earth and well-written, sprinkled with numerous musical excerpts that make the music and the composers come alive.
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  • Pogue, David; Speck, Scott; Dicterow, Glenn, Classical Music for Dummies. For Dummies, 1997. 384 pages. Don't laugh -- this is a comprehensive, serious (well, mostly serious) exploration of the subject, presented in bite-size chunks by authors who know their stuff (Dicterow is the retiring concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic!).
    Click here to order