You know how there are times you'd rather flip through an Alice Munro short story than commit to the latest Jonathan Franzen brick? It's not a commentary on their relative merits, it's just what you're in the mood for.
The same applies to classical music. An opera by Wagner can be a transformative experience if you've got five or six hours to spare. But sometimes it's interesting to hear what a composer can do in a tiny fraction of that time.
Below are 10 of our favourite pieces that typically run under two minutes.
1. C.P.E. Bach, Solfeggietto in C minor
Once piano students master J.S. Bach's famous Prelude in C major from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier, they're ready to try this fun piece by his son, C.P.E. Bach. It seems difficult but isn't, so it's a great way to impress your friends with all those 16th-note flourishes.
Once you get beyond the cheesy 15-second intro in this video, this Solfeggietto zips by in just over a minute.
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff, 'How Fair This Spot,' Op. 21, No. 7
We often get so wrapped up in Rachmaninoff's symphonic works that we forget he wrote so many excellent songs for voice and piano. The structure of this short Russian song, based on a landscape poem by Glafira Adol'fovna Galina, is so satisfying. The ascending harmonic/melodic sequence (starting at 0:36 in the video) builds through four lines of text — "Here there is no one/ here it is silent/ here is only God and I/ the flowers, the old pine tree" — to arrive at the ecstatic climactic phrase, "And you, my dream!"
Rachmaninoff asks it to be sung pianissimo on a high B, and the late, great Nicolai Gedda did exactly that:
3. Aaron Copland, 'Billy's Death' from Billy the Kid
Ballet scores tend to be full of short, vivid tableaux and Copland's Billy the Kid is no exception.
"Billy's Death" is the penultimate number from Copland's 1938 score depicting the life of the famous outlaw. It's a tender moment of reflection amid all the shoot-outs, stabbings and hoe-downs.
4. Fritz Kreisler, 'Schön Rosmarin'
Fritz Kreisler was first and foremost a violinist — he's the one who commissioned and premiered Elgar's Violin Concerto — but today we know him best as the composer of short, pleasing salon pieces that make perfect encores. "Schön Rosmarin" comes from Kreisler's 1905 set of three Old Viennese Melodies, and the particular lilt of that city's triple-meter dances shines through in this performance by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich.
Bonus: Argerich gives the page-turner a nice smile at 1:19.
5. Claudio Monteverdi, 'Cantate Domino'
If you sing in a choir, you're likely familiar with this perfect little six-part motet by Monteverdi. The text, which comes from Psalm 96, is all about singing, so the piece sounds joyful and is full of the imitative counterpoint and rhythmic propulsion that are so characteristic of its composer.
6. Franz Schubert, String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, D. 87, Scherzo
The second movement, Scherzo, of Schubert's String Quartet No. 10 is like the best food-truck meals: quick, delicious and totally satisfying. The A section is a bouncy ear worm; the B section (in the relative minor) is legato and mysterious. It's compact and complete.
Not sure if Schubert would appreciate the comparison to a perfect slice of pizza, a crispy fish taco or a satay skewer, but this is their musical equivalent.
7. Frederic Chopin, 'Thirds' Etude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6
From the composer who brought you the "Minute Waltz," this Etude from Chopin's Op. 25 set goes by in a blur of trilled thirds. It's so hard to play, as the commenters on the following YouTube video have made clear: "All those thirds. ... Oh, the horror!," "I think Nightmare Etude has a better ring to it," and "This Etude is literally impossible."
Chopin's ability to make technical studies sound interesting and beautiful is one of music's great mysteries.
8. Giacomo Puccini, 'Addio fiorito asil' from Madama Butterfly
Puccini's career as an opera composer coincided with the birth of the recording industry and he soon realized he had to keep the arias in his operas under four minutes long if they were to fit on one side of a phonograph disc. When star singers like Enrico Caruso recorded arias from Puccini's operas, the money rolled in.
Pinkerton's aria from Act 3 of Madama Butterfly, composed in 1903, is one of Puccini's most succinct.
9. Francisco Tarrega, 'Lagrima'
Sometimes the simplest music finds the fastest route to your heart. That's the case with this lovely guitar solo by Tarrega. Legend has it that he wrote this piece while on tour in England, where he liked neither the weather nor the language, to express his homesickness for the Castellon region of Spain.
10. Camille Saint-Saëns, 'Tortoises' from Carnival of the Animals
It's hard to believe a musical depiction of a tortoise could race by in two minutes, but have a listen to the adorable fourth movement of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals.
The strings play a slow-motion version of Offenbach's Can-can over the triplet accompaniment played by two pianos. It's funny, touching and perfectly charming.
More to explore: