If you’re not pressed for time, go check out the Pretty, Please guide for some beautiful music you can really sink your teeth into. This is a shorter guide, with a bit less music, but there’s still some really gorgeous stuff here, and very few of these pieces will take any more than ten minutes of your time.
- Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s string quartet no. 1– long name, short piece. He was a close friend of Haydn’s, and himself wrote over 100 symphonies, but far fewer quartets than Haydn did. This is his first, a charming little work.
- Beethoven’s Dressler Variations– one of the first things the young composer wrote, at the precocious age of 12 or 13. It might have only been a homework assignment, and it’s far from the most inspired thing he ever wrote, but it’s a beautiful little piece that just begins to show the kind of skill the young boy would grow to have.
- Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus– a very short overture to the famous composer’s only ballet.
- John Field’s nocturnes– basically any of them. Many people believe that Chopin was the inventor of the nocturne, but he just gave it its big break. Irishman John Field coined the term, as music that’s evocative of the evening, often a sense of Romanticism, sentimentality, melancholy, and always lyricism.
- Schumann’s ABEGG variations– ABEGG is, you guessed it, the theme of this variations piece. It’s Schumann’s op. 1, his first published work, and comes in at less than 8 minutes, but it’s a pretty piece of Romantic piano.
- Chopin’s second and third ballades- younger brothers to the first ballade (in the Pretty, Please guide), the second and third tend to be overshadowed by the first and last of Chopin’s four, but these two are intense, beautiful, and shorter works than no.s 1 or 4.
- Chopin’s nocturnes– see Field above.
- Chopin’s mazurkas, op. 6 and op. 7 (and more to come)- Ma-wha? Yup. The mazurka, another thing Chopin made famous. It’s like the Polish version of a waltz, and some people say it was the thing closest to Chopin’s heart. It’s like little glimpses of what a day in the Chopin household might have been like, or rather an evening, expressive, delicate salon music.
Early 20th Century
- Satie’s Gymopedies and Gnossiennes– Erik Satie was a quirky fellow, who wrote soft, atmospheric ‘furniture music’ (a term he coined), which were often given funny appellations, in a quiet, subtle, but enjoyable, rebellion against the epic grandiosity of what Romantic music had become.
- Ravel’s Sonatine– like a teeny sonata, but flowing and shimmering with distinctly Ravel-like sounds. He wrote the first movement to enter into a composing competition held by a newspaper trying to stay in business. He was the only contestant, and he was disqualified because his piece was beyond the allowed length. He later finished the other two movements to round out a small-scale but still showy, magical piano work.
- Prokofiev’s Classical symphony no. 1– a caricature of the Haydn-era symphony, with some musical jokes included. Don’t worry about catching them; the music is plenty charming on its own, and this entire symphony is only about 14 minutes long.
- Scriabin piano sonata no. 4– from a composer who adored Chopin, but was also Russian and compelled to do his own thing. This was the sonata he wrote just before he went in an entirely new direction.
Mid/Late 20th Century
- Pierre Boulez’s 12 Notations– This should arguably go in the Challenge Me guide, but it’s short and interesting and maybe you’ll find you like little bits of it.
- Langgaard’s 12th symphony- a sort of caricatured, jaded reimagining of the composer’s ambitious, youthful symphony no. 1 (not short at all) from when he was only 17 years old. This work was written after fame and success had eluded him for decades…
- Philip Glass’s String Quartet no. 2– from a project inspired by a Samuel Beckett work, originally to be incidental music for his novella Company. Instead it saw the world as a small but atmospheric quartet. Enjoy.