Ten of the Shortest Symphonies Ever Written

Lots of people say that less is more, and that rule of thumb can certainly apply to symphonies.

Today, we’re looking at ten of the shortest symphonies ever written, dating from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day.

All are intriguing in their own way. So whether you only have ten minutes or seventeen seconds to spare, we’ve got a symphony for you.

Symphony orchestra

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Symphony No. 2 by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1868)

(11 minutes, 30 seconds)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1829. He made his public debut at the age of eleven.

At thirteen, he and his father traveled to Europe so he could pursue his music studies. He was rejected from the Paris Conservatoire because he was American but stayed in Paris anyway.

While there, Chopin famously told him, “Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists.”

Throughout Gottschalk’s career, he traveled extensively throughout both North and South America. His compositions were heavily influenced by regional music.

His brief second symphony ends with two patriotic American tunes: “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle.”

Symphony No. 1 by Carlos Chávez (1933)

(11 minutes)

Carlos Chávez was born in Mexico City in 1899. He never went to Europe to study until his marriage in 1922, when he took a six-month-long honeymoon trip to Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. As a result, his music is infused with Mexican musical traditions.

In 1928, he became music director of the brand new Orquesta Sinfónica Mexicana, Mexico’s first permanent orchestra. That same year, he was appointed director of the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico.

His first symphony is nicknamed Sinfonía de Antígona, because it originated as theater music inspired by the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles.

Accordingly, this work uses Greek elements, including Dorian and Hypodorian modes.

Symphony by Anton Webern (1927-28)

(9 minutes, 20 seconds)

Anton Webern was born in Vienna in 1883.

He studied musicology and art history at the University of Vienna and eventually started taking lessons from controversial composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Webern became one of Schoenberg’s fiercest defenders and joined the informal group that we now know as the Second Viennese School.

His symphony is just sixteen pages long. It is odd, otherworldly, and intricately, obsessively crafted. Composer George Benjamin wrote of the first movement that it is “weightless – a complex, crystal-like object hovering in space.”

Symphony No. 22 by Havergal Brian (1964-65)

(9 minutes, 10 seconds)

Havergal Brian was born in 1876 in Staffordshire, England. Brian loved writing symphonies. In fact, his first nicknamed the Gothic and dating from the 1920s, is one of the longest symphonies ever written.

In fact, the Gothic landed on our list of the longest symphonies ever.

Late in life, Brian had a surge of productivity. He wrote 26 symphonies when he was in his seventies, eighties, and even nineties. His Symphony No. 22 was one of those, dating from when he was in his late eighties.

Appropriately enough, it’s nicknamed the Symphonia Brevis: Latin for Short Symphony.

Pocket Symphony by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (1949)

(9 minutes)

In March 2020 we wrote an article about the phenomenon of “pocket symphonies.” Composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino contributed to the genre with this work.

Lavagnino was born in Italy in 1909. He is best known for his dozens of film scores.

You can certainly hear the romance of movie music in this lovely little symphony. The pep and vitality of the work’s outer movements, along with its driving rhythms and Classical-style sheen, call to mind Prokofiev’s first symphony.

Symphony No. 2 by Joseph Haydn (1760)

(8 minutes, 40 seconds)

Haydn was born in rural Austria in 1732. He left his home at an early age, studying in Vienna and climbing the ladder of aristocratic patrons.

In 1760, at the time of the composition of his second symphony, he’d just been offered a position with the household of Count Karl Joseph of Morzin. Consequently his early symphonies were written specifically for the count’s orchestra, which was small.

That same year, Haydn got married. Unfortunately, the marriage was a disaster, leading to great unhappiness for both husband and wife.

By 1761, Haydn accepted a position at the court of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, a gilded palace far in the countryside, where he would struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

None of Haydn’s future struggle is evident in the second symphony, however. It’s brief, jaunty, and jolly.

Symphony No. 4 by Galina Ustvolskaya (1985-87)

(7 minutes, 40 seconds)

Jaunty and jolly are two words one would never associate with composer Galina Ustvolskaya. She was born in 1919 in the Soviet Union, and her music is stark and brutal, and some of the most haunting in the repertoire.

Her fourth symphony is scored for a very small ensemble: piano, tam-tam, trumpet, and contralto voice. It features relentless repetition and chilling combinations of texture.

The texts Ustvolskaya set are based on the work of Hermann of Reichenau, an eleventh-century Benedictine monk, scholar, and composer. Ustvolskaya would use Hermann of Reichenau’s texts when writing three of her symphonies.

Pocket Symphony No. 3 by Marc Migó (2015)

(7 minutes, 40 seconds)

Here’s another example of a pocket symphony. Written for chamber ensemble, it features parts for flute, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, violin, and cello. It was written by Spanish composer Marc Migó, who was born in 1993 and studied at Juilliard.

Migó himself wrote the following program note for this piece:

The idea of writing a pocket symphony comes from my wish to compose relatively short pieces in condensed movements. Obviously, the notion of symphony here is pretty loose, but I consciously use this term as my work certainly has a symphonic spirit, not in a Mahlerian sense but more in an early classic way. Instead of long developments and transcendental atmospheres, this music flows playfully, nurturing itself from an eclecticism that mixes styles that are as far apart (in time, not in essence) as XVIII century classicism and modern minimalism.

Chamber Symphony No. 3 by Darius Milhaud (1921)

(3 minutes, 20 seconds)

We wrote an article about composer Darius Milhaud’s six charming miniature symphonies in 2022. The shortest of the six is the third.

Milhaud wrote these works after spending time in Brazil in the late 1910s and being fascinated by Brazilian music: a fascination that he brought back with him to France. You can hear sprinkles of South American dance music in this sprightly chamber symphony, especially in the final movement.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, despite its length, this work is split into three movements!

You’re probably wondering after this how short a symphony can get! Well…

Spring Symphony by Michael Wolters (2002)

(17 seconds)

This is probably your answer. It’s the Spring Symphony by Michael Wolters. Although it’s only seventeen seconds long, it has four distinct movements.

Michael Wolters was born in Germany in 1971 and now lives in the United Kingdom. As you might guess from this work, he enjoys confounding classical music lovers’ expectations, which includes creating musical theater works and multimedia projects. These have been staged to mixed critical reactions.

Say what you want to about his compositions, but it does seem likely that with his Spring Symphony, Wolters set a record for symphonic brevity that won’t soon be broken!

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