5 Marathon-Length Classical Works

Wednesday, November 02, 2016 - 04:50 PM

(Peter Castleton/Flickr)

On Sunday, running enthusiasts from all over the world will put their bodies to the test during the New York City Marathon. The 26.2-mile run is something that most of us will never even attempt, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get in on a little foot race-related action. On-air Sunday, we’ll be presenting a marathon of Beethoven’s symphonies.

And here we present a few classical "marathons" — pieces that are exceptionally long, grand in scale or take superhuman concentration to complete.

Mass in B minor (Bach)

Our buddy Bach loved church music more than a marathoner loves rest days. Nowhere is this more evident than his sprawling Mass in B minor. Sung in Latin, this work put the complete Catholic Ordinary Mass to music, a notable undertaking for a Lutheran organist. Bach never formally named this mass, but who could blame him? The nearly two-hour long work wasn’t completed until a year before his death, and a title probably wasn’t his top priority at that point.

Vexations (Satie)

When Erik Satie and painter Suzanne Valadon ended their run as “world’s quirkiest couple,” Vexations was born in the aftermath. Satie wrote the piece on just half a sheet of manuscript paper, but it is far from a quick keyboard jaunt — he meant for it to be repeated a whopping 840 times. Talk about the ultimate breakup song.

The Ring of the Nibelung (Wagner)

Wagner’s Ring Cycle tells a tale of the struggle for a magical ring that imbues the owner with immense power. He drew heavily on Norse mythology and a German epic poem called Nibelungenlied. With all that source material, it should come as no surprise that Wagner worked on his cycle for more than two decades and designed an opera house specifically for the premier. The behemoth four-part story takes about 15 hours over multiple nights to complete, making it one of history’s most intense binge-watches.

Symphony No. 1, "Gothic" (Brian)

What happens when you translate awe-inspiring Gothic architecture into sound? You get Havergal Brian’s first symphony. It’s massive not just in length — "Gothic" is one of the longest symphonies in the standard repertoire — but also in scale. It requires up to 1,000 performers, and by making use of instruments like the basset horn and scarecrow (seriously), Brian left no musical stone unturned.

Piano Concerto No. 2 (Brahms)

Most piano concerti from Brahms's day had three parts. But old Johannes, overachiever that he was, just had to go the extra mile and tack on a fourth. At 50 minutes, his second concerto is longer than most. Not without a sense of humor, Brahms jokingly called his finished work “a tiny, tiny little concerto.” But no one could get mad — with its ability to conjure up feelings of passion, fear and triumph, the concerto was (and continues to be) a hit.

You may not get a medal for listening to all of these tunes, but we bet you’ll still feel great. What other long listens do you think should be on this list?


More in:

Comments [12]

Carol Luparella from Garfield, NJ

Hi Concetta - best wishes to you also!

Nov. 04 2016 03:02 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Verdi's requiem is also very long.
Hi Carol,
Best wishes

Nov. 04 2016 01:32 PM
Nick from Tampa

The Brian Symphony might be a beautiful work, but which organization can afford such resources for a piece that is seldom performed? I guess it proves it can be done!

Nov. 04 2016 01:11 PM
Chris L from W Yorks, UK

I have to take slight issue with you, LJE, for describing Brian's "Gothic" as a curiosity - it's a very fine, albeit undoubtedly flawed, work in its own right, and definitely rewards repeated listening. That said, I also take issue with the work's perennial appearances in articles like this, which has the unfortunate side-effect of giving the impression that all of his 32 symphonies are near-unperformable monsters. In fact, most require nothing bigger than a well-stocked symphony orchestra, only the "Gothic" is longer than an hour in length, and the vast majority average 15-25 minutes, with the shortest a mere 9 minutes.

Nov. 04 2016 01:03 PM
LJE from Portland, OR

No mention of Busoni's piano concerto, really? Aside from concertos by Sorabji and others that have not been recorded, it is the longest piano concerto in the known repertoire. It's also more popular than the Brian Gothic, which is still much more of a curiosity. With 5 movements, a choral finale, and a supremely satisfying and difficult piano part, it has it all.

Nov. 04 2016 10:49 AM
Carol Luparella from Garfield, NJ

I think that since WQXR did the marathon of Beethoven symphonies last year, they should do a marathon of a different composer's symphonies this year. How about a marathon of Dvorak's symphonies? He wrote nine of them.
Or how about a a Brahms/Tchaikovsky marathon? Between them they have eleven symphonies (Brahms wrote four and Tchaikovsky wrote seven - the six numbered symphonies plus the Manfred Symphony.
Even better, how about a Bruckner marathon and a Mahler marathon?
There are so many composers to choose from, you can have a different marathon every year! Is this too much to hope for? Sadly, it probably is.

Nov. 04 2016 10:48 AM
Jesse Hankla from Tampa Bay Area

And, whilst just a tiny bit shorter than the Mahler Third, I think the Mahler Second, "Resurrection," perhaps also should be on this list. Depending upon choice of tempi, it can be almost 90 minutes in duration.

Nov. 04 2016 09:34 AM
Chris L from W Yorks, UK

A few more that are worthy of exploration:

1) James Dillon, "Nine Rivers" (3+ hours)
2) La Monte Young, "The Well-Tuned Piano" (5+ hours)
3) Gerard Grisey, "Les Espaces Acoustiques" (1.5+ hours)

Geo of St Louis mentioned Feldman; compared with SQ2, his "For Philip Guston" is a mere stripling at 4.5 hours, but I believe there's a Sorabji organ symphony that lasts around 9 hours.

Nov. 04 2016 04:45 AM
Michael Reich from San Diego, CA

There is a piece by John Cage, "As Slow As Possible," that is currently being performed in the St. Buchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance began in 2001 and is scheduled to last 639 years.

Nov. 03 2016 07:27 PM
Carol Luparella from Garfield, NJ

Maurice, my favorite is the Bruckner Symphony #8, which is almost as long, depending on the performance. I have recordings that are as short as 1 hour & 15 minutes and as long as 1 hour & 45 minutes. (I generally prefer the slower ones!)

Nov. 03 2016 04:14 PM
Maurice from Albuquerque, New Mexico

My favorite piece: Mahler Symphony#3 about 1.5 hrs long

Nov. 03 2016 03:44 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Conspicuously missing from this list are:
1. Morton Feldman: String Quartet No. 2 (which apparently can last anywhere from 5-6 hours)
2. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Opus Clavicembalisticum (about 4 hours or so; apparently there are other Sorabji works that are even longer)

Nov. 03 2016 11:08 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.