Classical music comes in many different and diverse styles. From the Medieval to the present day, music covers a huge range of exciting composers and compositions. In this article, I have singled out some of the pieces with the highest tempi you may ever hear. Tempo in music, on a technical note, is measured in beats per minute. The higher the figure, the faster the tempo. By example, 60 beats per minute equal one beat per second, 120, two per second and 180, three beats per second.
The word ‘allegro’ (fast), is usually considered to be from 120 – 138 beats per minute with the ‘Presto/Prestissimo’ tempo marking coming in at 160 upwards. You may well consider the pulse of Techno to be quick but listen through to the following selection for some worthy contenders for the top tempo spot.
Fast-Paced Classical Music
1. Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian
This short but highly charged orchestral work is perhaps the most well-known of Khachaturian’s compositions. It was part of a ballet score he wrote in 1942 titled ‘Gayane’, and it is in this work that the dancers demonstrate their courage and skill in death-defying dances with sabres.The opening of the work is immediately compelling to listen to with it’s repeating quaver theme and trombone slides.
Listen for the alto saxophone in the more tranquil central section that brings a slightly ‘eastern’ quality to the music. Khachaturian was not impressed by the disproportionate attention this one work of his claimed but it remains one of the fastest and most enduring in the classical repertoire.
2. The Overture from ‘Russlan and Ludmilla’ by Glinka
Glinka is a name you do not hear as often in today’s concert halls as you would have once. He is considered by many to the ‘Father of Russian Concert Music’, and this overture comes from the second opera he composed following the success of his first ‘ A Life for the Czar’. ‘Russlan and Lyudmila’ takes its themes from a Pushkin fairy tale. It is, as you would expect of a fairy tale, full of rich Kings, evil dwarfs and fearless heroes.
In the overture, we hear two of the main melodies from the opera that Glinka takes from the marriage scene. The speed here is blisteringly fast with brisk scales across the string sections and flutes. A calmer central section draws from the second act where Russlan sings of his love for Ludmilla. The hectic rush of the opening returns after a brief development section, ending the overture triumphantly.
3. ‘Minute Waltz’, Op.64; No. 1 by Chopin
Chopin is perhaps one of the most renowned composers of the romantic period; famed for both his prowess at the piano and his rich compositions. Amongst these pieces were the Chopin Waltzes and these have become form favourites with pianists and concert-goers alike. They cover a large range of styles, some relatively simple, others highly complex and technically demanding.
The Op.64 Waltz in Db major has become one of the most popular of the collection. It is included in this article because of its fast tempo (Molto Vivace), and its virtuosity. Interestingly, the waltz, in spite of its title, is not intended to be performed in a single minute but the nickname refers to the fact that the waltz is a miniature piece as opposed to a more extended form.
4. ‘Dance of the Elves’, Op.39 by David Popper
This brief work for cello and piano is one of the liveliest works listed here. It is a fiendishly difficult piece to play well and understandably makes a superb encore work to conclude a recital. Popper was Austrian born and as you can quickly understand from most of his compositions, a virtuoso cellist.
In his lifetime Popper wrote around eighty works including an impressive four cello concerti and several books of studies for the instrument. The ‘Elfantanz’, was composed in 1881 and is not only technically challenging but also more melodically rewarding than some of Popper’s other pieces.
On a technical note, the cellist is required to regularly employ their thumb due to the high register notes Popper uses. Add to this the use of ‘spiccato’ bowing and you have a purpose-made concert piece.
5. ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov
Originally, this piece is intended as an orchestral interlude in his opera ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’, but in the above version flautist James Galway performs one of my favourite versions for flute and piano. This remarkably brief piece is a concert highlight and appears regularly on programmes.
The tempo of the composition is rapid and highly demanding for any instrument or combinations of instruments. Fast chromatic scales appear in fevered flurries at the start of the piece interspersed with short staccato passages; the piano providing a sparse broadly chordal accompaniment. There is no respite in the work and it careers forward very much in the manner of a bumbling bee on a summers day.
6. Finale from the ‘William Tell Overture’ by Rossini
William Tell was intended to be Rossini’s last foray into the world of opera. It is structured in four acts and this section of the overture is the finale titled “March of the Swiss Soldiers’. The other sections of the overture are ‘The Prelude’, ‘The Storm’, and ‘Call to the Dairy’. It makes extreme demands on the technical abilities of the orchestra who portray the cavalry charge and the pounding hooves of the horses.
The bright key of E major heightens the tension and urgency of the music whilst bringing a certain splendour to the finale too. The William Tell Overture remains one of the most popular of Rossini’s concert pieces and in many ways has superseded his operas for which he was celebrated in his lifetime.
7. Violin Concerto (Op.14: Presto in moto Perpetuo) by Samuel Barber
This relatively modern concerto was finished around 1939 by the American composer Samuel Barber. He is perhaps better known for his ‘Adagio for Strings’ but is a remarkable composer of many wonderful pieces; this concerto included. This is the final movement of three movements in the concerto and the one that proved to be a source of much angst for Barber as it’s dedicatee, Briselli wanted Barber to deepen and develop the finale in ways that the composer did not agree with. Artistic arguments aside, the concerto is outstanding and this finale a fantastic and furiously virtuosic conclusion to brilliant work.