Playlist: Classical Music From Composers’ School Days

By Keegan Morris |

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Margaret Isabel Dicksee's The Child Handel (1893, image cropped) portrays the young composer with an insatiable love of music — evidently much to the chagrin of his family!

Just because the school year is right around the corner doesn’t mean that you have to stop playing (or writing) music. As proof, here are 16 pieces from composers written when they were still students!

With works from composers' homeschooling to their graduate studies and everything in between, we hope this playlist will get you in the back to school mood!

Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and fugue in D Minor, BWV 549a

Bach composed this organ piece at around age 15, while he was being mentored by famed organist and faculty member Georg Böhm at St. Michael's School in Lüneburg.

Amy Beach: Valse-Caprice, Op. 4

As with many of the other women composers on this list, Amy Beach received very little formal education in composition. But Beach’s biography observes that the composer had a voracious appetite for learning, and sought out a plethora of literature to further educate herself on composition. This Valse-Caprice was completed when the composer was 21 years old, one of her earliest works.

Leonard Bernstein: Piano Trio

While an undergraduate at Harvard, Bernstein wrote his sole piano trio. Though it was one of his first compositions, Bernstein later adapted the opening of the work’s second movement for On the Town, which opened just seven years later.

Lili Boulanger: Faust et Hélène

Pianist and composer Lili Boulanger was just 19 years old when she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome with this cantata. She had entered the Paris Conservatoire the previous year.

Teresa Carreño: Impromptu, Op. 5 Une Larme

The majority of the compositional output of Venezuelan-born pianist, singer, composer, and conductor Teresa Carreño’s was completed before the composer turned 22. She came from a musical family, and received training from her father from an early age. This impromptu was completed in 1863, when Carreño was just 10 years old. It was the same year that Carreño performed for President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.

Claude Debussy: L’enfant prodigue

A young Debussy won the prestigious Prix de Rome — a scholarship for arts students — with this once-act cantata. His prize? A scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

George Frideric Handel: Oboe Concerto in G Minor, HWV 287

Handel composed this oboe concerto between 1704 and 1705, likely around the time he was completing his studies at the University of Halle.

Franz Liszt: Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli

As a student, Liszt was invited to participate in a collection of variations on a waltz by the Austrian composer Diabelli. In a collection that featured variations by Beethoven, Schubert, and 49 other composers, Liszt’s whirlwind variation was the only entry written by a child composer. At the time of publication, he was a mere 12 years old.

Missy Mazzoli: Orizzonte

This piece for solo piano was completed in 2004, before Mazzoli had completed her graduate studies at the Yale School of Music. Mazzoli has gone on to have a successful career in composition (she currently serves as the CSO’s Mead-Composer-in-Residence), and this piece is still performed frequently, including by its most notable exponent, Lisa Moore.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 8 in F for Keyboard with Violin (or Flute) and cello

A legendary child prodigy, Mozart composed this trio sonata, his eight violin sonata, at age 9. Not bad for somebody who would have been entering 4th grade at that age in the 21st century.

Giachino Rossini: Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini had just entered Bologna’s Philharmonic Academy when he began work on this opera at the age of 14. It’s a pretty impressive first attempt at an opera. His contemporaries agreed — the work received its first professional performance just 6 years later in 1812 at Teatro Valle in Rome!

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, D. 82

Schubert’s Symphony No. 1 was completed at age 16, during his final year of musical education at Stadkonvikt in Vienna. The work shows traces of some of Schubert's early influences — can you pick out any hints of Mozart or Haydn?

Clara Schumann: Valses romantiques

This piece was written when Clara has her maiden name of Wieck, not Schumann. Before her marriage to Robert, Clara was an accomplished and celebrated pianist. But in addition to her career in performance, Clara was also a composer, and this piece was written when she was between the ages of 13 and 16.

Ethel Smyth: Piano Sonata No. 2

This sonata was the work of a teenaged Ethel Smyth. It was completed in 1877, the year that Smyth entered the Leipzig Conservatory after years of arguments with her father, who disapproved of his daughter pursuing a career in music.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the Scherzo from Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Winter Daydreams

Though Tchaikovsky’s popular Winter Daydreams symphony was composed after his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the symphony’s third movement was an orchestral transcription of the scherzo from the young composer's Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, a piece that was written during his final year of school. You can hear both pieces below.

George Walker: Prelude

Walker completed this piece in 1941, the year that he graduated from Oberlin College at age 18. He would go on to received Artists Diplomas in piano and composition from the Curtis Institute of Music. In this recording released in 2002, the composer performs his own work from over 60 years prior.

Who knew that so many composers wrote such great music during their studies! Which piece was your favorite?