Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century

Way back in the mid-1970s I was enrolled in an undergraduate course in music titled "20th Century Music" that was a survey course. Twenty years later I found myself in a similar course, "20th Century Theory and Analysis" (a doctoral seminar) taught by the same professor! At one point he remarked that every year he taught either course it got more difficult because the century got longer. When he started, he only had seventy or so years to teach, but now it was almost a hundred. Actually, I think it would be much easier now because the winds of time have started winnowing down the repertoire you have to cover. Back then you had to discuss Momente by Stockhausen and Le Marteau sans Maître by Boulez and something by Ligeti and Xenakis and Nono and Kagel. But now I think we can ignore that stuff as it seems to have sunk below the surface due to widespread audience rejection. The uncomfortable truth is that the audience does in fact have the final word. If no-one wants to hear your music, then musicians will sooner or later give up playing it.

One of the best ways to attract traffic on the internet seems to be by doing lists. Of course if you are doing lists of classical music you do limit your audience! Much better to do lists of the best cat videos or the stupidest things politicians said this week or best recipes for pasta sauces. Still, my list of the top ten pieces for classical guitar remains a perennial favorite, the most-viewed post on the blog. So here goes, my pick of the ten best compositions of the 20th century. I suspect you know what number one will be. In traditional internet style, we begin with number 10. The links will undoubtedly decay over time, but for now I will put in clips of each piece.

10. Charles Ives, Three Places in New England

9. Alban Berg, Wozzeck

8. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

7. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie

6. Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms

5. Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5

4. Bela Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

3. Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

2. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians

1. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

(I don't know why, but this clip insists on starting a few seconds in. Just put it back to the beginning!)

Enjoy! And explain to me how I'm all wrong in the comments. I wasn't too analytical with this. I just went with my gut for most of it. These are pieces that continue to fascinate me and that I always enjoy listening to. For some of them I could have swapped in others: instead of Wozzeck I could have listed the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Instead of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto I could have listed the Sibelius Violin Concerto and so on. The only ones on the list that are really indispensable are The Rite, Steve Reich's Music, and the Turangalîla-Symphonie because they really don't have any equivalents! But I could have replaced the Shostakovich symphony with a couple of other pieces by him and the same with the Bartók. Anyway, these are my choices! If I had one more space I would have included the Symphony No. 3 by Gorecki or something by Arvo Pärt.

Just a final note: I do in fact think that The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky is the finest composition of the 20th century and there is a lot of evidence to back that up. But for the rest of the list, the order is somewhat arbitrary. If you want to say that the Sibelius symphony should come before the Bartók, then I won't argue. These pieces are in such different styles that they are rather incommensurable. Which is better, Wozzeck or the Symphony of Psalms? Or the Music for 18 Musicians? Tell me about it in the comments.


Christopher Culver said...

I think it’s quite inappropriate to write off Ligeti like that. He has been programmed heavily these last few years. The piano etudes are being taken up by so many virtuoso pianists they are practically standard repertoire now, and the Piano Concerto seems to be increasingly esteemed with time in spite of the difficult of programming it due to that weird ensemble it calls for. That New York production of Le Grand Macabre a few years back sold out. Ligeti views at YouTube are among the highest for any 20th-century composer.

Boulez has always been held up as a stereotypically unloved composer, but even since his death he continues to be programmed and new recordings have appeared. Even the most uncompromising repertoire keeps attracting performers; I stopped collecting recordings of his piano sonatas because it just started costing too much. He’ll always be a niche taste, but this niche seems more secure than one might have thought.

Luigi Nono, too, has been shown to have staying remarkable staying power in concerts and recordings, considering the serialist language of the pre-1980 words and their connection to now-irrelevant politics.

Stockhausen’s star has fallen, but I am not sure that is due purely to the music itself. After all, Stockhausen's ensemble could play to arenas full of people in the late 60s/early 70s, and DG sold a lot of those Stockhausen records with that distinctive cover art. But then he started writing LICHT and became reclusive and batty. His falling out with DG and then with ECM meant he basically died to listeners keeping up on things through recordings. If Stockhausen hadn’t lost it, maybe some of his pieces and recordings would be like On the Corner-era Miles Davis today: way too far out for most listeners, but still intriguing to a large enough set that they’d still hang on somewhere in pop culture.

I agree that Kagel seems to have fallen into obscurity. Many of his works are too theatrical to allow them to survive for home listeners. I also worry that a lot of Berio’s music is falling into obscurity except for the Folk Songs or Rendering.

Gene said...

Revisionist historians give Strauss a central position once accorded to Schoenberg and his followers. I would argue for the Four Last Songs or one of the operas (Ariadne or Capriccio, if not Der Rosenkavalier) instead of Wozzeck, which is indisputably great but hard going for most listeners.

Bryan Townsend said...

Christopher, you make a strong case for Ligeti and perhaps we should make room for a piece by him. I avoided chamber music and music for solo instruments in the list, confining myself to the larger, more public genres. Perhaps I should have avoided opera too and had Berg represented by the Violin Concerto. But here is the problem: if we put in Ligeti, who do we take out? Prokofiev?

Gene, yes, there is an argument for Richard Strauss, but again, who do we take out?

Anonymous said...

I find that list depressing. Mind you, the selection is perfectly reasonable. I would probably add Ligeti, remove Prokofiev or Ives. But it's scary to think how relatively weak these pieces are compared with a 19th c. equivalent. (Only the Rite stands out.) Wagner alone has produced greater music than all of your pieces combined.

I think the problem is the very concept of 20th c. music. It actually makes little sense historically. Twenty is just a nice round number but it's meaningless. Historically, the period you want to consider and compare would be called "modernity" and that's 1870-1950. You would then have a more coherent, and far stronger selection.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good point about the arbitrariness of the century and yes, 1870 to 1950 is an era in itself. However, in recent years historians have been eschewing using terms like "Baroque" and "Romantic" in favor of labeling their studies simply the "19th Century" or the "20th Century." However I have to disagree about the 19th century. It is just personal taste, but I don't find much that I enjoy from the death of Schubert to Debussy. Shocking, I know, but I have never had much liking for the ponderous pomposity of 19th century music. Exceptions for Chopin, some Brahms... I find Wagner to be particularly unpleasant! But, as I say, just a personal view. I look at the list of 20th century music and think, "wow, what great stuff!"

Anonymous said...

In your list only Stravinsky might be seriously considered in the top 10 among all composers. Perhaps Bartok but that's already pushing it.

Meanwhile, in the 19th c., you have Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Wagner who are all instant top-10 members. Next, people like Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Chopin, Puccini are all knocking on the door.

In other words, nearly half of the 10 greatest composers who ever lived can be associated with the 19th c.

Another problem with your list is the sole inclusion of Reich. To me, he's the greatest American composer that ever lived. But his inclusion requires the consideration of Jazz musicians, for example, Miles Davis, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, and especially John Coltrane. So if you're going to have Reich, then you need to have Coltrane because they share so much -- and in just about all aspects (originality, range, influence), people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane leave, say, Ives or Messiaen in the dust.

The problem is this: until 1950, the best musical minds went into classical music. After that, this was no longer true. Also, too much of music composition moved into academia, from which great art has never emerged.

Bryan Townsend said...

Excellent comment!! I did say that this was just personal taste for me, so setting that aside and looking at it objectively, yes, there are a lot of great, that is to say, widely loved, composers from the 19th century. Let's take the New York Times list, put together by Anthony Tommasini as our benchmark. The list, in order, is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartók. We might quibble over some, but let's just take it as a reasonable attempt to list the greatest composers no longer living starting with Bach (pre-Bach composers were excluded).

Here are my quibbles: Beethoven and Schubert are composers born in the 18th century who had their greatest influence in the 19th century, but to my mind, they are not really 19th century composers. What Charles Rosen calls "The Romantic Generation" begins with a number of composers all born around 1810: Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. Those are the true 19th century composers to my mind. Beethoven and Schubert wrote music on a solid 18th century foundation. Debussy, while born in the 19th century (as were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Sibelius, all composers we consider 20th century) is considered to be perhaps the founder of 20th century music. I know that it seems as if I have just promulgated a contradiction: why do I consider composers born in the late 18th century to be more 18th century and ones born in the late 19th century to be more 20th century? Yes, it seems odd! But I think that is due to the fact that the large tidal movements in the arts do not quite align with the zeros! In other words, the 18th century musical structures did in fact endure into the first part of the 19th century, while the 20th century concepts of structure began a bit before the turn of the century. This is all debatable, of course! But assuming that what I have proposed is plausible, that means that, on Tommasini's list, four of the ten are 18th century (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert), three are 20th century (Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók) and only three are 19th century (Brahms, Verdi and Wagner) and two of them are known only for opera.

Your other point is regarding Steve Reich. Yes, he does seem to both be an awkward fit with the other composers on the list, but at the same time, I agree, he is perhaps the greatest American composer. He is the only one on the list who came to prominence after 1950. But I think it is pretty clear that he is a "classical" composer. According to Reich's own way of classifying music, he is one of the guys who writes it down, that is to say, he creates a musical score which is then performed by specialist musicians. Jazz, while an influence on his style, is a very different genre with different methods. If we accept your criteria we would have to consider other influences: drumming from Ghana and gamelan from Bali. In a similar vein, we would have to bring in Ravi Shankar if we are talking about the music of Philip Glass.

But your last point is a very powerful one! I have experienced this with my own students: the most highly gifted tended to go into something else other than classical music! And yes again, academia does not produce great music, though I am not sure why. Composers are always bemoaning their poverty and difficulty of getting performances and general insignificance. Academia provides a nurturing environment with a steady paycheck, enthusiastic students, performance opportunities and prestige. So why don't academic composers write great music?

Anonymous said...

Very surprised to see Reich mentioned.

In my opinion the greatest of all American composers was Elliott Carter. (About that there should be no doubt whatsoever!)

Anonymous said...

I think we're finding common grounds in rejecting the categories x-th century as not particularly meaningful. I agree with you that Beethoven/Schubert belong to a different period from Schumann/Chopin, etc, regardless of their birth dates.

As a general comment, I may be a little more conservative than you, in that I attach a great deal of importance (maybe too much) to tradition as the best intellectual frame to help us understand art. As I see it, classical music is made of 3 concentric circles: the first one is Italy/France/Germany (the latter includes the Netherlands and Austria). Western music was born in that tradition (chronologically in that order, Germany being the latecomer). Germany became the dominant force in that triumvirate by the 18th c. largely eclipsing the others until the French revival in the late 19th c. I believe that inner ring (really a tripod) is the key to every subsequent development.

The second circle is Russia/Central Europe/Scandinavia. It never quite left the orbit of the first circle. As Stravinsky rightly said, "there is no Russian music tradition per se." In fact, what makes him the best Russian composer was his genius in blending the inner-circle tripod (especially French) with his own Russian sauce. That he was a genius tout court also helped... The 3rd circle is Spain and, more important, the English speaking world.

My conservative side believes that great genius can only emerge from a deep, rich tradition. England never produced a musical Shakespeare because of its weak musical tradition. Bach is the greatest of them all because not only is his music entirely anchored in the innermost circle, but no one was more successful in seamlessly blending French, Italian, and German music together: Bach dances better than the French, he sings better than the Italians, and he does harmony on the organ better than the Dutch. He's the motherlode of all Western music at its best. Likewise, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven tapped into, and refined, modified, codified, innovated within the motherlode. It's not all about their big brains (big as they were) but also about their location in time and space (think of Vienna for music and Florence for painting! Location, location, location..)

It would be much better if one could argue that other motherlodes were found or created, but that didn't happen. The second circle (especially Russian) developed its genius by drawing connections between Slavic folk tradition and the innermost circle. But it didn't leave that orbit (something that pissed off Stravinsky endlessly). The reason it is stronger than the English-speaking circle is that it had much richer local fare to tap into and better music schooling. Leaving Jazz aside, the Anglo-American tradition had only weak local material to thrive upon, so it became mostly derivative without ever developing its own voice. Reich and Ives are great composers who happen to be American. But Verdi is not a composer who happens to be Italian: he is an Italian composer. Because there is such thing as Italian music but there is no such thing as American music (in the sense I explained earlier).

I don't believe the Italian/French/Germans are naturally more talented. These are all accidents of history. Some people argue that the French are more literary and the Germans more musical, hence... Except that the causal arrow might run the other way. I am skeptical about any essentialist reading of history. Probably geography played a big role too.

Anyway, interesting conversations going on at this blog!

Bryan Townsend said...

We have two different Anonymouses commenting! One is an admirer of Elliot Carter and we shall dub him "Anonymous-C" while the other, a frequent commentator here, prefers Steve Reich and we shall dub him, "Anonymous-R."

@Anon-C: with all due respect to Elliot Carter, I think there is lots of room to doubt he is the greatest of all American composers. I think that as so much of his output came late in life and he passed away fairly recently, that the jury is most certainly still out. In another fifty or hundred years we will have a clearer sense of his stature. One reason we can be pretty sure of the significance of The Rite of Spring is that it is over a hundred years old.

@Anon-R: Your thoughts on the role of tradition are absolutely fascinating! Is there any literature from this point of view that you are aware of? I think that the theory provides very plausible answers to some questions that I mull over, such as why is Finland such a musical superpower while Canada, with a much larger population, is such a musical midget? The answer seems to be that Finland was able to draw on two very deep musical traditions: Germany and Russia while the sources of tradition for Canada were limited to the far weaker ones of Great Britain and the US. Thanks so much for outlining this theory of musical tradition. It seems very consistent with the facts of music history.