Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Ten Greatest Pieces of Music?

The question mark is because, hey, it's just a guess. An informed guess. But your mileage may vary. I'm also not going to number them because to some extent these pieces are incomparables. I mean that their aesthetic virtues are so different from one another that you can't order them 1 - 10. Well, sure, you can, but the main result would just be a lot of arguments! Mind you, I suspect that a lot of these "Best of" year-end lists are created mainly to start arguments.

My purpose here is just to pull together ten pieces that I think are worth your time. If you haven't listened to them, you probably should. If you have, you should listen some more. I could probably do this every day for a month and pick a different ten pieces each day, but that doesn't make the exercise uninteresting.
  •  The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky (1912/13) This is one of the great revolutionary pieces of the 20th century and one of the few that justifies the sweeping claims made for modernism in music. The sound is fresh, the rhythmic concept is new and the piece stands up even a hundred years later. Here is a clip of the whole piece.

Perhaps the most striking section is the last, the Sacrificial Dance, which uses a wide variety of different, irregular time signatures. It is interesting to compare the techniques to the Soviet theory of montage in film, used by Sergei Eisenstein who described it in this way: "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts" wherein "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other". The effect of the metric dislocations in the Rite is a bit similar--though the Rite came first! Here is just the Sacrificial Dance:

  • Das Lied von der Erde, Gustav Mahler (1908/09) This is one of the best pieces from the late-19th and early 20th century German Romantic repertoire. I used to love listening to Mahler, but nowadays the hyper-excited quality of the music tends to make me think he needed his medication adjusted. Still, there is no denying the impact of the piece. There are six songs, the texts of which are German translations by Hans Bethge of Chinese poetry. "Dark is life, dark is death" is a particularly haunting refrain from the first song.
  • Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Ludwig van Beethoven (1824) I have avoided mentioning this symphony much on the blog because it is such an iconic work it is hard to think of something new to say about it. It was the greatest challenge to succeeding composers who despaired of ever writing its equal. But for that very reason, it is a symphony that one should know. Each of the four movements is a masterpiece of the genre, but the last movement truly bursts the bounds of the classical symphony with its introduction of vocal soloists and chorus. Here is the whole symphony, all four movements:
  • String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op 110, Dmitri Shostakovich (1960) Written in only three days in July 1960, this is the most performed of all Shostakovich's quartets and possibly the finest string quartet of the 20th century. Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH or D, E flat, C, B natural, is woven into every movement. There are also quotes from several other pieces of his music. The music is a representation of a deep personal crisis in his life. Like the American poet Theodore Roethke, Shostakovich's nervous breakdown produced some of his finest work. The causes of the breakdown are not entirely clear as he shared contradictory accounts with his closest friends. But it may have had to do with his being coerced into becoming a member of the Communist party after resisting that step for a long time. But whatever the source of the inspiration, the music speaks for itself. There are five interconnected movements.
  1. Largo
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Allegretto
  4. Largo
  5. Largo
The Emerson Quartet do a particularly fine version, but it is not available in one clip. Here is the whole piece in three clips:

  • Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments, usually known as the "Brandenburg Concertos", J. S. Bach (1721) These six concertos are some of the most daring written in the Baroque, as much for their imaginative combinations of instruments as for the mastery of the genre. While Vivaldi wrote countless concertos for violin and string orchestra, Bach chose a different--and unusual--combination of instruments for each of these concerti:
  1. Two natural horns, three oboes, bassoon and "violino piccolo" (little violin) with string orchestra
  2. Natural trumpet in F, recorder and oboe with string orchestra
  3. Three violins, three violas, three cellos plus basso continuo (including harpsichord)
  4. Violin and two recorders with string orchestra
  5. Harpsichord, violin and flute with string orchestra
  6. Two violas, two viola da gamba plus basso continuo--no violins!
Every single one of these combinations is bizarre or fanciful in the extreme! What was Bach up to? There are some interesting theories that, as the orchestra represents society in miniature, Bach is making some kind of statement here. Just what exactly, is disputed. But no matter, it may be enough to simply get to know this music for its unique diversity. There are many Baroque concertos, but none like these. Here is the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with all six:

  • Missa Papae MarcelliGiovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (probably composed in 1562) Perhaps the most famous example of Renaissance polyphony by one of the greatest masters. Written in six voices, but the number of voices sounding at any one time varies considerably. The fundamental principles of the Palestrina style are smoothly flowing counterpoint with dissonances restricted to weak beats and few leaps in the melodic line and when they occur they are answered with a step in the opposite direction. This smooth, flowing and controlled style is one of the great achievements in music history, but one that we in the 21st century are perhaps ill-equipped to appreciate! Here is the Kyrie from the mass:
  • Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, usually known as just Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787) This is not only one of the greatest operas ever written, it has also inspired commentaries by the Danish philosopher Kirkegaard, the English playwright George Bernard Shaw, the French novelist Flaubert and the German romantic writer Hoffmann. Composers as different as Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven have written variations on themes from the opera. Though Mozart classified it as an opera buffa or comic opera, it contains some quite serious themes. The Commendatore scene, towards the end, where the statue of the Commendatore comes to life and takes Don Giovanni to task is one of the most remarkable scenes ever written with its unique use of three low male voices along with trombones in the orchestra. This is at the 2 hour and 42 minute mark in this production:
  • String Quartet in C# minor, op 131, Ludwig van Beethoven (1826) One of the late quartets of Beethoven and as such, one of the greatest monuments to the power of music ever written. There are seven movements:
  1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
  2. Allegro molto vivace
  3. Allegro moderato — Adagio
  4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile — Più mosso — Andante moderato e lusinghiero — Adagio — Allegretto — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice — Allegretto
  5. Presto
  6. Adagio quasi un poco andante
  7. Allegro

One of the most touching comments ever from a composer comes from a letter Beethoven wrote in which he says about this piece that it is "less lacking in fantasy than my other music." This is like saying Mount Everest is a fairly high mountain. The opening adagio, a very unusual fugue, Wagner referred to as "the saddest thing in all music". The finale has been described as the finest finale movement ever written. And the fourth movement, a set of variations is simply astonishing--perhaps the best set of variations from the composer who was the master of varation form. This is music that, no matter how many times you hear it, you will never get to the bottom of it. The sixth movement was used in the ninth episode of "Band of Brothers". Here is that scene:

"That's not Mozart. (pause) That's Beethoven." Here is the Julliard Quartet playing the whole piece:

  • Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich (1974/76) This is the piece that really established 'minimalism' or 'process music' as an important musical style. It returned music to consonance from the extreme dissonances of modernism. As such, I suspect that it will at some point be regarded as one of the important turning points in music history. Here is a complete live performance of the piece:

  • Messe de Nostre Dame, Guillaume de Machaut (~1365) The first complete setting of the mass by a single composer and one of the greatest masterpieces of Medieval music. It is a compendium of compositional techniques of the time which include isorhythm where a rhythmic pattern repeats. Usually this rhythmic pattern is a different length than the melodic notes it is used with, so the musical result is constantly changing. One of the most interesting sections is the Gloria which is based on a plainchant from the Gloria of Mass IV, but embellished and streamlined. Here is that section:

And here is the complete mass, all the polyphonic sections composed by Machaut, with all the ancillary plainchant sections as well:


Craig said...

A nice list, and a fun exercise. I agree that all of your choices are worthy, except the Reich, but your inclusion of Machaut is a compensating nice surprise.

For myself, I would probably swap out the Brandenburg Concertos for the Goldbergs or the Mass in B Minor. Or the cello suites. Or the Art of Fugue. Actually, I could probably make a top ten just of Bach's music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Craig,

I did wrestle a bit with what Bach to put in. Honestly, the reason I chose the Brandenburgs was that I have talked a lot about the Goldbergs, the Well-Tempered, the Art of Fugue, the Cello Suites, the Violin Partitas and the Mass in B minor!

I was trying to make non-obvious choices, just for the fun of it.

Best wishes for the New Year!


Craig said...

Best wishes to you as well! Good blogging (and good health) to you in the new year.