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August 27, 2006

Reconsidering 20th-century music

Tim Page has a "Top 25" list in the Arts section of the WaPo. The Top 25 works of 20th-century "classical" music.

Back a couple of years, when some literary types voted on the top 100 novels, everyone laughed at them. "Ha, ha! You voted for Joyce's Ulysses because you want to make us feel guilty if we've never read it." (I actually have, even though I have a fairly superficial understanding of it.) I got the same feeling about some of the compositions listed in Page's list. There's sort of a castor-oil quality about some of the recommendations. For example, here is his tribute to Alvin Lucier's "I am Sitting in a Room":

Alvin Lucier

"I Am Sitting in a Room." (Alvin Lucier, performer. Lovely Music.)

After 10 minutes, you'll probably hate this piece, but by the time it reaches the half-hour mark, I'll bet you are fascinated. The idea behind "I Am Sitting in a Room" is very simple, rather akin to making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy with the inevitable fuzzy dissolution of the original image. What Lucier (born 1931) did was to take a tape recording of a brief speech, play it into another tape recorder, then take that tape and play it into another recorder, and so on, until all language was filtered away and what was left was a mercurial patina of sonic residue -- the "ghost" of the speech, if you will. It may sound arty and pretentious, but it couldn't be more lovely, especially as the distortion moves in to stay. Words become music, sound becomes shimmer and a natural process of acoustics is demonstrated in the most elegant and strangely beautiful fashion.
OK, you got that? He recorded a speech, then re-recorded and re-recorded it over and over again and played each new version in his recording one after the other. Wow! Too bad the NEA wasn't around to give him a grant when this was written.

Page also lists Carmina Burana, which I think I dislike more each time I hear it. And it's hard for me to get around Orff's Nazi sympathies.

I don't mean to be too hard on Page, who certainly comes up with some good ones -- Strauss's Elektra, Berg's Lulu, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, for example.

So I will take the bait and offer my own mini-list. These are not my Top 25, or Top Anything, but they are all wonderful to listen to.

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is one I can't recommend enough. It's arguably the greatest composition of the century.

Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide. (The rest of Candide is spotty. Some of the songs are absolutely brilliant, while others are deservedly unknown.)

While we're on Berstein, don't miss his Chichester Psalms. Make sure to get a recording with full orchestra and boy soprano.

Shostakovich's Piano Trio Op. 67. I must have listened to this over 30 times.

Poulenc's Flute Sonata. About as fine an examplar of 20th-century French music as there is.

Ravel's String Quartet. Usually coupled with Debussy's late-19th-century string quartet, which unfortunately doesn't qualify for my list. Some of Ravel's music really does nothing for me, but this quartet is a winner.

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. One of the most hauntingly beautiful serial compositions. The last movement integrates a Bach chorale into the tone row.

Arnold Schoenberg String Quartet No. 2. This quartet, which features a soprano in the last two movements, dates from just before Schoenberg formalized his twelve-tone method.

I may have forgotten a few of my favorites, which I'll add in updates if I think of them.

Feel free to add your own in the comments.

UPDATE: My wife says I need to include Prokofiev, so I'll go with Symphony No. 5. And I'll add Faure's Piano Trio. I'm told his requiem is wonderful, but I confess I'm not familiar with it.

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot Mahler's Ninth Symphony.