The way classical music fans ignore or shy away from the great works of the 20th century is a source of continual frustration for me. I grew up on this music. Here are some highly personal responses to some of my favorite works. Most of these riffs bear little or no relationship to programmatic content or the composer’s own view of the work. Please note also that this list does not pretend to be either representative or exhaustive, so don’t leave comments chiding me for neglecting this or that “important” work or composer. But please do feel free to tell me about your own favorites!
Krzysztof Penderecki – Dies Irae
The most appalling of centuries loses nothing in this translation into the dead languages that once launched the Punic and Pelopponesian Wars. Between Cassandra and Medusa there might have been a secret sisterhood of horror. Those who would be prey must first turn to stone.
Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki – Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)
A Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis writes an invocation to the Blessed Virgin on the wall with a slow shard, re-tracing the letters again and again to make them straight and deep.
Leos Janacek – Glagolitic Mass
How could such soaring syllables belong to the language of slaves? How, wondered JanáÄ?ek, might the God of Nature be shrunk into something small enough to inhabit a church or concert hall?
Howard Hanson – Lament for Beowulf
English, not Hebrew, might be the most fitting tongue for those fated to remain strangers in the earth. Its words are cast in base metals, better for the clash than the clasp. Ah, but the hoard is mute, amassed by monstrous prodigies of the old gods and used to stuff the artificially enhanced hill where the king retires for his last, rapacious sleep.
Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
The composer who scandalized bourgeois audiences in 1913 with the Rite of Spring in 1930 explored what is most scandalous about the Bible: the way its best verses erase the line between blessing and curse. David dances before the Ark of the Covenant like a prizefighter, taunting his lover: Destroyer, Motherfucker, I’ll finish what Jacob started. Don’t tempt me! It all sounds glorious.
Francis Poulenc – Stabat Mater
How much longer will the Mother stand for this, one wonders? The Mothers of the Disappeared circle the square until the dictator is forced to flee or face the music. This Stabat Mater (and there are, of course, many others) continues long past the final note.
Bela Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
I once heard a gypsy fiddler on the radio playing an ironic tribute to the late communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu. In the middle of the song, he set his bow aside and used his fingernails to rake the strings for the length of a verse. Bartók would’ve loved that. His Music is much more life-affirming, but as with almost everything he wrote, it insists upon freedom with every jagged and joyous turn of phrase.
Fernando Lopes-Graca – História Trágico-Marítima
This isn’t that sea that Debussy saw, but the other, the still-unexplored ocean. She knows nothing about the romantic storms and shipwrecks that her would-be knights-errant bear like pox-ridden scraps of cloth to foreign shores.
Alban Berg – Violin Concerto
The soul in the guise of a violin always yearns for transcendence, like the girl in the old story made to lie night after night upon the king’s wrinkled and impotent body in a hopeless effort to stave off the chill of death. But what if an orchestra answered your prayers with questions of its own? The ear must get beyond its patriarchal desire to be ravished.
Akira Miyoshi – Cello Concerto
If the wood of a fallen, thousand-year zelkova tree from some Shinto shrine were cut and polished like an agate, the grain could be interpreted as a musical score – or so this work has led me to believe.
Carl Nielsen – Clarinet Concerto
True story: Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto was the wordless and slightly warmed-over theme song for my first major romantic fling. She had played percussion once in a performance with a former lover, who soloed on clarinet. Could we have picked a worse omen, I wonder, than this tribute to bipolarity with its drunken lyricism, its self-mockery, its pungent soups of despair?
Manuel de Falla – Harpsichord Concerto
Another true story: Right about the same time, a composer offered to teach me harpsichord in return for helping his daughter with English. I declined, having already decided to devote myself to Noh. Twenty years later, I remember a couple of chants, but my body has long forgotten how to unfold a landscape in one sweep of the arm. How much luckier in love might I have been had my fingers learned all the intricate steps of modern gypsies on a horizontal staircase?
I-sang Yun – Muak
The other day, I heard an auto mechanic describe what happens with a vacuum leak: It isn’t that the vacuum is leaking out, he said; the air is leaking in! In a similar manner, just a breath of an air from the steppes – less than a whole melody – is enough to turn the pure, unchanging tones of Confucian music into sonic turmoil.
Charles Ives – Three Places in New England
Whenever I hear the phrase, “bedrock American values,” I think of literal granite in New England – what geologists call the Canadian Shield. I first fell in love with it as a child in Maine. Though the tourist comes to New England for a dose of lyrical maples and churches, a resident might come to prefer the stark look of granite and everything it hides.
Virgil Thomson – film score to The Plow that Broke the Plains
What once was carried off by the wind now washes into the Gulf of Mexico. One way or another, we’ll get back to those bedrock values! But just because the plow is smiling doesn’t mean it likes its work. And just because the tunes sound happy doesn’t mean we really know how to have fun.
Roger Sessions – The Black Maskers Suite
Sometimes tenderness is all in one direction, you know? Sometimes a falconer captures a hawk and keeps it for just one season, solicitous for that roll call of distances in its hooded gaze.
Bela Bartók – Miraculous Mandarin Suite
The exotic dancer’s genius is in what she withholds. Imagine falling in love with that still center of a wheel, despair growing like a ship’s captain becalmed in the age of sail.
John Antill – Corroboree Suite
Clowning was once a scared vocation. Any real or mythic figure, any inhabitant of air, land or water could ripple through the clown’s malleable form with the flicker of a shadow from the fire. His laughter was sometimes as frightening as a difficult birth.
Alberto Ginastera – Panambi Suite
A man from the pampas wanders into a forest for the first time, gets enthralled – or maybe spooked. A clearing just wide enough to support a blade of grass looks like a revelation. Beaten by the incessant rain, he dreams of fountains, roofed courtyards, an inner sanctum as resonant as a drum.
Ali Rahbari – Persian Mysticism in G
Once, a holy man loved his donkey almost as much as he loved God. When the donkey died on the road, he raised a grave mound over him, wept, and went on his way. In time, the local residents built a shrine and spread a legend about a dead saint, and pilgrims began to come. Many hearts were blown open by the encounter. This all happened in the key of G.
Alan Hovhaness – Symphony #2, Mysterious Mountain
The exile dreams of a mountain at the center of the world, having heard that, in an expanding universe, the definition of “position” is something like “an apparent center away from which everything flees.” He nurtures his growing solitude, and writes the symphony again – sixty-seven times in all.
Arnold Schoenberg – Moses und Aron
Though a brilliant librettist and composer, Schoenberg was unable to complete his only opera; his version ends with Moses despairing of his own inarticulateness in the face of the inexpressible. According to the Wikipedia, the famed discoverer of the twelve-tone technique “suffered from triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen).”
[I]t is said that the reason his late opera is called Moses and Aron, rather than Moses and Aaron […] is because the latter spelling has thirteen letters in it. He was born […] on the thirteenth of the month, and thought of this as a portent. He once refused to rent a house because it had the number 13, and feared turning 76, because its digits add up to thirteen. In an interesting story […] he feared Friday, July 13, 1951, as it was the first Friday the 13th of his 76th year. He reportedly stayed in bed that day preparing for what he thought as his death day. After begging her husband to wake up and “quit his nonsense,” his skeptical wife was shocked when her husband simply uttered the word “harmony” and died.
We live in dissonance – remember that.