Living in dissonance: a very selective guide to 20th-century classical music

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.

32 Replies to “Living in dissonance: a very selective guide to 20th-century classical music”

  1. What the Christ! I had no idea, Dave, no idea at all…

    I have long, long comments to come in response to this. It’s simply incredibly exciting. I hope Alex Ross (The Rest is Silence) links to it and sends lots of readers your way, and stimulates a fifty-comment (or more) discussion.

    The timing’s uncanny- I’ve spent the whole morning listening to “new” music…Judith Weir, Thomas Ades, Henri Dutilleux, Witold Lutoslawski. Then I come here and find this.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m listening to GZA’s “Liquid Swords” right now. But I think I’m going to go back to Dutilleux).

    I have lots more to say…

  2. Moses und Aron: A superb opera. Probably my favorite of Scheonberg’s works. And the way it fights this question of “speakability” is very touching, it’s unforgettable.

    A lot of Arnie’s music is not good. This is my opinion. “Verklaerte Nacht” is the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think he’s generally as good as Berg or Webern. But, for all the members of Vienna II (The Revenge of the Tone Row), I find something deathly, something that’s had to be slowly brought back to life in the subsequent decades. These guys were at the beginning of an important change, but they leached the equation of something vital, and I can respect their stuff (which I do) without always loving it. Webern’s my favorite of the lot, and that’s mostly because he gets to the point and doesn’t dally. I’m a lot happier with the last twenty years in classical music than with a lot of the modernist stuff.

    Those three, by the way, have names I’ve always thought of as vague anagrams each other: Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg. As if the names had been composed with the same re-arranging attitude that created the most iconic of the serial works.

  3. Hovhannes:

    I wonder how much one’s age has to do with the things that make it on the list. To my mind Hovhannes is one of these guys who was big in the seventies. I have heard some of his stuff- it’s kind of astral and large- but I don’t imagine he gets programmed much these days.

    You’re a little older than I am, Dave, so inevitably, some of my guys will be people who are in vogue in the eighties and nineties.

    The most fascinating thing about your list is this deep connection you have with American music. It’s odd that, for me, so much of my listening education was shaped by the BBC and the Penguin Guide, so in place of Sessions and Thompson, I have Rubbra and Simpson- names that’ll probably draw a blank from most Americans. The good thing about the Brits is that they have this stylistic connection with a lot of what’s happening in Europe as well. The new music scene’s very lively over there, but best of all, in my view, is the stuff from the last twenty years (on both sides of the Atlantic), when there’s a more organic connection between the lessons of serialism and the age old exigencies of melody and harmony.

  4. Shaker Loops by John Adams. The best of the minimalists working with traditional instrumentation.
    I Am The True Vine & Tabula Rasa by Arvo Part. Bleak, stark & beautiful.
    Messe Cum Jubilo by Maurice Durrufle. Tranquil & passionate in equal measure.

    A very smart new home, Dave…

  5. Something I was worrying about yesterday, as I sat in the library listening to Judith Weir’s very fine Piano Concerto, was how impoverished the language of music criticism is. This is especially true of new music, which pulls harmonies and tempi and instrumental colors and volumes around in all kinds of interesting ways.

    There just doesn’t seem to be a way to do justice, in words, to the experience of listening to music- in general, yes, but I was struck by how particularly true this is for recently composed stuff, let’s say the stuff since Debussy.

    The only option is to turn critical response into its own art. I wish more writers on music did the kind of thing you’ve done here, Dave. Just give up on describing the thing, and have your critique be a poetical “answer” to the musical question.

  6. I like the few, very very few of these I do know. So I am inspired.

    I find the old classics comfortable, occasionally dull. My true love is the earthy “International” music, flamenco, 3Mustafas3, fusions and distinctly un-pretty sounds, woven inside deep melodic lines.

    Been needing new challenges, and I consider your poetic list to be such. Thank you.

    Love the new site.

  7. Nine pieces I enjoy (all composed in the past 20 years or so- can’t be too sure, I haven’t checked).

    1. Oswaldo Goliov: Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
    I had this on headphones while I was lost at night in some backstreets in old Vienna. A history of the Jews in a historically anti-Semitic city. It wasn’t planned. I accidentally grabbed the wrong CD that day, actually. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

    2. Zbigniew Preisner: Red (film soundtrack)
    Wonderful film music, perfect for the images before you.

    3. George Benjamin: Three Inventions
    Discovering a new planet, with only sound as a guide. Bogs, strange new plants.

    4. Judith Weir: Consolations of Scholarship
    Chinese opera by a Brit. In English and absolutely convincing.

    5. Philip Glass: Powaqqatsi (film music)
    The sound of human labor. Our work is never done.

    6. Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
    What does it mean for someone to die? What does it mean when the dead is someone we have loved at a distance?

    7. Witold Lutoslawski: Piano Concerto
    The sound of thinking. Life works itself out while everything else is unfolding.

    8. Kevin Volans: White Man Sleeps
    Imagine a middle-period Beethoven quartet written under the influence of the South African sun.

    9. György Ligeti: Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano
    Here comes King Midas, the one of whom we can say “Everything he touches turns to Ligeti.”

  8. This post distresses me greatly, and I’ve had to sit with it a bit to figure out why. It’s because I’m afraid the big kids will all go away and play and won’t let me tag along.

    My ignorance of music is huge. (“I don’t know music, maybe, but I know what I like,” I say sullenly to myself.) I love simple songs, easy melodies, wicked guitar or fiddle licks, but I know that’s not “real” music, and I realize — increasingly as I tip-tap along on the keyboard here — that I’m deeply convinced that I’m incapable of understanding classical music, and doubly incapable of understanding modern classical music. Whence that conviction? I see people, lots of people, most people I suppose, reacting the same way to poetry, and I’m always impatient. “Don’t sit around worrying about whether you can understand it in *general*,”I want to say. “Just pick up a poem, any poem, and read the damn thing. There’s no magic to it. It’s just a letter from one heart to another. Read it, say it over, think about it. There’s no such thing as understanding poetry, there’s just understanding poems.”

    But my dread in response to this spost hould make me more patient, I’m thinking.

  9. Dale – You can’t be erudite about everything. I try not to feel insecure when people go on about great works of literature in languages I can’t read. But learning a new musical language takes much less time! Only a few weeks of intensive listening. I don’t agree at all that the examples you cited are not real music. That’s bullshit, and I think you know it. And one has to acquire a taste for “simple” melodies and harmonies, too. The first time I heard Appalcahian string band music, around the age of ten, I thought it all sounded alike. Same when I was exposed to blues for the first time ten years later. Or thrash metal. But once I got to know those genres, I couldn’t believe I’d ever felt that way.
    Anyway, there’s no reason why you should learn to like new things if you are comfortable with familiar flavors. Of all the items in the lists above, I suspect that you would only really enjoy the Gorecki (second item in my list). Pretty much everyone does.

    Zhoen – That is exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping for. Be sure to check out the items in St. Antonymn’s list directly below your comment, too, as well as Dick’s recommendations.

    Beth – That was my reaction on seeing St. Antonymn’s list just now!

  10. Wow, what a list and how few I know – makes me feel ignorant. But thanks for sharing all this, it inspires me to look for them to expand my listening. And that story about Schoenberg is amazing!

  11. Dick and St. Antonymn – Thanks for sharing you r lists and enthusiasm! I’m afraid I haven’t bought much new music since vinyl went out of fashion, but I have the feeling I shall have to start. The Naxos catalogue in particular is intriguing.

    St.Antonym – Is it O.K. if I call you Tony for short?

    Wow, dude – I haven’t seen you this excited in a long time!

    Agreed about Schoenberg. I also liked Verklarte Nachte last time I gave it a listen, but Moses und Aron was my one real love from among his works. I was so excited when the Met premiered it a few years ago; I taped the entire broadcast. (If they perform it again, I’m comin’ up to camp out on your floor, O.K.?)

    I feel about the high modernist innovators in music much the same way I feel about their counterparts in poetry: important as pioneers, but rather chilly. Except for Stravinsky and Bartok. I was always fonder of the French (Les Six) and Latin composers, who retained much more lyricism. Lopes-Graca is perhaps my single favorite composer of the century – a folklorist, like Bartok.

    Hovhaness isn’t so much New Age as Old Age. He laid out the path that Gorecki and Part were to follow much later.

    I haven’t heard all the composers on your list, which would certainly be embarassing if I had set my list up as some sort of authoriatative accounting. Good thing I covered my ass, eh? Your suggestions are very intriguing, particularly nos. 1 & 4. Ligeti and Lutoslawski I remember liking, though I couldn’t tell you just what. My younger brother used to have some of this music. Well, he probably still does, but he came and moved his records out some time ago.

    There are a number of favorite composers who didn’t make it onto my list, such as Bloch, Yardumian, Piston and Prokoviev. I simply ran out of time, and felt that the post was long enough!

  12. Dale, *I* was intimidated by this list, and I’m supposed to know something about music! You and I can tag along in the rear, OK?

  13. Marja-Leena – As I said to Dale, no need to feel ignorant, really. But if I had written a longer prologue to my post, I would’ve mentioned Finland as the one country in the world that is doing classical music education right.

    Schoenberg was a funny guy. I admire the way he converted back to his native Judaism in 1933, right when it became, shall we say, deeply unfashionable. And he was an accomplished modern painter. He painted a full length self-portrait from the rear, with his head bend down and hands clasped behind his back. Ornery S.O.B. all ’round.

  14. O.K. y’all, stop sneaking in comments under my nose, it’s freaking me out!

    Beth, there’s so much good music out there, it only stands to reason that each of us would know different and sometimes barely overlapping segments of it.

  15. Here’s one more vote for Arvo Pärt’s “I am the True Vine.”

    Funny that Dick and I, both godless, find in Pärt a kindred spirit. But he has that effect on a lot of thoughtful people. He brings us back to our senses, or he takes us properly out of it.

    Dave, I’m off to hunt for Bloch. I think I heard him once, long ago, but I can’t remember what he’s like now. I remember liking him. Something Hebrew? Oh, I don’t know. But the library will.

    Hey, if the Met ever does Moses und Aron, you can come on down, and you can be Moses. Just leave the talking to me…

    (I saw Berg’s “Lulu” a couple of years ago and, boy, that was a night out. Sex, violence, atonality. I gained about five years of life experience in that one night.)

  16. Wow, yes, both intimidating and inspiring! The intensity with which I love the very few of these I know (though none of them well) – Gorecki, Falla, Nielson, Ives – certainly makes me think that, contrary to prejudice, I would appreciate at least some of others if I took the trouble.

  17. Jean – Since our aesthetic tastes so often seem to coincide, it’s possible you might develop an appreciation for some of the more dissonant works or composers here. (In a couple of cases it will probably prove next to impossible to locate a recording of the work I cite, though Naxos is doing its best to re-issue a lot of obscure old records on CD.)

    Tony – Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service was the work I had in mind. Nice counterpoint to Moses and Aron.

    I forgot to mention Olivier Messiaen (in part because i no longer own many records of him). The Turangalila Symphony is a very interesting work; also Quartet for the End of Time. I like that he studied birdsong so assiduously (part of what I meant by living in dissonance is that most of the natural sounds we consider beautiful are in fact atonal, including birdsongs). And I like his mix of nature reverence and Christian mysticism.

  18. Glad you stuck Messiaen in here at the end. I like the Catalogue des Oiseaux also in addition to the two you mention. He used to play the organ in a little unassuming church in Paris the year I lived there.

    It’s been far too long since I’ve heard any of these, really LISTENED TO THEM. I’m inspired to do so again. Thanks.

  19. Hooray this new site offers a down-scroll arrow which now works for me!
    These old eyes must try to adjust to the new paler font. And how odd what seems to be a new sensiblity put to practice in letter/word spacing. Doubtless in time it will come to feel native.

  20. I don’t know how I feel about “Tony.” Folks might think you’re talking about my goody two-shoes cousin St Anthony. I’ll let you know if I come up with an abbreviation that’s suitably holy and oppositional (but not “Dr No,” as that’s a whole nother set of references).

    So, I listened to some Bloch last night. There’s a piece of his called “Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life).” There’s a version of the piece for violin and orchestra, which I heard. And then there’s a version for violin and piano, the same piece essentially, which I also heard. Neither is very long: about 15 minutes for the 3 movements.

    The thematic content (folksy), and the instrumentation (romantic), remind one of John Williams’ soundtrack to Schindler’s List (but without that work’s excessive sweetness), and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

    Quite easy on the ears, actually, not as harrowing as the boys from Vienna 2.

    Bloch is like a sonic take on Chagall. Colorful and Jewish without being too simple.

  21. yes dave dittoing
    all the thanks for posting this list

    sometime ago
    I purchased the Gorecki
    at your suggestion (I think it was you)
    so I’ll be trying out
    some of these others
    most of which/whom are unknown to me

    and good admonishing of dale
    for poohpoohing his own music preferences

    that old Bell curve
    shows up inevery
    kind of sound that can be made

    I also am a fan of
    acoustic guitar/banjo/related strings
    of any kind
    flamenco, new flamenco, gypsy
    blues appalachian

    and percussion . . .

    it’s profoundly exciting
    to listen to a music
    new to me as a listener
    whether I like it
    or not

  22. It’s all new and fresh looking. no comment on this topic. I blow hot and cold on dissonance, depends on my mood. I have to comment here on your self-portraits because there is no comment option on their page. Your drawings are really fine…Ben Shahn-like in style. see ” the Shape of Content ” (I’m happy to share my copy)

  23. Thanks for these additional comments. Let me reply in order this time.

    Pica – Oh good, another Messiaen fan! From what I know of your interest in birds, and from what you’ve said about your persistant attraction to Catholicism, it only makes sense. You’re so lucky to have heard him in action! Back at the height of my Messaien fan-dom, some fifteen years ago, I fantasized about building a kind of open-air shed at just the right point in Plummer’s Hollow so that one could install a pipe organ in it and it would be audible to anyone walking the two-mile length of the hollow. Now that would be a concert experience! If I were a rich man…

    Bill – If you’re having trouble reading, I suggest you increase the text size. (You probably already know how to do that, but in case not, simply use the drop-down “View” menu at the top of your screen, or, on a PC, hold down the Ctrl key whilst moving the little wheel in your mouse.)

    “How happy I am be unattached from now aging comments I may have once made.”
    You, and probably one or two other regular commenters about their own comments. But not me. I miss all the comments.

    St. Antonym – It makes as much or as little sense for me to call you Tony as it does for a living man to refer to himself as a saint.

    “Bloch is like a sonic take on Chagall. Colorful and Jewish without being too simple.” Precisely.

    Suzanne – I recommended Gorecki to you? I don’t remember, but it seems possible.

    Has Bela Fleck teamed up with a symphony orchestra yet? If he does, we might be able to hear all those kinds of music you mention together at the same time.

    Then again, some would argue that that sort of thing has been done before: It’s called jazz. But that’s another post (and one I’m not competant to write, unfortunately).

    Keith – What? You got that record? That’s great! I sure wouldn’t mind hearing it again. All I have are my cassette tapes of the broadcast. Bring it up in about a month and I should be able to pay you in homebrew.

    I don’t have a record player myself, but my parents do. We bought them a new stereo for their fortieth wedding anniversaryback in ’02, which included a state-of-the-art turntable. In a way, I think it’s probably good that I have to go to a different house and make a special effort to listen to music. I’m kind of opposed to the use of musical wallpaper.

    sylph – You flatter me. I know and greatly admire Ben Shahn’s work.

  24. Thanks for the tech help Dave. I haven’t made use of the font zoom. Till now! It’s great! Feeling more at home already, if that’s ok. As a reader I actually agree with you about saved comments.

  25. “St. Antonym – It makes as much or as little sense for me to call you Tony as it does for a living man to refer to himself as a saint.”

    Kind of reminds me of a maximalist, frequently-updated and frankly enjoyable website with the name- wait for it- “Via Negativa.”

    Pot, kettle, etc.

  26. Some Monday morning quarterbacking here. It struck me, as I lay me down to sleep last night, that a sharper riposte would have been:

    “I’m a saint like Silvia Saint.”

  27. I gather this blog must not allow commenters (other than me) the option of editing or deleting their own comments? One sees that now and again; it’s such a great feature.

    You can, however, subscribe to the comments, though I’m not sure why you’d want to. They come all in a jumble, together with trackbacks and pingbacks (including every stinkin’ time I link back to my own posts!). But it’s sure nice having commenters who are so committed to wit and the written word.

    – St. Max

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