By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
My list is different: 100 pieces of serious musical artwork, arranged in no order other than chronological, that seem to me to define where composers of serious music have tried to take their art in the century now slouching toward the history books; perhaps also to suggest whence and how these creative urges arose back around 1900, and to intimate where music might — repeat, might — be headed in the years 2000-plus. Many entries that strike me as defining I do not personally like. Some things not on the list I like quite a lot, but they belong on someone else’s list. I would rather listen to early Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald or the Stones any day than Elliott Carter (and to Elliott Carter rather than Scriabin). "Serious" music I define as written-down music designed to be heard by non-participating — I almost said "passive," but that’s wrong — audiences, and with the substance to warrant serious rehearing.
The question arises: By "defining," am I also implying a prophecy that the music on this list will still be played and respected into the next century and even beyond? I think I am. I must assume, of course, that the performing forces that occasioned this music will survive; in these days, when not only symphony orchestras but whole national economies can fall off the map, that may be a foolhardy assumption. You gotta believe.
Music that embodies the strength to define its own era must also have the strength to outlast that era. There were string quartets, orchestras and opera houses in 1799 and 1899, as there are in 1999; there’s a chance, therefore, that something similar to them will be around in 2099, playing the new music of the day but also music created one, two or three centuries before. There are other imponderables, of course, that sometimes create curious additions to any survivors’ list. If I were compiling this kind of list in 1799, I probably wouldn’t have included the name of Antonio Salieri, yet there he is on the charts today, for well-known reasons beyond his own making. In 1899 I wouldn’t have dreamed of including the symphonies of Joachim Raff, or the piano concertos of Anton Rubinstein, yet some current enthusiasts have exhumed these presumed-dead figures as well. I can’t guarantee that someone in the year 2050 won’t make a movie about, say, George Rochberg or Nikolai Lopatnikoff, and then I will be reviled as a lousy prophet for not including those less-than-defining figures on my list.
To make it look less listlike, I’ve broken the chronology into 25-year, 25-item segments. That works out to be not as arbitrary as it sounds; 1925’s Wozzeck and 1976’s Einstein on the Beach are major milestones, and 1950, plus or minus, works well as the nuptial year of music and technology. I’ve followed each segment with my own take on the music therein: not so much a history of music in the 20th century, but a memoir of my own evolving reactions in the century’s twilight years. I have, after all, been through a fair amount of it myself.
1. DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
2. SATIE: Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (1903)
3. DEBUSSY: La Mer (1905)
5. SCRIABIN: Poem of Ecstasy (1908)
6. STRAUSS: Elektra (1908)
7. MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (1910)
8. STRAVINSKY: Petrouchka (1911)
9. SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 (1911)
10. SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)
11. STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring (1913)
12. COWELL: Advertisement(for Piano) (1914)
13. IVES: Sonata No. 2 ("Concord") (1915)
14. FALLA: El Sombréro de Tres Picos (1919)
15. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2 ("London") (1920)
16. JANÁCEK: Katya Kabanova (1921)
17. VARÈSE: Amériques (1921)
18. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921)
19. HINDEMITH: Kammermusik No. 1 (1922)
20. MILHAUD: The Creation of the World (1923)
21. STRAVINSKY: Les Noces (1923)
22. SCHOENBERG: Suite for Piano (1923)
23. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue(1924)
24. COPLAND: Music for the Theater (1925)
25. BERG: Wozzeck (1925)
No time in recorded history could match the euphoria, the eager curiosity about the future, that gripped the Western world right around 1900. The previous two decades had given the world the telephone, the light bulb, the phonograph, the automobile and, in 1903, the airplane; these were not merely improvements on things already in existence (as the compact disc might seem an improvement on the 78-rpm shellac disc, or the Concorde on the DC-3); they added up to an explosive expansion beyond what had previously been assumed the limits of human possibility. All the arts seemed to draw new energy from the spirit of innovation in the land; in the decade and a half from 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War, the air crackled with the shock of the new.
Some of the newness may have been the logical consequence of the recent past; the whisperings and half-lights of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande clearly stemmed from the impulses that guided Claude Monet’s brush at his lily pond; Gustav Mahler’s last symphony and the first works of Arnold Schoenberg took the agonized harmonic frustrations of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde onto the concert stage. So did Richard Strauss in his blood-drenched Elektra, with more surface glitter and less inner substance. Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet scores were recognizably the work of Rimsky-Korsakov’s star pupil. Yet the spirit of the times seemed to drive the new creators hard and fast. The merely two-year gap between Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and his Rite of Spring yawns wider than the 20 between Beethoven’s "Eroica" and his Ninth. So do the two years between Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Pierrot Lunaire of his self-anointed apostle, Arnold Schoenberg.
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