Listening List: A beginner’s introduction to early 20th century music

by Tom Ingram

So you know a bit classical music. You go to the symphony now and then, and you like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms—all the big names of the 125ish-year period that most orchestras focus on. But you’ve tried to listen to some newer music, and just couldn’t get into it.

(If this doesn’t sound like you, go away. This post isn’t for you.)

When someone mentions “twentieth century music”, the image that pops into your head is probably of John Cage playing the piano with a hammer, or dancers for some avant-garde ballet company screaming and karate chopping each other. In other words, weird bullshit. Or maybe you think of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and their twelve-tone (“atonal”) style. Music that is meant to be read, not heard.

So you’ve been understandably reluctant to listen to anything new. You’re not alone. Many people are in the same position, and while most musicians and composers would sneer at them for not understanding anything they didn’t hear on Bugs Bunny, it’s not their fault. We’ve developed a poisonous musical culture over the last century that is deeply impractical and often hostile to audiences, so we should hardly be surprised when audiences don’t respond well to it.

But there’s more to the music of the twentieth century than silly pageantry, unpleasant noises, and experimentation at the expense of coherence. It’s a rich and extremely varied musical tradition. The breakdown of rules once thought to be inviolable has meant anarchy in some circles, but in others it just opened up new possibilities. There’s a lot of twentieth-century music in the “classical” tradition that people would appreciate. It’s not talked about as much because there’s simply more you can say about the latest concerto grosso for slide-whistle, theorbo, and tenor muskmelon.

So here is a list, in no particular order and with no serious scholarship behind it, of early twentieth century works that would speak to a general audience. I’ve focused on transitional figures and pure twentieth century composers, not holdovers from the nineteenth century like Rachmaninov and Sibelius, who belong to a different tradition. Some of the mentioned works were written in the 1890s, but they are still part of the “twentieth century” movement.

These are pieces that your dad could enjoy. And who knows: after broadening your horizons with some of this stuff, you might just hear that concerto grosso with fresh ears. Maybe you’ll see where the composer was coming from.

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg is sometimes thought of as the man who ruined music. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he thought that tonality (the system of pitch organization that has been dominant since it was solidified some time in the 16th century—think “do re mi”) was played out and sought new ways of organizing pitches. His revolution is still somewhat controversial. It’s not difficult to find musicians and scholars who think the whole enterprise was a mistake, though most have accepted it by now.

My own view on the subject is that Schoenberg’s ideas are interesting, and I can see why he wrote music the way he did, but that the desire to revolutionize tonality is oppressive to composers and harmful to music. In other words, Schoenberg’s music, and the music that followed in his footsteps, all sounds pretty much the same. It’s a body of works defined entirely by what it’s not, so there’s not much to what it is. It’s an extremely limited musical vocabulary that seems unable to express anything more than a kind of dark, cold beauty with an ominous undertone.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is probably the most listenable thing to come out of the Second Viennese school. It was written before Schoenberg’s revolution, and although it takes tonality about as far as it will go, it’s quite accessible to the average listener. If you’re going to explore twentieth century music, you should probably listen with an open ear to at least one of his “atonal” works, but by no means feel obligated to continue. It’s not for everyone.

Charles Ives

Ives reminds me of Bach. Both were church organists who laboured away quietly during heir lifetimes, then were hailed as geniuses after they died. His works present an interesting problem for scholars because he would often go back and revise them, so establishing a definitive text is difficult.

Ives anticipated just about every musical development that happened during his life, and he did it while running a successful insurance company by day. He had a deeply philosophical approach to music and life, and viewed his composing and his business as essentially two aspects of the same thing. He created some of the most lively music of the century—weird and experimental, but with a heart, an ear, and a sense of humour.

His variations on “America” for organ (or the orchestration by William Schuman) is the best evidence of this (though it was written in 1892). It combines strange harmonies, a wide variety of styles, and massive amounts of technique—the fast notes at the end are played entirely with the feet. “The Unanswered Question” is one of his most famous works, and possibly the most accessible piece of atonal music ever written.

Bohuslav Martinu

Martinu’s music is not often played outside the Czech Republic. He’s sometimes criticized for rehashing ideas in his symphonies. But his bright, strongly rhythmic style strikes me as wonderfully fresh, certainly more so than stuffy Austrians Webern and Berg, composers who are much better known and respected.

I’m still working my way through Martinu’s music, so I have a limited perspective, but I highly recommend his fourth symphony. The clarinet sonatina is a very nice short piece that exemplifies his style. The Epic of Gilgamesh has its moments, but like any long-form vocal work it can be heavy going if you don’t know the language (Czech).

  • Bohuslav Martinu – Symphony no. 4, H. 305, 2nd movement – Alan Gilbert, Berliner Philharmoniker
  • Bohuslav Martinu – Clarinet Sonatina, H. 365 – Radek Zitny, clarinet
    1. Moderato
    2. Andante
    3. Poco allegro

    Not a great recording, but there aren’t any really good ones of this piece available on Youtube. If you want to go looking for it, Julian Bliss recorded this on a CD with some other very good pieces.

  • Bohuslav Martinu – The Epic of Gilgamesh, H. 351, final chorus of part 1 – Jiri Belohlavek, Prague Symphony Orchestra/Czech Philharmonic Chorus

Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

NB: If you try talking about Ralph Vaughan Williams in knowledgeable company, avoid embarrassment by knowing these two things: (1) like many British people, he did not pronounce the L in Ralph (Ralph Fiennes doesn’t, either), and (2) his surname is “Vaughan Williams”, not “Williams”.

I group these two together because they have a lot in common. They were both British composers of the early twentieth century who collected folk songs and incorporated them into their music. They were the first major composers to take the modern wind ensemble seriously. They showed that you could write for large groups of winds and keep a light texture and wide dynamic range. Their music contains some interesting experiments, but by rooting it in folk music they have practically guaranteed listenability.

You probably know Holst from The Planets, or at least the Mars and Jupiter movements. If you were ever in a band, you were probably exposed to one of his two suites at some point, and possibly the Hammersmith prelude and scherzo.

Vaughan Williams is best known for his London symphony and the Folk Song Suite for concert band. You may also enjoy his two orchestral fantasias, one on “Greensleeves” and the other on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The solo violin piece “The Lark Ascending” is quite nice, and he’s written a concerto for tuba, of all things, that will surprise you.

Edward Elgar

You probably know Sir Edward Elgar as the composer of the Pomp and Circumstance marches that are a staple of graduation ceremonies. This might give you an inaccurate picture of him as the quintessential dull Briton. But Elgar was progressive. As a conductor, he pioneered audio recording. He was one of the first people to make commercial recordings, some of which are still available today. It’s always great to hear a composer performing their own works.

Unlike his contemporaries Holst and Vaughan Williams, Elgar did not like folk music. His style is not especially “British”, but something entirely his own. His violin concerto is a lyrical and stunning 50-minute epic.

  • Sir Edward Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor, op. 61, 1st movement – Albert Sammons, violin, Sir Henry Wood conducting the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra

Darius Milhaud

I actually had never heard of Milhaud until I performed his Suite Francaise, op. 248, a piece for wind ensemble. I recall thinking that it was some of the most interesting music I’d ever heard. Milhaud was the chief exponent of polytonality, music in more than one key at once. There is a dispute among music theorists as to whether such a thing is actually possible, but the unusual flavour of harmony is distinctive whether or not the “polytonal” label is scientifically accurate.

Milhaud was a French Jew who fled the country in 1939. In America he composed the French folk song suite to show the culture of France to a country whose sons were fighting and dying there. Milhaud denounced Germany in quite strong terms in the preface to the Suite Francaise.

The most powerful part of it is the fourth movement, an unusual funeral march that ends on a note of triumphant hope, leading into the lively celebration of the fifth movement. In this sutie, his first work for wind ensemble, Milhaud showed an instinctive grasp of what was possible in this new medium.

He was an extremely prolific composer whose opus numbers reach into the four hundreds and span across all genres. I quite like his second symphony. He was also an influential teacher, who instructed many of the big names in music of the late twentieth century. Fans of popular music may know him as the teacher of one Burt Bacharach.

Samuel Barber

Barber benefitted from the explorations of composers before him. They left him with an enriched vocabulary to apply to the lyrical, dramatic style that characterized the late nineteenth century but was in disfavour by his time. He wrote in an idiom that was clearly fresh and new, but much more varied than his predecessors. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his work.

You have almost certainly heard his Adagio for Strings, whether or not you know it. It’s been heard in a long list of films, most notably Platoon. Later in his life, Barber arranged the piece for 8-part chorus as a setting of the Agnus Dei from the Catholic mass. Both are deeply moving works well worth a listen. His violin concerto is beautiful and passionate, as well as a reliable crowd-pleaser, but his piano concerto (responsible for one of the Pulitzers) is more musically adventurous.