20th Century Music 101:
The Introduction


Like you, when the 20th Century ended(1) I knew there was one thing I had to do: make a list. I had seen a number of lists concerning “classical”(2) music and they all seemed to have an ax to grind. The lists are generally skewed toward one style or another, tilted geographically, or slanted towards certain genres or decades. Because of this skewing, none of the lists I saw captured the true richness and diversity of the century. In fact, they weren’t attempting to give that kind of picture.

The last half of the century was beset by intensive “style wars” wherein critics and composers wed to one style or another attempted to marginalize the supporters and practitioners of other styles — to silence them(3). One side in the style wars would argue that the compositions produced by the other side was “not music,” was “ugly,” contemptuous of the audience and otherwise reprehensible. The other side would accuse the first of producing compositions that were shallow, nostalgic, contemptuous of the audience and otherwise reprehensible.(4)

It is a widely held notion that concert music is in decline. Falling CD sales, failing orchestras, and an aging audience(5) are often cited as evidence of this decline. CD sales are down in general — and I’m not convinced CDs are the best way to distribute performances of concert music anyway(6) — orchestras are but one performance venue for concert music, and the population itself is aging. This is not to say that concert music isn’t in decline, but it is to point out that the situation is more complex than it may appear at first glance.

What concerns me as a composer, critic and fan of concert music is that there seems to be less intellectual space for the music in contemporary life. Concert music does not have the place in the lives of educated people that it had even 30 years ago. How has this occurred? Some critics of Modernism say that that music’s difficulty has driven audiences away, even from concerts without any modernist music on the program.

I’ve come to see that the biggest reason for the decline in the institution of concert music must be “style wars”-type criticism.
I have always been skeptical of this argument because of the relative paucity of modernism in concerts, especially in the United States. Composers, modernist or otherwise, have never been a central part of public musical life here.(7) They have largely remained behind the scenes, silent. Occasionally, immigrant composers, notably Igor Stravinsky, become celebrities in the United States, but those few exceptions only serve to highlight how our own composers remain unknown to the public at large.

I’ve come to see that the biggest reason for the decline in the institution of concert music must be style wars-type criticism. Style warriors actively seek to deny performances to the pieces they don’t approve of. The result is, of course, that roughly half of the reviews of every piece will likely ignore what the piece actually sounds like(8), what the composer may have had in mind when writing it, or anything else that might result in bringing an understanding of the composition to the public. Instead the piece will be shown to be a waste of time. And both sides will be victorious, because there will be fewer performances (and recordings) of the offending pieces. Also, CD sales will decline, orchestras fold, and the audience will get older.

When I started to make my list, I set out to name pieces that, taken as a group, would give a reasonably complete picture of the concert music of the 20th Century. I have taken care that the important genres are represented, as well as the prominent compositional and performance trends of the century. There is an arbitrary limit of three pieces by any one composer, and most of the composers listed could have different pieces on this list and more on a longer list. I’ve revised the list several times (at least twice during the writing of this Introduction). All of the important styles are represented, I think.

There are 101 pieces on this list, for no particular reason.

In future installments, I intend to discuss some of the pieces in detail, describing their sound and giving some of the context out of which they were written. My mission is this: I want to help open up the space for concert music and to create a presence for it in contemporary life, using the music of the century just past in all its diversity, difficulty, wonder and poetry.


101 Essential Pieces of 20th Century Concert Music

Adams, John  Naïve and Sentimental Music
Barber, Samuel  Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Barber, Samuel  Piano Sonata
Bartók, Béla  Concerto for Orchestra
Bartók, Béla  Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Bartók, Béla  String Quartet 3
Berg, Alban  Violin Concerto
Berg, Alban  Wozzeck
Berio, Luciano  Sinfonia
Bernstein, Leonard  Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Boulez, Pierre  Répons
Britten, Benjamin  Peter Grimes
Britten, Benjamin  War Requiem
Busoni, Ferrucio  Piano Concerto
Cage, John  4'33"
Cage, John  Sonatas and Interludes
Carter, Elliott  String Quartet 1
Carter, Elliott  Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Copland, Aaron  Billy the Kid
Copland, Aaron  Piano Variations
Copland, Aaron  Appalachian Spring
Corigliano, John  Violin Sonata
Crawford, Ruth  Quartet
Debussy, Claude  La Mer
Debussy, Claude  Preludes
Debussy, Claude  Sonata for flute, viola, and harp
Elgar, Edward  Cello Concerto
de Falla, Manuel  Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Feldman, Morton  Rothko Chapel
Gershwin, George  Porgy and Bess
Gershwin, George  Rhapsody in Blue
Glass, Philip  Einstein on the Beach
Granados, Ernesto  Goyescas
Gubaidulina, Sofia  Offertorium
Henze, Hans Werner  The Bassarids
Hindemith, Paul  Mathis der Maler
Hindemith, Paul  Symphonic Metamophoses on a Theme by Weber
Holst, Gustav  Planets
Honneger, Arthur  Pacific 231
Ives, Charles  The Unanswered Question
Janacek, Leos  Makropulos Case
Janacek, Leos  Quartet 2
Janacek, Leos  Sinfonietta
Korngold, Erich von  Violin Concerto
Ligeti, György  Etudes
Ligeti, György  Le Grand Macabre
Lutoslawski, Witold  Concerto for Orchestra
Mahler, Gustav  Das Lied von Der Erde
Mahler, Gustav  Symphony 6
Mahler, Gustav  Symphony 9
Martin, Frank  Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments
Martinu, Bohuslav  Symphony 2
Maw, Nicholas  Odyssey
Messiaen, Olivier  Quatour pour la fin du temps
Messiaen, Olivier  Turangalîla-Symphonie
Milhaud, Darius  La Création du Monde
Nielsen, Carl  Symphony 4
Pärt, Arvo  Tabula Rasa
Penderecki, Krzysztof  Threnody
Poulenc, Francois  Dialogues du Carmelites
Prokofiev, Sergei  Lt. Kije
Prokofiev, Sergei  Sonata 7
Prokofiev, Sergei  Violin Concerto 2
Puccini, Giacomo  Madama Butterfly
Puccini, Giacomo  Turandot
Rachmaninoff, Sergei  Etudes Tableaux
Rachmaninoff, Sergei  Piano Concerto 2
Rachmaninoff, Sergei  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Ravel, Maurice  Bolero
Ravel, Maurice  Piano Concerto in G
Reich, Steve  Come Out
Respighi, Ottorino  Pines of Rome
Riley, Terry  In C
Rodrigo, Joaquin  Concierto de Aranjuez
Satie, Erik  Gymnopédies
Satie, Erik  Parade
Schnittke, Alfred  Concerto Grosso 1
Schönberg, Arnold  Pierrot Lunaire
Schönberg, Arnold  Five Pieces, Op. 23
Scriabin, Alexander  Poeme d'Ecstases
Scriabin, Alexander  Sonata 9
Shostakovich, Dmitri  Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Shostakovich, Dmitri  String Quartet 8
Shostakovich, Dmitri  Symphony 5
Sibelius, Jean  Symphony 4
Sibelius, Jean  Violin Concerto
Stockhausen, Karlheinz  Gesang der Jünglinge
Strauss, Richard  Ariadne auf Naxos
Strauss, Richard  Four Last Songs
Stravinsky, Igor  Le Sacre du Printemps
Stravinsky, Igor  Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Stravinsky, Igor  Symphony of Psalms
Szymanowski, Karol  King Roger
Tavener, John  Thunder Entered Her
Tippett, Michael  King Priam
Varèse, Edgard  Ionisation
Vaughan Williams, Ralph  Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams, Ralph  London Symphony
Walton, William  Viola Concerto
Webern, Anton  Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
Weill, Kurt  Seven Deadly Sins
Xenakis, Iannis  Pithoprakta