2011-01-16 10:14:11 UTC
Bartok is the one. Shostakovich the two. Why is Schoenberg mentioned only
in passing? Good for Tommasini!
Top 10 Composers: Which 20th-Century Masters Will Make the Cut?
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Over the next two weeks Anthony Tommasini is exploring the qualities
that make a classical composer great, maybe even the best of all
time. Watch videos and vote for your own top 10 here and read
previous posts here and share your thoughts in the comments field.
Mr. Tommasini's final list will be posted on Jan. 21.
The 19th century will pose the toughest calls in our whimsical
attempt to identify the top 10 classical composers of all time.
Think of Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. And
what about Verdi and Wagner? So let me deal with the 20th century
first, see how many slots might still be left, and work backward.
Though Debussy was born in 1862 and died in 1918, this path-breaker
has to be considered a 20th-century giant. After some 300 years of
pulsating Germanic music, for Debussy to come along and write such
hauntingly restrained, ethereal, time-stands-still works was a shock
to the system. His thick yet transparent block chords; his harmonies
tinged with ancient modal elements; his preference for whole-tone
scales that loosened music's moorings to traditional tonality; his
mastery of delicate orchestral colorings and new ways of writing for
the piano: all this and more made him the father of modern music.
Composers from Stravinsky to Boulez would have been impossible
without Debussy's example.
For the subject of his only complete opera he chose Maeterlinck's
"Pelléas et Mélisande," a groundbreaking work of Symbolist theater
from 1893. Debussy's Impressionist music, full of veiled harmonies,
blurry textures and emotional ambiguity, hauntingly taps the
subliminal stirrings of this mysterious story of a sullen royal
family in a timeless, placeless kingdom. In the Metropolitan Opera's
recent production Simon Rattle, in his Met debut, conducted a
stunning account of this unorthodox opera, first performed in 1902.
What other 20th-century work continues to sound as radical?
Stravinsky, by the way, though I am still formulating this list,
will surely make the cut. One fascinating element of his achievement
is that among a very select roster of great composers in history,
Stravinsky is the only one to have made his reputation by writing
ballet scores, with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky.
Everyone acknowledges the impact of Stravinsky's Paris ballets,
especially that all-time stunner "The Rite of Spring" from 1913. His
later work with the choreographer George Balanchine was one of the
most important collaborations in the history of the arts. Stravinsky
was inspired to write astonishing scores for Balanchine, like
"Orpheus" and "Apollo." But Balanchine found Stravinsky's music so
choreographic that he seized even on pieces like the Violin Concerto
and the late, 12-tone Movements for Piano and Orchestra and
conscripted them for duty in ballet.
Stravinsky's works during his lengthy period of Neo-Classicism are
still underappreciated. I love that these pieces are, essentially,
music about other music. "The Rake's Progress" is an ingenious,
amusing and profound opera on its own terms. It is also Stravinsky's
savvy, admiring musical commentary on Mozart opera. When he finally
started writing 12-tone works (adapting the technique to his own
ends), even those scores were Neo-Classical in a sense. The 12-tone
thing had been around for a while, and the movement was losing
steam. So Stravinsky's 12-tone pieces were like commentaries on the
Theorists and composers are still trying to figure out exactly how
the elusive harmonic language in Stravinsky's Neo-Classical scores
(like the Symphony in Three Movements and the overlooked Piano
Sonata) actually works. His pieces do not give up their secrets
easily. The "Symphony of Psalms" for chorus and unconventional
orchestra (with no violins and violas but two pianos) is the most
gravely beautiful and profound sacred work of the 20th century.
Leonard Bernstein once said that the opening chords of the third
movement alone, in which the chorus sings a bittersweet, almost
resigned setting of the word "Alleluia," would have ensured
Stravinsky's place in history. That was Bernstein in his exuberant
mode, but he had a point.
What's more, including the Russian-born Stravinsky in my list brings
some geographical diversity to the Top 10.
The composer I yearn to include is Benjamin Britten. In many ways,
Britten is thriving. At least a half-dozen of his operas have become
staples, and his symphonic and chamber works turn up all the time on
programs. If there are finer 20th-century works for voice and
orchestra than "Les Illuminations" and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn
and Strings. I don't know what they are. Still, I am probably in a
minority in rating him quite this high. I predict that his stock
will rise steadily over the next 50 years. Still, Top 10? Am I going
to push out Haydn for Britten?
Among other 20th-century giants, however, I am leaning toward making
a place for Bartok. It's not just that Bartok was a visionary
composer with an arresting and original voice. He could write works
in a popular vein, like the Concerto for Orchestra, that are still
rich with subtle complexities and ingenious strokes and his
characteristic propulsive rhythms. Yet he also wrote
uncompromisingly modern and experimental pieces, like the six string
quartets, pieces he assumed would never catch on with the public. He
would be amazed that today his quartets are as essential to the
repertory as Beethoven's.
Bartok's other pivotal contribution came from his field research
into folk music and indigenous musical traditions of Eastern Europe.
He was an early ethnomusicologist. The music he encountered
fundamentally altered his perceptions as a composer. Sometimes he
more or less transcribed the folk music into suitable pieces for the
concert hall. But in subtler ways he folded unconventional elements
of the indigenous songs, dances and dirges into his own mature
style. Even when he is not explicitly borrowing some folk tune,
Bartok's music is run through with the earthy strangeness of Eastern
European folk music. His example inspired countless composers, from
Lou Harrison to Osvaldo Golijov, to explore folk music and classical
traditions from Asia, South America or wherever their backgrounds
and interests took them.
Also--and maybe this is where my own concerns come into play--
Bartok's role in forging new pathways for music in the early decades
of the 20th century was pivotal. Schoenberg's analysis that the
system of tonality was in crisis was spot on. Yet the solution he
proposed, 12-tone music, while an audacious and exhilarating leap,
appeared as inevitable--that is, the next step in the evolution--
only to Schoenberg and his acolytes.
Bartok showed another way. His arresting harmonic language was an
amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales, atonal wanderings and more.
Theorists still haven't broken down Bartok's language. But
concertgoers, who don't have such concerns, continue to be swept
away by the originality and mystery of his music. A work like the
Third String Quartet seems as stunningly modern today as it was in
1927. Yet it is a mainstay of the string quartet repertory.
So whom are we missing? Any votes for Shostakovich? Prokofiev?