Want something you can sink your cerebral teeth into? Something that challenges you to like it? Well, most of those are going to be far more modern works; you’ll notice most everything here is pretty recent, but it’s not here because it’s cacophonous or terrible. There’s (in most cases very) strong merit to each of these pieces, but it took me personally quite some time to warm up to them and begin to see them from a different angle. Once you do, though, they’re just stunning.
And I’d like to point out that at least in my experience, the stuff I tried hardest to like, really didn’t understand and had to work to ‘come around to’, did end up being some of the music I have come to enjoy the most. So go for it; challenge yourself. And I’ll say that learning about the piece (especially if it’s a serial work) does wonders for appreciating what it’s about.
- Anton Webern’s Symphony, op. 21– this piece could come under a number of categories. It’s a symphony that’s only 11 minutes long, so it could have been part of Short and Sweet, but many wouldn’t think it’s the latter. It could also be Epic, but all its epic-ness is compressed down to a black-hole-type critical mass where every single note matters in myriad ways, the most economical approach, a fascinating presentation of the symphonic tradition. (Serial)
- Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, op. 42– a piece I kept coming back to over and over again, unable to continue listening, but hacking away bit by bit at it until somehow it just made sense, and to this day strikes me as one of the most beautiful things ever written. (Serial)
- Milton Babbitt’s second string quartet– the piece that turned on a lightbulb that drew me to much of his other work, and a piece with a much more accessible structure and serialist ideas than some of his other work. (Serial)
- Boulez’s piano sonata no. 1– the first of his infamous trilogy of piano sonatas, and the shortest of the three by a long shot, this one could also have gone in the Short and Sweet category, but again, most wouldn’t hear it as the latter. It’s a stunning work, one in which order and logic appear from apparent chaos. (Serial)
- Boulez’s piano sonata no. 2- The bigger brother of the first sonata, this one attacks the traditional sonata head on, in structure, content, scope… it’s a beast, but an incredibly fascinating work once you get to know it. (Serial)
- Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître- The hammer without a master… based on some interesting French poetry, featuring an alto voice among a collection of alto-pitched instruments, all sitting in the mid-range of the piano, some bowed, some struck, some without pitch, a piece that presents three interweaving song narratives in a vivid, shimmering, intensely colorful work. (Serial)
- Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit– one of the most important works to be added to the string quartet literature in the past century, Dutilleux’s particular palette of sounds is at once rich and soft, but also crisp and strong and vivid, a sumptuous, delicate work from the latter half of the 20th century.
- Brian Ferneyhough’s String Quartet no. 2- It’s a tough one, but Ferneyhough is considered by at least one person to be “one of the most important composers to emerge from the latter half of this century,” and this is one of his shorter works. Have a listen to something from the founding father of the ‘New Complexity.’
- Alfred Schnittke’s concerto for piano and strings– the most modern thing on the list, classical music from the 1980s. It’s like walking through suspended shards of glass, reflecting both backwards and forwards, contrasting the beautifully sonorous and cacophonously dissonant, a powerful, dark work pretty indicative of the composer’s style.
Yeah, I know, maybe this is old hat for some of you, but for most of who I perceive my audience to be, this isn’t likely often on the musical menu; it’s not part of a diatonic diet. But it’s really wonderful music.
I’ll admit that other, quite famous pieces have graced the pages of this site before, and they might be equally if not more demanding for a new listener, but I can’t say with as much confidence that I am as passionate about them; I don’t enjoy them as much. There are Gruppen and Il Canto Sospeso as examples, with the last quite frightening considering its subject matter. In any case, break into something a little different and see if it doesn’t at least strike your curiosity.