Commentary Magazine

Masterpieces of the Century: A Critical Guide

A quarter-century ago, the history of 20th-century music looked quite different from the way it looks today. Many critics and scholars believed then that the universal acceptance of serialism—the nontonal method of harmonic organization invented by Arnold Schoenberg and disseminated throughout the Western world by his students and disciples—was inevitable. Others, like the composer-historian Eric Salzman, thought the future of classical music lay with even more “advanced” developments than serialism:

The old categories—serial, aleatory, closed form, open form, chance, and ultra-rationality—are no longer really relevant. For the younger composers, and many of the older ones, the barriers are down, the categories destroyed, the old battles over and done with. Any kind of statement is possible. All possible materials and all possible relationships between creator, creation, performer, and perceiver are possible (including none).

Both camps agreed, however, that whatever else was to come, the old tonal traditions had definitely run their course. Even though nearly all the major composers of the first half of the century had continued to believe that tonality was as crucial to musical meaning as grammar is crucial to the intelligibility of language, the living line of classical music was understood by critics to run instead from Wagner through Schoenberg to the nontonal modernists of the postwar era. All other stylistic tendencies—the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky, the folk-flavored nationalism of Béla Bartók, the neo-romanticism of Sergei Prokofiev—were dismissed as historical dead ends. With the deaths of Dmitri Shostakovich (in 1975) and Benjamin Britten (in 1976), supposedly the last giants of the breed, it was taken for granted that the long reign of tonality had come to a close.

By the 1980’s, however, it was becoming clear that the critics and scholars were wrong. For one thing, the listening public had remained all but unanimous in its rejection of nontonal music. For another, the success of new “minimalist” composers like Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich, whose harmonic language was triad-based and quasi-tonal, was having a galvanizing effect on their younger peers, impelling them to turn their backs on nontonal music and instead begin to adopt tonal techniques. While the tradition-based music of today’s new tonalists has yet to be generally accepted by the American musical establishment, it, too, has already begun to find favor with audiences and performers.1

If serialism and the avant-garde are now dead (as is apparent) and tonality is in the process of being revived (as seems likely), then it follows that the history of classical music in the 20th century must be rewritten accordingly. Nontonal composers long thought to have been indisputably major—Schoenberg, in particular—are now ripe for thoroughgoing revaluation, while less fashionable tonalists like Paul Hindemith and Francis Poulenc are looking more important today than at any time since their deaths. Also up for reassessment is the ultimate historical significance of once-influential composers who must now be judged in light of the continuing failure of their work to find a place in the standard repertoire. For in the long run the question of influence is of purely academic interest; what matters is whether a composer’s music strikes us as boring or interesting, forgettable or memorable, good or great.



The first step in rewriting the history of 20th-century music, then, is to ask: what were the works that will be listened to and loved so long as music itself continues to be made? In recent years there have been surprisingly few serious attempts to address this question. In part, no doubt, that is because the very act of canon-making is now regarded with derision by left-wing scholars. Yet the idea of a canon retains its firm grasp on the imagination; even in this egalitarian age of diversity-by-mandate, we still seem to believe in masterpieces. And so what follows is my own list of 50 classical masterpieces composed since 1900, together in each case with my recommendation of a recording or, occasionally, recordings.

In compiling this list, which I shall present in three installments over the next months, I applied the following criteria:

  • The works were not chosen because they are “representative” or “influential,” or in order to produce a “balance,” but solely for what I consider their intrinsic quality.
  • Each has received at least one first-class recording that is currently in print.
  • Each has had an ongoing performance life outside the country of its origin. (Masterpieces are by definition universal, not provincial.)
  • Although some of the works are popular, some less so, each has been heard more or less regularly since the date of its original premiere (or successful revival).
  • Despite the foregoing two rules, a few works have been included that I expect will be more widely played in the next century than they were in this.
  • Finally, there are no works by living composers. This is not because no major composers are active today, but simply in order to give posterity at least a preliminary chance to speak its piece.

I should stress that I have made no attempt to rank these 50 pieces in the order of their quality. Even though I believe some are better than others, at the very highest levels of excellence the concept of quality necessarily becomes slippery. There is no meaningful sense, for example, in which Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto can truly be said to be “better” than his Seventh Piano Sonata, any more than Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is “better” than the G-Minor Symphony.

I do believe, however, that some of the composers I have chosen are better than others, and that is why, although there are 50 works, there are only 29 composers. Specifically, the list features one composer with four pieces, four composers with three pieces, and ten composers with two pieces. This four-tier hierarchy strikes me as a more meaningful way of coming to grips with the problem of relative merit than by making a futile attempt to compare, say, Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.2

Every list is arbitrary. But while compiling this one, I did invite several similarly inclined composers and performers to submit their own preferences. As I compared our several efforts, it became clear that we shared a broad-based consensus of taste—often extending all the way down to the level of individual pieces. In a few cases, my own thinking was swayed by the unanimous views of colleagues; but the last word was mine.

In short, the following list contains a representative cross-section of what I believe to be the best classical music of the 20th century, and every work on it seems to me to be of permanent interest. This month’s installment, in chronological order, consists of the first 15 compositions, which take us from 1900 to roughly the end of World War I, a convenient resting point.



1. Claude Debussy
Pelléas et Mélisande

Though it has never been popular outside France, Pelléas is the first great modern opera, and still casts its fragile yet mysteriously potent spell on connoisseurs of French music. Furthermore, no single work defines more clearly the divergence between Austro-German and Franco-Russian musical tradition—the fork in the road of 20th-century music. At first glance, Pelléas may appear to be an impeccably Wagnerian symbolist music drama (right down to the use of leitmotifs as “calling cards” for the characters), yet its atmosphere is wholly French, and Debussy’s use of harmonies derived from the whole-tone scale points directly to the freer, more flexible tonal language of the Franco-Russian composers.

Herbert von Karajan’s exquisitely refined 1978 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, featuring the much-loved American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as Mélisande, combines Wagnerian sensuality with French finesse to uncanny effect (EMI CDCC 49350, three CD’s).



2. Maurice Ravel
String Quartet in F

Debussy and Ravel are invariably discussed in tandem as the twin avatars of musical impressionism, but they were in fact as dissimilar in temperament as Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Where Debussy is vaporously elusive, Ravel is direct and elegant, nowhere more so than in his only string quartet, a model of Apollonian balance (though the slashing finale gives the lie to the absurd notion that his music lacks inner fire). “In the name of the gods of music—and in my name, too—do not touch a note of your quartet,” Debussy is supposed to have said upon hearing that his colleague had doubts about the work. The anecdote may not be true, but it ought to be: Ravel never composed a more perfect piece.

The Quartetto Italiano’s stereo remake of the F-Major Quartet, as perfectly poised as the piece itself, is now available on a budget CD that also contains fine performances by the Beaux Arts Trio and the violinist Arthur Grumiaux of Ravel’s two other great pieces of chamber music, the A-Minor Piano Trio and the G-Major Violin Sonata (Philips 454 134-2).



3. Giacomo Puccini
Madama Butterfly

Puccini is one of the half-dozen major composers whose careers pivoted on the fulcrum of the new century. Though his sensibility was unambiguously romantic, he was fully aware of the harmonic innovations of Debussy and Ravel (as well as of the potent theatrical impact of naturalism). The finest of his operas to have been completed after 1900 was Madama Butterfly, a work whose well-deserved mass popularity should not be allowed to obscure its exceptional musical quality and dramatic effectiveness.

Many recordings of Madama Butterfly are first-rate, but the best—albeit by a narrow margin—is the one by Victoria de los Angeles, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, and the orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera House (Testament SBT 2168, two CD’s).



4, 5. Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde
Symphony No. 9

Unlike Puccini, Mahler had a genuinely modern sensibility (he even contrived to be psychoanalyzed by Freud himself). If his harmonic language rarely extended beyond the perimeter of Wagnerian precedent, his structural innovations and chamber-style orchestral palette foreshadowed much that would come after World War I. Yet Mahler’s music, at once obsessively introspective and grandiose in scale, is fully as romantic as that of Berlioz or Tchaikovsky, and his two final masterpieces, the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, are the swan songs of 19th-century romanticism, intensely nostalgic and deeply affecting.

The Vienna Philharmonic has always had an equivocal relationship with the music of the Jewish-born Mahler—hardly a surprise, given the orchestra’s long history of anti-Semitism—yet its performances of his symphonies have an idiomatic quality unrivaled by any other orchestra. Leonard Bernstein’s highly strung 1962 recording with the Philharmonic of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring James King and the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (singing the alto songs, an alternative sanctioned by the composer), is unforgettably passionate (London 452 301-2). Bruno Walter’s 1938 recording of the Ninth Symphony, made at a live performance just prior to Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, is less emotionally extreme but still compelling (Dutton Laboratories DUT 5005).



6. Richard Strauss
Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59

For die-hard reactionaries who still contend that traditional tonality has run its course, Strauss’s preeminent contribution to musical modernism is to be found in his opera Elektra (1908), in which he peered anxiously into the abyss of atonality. But audiences the world over continue to prefer Der Rosenkavalier, a warmly humane comedy of manners whose libretto, by the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a model of wit and intelligence. Strauss’ bittersweet, waltz-colored score may not exactly be Mozartean (though he thought it was), but it is irresistible all the same.

Der Rosenkavalier, like Madama Butterfly, is eminently “phonogenic,” and few recordings of the complete score are without their memorable moments. Still, most collectors prefer von Karajan’s 1956 version with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI CDCC 56242, three CD’s).



7. Claude Debussy
Preludes for Piano

The most successful of Debussy’s various attempts to create a sonic equivalent of Impressionist art are his preludes for piano, each of which bears an evocative title (though the titles, significantly, appear not at the beginning but at the end of each piece). Virtually every aspect of his contribution to 20th-century music can be heard in miniature in these pieces, and though their extreme originality has been obscured by decades of imitation, Debussy’s once-startling innovations remain central to the lexicon of modern piano technique.

The preludes—especially the lyrical ones—have never been played with more tonal refinement and technical control than by the Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (DGG 413 450-2 and 427 391-2).



8. Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63

In 1934, the English composer-critic Constant Lambert called Sibelius “the most important symphonic writer since Beethoven”; though few were prepared to go quite that far, he was then widely regarded as a great composer. But he fell from critical grace (though not public favor) after World War II, and only since the break-up of the serialist monopoly has he begun once again to be treated with appropriate respect. His despondent Fourth Symphony did remain in fashion during the long years of disrepute, mainly because of its bleakly polytonal harmonies, and it is certainly a modern masterpiece.

The best modern version of the Fourth Symphony is by von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 439 527-2).



9. Igor Stravinsky

Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes put the foremost composer of the 20th century on the map, first with The Firebird (1910) and then with Petrushka, the choreographer Michel Fokine’s fantastic tale of a melancholy, mischievous puppet who comes to life. The languorously romantic Firebird was recognizably the work of one who had been Rimsky-Korsakov’s star pupil, but the folksong-derived tunes, crackling bitonal harmonies, and brightly glittering orchestration of Petrushka were all Stravinsky’s own. They alerted European audiences to a cool, crisp wind that was blowing out of Russia, one that would sweep away the long-unquestioned dominance of German romanticism.

Not all of Stravinsky’s own recordings are worth hearing—he was a reasonably competent but unevenly inspired conductor—but his 1960 performance of Petrushka, made with an ensemble of Los Angeles studio players billed as the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, is one of the most effective of his later recordings, and leaves no doubt as to how he wanted the piece to sound (Sony MK 42433).



10. Arnold Schoenberg
Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21

Atonality makes sense only when intended to serve as a musical representation of nonsense—that is, psychosis or some other dire mental disturbance. In that case the ear registers it not as a separate musical language but as a deliberate distortion of the normal vocabulary of tonality. (“Like blasphemy,” Constant Lambert quipped, “it requires a background of belief for its full effect.”) That is why Pierrot lunaire, a cycle of 21 settings of poems by Albert Giraud, “works” in spite of the illogic of its harmonic syntax: Schoenberg’s splintered harmonies, weirdly delicate instrumental sonorities, and keening vocal line, half-spoken and half-sung, are the exact musical equivalent of Giraud’s surrealist texts.

Jan DeGaetani’s coolly committed version of Pierrot lunaire, accompanied by Arthur Weisberg and the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, is a superlatively musical rendering of a fiendishly difficult work (Elektra/Nonesuch 79237-2-ZK). Schoenberg’s own 1940 performance—his only commercial recording as a conductor—is a flawed but fascinating companion piece (Sony MPK 45695).



11. Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

Twentieth-century music may not start with The Rite of Spring, but no piece is more universally identified with musical modernism. Today’s ultra-virtuosic performances have made Stravinsky’s most famous ballet score more familiar (and less shocking), but they have done nothing to diminish the monolithic impact of its granite-hard harmonies and precisely calculated orchestration. Eighty-six years after its riotous Paris premiere, The Rite of Spring remains the colossus of modern music: you may not like it, but there is no getting around it, and no forgetting it.

The most effective of Stravinsky’s three commercial recordings is his 1940 performance with the New York Philharmonic, a no-nonsense interpretation in which the notoriously unruly orchestra was on its very best behavior—the proof being that seven of the eight original 78-rpm sides were first takes (Pearl GEMM CDS 9292, two CD’s). The best stereo recording is von Karajan’s ferocious 1977 remake with the Berlin Philharmonic (not its overrefined predecessor, which Stravinsky hated), coupled with a seraphically beautiful Apollo (DGG 415 979-2).



12. Claude Debussy
Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp

As Debussy grew older, his music became more spare and enigmatic, though he never lost his sensuous delight in the blending of instrumental timbres. The Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, one of a group of three related instrumental works completed shortly before his death, is perhaps the finest example of his subtle late style, transparently scored for a chamber ensemble of unorthodox makeup and breathtaking in its harmonic clarity and quiet lyricism.

All three of the late sonatas are included on an indispensable Philips CD, the Flute-Viola-Harp Sonata in a handsomely played performance by Roger Bourdin, Colette Lequien, and Annie Challan, the sonatas for violin and cello in equally accomplished versions by Arthur Grumiaux and Maurice Gendron (Philips 422 839-2).



13. Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 82

If Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (see under 1911) is a masterpiece, so is the unambiguously tonal Fifth. “God opens His door for an instant and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” the composer wrote to a friend shortly after he began sketching it out, and for all the seeming megalomania of these words, it is easy to see what he meant: the Fifth Symphony is one of the most unequivocally affirmative works to be written in this century by a major composer.

As with the Fourth, the best modern version of the Fifth is by von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 439 982-2). Perhaps even more eloquent is Serge Koussevitzky’s 1936 recording with the Boston Symphony, available on CD in adequate sound (Pearl GEMM CDS 9408, two CD’s).



14. Manuel de Falla
Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Comparatively little classical music of the first rank has come out of the Spanish-speaking world, but Manuel de Falla’s fastidiously worked compositions, though few in number, are nonetheless of the highest quality. In this piquant three-movement suite for piano and orchestra, unmistakably Spanish melodies and rhythms float gracefully atop impressionist harmonies and French-style instrumental textures.

Arthur Rubinstein, who did more to popularize this marvelous piece than any other pianist, recorded it three times, always with the utmost panache. The second of these performances, with Enrique Jorda and the San Francisco Symphony, has been digitally refurbished as part of RCA’s “Living Stereo” series (RCA 09026-68886-2).



15. Serge Prokofiev
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19

Contrary to the opinion of innovation-obsessed critics, the classicizing Prokofiev was one of the century’s four or five major composers. His youthful style can be heard at its most vivid in his First Violin Concerto, a work in which soaring lyricism and sardonic wit are juxtaposed to hugely stimulating effect. Completed just as Prokofiev was preparing to leave Russia for what would become an eighteen-year-long exile, this delectable showpiece contains no hint of the agony and disillusion that would follow in the wake of the twin horrors of World War I and the Russian Revolution, leaving an indelible mark on classical music between the wars.

The best modern recording of the First Violin Concerto is by Gil Shaham with André Previn and the London Symphony, coupled with an equally impressive performance of the Second Concerto in G Minor, Op. 63 (DGG 447 758-2). In addition, no Prokofiev lover should be without Joseph Szigeti’s astonishingly bold 1935 recording, fancifully accompanied by Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic (Pearl GEMM CD 9377).

To be continued



1 For a discussion of these composers, see my article, “The New Tonalists,” in the December 1997 COMMENTARY.

2 In trimming the list to a manageable size, I applied some weighting to the hierarchy, thereby reflecting my opinion of the relative importance of the 29 composers.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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