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List ‘Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901-Present)

on February 02, 2011, 12:01am
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5. Gyorgy Ligeti

ligeti 260x260 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)

Ligeti’s music unfolds in washes of sound, like a great wave of ambient dissonance, but this is more than just Eno-esque soundscapes. Ligeti’s music is dynamic. It has a pulse even when you can’t pin down a beat. In pieces likeLontano and Lux Aeterna (the latter served as the mindfuck music in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), he experiments with closely packed together pitches, creating walls of dissonant polyphony where more than a dozen instruments or voices are all weaving their own contrapuntal lines around each other, slowly twisting and undulating. It is beautiful, and it is scary.

Ligeti is no one-trick pony, and much of his music is based on choppy melodic phrases, with lots of screeching noise and quiet, muted playing. Often times, the extremes of instruments are explored, especially the highest registers, where tone dissolves into ethylene sound. As I’m coming to realize, part of what has drawn me to all these composers is their ability to milk the sweet stuff despite their thorny exteriors. Ligeti is no exception; at times, he is an exceptional melodist, as in his Piano Etudes, or below, in his first string quartet (which ends with the fast screeching).

4. Steve Reich

reich 246x260 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)

This is the only “minimalist” composer to make my list. I adore John Adams’ music, yet I could do without Philip Glass and Morton Feldman. Terry Riley only has In C, and after that he just doesn’t cut it. And LaMonte Young is a little too noisy, a little too quirky, and sometimes too minimal to be on my top ten list. Reich is consistently fresh, inventive, and awesome. His music is more than just repeating patterns. Sure, there’s repetition, but it’s repetition of melodies in canon, variation, counterpoint. He adds to his melodies by creating an organically growing sound. His music is intensely percussive, reflecting his affinity for West African drumming, but it sounds so at home in his Western classical idiom. In his best works, it’s the interplay of percussive ostinati, repeating melodies that change a tiny bit with each appearance and shift in their uncomfortable meters, long swells of chords rising and falling in and out of the texture. Reich establishes a pulsating, driving rhythm, and then everything else is thrown into the fracas, holding on for dear life. More often than not, the result is breathtaking, as in his mindbending Music for 18 Musicians:

3. Aaron Copland

copland feature List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)Copland is a misunderstood composer. Most people know his outrageously popular works like Appalachian SpringRodeo, and Lincoln Portrait. And for good reason. They are wonderful pieces of music. They’re also easy to listen to, without much of the dissonance that many find difficult in 20th-century music. Copland sounds like a Robert Frost poem: He is cozy Americana wrapped in warm blankets of New England foliage, Amish barns, and majestic Rocky Mountains.

However, there’s another Copland, a Copland who is a modernist composer, writing in an idiom that was popular in the 1920’s when dissonance was seen as a potential route towards establishing an authentic American voice, or in an idiom popular in the 1950s, when Schoenberg’s serialism was the post-war future. This is the Copland that I fell in love with, the Copland who wrote some of the most powerful and expressive works of his career. Upon first hearing his Piano Variations, I knew Copland was more than just a potboiler composer capable of pulling American heartstrings. His command of a simple, dissonant theme, and the masterful variations that follow, are evidence of his compositional genius. If you haven’t heard this piece before, you would be hard-pressed to guess that it was composed by Copland.

2. Arnold Schoenberg

1223 260x183 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)I love this picture of Schoenberg because it’s one of the only ones I’ve ever seen where he is really smiling. I also love the sign above his head, reading “kein Ausgang”, or “No Exit”. Schoenberg must have felt that sense through much of his life and career. He is one of those composers whose presence on a concert program causes no-shows and early departures, even 100 years after his pieces were written. Part of that is his legend, from which he had no exit, no escape: the radical, harmony-destroying composer, the single-handed killer of the classical tradition. That’s pretty badass by itself. Some of his music is as inaccessible as his reputation suggests: his thorny and aggressive Third String Quartet, his Five Pieces for Orchestra, or the psychological one-act opera Erwartung. But Schoenberg also wrote a fair amount of music that belongs alongside the finest offerings from Mahler or Strauss, music that spoke the same late Romantic harmonic language before he turned towards a new idiom. The third movement of his first string quartet, dating from 1905, contains one of the most sublime melodies I know of (heard below at 4:00):

Still, he’s best known for his atonal works that lack any key, any harmonic home to which all other chords are relative–harmonic anarchy, to use a bad analogy. His legacy stems even more strongly from his invention of the twelve-tone method, the replacement for the traditional harmonic system that almost every composer of the 20th century used at one point or another. It’s what makes works like his infamous Pierrot Lunaire, full of wild dissonance as well as passionate melodies and strong formal groundings, that are his best, and put him at number two.

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