SCHWARTZ'S GUIDE TO UNDERRATED MASTERPIECES
(Arnold - Byrd)
(Falla - Gurney)
(John CAGE - Edward ELGAR)
String Quartet. A very early piece and "music" music. No tossing bones
according to the I Ching. No prepared instruments of any kind. No tape
recorders. This is a sweet, pared-down, kind of home-made string quartet.
The closest you get to it is "the quartet
Satie never wrote."
Currently the critics' darling, you can't really call Carter popular.
Everything is obscure and everything is extremely well made. I'm
particularly fond of the early choral music, obviously influenced by
Stravinsky. The middle period
(when he became the Carter we now know or don't know) has gone into a
slight eclipse. Carter fans may not know the piano or the cello
sonatas. At this point, his writing for both instruments is virtuosic
and heroic. Not the easiest listening, but it certainly grabs me.
A name not well known, except to art-song groupies. To my mind, a great
song writer. His work splits in half: great songs to great texts and
great songs to cruddy texts, the latter by one Father Feeney. Why this
doggerel attracted Chanler again and again, I don't know. See if you
can find "9 Epitaphs" and "Rhymes from Peacock Pie." A truly
An American dilettante, who, so far as I know, published only one piece,
the song cycle "5 Songs from Chamber Music" to poems by Joyce. In many
ways, these prefigure Copland's
vocal writing of the '40s and '50s.
I'm sticking to the obscure. The orchestral work, with the exception of
"Connotations" and "Inscapes" is available over and over. I want to plug
the chamber music. "In the Beginning" may very well be the greatest
extended American work for a cappella chorus -- this, from a composer
who didn't particularly care for the sound of an unaccompanied choir. You'd
never know it. He sets the opening verses of Genesis which detail the
first seven days of creation. The passage on the creation of light
almost makes you see the dance of photons. The "Sextet" was an
arrangement of my favorite Copland symphony, the "Short Symphony." He
thought it too difficult for orchestras (it's duck soup now), so to save
the music, he scaled it down. There's not one superfluous note in this
piece. Everything tells.
Here's a composer who has gone into eclipse and is one of the most
original of all. To start, try Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3,
Symphony No. 4, and the cantata "... if He please" to words
by Jonathan Edwards. Sometimes dissonant, sometimes modal. Melodically
influenced by both Asian and Celtic music.
I can't call him a great composer, but I enjoy him. Try the Partita for
flute, violin, and strings, as well as the Symphony No. 2.
Very big on creating catchy cross-rhythms.
Beethoven's pupil. I don't know
much of his music, but what I've heard makes me think that he's probably
gotten a bum rap. Horowitz recorded the Variations on La Ricordanza
which take off from Beethoven and, to my ear, point to Schumann and
A friend of Stravinsky's. A
wonderful craftsman. At least two chamber masterpieces: Music for
Brass Instruments and Concerto a tre for clarinet, violin, and cello.
The Concerto is a miracle of part writing. He manages to convince you
that there are more than three instruments playing. Rhythmically and
melodically (in a neo-classical way) incredibly distinguished.
Canti di prigionia for chorus and chamber ensemble. Serial music for
those who hate serial music. He's no fanatic: he simply finds a way to
make the tone rows sound like bel canto arias. Very powerful.
- Johann Nepomuk David is a 20th-century German choral composer. If
you know Hugo Distler's work, you
have a fair idea of the general sound. David, however, is far more
adventurous. Try the Deutsche Messe.
Trois Chansons, to texts by Ronsard, for a cappella chorus.
Debussy's only work in this genre. Unbelievably beautiful. You want more.
Le Martyre de St-Sebastien -- incidental music for a overblown
pageant by D'Annunzio. The music is uneven, but at its best is ecstatic.
A major symphonist (Schoenberg
called him the "new Bruckner," although I can't imagine anyone less like
Bruckner), one of the great American song writers, a superb chamber
composer, in short, a master and almost unknown, despite the efforts of
Schwarz and Bernstein. American
'30s neo-classical idiom, but a lot grittier than what that term would
lead you to suspect. Pick up anything.
A 20th-century German choral composer. A friend of mine calls him
"Hindemith with tunes."
Although I disagree with the implication about Hindemith, Distler does
seem more approachable. Try imagining Schütz with Hindemithian
harmony. My favorites include the Moerike-Chorliederbuch, the
Weihnachtsgeschichte (based on "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming" -- "Es
ist ein Ros entsprungen"), and the motet "Singet frisch und wohlgemut"
(a set of variations on "Joseph lieber, Joseph mein"). I listen to
this stuff, and it transports me in a similar way to
Tallis Fantasia -- it's a handshake across centuries.
If you know Duruflé at all, you most likely know the Requiem.
I want to plug the exquisite Four Motets. Like the Requiem,
based on chant melodies, beautiful in the working out, but on an intimate
The orchestral music and the big choral pieces have mostly come into
their own. The chamber pieces are unique, however, and still mostly
unheard. Try the powerful Piano Quintet, the suave and ingratiating
String Quartet, and the heroic Concert Allegro for piano solo.
Write to author Steve Schwartz
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