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20th Century Music in the 21st

Well, since I last wrote about Daniel Catan I've gone on another binge of listening to opera and classical music. Digging through past posts I see that my current trajectory through this area of music started as far back as 2007 when I fell in love with Sibelius' 7th Symphony and started looking for "more like that" with the help of various folks here, most prominently kalimac and ron_drummond (who had turned me on to the Sibelius piece to begin with). I picked up symphonies by Samuel Barber, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Vagn Holmboe, Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Alan Hovahness in that period.

What I didn't remember was that it was actually *after* that, in January 2008, that Ron gave me the recording of Catan's opera, Florencia en el Amazonas (and that he did so as a memorial to our friend Anita Rowland, who had just died of cancer). This was a momentous gift, because it ultimately led me to pick up a recording of Catan's first opera, Rappaccini's Daughter, and my love for these two operas led me to begin an investigation of 20th Century opera, including Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, Strauss' Salome, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and John Adams' Nixon in China.

Catan has continued to drive my interest in both early 20th Century music and contemporary music. It was listening to and watching his last opera, Il Postino (which I've written about on my blog), that got me to delve into modern opera again, this time including Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, Puccinni's La Boheme, and another one that I wrote about, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin, which premiered in 2000. (It was interesting to see that Saariaho's opera had popped up on the list Alex Ross compiled of great music composed between 1980 and 2007 that I posted about in October 2007 at more or less the beginning of this journey.)

Fascinated by Saariaho's debt to Debussy, who is a favorite of mine, I picked up a recording called Trios, which contains all her chamber music written for three instruments. Unfortunately I haven't been too thrilled with these pieces (too shrieky!), although I haven't given up on them yet. But I had also started to read about other contemporary composers and again pulled out the Rautavaara and Sallinen music I had. All these Finns! Another Finn, Esa-Pekka Salonen, kept popping up in my reading, both as a composer and as a conductor. Salonen has championed early 20th Century composers like Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Bartok. I really haven't listened to much Ravel, so now I've picked up a recording of Daphnis and Chloe, as well as two of Bartok's best known orchestral works (conducted by Salonen). I've picked up a disk of Salonen's compositions, and I've got my eye on a contemporary Swedish composer named Anders Hillborg as well.

It's endless, of course. My sense of classical music in the 20th Century is beginning to deepen. I'm not sure why it has taken me this long to get into it, other than the fact that a lot of what I've heard over the years hasn't particularly appealed to me. But really there are so many different streams of composition in the 20th Century that it's impossible to make generalizations. As I've been reading recently, I've been reminded, for example, of the connections between minimalism and the ambient music of Brian Eno that I've been happily listening to for the past thirty years. Electronic music has changed the game in so many ways -- it fluidly crosses, if it doesn't destroy, borders between art music and pop music -- and is itself a massively tangled scheme of threads.

But I guess what is fascinating me right now is early and late 20th century -- and early 21st century -- opera and orchestral music. Discovering Alex Ross' list again gives me more ideas of names to investigate. I like melodic, sensuous music more than stern, demanding (shrieking!) stuff, but here sits Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, at the top of my stack o' DVDs, ready to test my prejudices. (I had always assumed that I wouldn't like Bartok's opera, and I sure was wrong about that! What was I thinking?) My Netflix queue contains another opera by Britten (the most popular opera composer of the 20th Century after Puccinni) and one by Rautavaara from this millennium. I've finally discovered that -- duh -- DVDs are better than CDs for opera. The discoveries keep coming. And so onward.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 4th, 2013 06:54 pm (UTC)
1) I'm sure I told you at some point about the Philip Glass symphonies based on Eno/Bowie albums.

2) Talk to irontongue, if you know her, about Saariaho. She's a big fan.

3) Berg is the emotionally expressive end of the Berg-Schoenberg-Webern serialist continuum. Take that as you will. Try his Lyric Suite or Violin Concerto if you find the operas a bit harsh. And if you seek good serialist music from among the acres of dross churned out by later composers, the early work of George Rochberg (before he abandoned serialism) is a good place to start.
Feb. 4th, 2013 07:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I've heard the Low Symphony, but I still haven't heard the one based on "Heroes". I'd also like to try one of Glass' operas, but I haven't settled on one. It'll probably come down to what Netflix has on DVD. I was thinking last week I should try listening again to the music he composed for the Bela Lugosi Dracula, which is an alternate soundtrack on the DVD I have of the movie. I can't remember if I liked it or not!

Hadn't heard of Rochberg before.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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