At the midway point of the century, the most popular form of music, with the most potential, was jazz. But in terms of artistic merit, I’d wager that classical was still more capable.
Four of the 20th century’s most important composers all premiered noteworthy pieces in 1950. All came from different eras and schools of thought, proving that the sphere of classical music still held critical dominance.
Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 199
Artist: Sergei Prokofiev
Underrated, yet appropriately acknowledged at the same time, Prokofiev was one of the finest modernist composers. His Cello Sonata is one of his finest works. Haunting and beautiful, the cello and piano dance hand in hand, Russian mysticism and European classicism.
Listen to the Yo-Yo Ma version. The piece—especially the first movement—calls for a jazzy virtuoso, and the world’s premier contemporary cellist pulls out all the stops.
String Quartet in Four Parts
Artist: John Cage
An ebb and flow of single-note minimalism often produces a dreamy effect. Even though the notes are atonal of one another, there is no sense of unease because there is also no sense of progression. No development and no destination — this is music whose sole purpose is to quiet the mind.
Ironically, the best portion of the piece is the 90-second finale in which Cage delivers a baroque wake-up call. Following 20 minutes of avant-garde trance music, he surprisingly channels Johann Sebastian Bach for the conclusion. It is a move so uncharacteristic of Cage that it should, in fact, be expected of Cage.
It’s a funny way to end the piece, but I’m sure it was intended to be. I have always thought Cage had a great sense of humor. There’s even a postmodern joke in the title.
Four Last Songs
Artist: Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss, the last great Romantic composer, was 85-years-old when he completed his final work. It was premiered posthumously. Fittingly, it is known as his “Four Last Songs.” Even more fitting is the fact that they all revolve around death.
Scored for orchestra and solo soprano, these sorrowful songs encompass an entire life, with an emphasis on the end. In this context, very few works can compare. Try Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.
Piano Sonata, No. 2
Artist: Pierre Boulez
The most impressive thing about this composition is how difficult it is to play, which gives more praise to the performer. The composer, then, comes off as masturbatory.
Boulez was always controversial—even he didn’t understand his own music until far later in his career. This piano “composition” is an endless draught of mismatched notes. Has the same melodic non-principles as John Cage, but at least Cage knew how to be minimal instead of mathematical. In terms of theory, Piano Sonata is fantastic; in terms of listenability, this is ersatz Schoenberg.