At the midway point of the century, the form of music with the most artistic potential was jazz. But in terms of artistic merit, I’d wager that classical music was still more capable.
The 1950s are a somewhat obscure and murky decade when it comes to Western art music. There isn’t really a dominant style, and there isn’t a singular prepotent composer to define the era. Instead, the period is represented by a diverse miscellanea of genres and composers. Just take a look at how the decade started off for proof.
In 1950, a wide range of classical titans premiered noteworthy works. Among them were German late-Romanticist legend Richard Strauss (born 1864), modernist Russian genius Sergei Prokofiev (born 1891), contemporary American avant-vanguard John Cage (born 1912), and French bullshit artist Pierre Boulez (born 1925). Together, they proved that classical music was still a dominant force for the 350th straight year.
1949 | 1950 | 1951
Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 199
Artist: Sergei Prokofiev
Underrated, yet appropriately acknowledged at the same time, Prokofiev was one of the greatest Soviet composers of all time. His Cello Sonata, which premiered only three years before his death, is one of his most beautiful works. It’s also strangely haunting at times, taking significant influence from Russian mysticism.
I recommend the 1988 recording featuring Yo-Yo Ma. The sonata, especially the first movement, calls for a jazzy virtuoso, and Ma is nothing short of the world’s greatest cellist.
String Quartet in Four Parts
Artist: John Cage
John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts is an ebb and flow of single-note minimalism that produces a dreamy effect. Even though the notes are atonal to one another, there is no sense of unease. The music is calm because there is 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 baroque finale in which Cage delivers an unexpected wake-up call. Following 20 minutes of avant-garde trance music, he surprisingly channels Johann Sebastian Bach for the conclusion. It’s a funny way to end the piece, but I’m sure it was intended as such. Cage was smart enough to never take himself too seriously.
Four Last Songs
Artist: Richard Strauss
Genre: Late Romanticism
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, this sequence of sorrowful songs encompasses an entire life’s work. But Strauss doesn’t face death with a sense of fear or tragedy; instead, the music is imbued with a peaceful sense of calm, acceptance and serenity.
Piano Sonata, No. 2
Artist: Pierre Boulez
The most impressive thing about this experimental composition is how difficult it is to play. Therefore, if anything, my praise goes to the performer. The composer, on the other hand, comes off as masturbatory.
This piano “composition” is an endless draught of mismatched notes. Even though Pierre Boulez has the same melodic non-principles as John Cage, at least Cage knew how to be minimal instead of mathematical. In terms of theory, Piano Sonata No. 2 is fantastic; in terms of listenability, this is ersatz Schoenberg.