Classical Check-Up – 1951

The thing about classical music is that even failures are notable. Pierre Boulez’s “Polyphonie X” is definitely not one of my favorites, though its mere existence proves that Western art music was still a viable force at the midway point of the 20th century. But a better way to determine that would be to listen to the highly underrated music of Elliott Carter and Henri Dutilleux.

Symphony No. 1

Artist: Henri Dutilleux

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A

Henri Dutilleux follows in a long line of French masters, a tradition passed down from Hector Berliosz to Claude Debussy to Olivier Messiaen. His music is influenced by the countrymen who came before, but contains just enough Russian mysticism to keep everyone on their toes.

This is an impressive symphony, taking us through a variety of moods and progressing in a completely logical manner. When it is over, there is a sense of fulfillment. Despite the atonal unease, the subtle nods to jazz keep things bouncy, which comes across as fun.

String Quartet No. 1 

Artist: Elliott Carter

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A-

Early Elliott Carter is beautifully haunting, though it is not hauntingly beautiful. There are moments in this first string quartet that reach Alban Berg levels of greatness, particularly in the opening (“Fantasia. Maestoso”) and “Adagio” (Section II.b) movements. As is often the case with Carter, rules of baroque counterpoint are thrown out the window, and even serialism is subverted on its own head. A breakthrough composition for one of America’s most underrated modernist composers, though it does run a little long.

Six Metamorphoses After Ovid

Artist: Benjamin Britten

Genre: Neoclassical

Grade: B+

Six fluttering songs for solo oboe, a real British treat. Composer Benjamin Britten was a master of English melody, and nowhere is this more evident here than the second metamorphosis, “Phaeton (vivace ritmico).” All being said, the oboe is probably as underrated an instrument as Britten is a composer.

The Rake’s Progress

Artist: Igor Stravinsky

Genre: Opera, Neoclassical

Grade: B

You know how I generally feel about operas and neoclassical and English. Funny thing is, I feel the complete opposite way about Stravinsky. Usually. Hmm.

Polyphonie X

Artist: Pierre Boulez

Genre: Serialism

Grade: C+

Boulez’s Polyphonie X is twelve-tone gobbledygook, a mishmash of noises and squawks. It is mathematical to the point of making no sense, and its logistics exist purely in dividends. The composition for 18 solo instruments has no sense of direction, and all the “theorizing” completely overshadows any sense of “musicality”—indeterminate or otherwise, this is hi-falutin shit.

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