1954 saw the premieres of several towering compositions by the four most underrated classical composers of the entire 20th century. Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Witold Lutoslawski and Edgard Varèse aren’t usually mentioned alongside the likes of Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Schoenberg, though they rightfully should. These four 1954 works provide proof.
The Turn of the Screw
Artist: Benjamin Britten
I’ve always had misgivings when it comes to English-speaking operas, and I usually detest when prominent roles are doled out to children. So, naturally, I was pretty apprehensive of The Turn of the Screw. But my doubts were quickly assuaged and the verdict was clear: The Turn of the Screw finds composer Benjamin Britten at the peak of his powers. This is an opera succeeding on all fronts — musically, vocally, lyrically and thematically.
Britten’s music has roots in baroque folksong, yet always contains an ominous sense of dissonance — a British Bartok, if you will. The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera, is scored for a relatively small ensemble, and though the vocal performances seem to take precedent, the music is never an afterthought. The variations of the twelve-note “Screw” theme are permeated by ambiguity; harp, horn and violin alternating mystery and revelry.
There are plenty of memorable scenes — Miles’ haunting song to close out Act 1 (“You said/I am bad/I am bad/Aren’t I?”), the opening instrumental of Act 2 (“Variations VIII”) and the eerie Latin trance that is reprised in the final act — yet this is an opera that works best when considered as a whole. As caught up as I am with the music, I am even more transfixed by the storyline, an enthralling adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 Gothic horror classic. Containing all sorts of psychosexual subtext, Turn is perhaps Britten’s most daring and most autobiographical work, a mysterious ghost story that haunts you long after the final notes.
Artist: Edgard Varèse
Genre: Experimental Classical
Déserts is quite possibly Varèse’s greatest work, the middle ground between his early post-Stravinsky period (Amériques, 1927) and his final electronic diaspora in 1958 (Poème Électronique). Though he composed relatively little, his influence is immeasurable. Here he alternates Kontra-Punkte orchestral serialism with industrial electronic noise, the result of which creates a disconcerting and often harrowing effect. In fact, Stockhausen can’t even compare.
Tuba Concerto in F minor
Artist: Ralph Vaughan Williams
A Lark-Ascending-for-tuba wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s what Vaughan Williams basically gives us. Damn near. As his career winds to a close, he was cementing his reputation as one of the greatest of all British composers. This unlikely concerto is proof.
Concerto for Orchestra
Artist: Witold Lutoslawski
Genre: Modern Classical
One of the most technically accomplished orchestral works of the decade, Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra is a dazzling display of virtuosity and compositional skill. An aggressive, foreboding opus that is introduced by a threatening ostinato drumbeat, the Concerto for Orchestra takes traditional Polish folk melodies and subverts them into a modernist fantasia. While I tend to prefer Lutoslawski’s later work (in which he goes completely avant-garde), Concerto for Orchestra still ranks as one of the most dynamic and invigorating in his repertoire.