Classical Check-Up: 1958

1958 featured several underrated landmarks of modern classical music — Karlheinz Stockhausen premiered his orchestral masterpiece, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his final symphony, and Bernard Herrmann constructed the greatest film score of all time. From German serialism to Hollywood surrealism, the Western classical tradition was still going strong.

1957     | 1958     |     1959

Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Composer: Bernard Herrmann

Genre: Film Score

Grade: A

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in a dual role, Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo is the most spellbinding movie ever created. But the importance of Bernard Herrmann’s surreal score cannot be overstated. Is it coincidence that the greatest film of all time also has the greatest soundtrack?

Standouts include the dizzying “Prelude,” the tranquil “By the Fireside” and the magnificently heartbreaking “Scene d’Amour.” Nevertheless, the Vertigo soundtrack as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The 16 tracks are seamless, combining to form a finished product that is a significant work of art in itself.

No other film score has ever been quite as effective as Vertigo. Take the famous “transformation” scene, for instance Throughout the film, Herrmann’s score is full of spiraling descents and dizzying false starts. The aforementioned “Scene d’Amour” is the only moment that fully resolves the film’s psychosexual tension. It’s the greatest scene in cinematic history, and it derives all its power from the music. Herrmann has achieved something extraordinary here: film score as symphony.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor

Artist: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Genre: Romanticism

Grade: A

Legendary British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was 85 years old when his Ninth Symphony premiered. He died a few months later. It’s easy to get caught up in mythmaking when discussing Vaughan Williams’ final work. Because of the fates that befell Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler, it’s hard not to associate the Ninth Symphony with death.

Then again, Vaughan Williams’ work is so full of life! Sometimes slow and brooding, sometimes strange and ruminative, sometimes energetic and expressive, the Ninth is unlike anything the composer had ever attempted. Never before had Vaughan Williams been so bold and ambitious.

Musically, emotionally and literally, this is Ralph Vaughan William’s most mature work, signifying the end of an era. The lark ascended.

Gruppen for Three Orchestras

Artist: Karlheinz Stockhausen

Genre: Serialism

Grade: A

Originally scored for a group of 109 players divided into three subsections, my best advice for listening to this spatial masterpiece is PLAY LOUD. It’s the only way to truly comprehend how dense and sonorous Stockhausen’s greatest orchestral achievement truly is. Not often is serialism this exciting. Or this massive.

String Quartet No. 1 – “Métamorphoses Nocturnes”

Artist: Györgi Ligeti

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A-

Despite its harsh dissonance and stark atonality, Györgi Ligeti’s first string quartet is one of the composer’s most lively and energetic works. Originally written in 1953, two years before Ligeti had fled his native Hungary for Vienna, this early piece is stylistically similar to the string quartets of Bela Bartok. What’s amazing is the fact that performances of Bartok’s music were banned in Hungary — Ligeti took influence just by reading the sheet music.

The 20-minute piece is divided into 12 short sections, each one providing a fractal take on Transylvanian folk music. While it doesn’t carry the sheer density of Ligeti’s later works, String Quartet No. 1 is still a very interesting ride — avant-garde classical music with an actual sense of rhythm.

Piano Trio No. 2

Artist: Violet Archer

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A-

Violet Archer, an obscure Canadian pianist from Montreal, crafted a truly mesmerizing work with Piano Trio No. 2. Her biggest influence is clearly Bela Bartok, but her simplistic and foreboding style remains entirely her own. Well worth a listen.

Poéme électronique

Artist: Edgard Varesè

Genre: Electronic

Grade: B-

I’m a big fan of the avant-garde, Edgard Varesè, and early electronic music. But apparently the combination isn’t always foolproof — Poéme électronique sounds like R2-D2 fucking a fax machine.


Artist: Györgi Ligeti

Genre: Electronic

Grade: C+

Much of Ligeti’s greatness stems from his ability to make acoustic compositions sound electronic. It’s weird because when he actually dabbled in electronics for a short spell in 1957-58, it kinda sounded like shit.

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