Matt’s Listening List: 10 Great Works of Classical Music (that are under 80 years old)

There sure is a lot of music out there in the world. As a young learning musician, it can be hard to know where to start when diving in to a new style of music, since there just isn’t enough time in one life to listen to everything. That’s why I put this list together: some suggestions of pieces from my favourite underappreciated time period in classical music: the last hundred years. After I put this list together, I was pleasantly surprised to see that half the entries are younger than I am, and every single entry on this list is younger than Joe Biden.

If this is the kind of classical music you focus on, you likely know most if not all of these already, which is great! This list is aimed towards people who aren’t as familiar with this area. You could be a young musician learning to broaden your horizons. You could be a non-classical musician, whether you play jazz, pop, folk, rock, traditional, or anything else. You could be a classical musician who finds your knowledge drops off suddenly after Sibelius. Or you could just be a music lover looking for something new.

I tried to be pretty varied while putting this list together, while also keeping it to mostly-tonal music that continues the classical idiom after the Romantic era. I’m not as well-versed in serial and atonal music, so I’ll leave that to a proper enthusiast to write about. These are just pieces I really like, and think you would too. They’re roughly in order of the most accessible first, to the most challenging last, but I think all ten of them are good and accessible enough to be appreciated by most anyone.

Steve Reich: “Music for 18 Musicians” (1976)

Instrumentation: 1 violin, 1 cello, 4 high voices (one doubling piano), 4 pianos (one doubling maracas and one doubling marimba), 5 marimbas (3 doubling xylophone, one doubling maracas, and one doubling both piano and xylophone), 2 clarinets (both doubling bass clarinet), and one metallophone (doubling piano)
Time: about 55 minutes

Despite saying 18 musicians right in the title, this piece is usually performed by more than that due to how much doubling is required. Steve Reich is one of the most important names in American minimalism, which means taking very simple chords and rhythms and evolving them very slowly over a long period of time. Music for 18 Musicians is a perfect example of this: it manages to feel like it’s constantly moving forwards, with the driving pulse rhythms, while also feeling like you’re suspended over the clouds, watching the world change in slow motion. It’s the perfect piece to let yourself get lost in.

Jennifer Higdon: “blue cathedral” (2000)

Instrumentation: Full orchestra (2222, 4331, harp, piano, celeste, timp+3, strings)
Time: 12 minutes

I knew I wanted a piece by Jennifer Higdon on this list, as she’s one of my favourite tonal composers currently active, though it was hard for me to narrow down what. She’s got some excellent concertos; the ones for violin, viola, and oboe spring immediately to mind. I’d recommend a listen, and I went with blue cathedral just to shake up the style from some of the other entries on this list. Written shortly after the loss of her brother, blue cathedral is a short but incredibly sweet tribute, filled with beauty and hope. In your typical orchestra concert structure of prelude – concerto – intermission – symphony, this piece is a strong opening to any programme.

Ingolf Dahl: “Music for Brass Instruments” (1944)

Instrumentation: Brass quintet (2 trumpets, horn, 2 trombones), sextet (quintet + tuba), or full brass ensemble
Time: 15 minutes

I had a chance to play most of the standard classical brass quintets throughout my University career (there aren’t that many of them, to be honest), and my teachers all treated this work by Ingolf Dahl with a certain reverence above the others. Mid-20th century classical works by German immigrants to America are honestly distinct enough to be a genre of music on their own, so this seemed like a fitting representative of that “genre.” The instrumentation is somewhat variable, performable as either a quintet, sextet, or full ensemble with quintet soloists. The first movement is a fantasy on the Bach chorale “Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death,” BWV4. The second movement is lots of fun, and often played by military ensembles and others as a standalone work.

John Luther Adams: “Become Ocean” (2013)

Instrumentation: Large orchestra (3333, 4331, 2 harps, piano, celesta, lots of percussion, strings)
Time: about 45 minutes

Become Ocean is the first of three ambient – and even apocalyptic – tone poems written by John Luther Adams, followed by Become River and Become Desert. Adams hadn’t intended to write a trilogy when he started, but sometimes you get a good idea and run with it. Become Ocean tells about the inevitability of life on Earth, starting with it crawling out of the sea, and as ice caps melt and the sea level rises, it may end up crawling back into the sea, willingly or not. The whole work is a palindrome, meaning the second half is the exact same as the first half, but backwards. It’s originally scored with the orchestra split into three groups, with coloured lights that change along with the music. As easy as it is to get lost in this work in person, it’s even more effective live, and I’d heavily suggest you go listen to it if the opportunity ever presents itself in your area.

Caroline Shaw: “Partita for 8 Voices” (2012)

Instrumentation: 8 vocalists, as implied
Time: about 25 minutes

Partita for 8 Voices is the first of three pieces on this list that are written in forms from early and Baroque music (in this case, the Partita), and probably the one that would be hardest to recognize if you didn’t know that already. That being said, this might be the coolest, and is definitely the most fun, piece on this list. If you’re into a capella, start here for sure. This piece uses pretty much every vocal trick in the book to create an amazing and constantly changing soundscape, without the need for external instruments. It was with this piece that Caroline Shaw took the title of youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music at the age of 30, and she’s since gone on to collaborate with artists in the popular sphere as well, most notably working with Kanye West on several occasions.

György Ligeti: “Musica ricercata” (1953)

Instrumentation: solo piano
Time: about 25 minutes

A ricercar, meaning “to search out,” is traditionally a prelude used to set the key of the succeeding work. Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata isn’t meant to search for the following piece, but was rather written as a way to search for his own style or voice. And the way he did it is incredible: it’s eleven pieces, with the first only using two tones (and only the note A until the very last chord), the second with three tones, the third with four tones, and so on until the eleventh and final work, using all twelve tones. It’s a fascinating journey of self-discovery, and could help inspire young composers to come up with their own ideas on how to methodically find their own voice.

John Adams: “Scheherazade.2” (2015)

Instrumentation: Violin soloist + orchestra (2233, 4230, 3 perc, 2 harp, cimbalom, celeste, strings)
Time: about 50 minutes

I can’t lie, a big part of my initial love for this piece comes from an internet meme along the lines of “if such-and-such is so good, why isn’t there a sequel?” For example, “If the Bible is so good, why isn’t there a Bible 2?” Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a famous and well-loved major work for orchestra, full of catchy themes assembled to perfection. I adore it, and it was good enough that John Adams decided to tackle writing a sequel. Though both are based on the One Thousand and One Nights, Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece is quite fantastical in nature, capturing the heroic tales of Sinbad the sailor as told by Scheherazade to the Sultan. Adams’ interpretation is more grounded in reality, and specifically the contrast between the whimsical fairy-tale of the Arabian Nights, and the real struggle of women in the middle east. Scheherazade.2 reinterprets the titular Scheherazade as a woman trying to survive in modern society, with all the hardships it entails, rebelling against her oppressors and emerging a heroine.

Einojuhani Rautavaara: “Piano Concerto no. 1” (1969)

Instrumentation: Solo piano + orchestra (2222, 2231, timp+1, piano, strings)
Time: about 20 minutes

In my mind, a good concerto does three things: it has a strong melody, it shows off the technical virtuosity of the soloist, and it makes use of what the solo instrument does well that sets it apart from the other instruments in the orchestra. And boy, this piece covers all three in the very first bar. By now, our harmony’s getting more complex, but the composition method is simple and brilliant: the chords are based on laying your hand or arm across all the keys in an octave, with the outer notes being a fairly simple, tonal melody. Rautavaara is a composer whose catalogue is well worth the deep dive, and I promise, you’ll learn to spell it quicker than you think!

Alfred Schnittke: “Concerto Grosso no. 1” (1977)

Instrumentation: 2 solo violins, string orchestra (66442), harpsichord, piano
Time: about 30 minutes

A concerto grosso is a work for multiple soloists and orchestra, the term itself hailing from the baroque era, and being mostly replaced by “double/triple/X concerto” afterwards. When someone writes a concerto grosso these days, they’re trying to evoke thoughts of the baroque, and boy, does Schnittke do so in such a fascinating way. This entire work is enthralling, starting with a simple haunting piano melody, going through some modern, close dissonances in the strings, before erupting into some absolute fire in the fast movements. Schnittke has such a cool and quirky catalogue, and is another composer worth the deep dive.

Kate Soper: “Voices from the Killing Jar” (2012)

Instrumentation: voice, flute, sax, clarinet, piano, violin, trumpet, electronics
Time: about 40 minutes

Classical music is full of exaggerated superlatives, and while you can’t objectively rank art (itself subjective in its very nature), I’m going to make a bold claim: Voices from the Killing Jar might just be the best song cycle of all time. A killing jar is a simple sealed glass jar containing poison, used to trap and kill insects for study and display in museums. The work consists of eight songs, following eight female protagonists, a mix of real historical figures and literary characters, who are trapped and suffocating in their own lives. It’s a deep and difficult work, with some amazing electronic vocal effects, and the movements are all stylistically very distinct. The more you listen, the more you are left in awe at the new twists and turns thrown at you, especially when a dissonant and near-atonal stretch suddenly gives way to bright, major classical harmonies. By the end of the set, it felt to me that the singer herself had become trapped in her own reality, of having to work just to survive, as she repeats “her voice is full of money” and the piece fades. A true masterwork.

Hopefully I was able to introduce you to something new, something outside your usual, and something outside your comfort zone. It’s the responsibility of us as musicians to constantly try to broaden our scope, learn new styles, learn new skills, and gain a deeper understanding of the art. Classical music is still alive and well, and pushing the music of modern and (especially) living composers should be a huge priority for every classical performer. I’d love to hear about what kind of music you’re into as well, and I plan on doing more spotlights of music you might not know in the future, so be on the lookout!

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