Is 20th century “classical” music really that difficult?

(And Magpies Mix Tape)

Firstly, a confession. I am not a musicologist and I cannot play any of those serious woodwind, brass or stringed orchestral instruments. However, I listen to a huge range of what always ends up being called Classical Music, even though that term really describes music written in the period from around 1750 to maybe 1840 or thereabouts. What we are talking about is formal organised music rather than popular or folk music.

I grew up in a home where music was what came out of the radio, which in those days meant the BBC Light Programme, the Home Service and, very rarely in our house the Third Programme. We mainly listened to the Light Programme, which was popular music. The Home Service was mostly what we now call “talk radio” and the Third Programme was serious broadcasting (i.e “classical” music and arts discussions). I think the only time we listened to the Third Programme was for the Last Night of the Proms, and we stopped doing that once the LNOTP was on the telly. I didn’t much care for any of that.

The only classical music I can remember hearing as a child was a very limited selection of 78s and 33s that my father had bought. As I remember it, there was Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and “1812 Overture”, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, plus a couple of records by an English composer called Albert Ketelbey, whose oeuvre was what was, and probably still is called “light music”. He wrote colourful orchestral pieces with names like “In A Persian Market”, “In A Monastery Garden” and “Bells Across The Meadows”. These latter pieces were jolly and undemanding stuff and he was pretty popular throughout the first half of the 20th century in the UK. 

Of course, entirely unknown to me as a child, the later decades of the 19th century and first half of the 20th was also a time of massive musical turmoil with a succession of composers completely overturning the accepted century orthodoxy culminating with the revolutionary approach of the Second Viennese School, which abandoned the established tonal system based upon keys completely, in favour atonality, which was later formalised as dodecaphonic or 12-note system.

I only really began to listen to classical music when I went to school. We had a lesson called Music in both Infant’s and Junior school, which started out listening to suitable records chosen by the teacher and maybe singing songs. Later, we were encouraged to learn the recorder. It may well be that my class, once armed with recorders actually discovered an East London version of atonality independently of Arnold Schoenberg, the founder of the Second Viennese School.

I didn’t really discover Schoenberg until I was in my 20s.

Self-portrait of Arnold Schoenberg

At grammar school, we got played a lot of classical music, mostly from around the time of Mozart up to the middle of the 19th century, but with J.S. Bach thrown in occasionally. Our Music teacher was a great lover of Chopin, so we heard a lot of him too. Me? Well, I was listening to the Stones, Cream, Hendrix and Pink Floyd then, so dead guys in wigs were not my bag, man, apart from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

It wasn’t until I was a student that I really began to listen to the Classics. This was mainly because I was in a relationship with someone who loved Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. I started to read about this music, and borrowed a lot of records from the music library. I stretched out; Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Bartok and Stravinsky. I listened and tried to understand these things. It was all fine until I discovered the Hard Stuff, i.e. what Schoenberg had been getting up to with his followers Alban Berg and Anton Webern. This was music that made no sense at all to me. Mahler, Wagner and the other Late Romantics? Fine, I liked all that, great tunes and an epic sound. It worked for me, but these Viennese rebels? No, thank you. 

Of course, I was wrong, wasn’t I? It took me until the 1990s to really understand what atonality and 12-note music was all about, and I arrived there via the avant garde music that emerged from the wreckage of Punk Rock and also from the fringes of experimental progressive rock, avant garde jazz and what we used to call Krautrock.

Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

So, I went back to the dodecaphonists and listened with a new attitude. What did I hear? Well, it was more about what I didn’t hear, tunes, for example. To be fair, you can’t really hum the stuff easily, and singing it is a massive stretch. Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” is incredibly difficult to sing, and not that easy to listen to either, at first, but I stuck with it and it just started to fall into place. It helped me to grasp the thing by thinking in visual, cinematic terms. 12-note music is hard to grasp because it doesn’t conform to what we think music ought to sound like. It hints at keys, sometimes incorporates the notes of keys and even might suggest it is heading towards what you know, but it never really goes there. The organisation and structure is just different. It might not sound structured and organised, but it really is, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is how it sounds. It can be jagged, edgy, unresolved, dissonant and downright scary. It evokes altered states, mental confusion, fear, uncertainty. It leaves you thinking “what was that all about?” sometimes. It seems to me that it is music that is so much a part of the world that gave it birth, the fin de siècle cultural world of Vienna that also gave us Freudian psychoanalysis and Expressionist painting, literature, theatre and cinema.

The real point is that this music is music that resonates in a world where the certainties are gone, the world of today, really. So, is it difficult? Well, yes it is, but only if you listen to it with preconceptions. You need to give it your full attention, they you just have to go with the flow and let it suggest things to you. 

Of course, It isn’t the only music I listen to. I am a great lover of what we might call English Pastoralism if we are being lazy, people like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi and George Butterworth. Sometimes, I need beauty in my music too.

The Red Gaze, by Arnold Schoenberg

To accompany my article about “difficult 20th century music” I’ve drawn up a suggested listening list of pieces of this complex and misunderstood music. To provide a playlist alone means limiting the range of what is available and also concentrating on shorter pieces or bits removed from longer compositions. I have also included music that is not necessarily atonal or 12-tone but which doesn’t adhere to traditional tonality.

Claude Debussy;

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Arnold Schoenberg:

Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.16

Erwartung for Soprano and Orchestra Op.17

Pierrot Lunaire for Voice and Instrumental Ensemble Op. 21

Piano Concerto Op. 42

Alban Berg:

Wozzeck, an opera in three acts

Lyric Suite in six movements for string quartet

Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with 13 Wind Instruments

Violin Concerto

Anton Webern;

Six Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6

Concerto for Nine Instruments Op. 24

Variations for Piano Op.27

Cantata No. 1 Op.29

Bela Bartok;

Bluebeard’s Castle, one-act opera

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

The Miraculous Mandarin, one-act ballet

Luigi Dallapiccola;

Liriche greche for Voice and Chamber Orchestra

Il prigioniero, one-act opera

Piccola Musica Notturna for orchestral

Alexander Goehr;

Sonata for Piano Op. 2

Elizabeth Lutyens;

Five Bagatelles for Piano Op. 49

Rondel for Orchestra Op. 108

Olivier Messaien;


Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Catalogue d’oiseaux

John Cage;

Sonata for clarinet

Igor Stravinsky;

Agon, a ballet

Ebony Concerto for clarinet and jazz band

Threni, for voices, chorus and orchestral

Requiem Canticles, for voices, chorus and orchestral

Pierre Boulez;

Pli Selon Pli for soprano and orchestra

Le Marteau sans maître for contralto and orchestral ensemble

Originally from London, Carole now lives in Bristol. “I’ve spent my life obsessed with music, food and wine. I’ll listen to almost anything, if only to see if I like it, but the things I like, I’ll like forever. I’ll try eating almost anything for the same reason.” She has a blog.

1 reply »

  1. Nicely said. I similarly embarked on a project of self-education at one time. I was lucky enough to volunteer at a listener sponsored radio station in Seattle and I had access to their record library, which I mined for a weekly show.
    I’m not sure where Hindemith fits in, but he wrote a lovely trio for recorders that me and some school mates attempted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg2gMgTRs0A


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