7 Works of Classical Music from the 1920s

I’m sorting through my iTunes library, and naturally got the urge to make a list. I was struck by the number of 1920s classical music I had. Was there something about the interwar period that’s special — new social values? new media? post-1WW nationalism? Bolshevism? a nascent American universalism? Whatever it is, here are my favourites:

[A note on the youtube videos: most are not my preferred recordings at all, but are the best I could find.]

1. Szymanowski — Stabat Mater (1926)

My favourite Stabat Mater, a sublime blend of religious beauty and Polish folk, and it was powerful enough to make me rethink religion. Many are Szymanowski’s later works, of which this is one, are unacknowledged masterpieces.

2. Carl Ruggles — Angels (1921)

An example of dissonance being beautiful (or of beauty being dissonant). This might be the piece I want played at my funeral. Ruggles was a curmudgeonly New Englander who wrote even less than Ravel, and hung around with Lou Harrison, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and the like — though he seemed to have alienated everyone but Ives, who he uniquely respected. He was undoubtedly a thorny character, but a masterly composer, one whose method of ‘dissonant counterpoint’ is much superior to the serial music that came after.

3. Ravel — Violin Sonata No. 2

This is probably the piece that is most obviously affected by its era, full of blues-inspired melodies and rhythms. The second movement — unambiguously titled ‘Blues’ —  is the most interesting in this regard, with its pulsating rhythm and mimicking of guitar slides and its playful melodies.

4. Bartok — String Quartet No. 4 (1928)

I never will entirely understand Bartok’s string quartets, except in knowing that they’re highly modal, inspired by Hungarian folk, and spectacularly exciting to listen to. This one I liked long before I had any great fondness for classical music. I discovered it during my King Crimson phase. The band’s guitarist, Robert Fripp, said Bartok’s string quartets were a major influence on the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic works, a set of four exhilarating and clever ‘prog rock’ pieces (I hate the term ‘prog rock’, a genre I usually loathe). I had to look up the string quartets, and found them thoroughly inaccessible but fascinating, listening over and over again until I in some way understood them. Your turn:

5. Ruth Crawford Seeger — Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

I’ve written about her here. Her innovative uses of dissonant counterpoint (alongside Ruggles) and serialism are unparalleled. In that sense, this may be one of her tamer works, but also one of her more accessible.

6. Ives — Psalm 90 (1923-24)

Psalm 90 was apparently one of the few pieces Ives was ever wholly satisfied with. It is a magnificent work, one that sounds powerfully cosmic, much like The Unanswered Question and his unfinished Universe Symphony. It is both tranquil and frightening, aggressive with every mention of ‘destruction’ and ‘anger’ but calmly beautiful towards its end. As with Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, it is hard not to be compelled towards belief.

7. Puccini — Turandot (1926)

Not quite up there with the rest, but my goodness is it some fun, lyrical stuff. I can’t help but love it.


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