A Foundation in Modern Music for Beginners

No one asked for it, but here’s my idea of what anyone interested in modern classical music should first acquaint themselves with. Don’t necessarily worry about the order this stuff is presented in. A chronological approach may work for some people, but others will find it easier to jump around the list and find what appeals first to their ear before building an understanding of how one thing leads to another. “Modern” for the purposes of this list will include some precursor figures from the late romantic era and earlier, but will mainly be focusing on music of the early 20th century.

Pre-20th Century

BeethovenGroße Fuge, Op. 133

The Große Fuge (Great Fugue) is one of Beethoven’s late period string quartet works. It was written in 1825 originally as the finale of the already dense and extended String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, but his publishers pleaded with him to instead compose a new finale and publish the Fugue separately. It was initially viewed as an incomprehensible and nightmarish work, a reaction common to many works on this list at their premières. Stravinsky called it “the most absolutely contemporary piece of music I know”, “hardly birthmarked by its age”. Its rhythmic intensity and the complex nature of its harmony and motivic development provide an excellent albeit challenging grounding in the kind of difficulties the listener may encounter on first hearing ensemble works by Schoenberg, among others.

WagnerTristan und Isolde: Vorspiel

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic love story, famously begins with a dissonance that does not properly resolve until the very end of the piece. In its first instance, it “resolves” to another dissonance. In 1865, the year of its première, just 38 years after the death of Beethoven (and it had been written closer to 28 years after), this was unheard of. There had been eccentrics like Berlioz, the chromatic approach to modulation exemplified by Chopin and Wagner’s own friend Franz Liszt, but always these composers used a traditional tonal framework to support their idiosyncrasies. Here I have chosen the “Vorspiel” (Prelude), which is Wagner’s own concert version of the opening of the opera, to spare the unsure listener three hours of Germans screeching at each other over dramatic music.

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The original modernist work, Debussy’s orchestral Prélude premièred in 1894 to divided responses. Stéphane Mallarmé, by whose poem L’après-midi d’un faune Debussy was inspired in composing the piece, was initially sceptical of the association but was deeply moved by the piece once he attended the concert. Many considered it to be unmusical, a response which people today would probably find very confusing. The problem lies in Debussy’s use of modes, particularly the whole-tone scale, which do not play nicely with common practice tonality (see Mozart if you want a basic idea of what that is). Before the Baroque period, modes were the common practice, but the key-oriented tonality developed during the Baroque by composers like Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, and Rameau became the standard from then on. When Wagner unveiled Tristan, which subverted that tonality from its very first chord, it was impossible not to react, and while the Germanic composers largely saw it as the way forward, the French composers mocked it (e.g.: Fauré’s Souvenirs de Bayreuth) or, in Debussy’s case, revolted completely. The advent of musical modernism was a joint venture between composers of many different countries and cultures, but it is in Wagner, Debussy, and Mahler that we find the major sources.

20th Century

MahlerSymphony No. 6

Although he produced notable music before 1900, the bulk of Mahler’s great works, including seven-and-a-half (the last of these remained unfinished) symphonies and three song cycles, came between 1900 and 1911, the year of his untimely death. It’s kind of impossible to overstate the importance of Mahler to modernism in music, and even to so-called postmodernism (which, like so many categorisations in music, has less to do with any real musical quality than with unimaginativeness on the part of writers on music). Many things we think of as being quite “new” were in fact pioneered by this composer who is generally tied to the Late Romantic era along with Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Bruckner. Mahler is very hard to categorise, but “modern” is certainly one descriptor that is very apt, and I hope to show as much in these three examples. Really, you should listen to all of Mahler’s symphonies, but the following is a perfectly good way to acquaint yourself with a master of the Late Romantic era, and one of the foremost innovators of his time.

Symphony No. 6 (1904) written in A minor, is a work of great contradiction, yet of total unification. It can be considered Mahler’s most unified symphony in its use and abuse of Classical symphonic form. It begins with a “sonata-allegro” that is structurally similar to what one would expect to find in a Mozart symphony, but it is such an expansive take that it seems to transcend form. The Scherzo, which Mahler tried both as the second and third movement, swapping with the Andante moderato (there is still some debate as to which order he eventually settled on), is strongly linked to the first movement, and can be viewed as a variation of sorts. Conductors who choose to place it third usually take advantage of the distance from the first movement and make it much faster—as conductor Riccardo Chailly noted, if it is played second it is effectively locked to the tempo of the first movement. The Andante moderato is a remarkable slow movement, in the opening bars Mahler uses all twelve notes of the octave in a seamless and thoroughly romantic gesture, while furthermore developing this opening motif throughout—there are no literal repeats anywhere in the movement. The finale is one of Mahler’s most striking movements. It reuses some material from the first movement but in totally unexpected ways, coming to a final statement that is as completing of the work as it is shocking.

SchoenbergChamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9

Schoenberg is often credited by conservatives as the person who single handedly killed classical music. He is decried as a devil, the inventor atonality who later turned music into a construction of pure mathematics, totally divorced from aesthetics and the emotions. To say that he is a misunderstood figure is about as massive an understatement as it is possible to make when talking about music. To begin with, he wrote music in the late romantic style, drawing on Wagner and Brahms in equal measure. He was a friend and admirer of Mahler, and saw that the advances being made in his own time could no longer be contained by traditional conceptions of tonality. Although outwardly his music can seem to be totally alien to what had come before it, the underlying techniques still come from the Germanic tradition, and in particular his dense writing has much in common with late Beethoven and the music of Brahms. The Chamber Symphony, written in 1906, is something of a transitional work. It makes use of quartal harmony, like the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, and is built out of motifs (themes) that are constantly being developed. This constant motivic development is a hallmark of Schoenberg’s style, and remains a vital part of his music right through to his last works, it’s also one of the reasons why his music can present such difficulty to the listener on first hearing. I chose this particular piece because its overall sound profile has familiarity enough to provide the newcomer with a way in to Schoenberg’s world, from which they can advance to works like Pierrot Lunaire and the Variations for Orchestra.


Stravinsky was a Russian composer who first studied with Rimsky-Korsakov before moving to France and later the United States, where he lived until his death. Though his music is often considered Russian, at some point it began to lose all semblance of Russian character, and he can be seen to some extent as a singular figure. In Petrushka, a ballet score from 1911, the best of Stravinsky’s early Russian style is enriched by the awakening of elements which are entirely his own developments. Using techniques like bitonality (two keys simultaneously) and polyrhythm (multiple rhythms simultaneously), Stravinsky does not paint the lively scene of the Shrovetide Fair, where the principal action of the ballet takes place, but rather embodies its chaotic hustle and bustle in purely musical terms. This is bold, innovative, and exciting music, for me more so than The Rite of Spring, which rounds out Stravinsky’s trio of scores for the Ballets Russes, the first of which was The Firebird. Taken together, the three early ballets amply make the case for Stravinsky’s position as one of the finest composers of his era, but Petrushka outshines the other two.

RavelViolin Sonata

Ravel was a French composer linked to, albeit unwillingly, the impressionist school, which was led, equally unwillingly, by Debussy. While Debussy’s music is impressionist insofar as it typically takes scenes (e.g.: the sea) and claims to make impressions of them, as in the impressionist style of painting, Ravel’s music is more in line with the absolute music of the Baroque period, and at its core it is driven by a neo-Baroque engine. That may paint a picture of someone stuck in the past, but Ravel’s interest in the music of the present was also very strong. In the 1920s jazz came to Paris and he fell in love with it, so much in fact that he refused to teach George Gershwin for fear of ruining Gershwin’s style. Many of Ravel’s most prominent late works display a considerable affection for and knowledge of the early jazz style, but the Violin Sonata of 1927 may be the most concentrated example. Ravel deftly weaves together strains of jazz and blue note with his own rich mature style, creating an intricate tapestry out of strong pulsing rhythms, complicated harmonies, sliding violin melodies (sort of proto-Grappelli), and brings this commingling to its peak in the middle movement, which he titled “Blues”. In this way, modern music saw the beginning of a breaking down of barriers between “learned” and “folk” traditions, which would be fully realised in 1960s America through the work of such figures as Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, and Van Dyke Parks.

And that, as they say, about does it. With the above seven pieces you should have a solid idea of where modern classical music comes from, and be familiar and comfortable with its formative and early phases without being overwhelmed by the “newness” of the sounds. Last year, I think, possibly the year before, I put together a list of “essential” 20th century works by decade, and I will be revising that and posting it here as a follow-up to this article in the coming weeks. I won’t, however, be writing introductory paragraphs, because that would be a lot of paragraphs. Yes, from now on you’re on your own, but don’t worry, you’ll quickly discover that my insights, such as they are, do not hold even one one-hundredth of the value you’ll get from listening and exploring and coming to your own conclusions.


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