For generations, cultural cynics and grumblers have warned that “serious music” (i.e., classical orchestral music) is suffering from some incurable crisis of conscience. The complaint usually and understandably fixates on the blatant problems of half-empty symphony halls and a moldy Romantic repertoire. But in the long view, the complaint is misguided, for anything culturally vital—and let’s pretend that composers who address problems of tonality are culturally vital—should persist in a perpetual state of critical self-examination, lest the music become devitalized, tepid, regressive, or (god forbid) counterrevolutionary.
What naysayers once meant by a musical “crisis” is not the predomination of bad music—because bad music always predominated, even before consumerism and copyright laws—but the domination of narrowly ideological trends, from neo-romanticism through serialism and minimalism. I use the past tense “meant” because the crisis of genre was the problem of the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s when minimalism, with all its obvious limitations, rebuffed the cold intellectuality of 12-tone writing but failed to offer a viable way forward. Now, the crisis is economic and generational: classical music audiences are rapidly aging into the grave, concert programmers cannot grasp audiences’ tastes and desires, and younger audiences are rightly unwilling to subsidize a stale hit parade of Handel, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and the rest.
The ever-present crisis in classical music doubtless rests, at least partly, on semantic issues. The word “classical” serves (badly) as a rhetorical umbrella meant to improbably encompass a millennium’s worth of music, from monastic and liturgical dramas of the 11th century through chance music, IRCAM, post-minimalism, and some experimentalist in a café basement rubbing a clamshell against a cello. Sacred or profane, foundational or avant-garde, orthodox or aleatory, it’s all classical by default. I can’t think of any term in any field—not even the wayward “realism” when applied to drama or painting—that is more slippery or meaningless or that carries such impossible, historically artificial burdens of meaning.
The popular consciousness solves this rhetorical mess by reducing “classical” to Romantic, a problem exacerbated by Hollywood, so many of whose films scores, 80 years after Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, still rely on the tyranny of unison strings and whooping horns. I wouldn’t dispute the Romantic soundscape’s lush or grandiose comforts, and the minimalist Terry Riley was myopic, I think, when he once claimed a total disinterest in everything written between Bach and Debussy. Despite my modernist leanings, I confess a sympathy for Borodin, Grieg, and the occasional Bruckner scherzo, and it’s foolhardy to dismiss the genius of Berlioz. But I know the dangers of complacency and decadence, of the paralyzing effects of the familiar, and I’ve grown a healthy disgust for anything unchallenging.
I’d characterize the current trend in classical programming as “aesthetic medicine”, in which an unfamiliar or newly commissioned work, usually about 25-minutes in length, gets sandwiched between beloved, unthreatening chestnuts. To endure the bitter taste of novelty, one is first served a Rossini overture and then is finally rewarded with the dessert of a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony.
Yet the new commissions no longer attempt the corrective medicine of bitterness or surprise. Dismissing the dead ends of dodecaphony and wanting to transcend minimalist boredoms, younger composers like Christopher Theofanidis and Jennifer Higdon craft a new, friendly American tonality meant to assuage audience’s suspicions of the strange and reclaim classical forms as populist (but without Copland’s dissonant harmonies). And this “medicinal” model, now over-sweetened for easy ingestion, generally represents the best of classical options, for one must otherwise wade through pops concerts proffering Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) or the plagiarist Hans Zimmer (once successfully sued by the estate of Gustav Holst) as the unsung stepchildren of Mahler.
I’ll give you an example of the ineffectiveness of this oversweet medicine. A few years ago the Baltimore Symphony gave yet another performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, but first the audience had to experience a new guitar concerto (I forget the composer’s name). Though its first movement featured mild drama and suspense, the concerto, conventionally structured in three movements (medium-fast/slow/fast), mainly went through the new tonality’s lyrical paces, sans dissonance or effrontery.
What’s worse, I was unable to use the lavatory before the concert, and when the concerto started to bore in its tepid, uninvolving slow movement, I began to focus irresistibly on the urinary stress mounting in my bowels. Taking leave of the music, my mind drifted off, dreaming of grand lavatories—first, the outlandishly baroque urinals of Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and then the gorgeously marbled private stalls of Windows on the World, the restaurant that, in less paranoid times, once nested atop the World Trade Center.
Insufficiently distracted by the guitarist’s noodling, I began to worry about the precariously brief length of the approaching intermission. My earlier, cursory investigations of the premises revealed that the toilets were wholly inadequate, as each of the hall’s three floors offered only one men’s bathroom. After the concerto finally ended, I bolted past the phlegmatic gentry to the front of the bathroom queue, where I discovered that the men’s room housed only three urinals, each drenched with the wanton spray of hustling, pressurized concertgoers. Assuming each men’s room was identical, the hall proposed only nine urinals for the concert’s approximately 2,800 patrons; assuming half were male and that, say, half of these would need to empty themselves during a two-hour, postprandial concert, the hall provided, on average, a measly one urinal per 77.8 men.
What sort of madness was this? What good are aesthetics—or the noble “new world” Dvořák envisioned—if one’s immediate organic needs go unmet? What had the concert hall’s architect been thinking? And where was the good sense of the water and sewage commissioner? My mind started invisibly writing a (urinary) tract: Why I Need Public Latrines More Than New American Tonality, a manifesto I fantasized about plastering across every toilet in town.
Have I digressed? No, I think, if we’re truly speaking of the needs of humanity when we talk about the aims of aesthetics. Had the guitar concerto been more daring and less conciliatory, my mind might have been empowered to transcend bodily realities, or at least forget about them for the duration of the music’s spell. But the music’s banality only reminded me of my own.
I recall another concert that varied the medicinal formula, providing first the acrid linctus—in this case, John Adams’ ultra-minimalist Shaker Loops, in its version for string orchestra—before Jennifer Higdon’s recent Concerto 4-3, a “dessert” of new tonality that incorporates folk, jazz, and bluegrass into a concerto grosso form. Shaker Loops, frankly, is my least favorite Adams work (as far as minimalism goes, I’d rather hear his 1983 Light Over Water, a symphony for synthesizers and brass), but in public I generally maintain my composure. I took this performance as an opportunity to appreciate anew what always seemed boring on record. As I realized that Shaker Loops is also tedious performed live, I smiled a bit and bided my time, but an 80-ish, vociferous woman sitting directly behind me wasn’t shy about critiquing Adams’ once-trailblazing medicine.
“Oh, this is bullshit!” she said, loud enough for those two or three rows away to hear. As if her neighboring husband had missed the broadcast, she repeated without shame, “Marvin, this is real bullshit!”
I turned around to dart her a dirty look, but she was unfazed. Five or so minutes later, she added another chorus of “bullshits” after grasping that Adams’ sawing violins weren’t going to stop anytime soon. When it came time for the sweeter, crowd-pleasing Higdon, the audience was hushed and clearly enjoying its bluegrass inflections and folk fiddling (as did I, though a second hearing on CD revealed the work’s superficiality).
When the concerto ended, the old woman was enraptured in a way seldom seen at classical concerts: filled with joy, she jumped to her feet and clapped wildly, even childishly, exclaiming “Yippie!” several times. Despite her public irritations, the woman reassured me for a moment; at least a new commission could be met with genuine enthusiasm, even if the work was unchallenging and aimed too hard to please. But then she started to speak again.
“Oh, that was great, that was wonderful,” she said to Marvin. “Oh, but that first one, that was total bullshit. I don’t need that.”
“That first one was John Adams,” Marvin replied.
“Do we like him?” The wife seemed momentarily confused.
“He did Doctor Atomic… Atomic,” he repeated. “The opera… You liked that one.”
“Yeah, that was okay. But this one…”
In a sense, the irritating woman wasn’t wrong. It’s not necessary to know Adams’ aesthetic evolution, from minimalism to pop-inflected post-minimalism, to argue that Doctor Atomic (or Adams’ retooled Doctor Atomic Symphony) is better music than Shaker Loops. But what bothered me more than her ignorance or philistinism was her saying, “I don’t need that.” The conflation of “like” and “need”, of personal preference and truth, of predisposition and pleasure, will always hold the flowering of art captive to provincialism and triviality. And yet the woman’s vulgar enthusiasm for “pleasant” music keeps afloat what remains of classical traditions.
A Challenge to the 21st Century’s Meek, Non-confrontational Tonalities
In What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland opined that average classical music consumers spend too much mental energy on music’s superficially sensual aspects and too little concentrating on form. This is a fair criticism, especially in an anxious society desperate for narcotics and depressants. Nevertheless, energetic works like Higdon’s become increasingly necessary when confronted with classical radio’s anaesthetizing, inexplicable procession of Spohr, Boccherini, Telemann, and any number of third-rate court composers. How strange it is that my local classical station in Washington, D.C. rarely plays American works—for that would mean playing more or less modern works—and instead recycles the trivial diversions of despotic monarchies.
When Adorno complained about the vulgarization of classical music, he pointed to Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, whose radio broadcasts regaled the bourgeoisie with a Romantic diet of Bizet and Sibelius (Adorno’s favorite whipping boy). Yet concert programs in the late ’40s and ’50s were relatively diverse, and in America, many then-contemporary composers—William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, David Diamond, George Antheil, Henry Cowell, and so on—were regularly performed.
When William Schuman’s Third Symphony first appeared in 1941, under Serge Koussevitsky, it was justifiably hailed a masterpiece and found a champion in Bernstein, who twice recorded it. Today it’s never performed for reasons never articulated, save the fear that wizened classical audiences might flee from anything more recent than Mahler. And yet the masses would find Schuman’s two-movement Third—compact, fugally dense, and truly thrilling—far more digestible than any five-course Mahlerian blowout.
But all is not lost. In 2010, the New York Philharmonic dedicated two nights to performing the complete works of Edgard Varèse, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. During the cacophonous Amériques, I felt a breathless electricity in the audience, which was followed by a 15-minute standing ovation. Admittedly, these concerts were at Lincoln Center, where classical crowds are less phlegmatic and one degree younger than usual (say, 35 to 60, rather than 65 and older), but 20th century music holds innumerable neglected, underperformed treasures that would be both challenging and approachable for mass audiences
Though every dilettante, hack, and bloviator compiles self-serving lists of “recommendations”, I hope the works I briefly describe below reflect more than subjective preference; these are works that rarely (if ever) appear on American concert programs, but which could vitalize audiences far more than the early 21st century’s meek, non-confrontational tonalities. The list is ordered arbitrarily and is really a fragment of what used to be a far longer inventory; I do confess a penchant for Eastern European and Russian composers, percussiveness, and creative instrumentation.
Jón Leifs, Hekla
Once a student of the Italian composer-pedagogue Busoni, Leifs, Iceland’s foremost composer, ignored practically every trend in 20th century music to produce his own uniquely architectonic (or simply tectonic) style of composition, in which enormous, staggered planes of sound pile up in ecstatic exaltations of nature. His ’60s compositions, such as Geysir and Hafis, use vast orchestral means to summon senses of primordial Iceland, but nothing quite approaches Leifs’ 11-minute Hekla, a musical impression of the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 1947.
According to the notes that accompany the BIS CD recording, at the work’s 1964 premiere “the audience was baffled and critics were outraged” by its instrumental excesses, and Hekla went unheard until 1989, 21 years after Leifs’ death. Among the noisiest acoustic works ever attempted, Hekla calls for an outsize orchestra augmented by no fewer than 19 percussionists, who bang ancient rocks, scrape nautical chains, hammer hollowed trees, pound anvils, and fire off rifles at strategic moments. A chorus singing in the highest registers joins the orchestra and percussion in the epiphanic climax, an orgasmic quake in which the earth itself seems to tremble.
Maurice Ravel/Percy Grainger, La vallée des cloches
From his 1905 piano suite Miroirs, Ravel orchestrated Une barque sur l’océan and the well-known Alborada del gracioso, but strangely never arranged La vallée des cloches, which can sound emaciated on a solo piano. In its five minutes, Percy Grainger’s truly voluptuous arrangement for strings, pianos, and gamelan-like percussion imagines mythic vistas and distant bells (the title’s “cloches”) around a breathtaking central melody on massed strings that puts every Hollywood composer to eternal shame. Thankfully, an EMI recording with conductor Simon Rattle is commonly available.
Loris Tjeknavorian, First Symphony
Written in the early’70s, the First Symphony of Armenian-Iranian composer Loris Tjeknavorian (mainly known in the West as a conductor) provides on object lesson in how to write for a percussion-only orchestra (a sound-world that, in the wrong hands, can become tiresome). Written with the Armenian genocide in mind, the symphony features the expected cymbal-crashing, tragic strokes of the tam-tam, and assorted metallic terrors, but also yields surprisingly spare textures of compassion, repose, and introspection, all accomplished with chimes, vibraphone, and bells, played piano or pianissimo. Only in the final movement does Tjeknavorian allow a solo trumpet to softly, humanely rise above the metal soundscape as the fracas subsides. Sadly, no CD recording exists (as far as I know); you’ll have to hunt for the 1976 Unicorn (London) vinyl or find a bootleg online.
Alan Hovhaness, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Though Hovhaness destroyed all the symphonies he wrote before age 30, he managed to write 67 more before his death in 2000. Hovhaness was often criticized for his repetitiveness, but his most inspired symphonies, particularly the 19th (the ghostly, celestial Vishnu) and the 50th (the awed, thunderous Mount St. Helens) should be part of every orchestra’s repertoire (unfortunately, only his oft-recorded Second Symphony, Mysterious Mountain, finds its way onto programs).
Of his many concerti, Hovhaness’ proto-minimalist Lousadzak (1944) is best known, but his 1954 Concerto for Two Pianos is the greater achievement; to his trademark use of Indian and Armenian modes, Hovhaness adds a spectral first movement of gorgeous dissonance, as the pianos strike seemingly aleatory (but in fact written-out) chords against distant gongs and distended pedal points in the strings. An outstanding recording is available on a 2005 Black Box Classics CD.
Jan Sandström, Motorbike Odyssey (Trombone Concerto #1)
Sandström’s Motorbike Concerto has met with enthusiasm wherever it’s preformed, but the part for solo trombone is so unprecedentedly virtuosic that few, I imagine, can effectively play it (other than Christian Lindberg, for whom it was written). Realistically imitating revving motorcycle engines with complex tonguing and breathing procedures, the trombonist transcends mere technical novelty to enter into bristling contests with a racing orchestra; though not emotionally deep, the work is among the late 20th century’s most thrilling symphonic works, leaving even the hardest rock in the dust. Lindberg’s rendition is available on the Swedish BIS label, as is the composer’s Second Trombone Concerto, in which the hoop-jumping soloist signifies the delusional perambulations of Don Quixote.
Peter Sculthorpe, Earth Cry
Sculthorpe (born 1929) often writes evocatively of his native Australia, but few works conjure a wild, desolate landscape as vividly as his 1986 Earth Cry, a virtuoso didgeridoo concerto in all but name. In his own liner notes to the Naxos CD release, Sculthorpe describes the piece as “straightforward and melodious”, and though the work is structurally conventional, these two staid adjectives hardly capture the soloist’s primeval drones and unnerving, aboriginal wails, all rising above moody low brass and hushed cymbals. A remarkable recording on Naxos (with William Barton as didgeridooist) also features the composer’s percussive Oceania and aboriginally-inspired Kakadu.
Sergei Zhukov, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra
Still unknown in North America, the Ukrainian Sergei Zhukov (born 1951) has only merited two or three commercial CD recordings to date, and none of them contain his exciting percussion concerto, redolent of early Stravinsky and easily the equal of recent percussion concerti by Americans such as Joan Tower, John Corigliano, and Joseph Schwantner. Much of Zhukov’s idiom follows the generational influence of Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, eclectically mixing Russian primitivism, free atonality, genre pastiche, and post-Soviet soul-searching (the latter at times signified by a prepared piano).
Some of his music—such as his piano concerto, Silentium—can be an intellectual chore (imagine Gubaidulina at her dreariest), but his colorful, cinematic 1990 percussion concerto could well form the basis of a 30-minute short film, contrasting the alternately busy, anxious, and reverential soloist with an orchestra sometimes angry, sometimes reserved. The work’s indebtedness to The Rite of Spring is obvious, particularly when fortissimo horn glissandi abruptly signal the climax, but after the storm subsides, Zhukov melodically segues into a lovely dusk and a shimmering starlight of bells and glockenspiel.
Cacophonies and Heavenly Choruses
Takashi Yoshimatsu, Saxophone Concerto (“Cyber-bird”)
I’m not generally an admirer of contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu, who holds in Japan the sort of post-neoromantic position composers like Christopher Theofanidis hold in the US, and whose symphonies come dangerously close to new-age kitsch, drained of dissonance. But his sax concerto, subtitled “cyber-bird”, is a terrific, accessible—naysayers might say too accessible—example of polystylism, in which the saxophone soloist, like an eclectic bird of flight, flits around the work’s three movements, flirting with pop, jazz, a classical rondo, and even jokey atonality. Though I fear using the adjectival clichés of bad reviewers, the final movement, a presto subtitled Bird in the Wind, really is delightful. A recording is readily available on Chandos.
Boris Parsadanian, First Symphony, To the Memory of the Twenty-six Commissars of Baku
My curiosity in and patience for obscure Soviet-era symphonies has waned over the years—too many obediently emulate Shostakovich, balancing bombastic, quasi-ironic militarism with (during the slow parts) morose stretches of poignancy. Parsadanian, of Estonian and Armenian heritage, was one of the innumerable “also-ran” Soviet composers, occasionally inspired but prone to spells of dreariness. Most of his pieces remain unrecorded and some are merely pleasant—for instance, his ordinary (moderato-andante-allegro) Flute Concerto, which I saw performed years ago by Neeme Järvi and his flautist daughter—but his First Symphony deserves a hearing.
Written in 1958 and dedicated, with dutiful Soviet mordancy, To the Memory of the Twenty-Six Commissars of Baku, the symphony is built around a gripping central theme treated heroically-tragically in its long-breathed, admittedly Shostakovichian first movement; athletically in a growling, grotesque scherzo; and lyrically in its final, emotionally crippled slow movement, where it’s reiterated by a wordless female vocalise. A tinny recording is available on the defunct Russian Disc label, which suffers from the usual bus-terminal acoustics endemic to Soviet-era engineering.
Henry Brant, Orbits
Brant was a true American original, but his most voluminous works are unknown in the concert hall, mainly because his instrumentations transcend standard orchestral parameters. (Indeed, recordings of his most epic works require the resources of universities and their unpaid student musicians.)
A pioneer of “spatialized” music, Brant has written works for as many as six separate orchestras—often abetted by choirs, soloists, percussion batteries, primitive and tribal instruments, and so on—playing with little or no harmony or strategically positioned to produce contrapuntal, antiphonal, and echoic effects. His possible masterpiece, the 90-minute cantata Northern Lights over the Twin Cities, adds a bagpipe band to the multiple orchestras and singers, alternating cacophonies worthy of Ives with floating, heavenly choruses.
For sheer sonic power, however, I’d recommend Brant’s less antiphonal but more timbrally perverse Orbits, scored for a unique orchestra of 80 (yes, 80) trombones and fleshed out with a synthesizer (or optional organ). The sound of 80 howling, sliding trombones is as noisy as you’d expect, but Brant’s exploitation of metal timbres, in both piercing and deep registers, imagines fearlessly the chaotic spin and ricochet of cosmic bodies. A recording is available on the obscure Cri-Composers Recordings label.
Carl Ruggles, Sun-Treader
In a sense, Sun-Treader, the best-known work of the eccentric, self-taught amateur Ruggles, is out of place on a list of the seldom heard—it’s certainly a famous work (if only in the United States), yet I’ve never seen it performed live.
Primarily a painter and only a dilettante in composition, Ruggles would sit at the piano for days and months picking out atonalities, subjecting them to endless, untutored permutations. The result is a tiny body of work—Michael Tilson-Thomas’ complete edition of Ruggles filled only two LPs—that evinces a forthright, intelligible brand of atonality, without the haute intellectualism and “process” of Schoenberg.
Though its title derives from a line in Robert Browning’s Pauline, Sun-Treader has nothing of the poet’s romantic naiveté; instead, the composition, violent in its brass and percussion, invokes shifting beams of sunlight, stacked so thickly upon one another that they assume an almost material substance, like the thunderous strides of a Titan.
Among Ruggles’ other works, only the three-movement suite Men and Mountains approaches Sun-Treader’s scope and booming majesty—the remainder of his output is limited to intimate, peculiar works for piano, chamber groups, or voice. Michael Tilson-Thomas’ recording is awestruck and measured; Christoph von Dohnányi takes the gargantuan strides more swiftly.
John Corigliano, Third Symphony, Circus Maximus
The third symphony of Corigliano, arguably America’s most important living composer, is hardly your typical work for wind band. According to Corigliano’s notes, the performers are arranged in a wide shoehorn pattern, like an ad hoc amphitheater, with additional brass bands either to the side or entering and egressing from the stage at tragicomic moments.
The result is a frightful, apocalyptic work that shifts from satirical frenzy to troubled nocturnes to a warlike, “gladiatorial” motif on the tutti brass—a violent kaleidoscope Corigliano likens to our media landscape of colliding, shrill television channels, whose cruel white noise now approaches critical mass. At the symphony’s climax, one percussionist is instructed to fire a 12-bore shotgun overhead, in a gesture of either inevitable annihilation or implicit suicide.
A good recording is available on Naxos, but it cannot compete with Kevin Sedatole’s live performance with the Michigan State University Wind Symphony, a performance so intense that front row audiences clasp their ears.
Andrei Eshpai, Concerto Grosso for Piano, Trumpet, Vibraphone, and Double Bass
The Soviet-era works of Eshpai, a student of Khachaturian, often weave together Tartar and Mari themes with Prokofievian rhythms and jazzy syncopations; his works would likely attract sizeable audiences if North American conductors and programmers could overcome their Germanic predilections. Along with Antheil’s parodic, riotous Jazz Symphony and Copland’s stunning 1926 Piano Concerto (his masterpiece, in my opinion), Eshpai’s 1967 Concerto Grosso is among the few truly successful amalgamations of classical form and jazz inspiration, featuring rushing brass passages, dexterous, quasi-improvisatory turns for each of the four soloists, and a beautifully bluesy slow section that allows the muted trumpet and double bass to cry like an oboe. The final chords, admittedly, are too pat—they seem to be channeling Bernstein—but unlike Shostakovich, Eshpai had a genuine feel for jazz.
His following work, the entertaining agitprop cantata Lenin is Amongst Us (1968), features brassy syncopations in its central movement that aren’t too far from West Side Story. The concerto is available on a Russian Disc CD, the cantata on an out-of-print Melodiya CD that also features Prokofiev’s rarely heard, wistful Festive Poem of 1947.
Miloslav Kabeláč, Symphony 8, Antiphonies
The Eighth Symphony of the Czech composer Kabeláč (1908-1979) is one of those works I’d actually pay a good deal to see, but at this point I expect to die without the experience. Though dense and severe, his music language is also highly rhythmic and approachable if your mood tends toward tortured composers, veins throbbing in perpetual agony and brow furrowed with Soviet-bloc despair.
Written in 1970, the Eighth is a malevolent, neo-Gothic choral symphony, based on texts from the Book of Daniel and scored for mixed double chorus, percussion ensemble, pipe organ, and a soprano who lets loose a hysterical, wordless wail (based on three repeated notes) above the chorus’ apocalyptic chanting. Imagine a cross among Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Prokofiev’s Akkadian invocation Seven, They Are Seven, and Ligeti’s acapella horrors. If you can find it, a long out-of-print CD is available on the Praga label.
Henry Cowell, Atlantis
I confess I was surprised—shocked, really—when the New York classical station WQXR occasionally played Cowell’s Atlantis at two or three in the afternoon, when most classical stations wouldn’t dare program anything that couldn’t be piped into a dentist’s waiting room. I’ve never seen Atlantis on a concert program, but I guess someone at WQXR had a naughty sense of humor.
Written by the great iconoclastic Cowell in 1926, Atlantis is a 17-minute chamber opera decades ahead of its time: having no words, the singers only groan, grunt, moan, scream, and yowl through the music, at first impishly, and then with groping passions, wolfish lusts, and shuddering paroxysms, in what is perhaps the most overtly sexual music ever penned.
Lili Boulanger, Pie Jesu
The tragically brief life of French impressionist Lili Boulanger (sister of famed pedagogue Nadia) is well-known to classical aficionados: afflicted by crippling illnesses of the nervous system, she composed feverishly in her sickbed to become, at 19, the youngest winner of the Prix de Rome (Europe’s premier competition for composers under 30) before succumbing to pneumonia in 1918, at age 24. In haunting, lushly exotic works such as Vieille prière bouddhique, she proved a peerless composer for the human voice and, had she lived, probably would’ve been another, more intrepid Debussy, writing with greater menace and vulnerability.
Her two large-scale cantatas, Faust and Helen and a magniloquent setting of Psalm 130, won her adolescent fame and mark pinnacles of choral impressionism, but nothing is as exquisite as her Pie Jesu, a fragment from the Catholic Mass. Written on her deathbed and scored slightly for boy soprano, harp, chamber strings, and a darkly pulsing organ, the five-minute piece is perhaps the most achingly beautiful farewell song ever written, and Igor Markevitch’s recording on Everest captures uncannily the exit of an angelic ghost departing a failed, mortal shell.