Much has been written about the decline of "classical" music. There are as many symptoms, guilty parties, and solutions to this decline as there are people who proclaim it and comment on it. I can't claim to know the full extent of the decline or the nature of the solutions, but I do know that "classical" music does not occupy the "intellectual space" amongst educated people that it used to. Or the space that it should occupy.

My response to this situation is to try to open up the intellectual space through the music I know the best and love the most--the concert music of the 20th century. Over the course of the last year or so of the century I compiled a list of pieces that I believed would, taken as a whole, comprise what is essential about the century's music. I'll explain more about the project and the thinking behind the list in later posts, but for now I want to list the pieces and invite you to listen.

Adams, John: Violin Concerto
Barber, Samuel: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Barber, Samuel: Piano Sonata
Bartok, Bela: Concerto for Orchestra
Bartok, Bela: String Quartet 4
Berg, Alban: Violin Concerto
Berg, Alban: Wozzeck
Berio, Luciano: Sinfonia
Bernstein, Leonard: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Boulez, Pierre: Repons
Bridge, Frank: Piano Trio 2
Britten, Benjamin: Peter Grimes
Britten, Benjamin: War Requiem
Busoni, Ferrucio: Piano Concerto
Cage, John: 4'33"
Cage, John: Sonatas and Interludes
Carter, Elliott: String Quartet 1
Carter, Elliott: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Copland, Aaron: Billy the Kid
Copland, Aaron: Appalachian Spring
Corigliano, John: Violin Sonata
Crawford, Ruth: Quartet
Crumb, George: Black Angels
Debussy, Claude: La Mer
Debussy, Claude: Sonata for flute, viola, and harp
Durufle, Maurice: Requiem
Elgar, Edward: Cello Concerto
de Falla, Manuel: Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Feldman, Morton: Rothko Chapel
Gershwin, George: Porgy and Bess
Gershwin, George: Rhapsody in Blue
Glass, Philip: Einstein on the Beach
Granados, Ernesto: Goyescas
Gubaidulina, Sofia: Offertorium
Harris, Roy: Symphony 3
Henze, Hans Werner: The Bassarids
Hindemith, Paul: Mathis der Maler
Hindemith, Paul: Symphonic Metamophoses on a Theme by Weber
Holst, Gustav: The Planets
Honneger, Arthur: Pacific 231
Ives, Charles: The Unanswered Question
Janacek, Leos: The Makropulos Case
Janacek, Leos: Quartet 2
Korngold, Erich von: Violin Concerto
Ligeti, Gyorgy: Etudes
Ligeti, Gyorgy: Le Grand Macabre
Lutoslawski, Witold: Symphony 3
Mahler, Gustav: Das Lied von Der Erde
Mahler, Gustav: Symphony 6
Martin, Frank: Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments
Martinu, Bohuslav: Symphony 2
Maw, Nicholas: Odyssey
Menotti, Gian Carlo: The Medium
Messiaen, Olivier: Quatour pour la fin du temps
Messiaen, Olivier: Turangalilia-Symphonie
Milhaud, Darius: La Creation du Monde
Nielsen, Carl: Symphony 4
Orff, Carl: Carmina Burana
Part, Arvo: Tabula Rasa
Penderecki, Krzysztof: Threnody
Poulenc, Francois: Dialogues du Carmelites
Prokofiev, Sergei: Sonata 7
Prokofiev, Sergei: Violin Concerto 2
Puccini, Giacomo: Madama Butterfly
Puccini, Giacomo: Turandot
Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Piano Concerto 2
Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Ravel, Maurice: Bolero
Ravel, Maurice: Piano Concerto in G
Reich, Steve: Come Out
Respighi, Ottorino: Pines of Rome
Riley, Terry: In C
Rochberg, George: Quartet 3
Rodrigo, Joaquin: Concierto de Aranjuez
Satie, Erik: Parade
Schnittke, Alfred: Concerto Grosso 1
Schoenberg, Arnold: Pierrot Lunaire
Schoenberg, Arnold: Five Pieces, Op. 23
Scriabin, Alexander: Poeme d'Ecstases
Scriabin, Alexander: Sonata 9
Shostakovich, Dmitri: String Quartet 8
Shostakovich, Dmitri: Symphony 5
Sibelius, Jean: Symphony 4
Sibelius, Jean: Violin Concerto
Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Gesang der Junglinde
Strauss, Richard: Ariadne auf Naxos
Strauss, Richard: Four Last Songs
Stravinsky, Igor: Le Sacre du Printemps
Stravinsky, Igor: Symphony of Psalms
Szymanowski, Karol: King Roger
Tavener, John: Thunder Entered Her
Thomson, Virgil: Four Saints in Three Acts
Tippett, Michael: King Priam
Varese, Edgard: Ionisation
Vaughan Williams, Ralph: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams, Ralph: London Symphony
Walton, William: Viola Concerto
Webern, Anton: Six Bagatelles, op. 9
Weill, Kurt: Seven Deadly Sins
Weir, Judith: A Night at the Chinese Opera
Xenakis, Iannis: Pithoprakta


  1. It will be interesting to see if I can find all these recordings at the public or university's library. I'm all ears...

  2. JVM--

    I'll post about recordings vs. performance later, but let me know if you hear of any 101 performances in your area.

  3. I am not always aware of all the live performances in my area, but I've printed the list for future reference.

  4. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Hello Steven,

    I noticed that Gorecki's Third Symphony, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' didn't make the list. Why?

  5. I thought about including the Gorecki 3, but I'm not convinced it is as good an exemplar of its style as the Part Tabula Rasa and the Tavener choral work Thunder Entered Her.

  6. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Hi Steven,

    I saw 'La Mer' on your list but not Debussy's operatic masterpiece, 'Pelleas et Melisande', the first 20th century opera. Some works of art sum up the past, some presage the future - amongst operas, one thinks of Mozart's in the first category, of Tristan or Falstaff or Wozzeck in the second. Pelleas et Melisande seems to do neither. Obviously Debussy was anything but a composer insulated from outside influences, but Pelleas belongs to no line and (unlike Debussy's piano and orchestral works) has no imitators. However, if the work is something of a dead end, it is anything but sterile; in fact, every time one hears it, one is more convinced than ever that it is a work of outstanding, uncanny beauty, of incredibly perceptive imagination, and its very lack of followers is some indication that what it has to say has been said once and for all.

    It is an immensely sophisticated work, full of emotional substance, subtlety, eloquence, exquisite beauty and genius.

  7. I didn't include "Pelleas" because most of the music was written between 1893 and 1895. It is certainly a beautiful work, and far reaching in its influence.

  8. Greetings, and welcome, from a reader in west-central Virginia. This weekend the Charlottesville Symphony Orchestra performed Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" and Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis." If I'd known about this blog sooner, I'd have alerted you in time.

    Good choices, BTW. I look forward to reading your defense.

  9. In general, I'd like to compliment you on your open-mindedness and inclusiveness. For instance, it's nice to see an Elgar piece on the list along with a Morton Feldman composition. Both are, at peak form, terrific composers.

    One of the things that always bothers me about these lists is the effort to include works by minor composers at the expense of major works by major composers. That hasn't been the way music has been remembered in the past. For example, Beethoven's first sonata, Op. 2 no. 1, is far more highly thought of than any piece Hummel ever composed. As it applies to your list, how can any piece from a hack like Xenakis be included yet pieces, just to take an example, like the Debussy Cello Sonata or the Images for orchestra, be left off? Can any really knowledgeable music fan, such as yourself, pretend that Mahler's 9th DOESN'T belong on the list, especially when you see a flawed piece like the Roy Harris 3rd Symphony there? (And I like the Harris piece.) How can a genius like Webern have one entry equal to a composer of questionable talent, like Varese?

    Is it worthwhile making some specific comments on your piece selections?

    Bartok: wrong quartet. #6 is the one. The selection of the Ruth Crawford quartet is a pc selection. There are far more deserving pieces, like the Ravel Quartet in F. Or both Bartok's #4 and #6 :)

    Sibelius: Symphony #7 instead of the Violin Concerto.

    I could go on. How can Petrushka and The Firebird not be on the list and "In C" be on it? (I am a fan of minimalism, BTW.)

    But I have to say that I applaud your choices in many ways and there is much less disagreement than I would expect. Good call on Arvo Part and the Scriabin selections. I salute your taste and knowledge.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I'm going to post on the selection criteria at some point, but I want to say a couple of things here.

    I put a somewhat artificial limit of two pieces per composer, in order to include more composers. The reason I say it is only "somewhat" artificial is that the list is intended to represent, when taken as a whole, what is essential in 20th century concert music. As opposed to the best or most-popular or most influential pieces.

    With that in mind, I can only think of a handful of pieces that absolutely must be on the list. The others can all be substituted for, with a piece by the same composer or by another composer.

    Again, thanks for the comment.

  11. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Just a few (hopefully helpful) comments:

    When you've offered more than one piece by a composer the selection is pretty good, but a few are really limited in the scope of the composer they represent. Notably, Copland's Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring - two "Americana" ballets? I'm certain your aware that his breadth as a composer is much more farreaching than these two wonderful pieces. Likewise the Hindemith works, both orchestral and both within the same style-period - your list is already orchestra-heavy, and Hindemith excelled as a chamber music composer. Also, his championing of Gebrauchsmusik was extremely influential, surely a spot on the list would be better given to one of his works in that genre than doubling up with the quite similar works you've chosen. The two Messiaen works, amazing as they are, really don't show anywhere near the range of this composers imagination. Two Puccini operas? I love him, but is there really that much difference between Butterfly and Turandot that the reader is given a more 'complete' picture of that genre? Surely one representative example would suffice, complemented by an opera by Messiaen, Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Birtwistle or Norgard. The Shostakovich choices are rather cliché and really show only one facet of this composer's voice (none of his earlier, avant-garde works, no opera, and no late work?). The Vaughan Williams choices are also quite similar.

    No late Stravinsky?

    Why pick a Xenakis piece that nobody is likely to ever hear in concert when there are other works one is likely to encounter that exhibit the same elements of his style, such as Xas (performed quite often)?

    Complete lack of any representation of the extremely fruitful and interesting range of music produced from c. 1965-1999 in Scandinavian countries (Norgard, Lindberg, Rautavaara, Ruders, Saariaho, etc. etc. etc.)

    As exciting as Corigliano's Violin Sonata is, it contains practially none of the musical rhetoric that distinguish his music (i.e., no aleatoric elements.

    Only one Lutoslawski work? His innovations as a composer are so great, and, while most are present in the 3rd symphony, which surely should be included, it doesn't contain heavy structural use of aleatoric techniques like the quartet does.

    Maw's Odyssey? You're kidding, right? How does this piece offer any perspective on 20th century concert music?

    Pärt Tabula Rasa? Why not chose a vocal work and ditch the Tavener?

    I love Pacific 231, but seriously, this is far from Honegger's strongest or most influential work.

    Bravo on the inclusion of Judith Weir.

    Best of luck with your project!

    Marcus Maroney (http://www.geocities.com/marcus.maroney & marcus.maroney@aya.yale.edu)

  12. Anonymous5:55 AM

    Odd, is it not, that there are only three women in the list?

  13. I've also been criticized for having pieces on the list just because they were written by women. I can assure you that I compiled the list with an eye (and ear) towards presenting a representative picture of what 20th music sounds like.

    I feel confident that when similar lists are made at the end of this century they will include many more pieces by women and other under-represented groups.

  14. Hi Steve,

    Well kudos to you for putting this out there. You definitely can not and will not please all of the people all of the time (nor were you trying, as I understand). I like your list and think I will start going through it as soon as I finish my move across the country.

  15. I looked at the list as I like the 20th century and music history. The only surprise that I disagree with is Ravels Bolero. Even Ravel called it " the best piece of non music I ever wrote" I've always put this below the 1812 by tch. as amusing but less then a great major work.

    Bob F.

  16. Thanks for the comment. I listed Bolero because of its influence and some the trends it anticipates. It's not my favorite Ravel, but I always enjoy listening to it.