Twentieth Century Countdown

A busy week kept me from listening to as much as I would have liked of a countdown on the radio of the top hundred pieces of twentieth century music, as voted by the listeners of the ABC. But it was wonderful to hear some old favourites, among them Vaughan Williams’ Fantasias on Greensleeves and a Theme from Thomas Tallis, Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was even better to hear for the first time Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, in which the pianist seems to be improvising (and is that a languid sax in the background?), and playing of an oddly similar kind in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

I’m struck by how much good music was composed by Russians during the last century. Doubtless this is partly because the late entry of Russia into the mainstream of European life means that its recent contributions are more substantial than they were in preceding centuries; the same could be said of its literature. But perhaps the circumstances of Russia during the twentieth century made music a more viable form of expression than literature, giving it more prominence. Recently I’ve been enjoying a book of reproductions from the Tretyakov Gallery a friend has brought back from Moscow, and I’ve been intrigued by a painting by Tatyana Nazarenko, ‘Moscow Evening’; it’s hard to work out how the creativity it suggests positions itself in regard to the surrounding world.

I suspect that many of my favourite pieces of twentieth century music would fall into the category of easy listening, some way apart from the more bracing and difficult compositions of that century. We are told that we need to listen to such pieces several times to appreciate them, and while there’s some sense in this it’s also true that until music began to be recorded in the twentieth century this was generally impossible. The Magic Flute and the Pastoral Symphony segue between high and low culture (just as A Midsummer Night’s Dream does), and seem to aim at a wider audience than much modern music is interested in reaching.

And more generally, I fear that the past century produced no composer of the stature of the greats of the preceding centuries. Of course there will be composers whose value we do not yet appreciate; think how long it took for Vivaldi and Bach to be seen for what they were worth. But here, as in other respects, I like to think that the twenty first century will surpass that which went before!

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