Franz Liszt – “Bagatelle sans tonalité”

Before there was Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania. This Hungarian virtuoso pianist was considered the most technically skilled player of his age and, at one point, the greatest pianist who ever lived. His live performances were widely popular in his lifetime, comparable to how popular the Beatles were when they first came to the United States. It helped that he was an over-the-top guy who knew how to put on a good show. Alex Ross called him the Lady Gaga of his time, though I’m sure Gaga can’t play piano as well as Liszt.

This 1885 composition is just one example of Liszt’s crazy hands and taste for flair. Some critics hate his flashiness, but it’s hard to deny the man’s talent. This piece is also famous for being one of the first pieces by a major composer to explore a theme of atonality that Schoenberg would later perfect. Underneath its quick playful tone is a lack of structure that challenges the ideas of concrete organization in classical composition.

And now you know what that Phoenix song is about.

Aaron Copland – “Appalachian Spring”

Year: 1944

The orchestral suite that won Copland his Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945, “Appalachian Spring” was a piece commissioned by choreographer and dance legend Martha Graham and music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a ballet with, “an American theme.” Copland’s piece is grand and sweeping, much like our fantasies of the American mountainsides.

Except the Appalachian of this ballet has nothing to do with mountains. The title actually comes from the poem “The Dance” written by Hart Crane, another American artist whose work is often misunderstood (“O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; / Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends / And northward reaches in that violet wedge / Of Adirondacks!”). The working title was just “Ballet for Martha,” because this ballet was indeed for Martha Graham. The new title would be tagged on at the last minute, but it worked out in the end that Copland, an openly gay Jewish man from Brooklyn, accidentally gave these American mountains an unofficial anthem.

Also make sure to listen to Copland’s other excellent American score “Rodeo.”

Olivier Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time

Year: 1941

On first listen, Quartet for the End of Time doesn’t sound like much. It’s long and slow, with moments of sudden excitement in-between long periods of calm, single-instrument themes. It sounds pretty, but you’ve heard this kind of stuff before. Nothing new here. Move along now.

But let’s give the music a little backstory: French composer Olivier Messiaen composed this stark piece for a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano quartet while he was a German POW during WWII. Messiaen played piano while the other performers – clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire, and cellist Étienne Pasquier –  were fellow prison mates. The prison quartet premiered this piece in their own camp and played to about 400 prisoners and guards. Performance night was freezing and the performers played under the watch of armed guards.

And yet music played on.

Imagine trying to write music while you’re a prisoner of war, and then try to imagine performing your music for the men who are keeping you locked up. When you add the back story to Messiaen’s work – and when you try to picture yourself at the prison camp hearing his quartet perform the piece for the first time – the music now sounds violent. It’s the sound of dread juxtaposed with a calm, almost serene soundscape. It’s a blue sky seen above a death camp. It’s a seemingly desperate attempt by a man of strong Catholic faith using images from the Book of revelations to come to terms with the madness of the modern world and of this war that has literally imprisoned him.

Taking all this into account, it’s a miracle that Messiaen could write something like this. This piece was, in a sense, written for the end of time.

It’s WWII classical. It’s Messiaen’s masterwork. It’s a work of genuine art.

John Adams – ‘Nixon In China’

Year: 1987

In 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet with Mao Zedong in an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries in the later years of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most important diplomatic moments of the 20th century, and it’s the visit that would have defined Nixon if Watergate never happened. It’s the kind of real life epic that could only be captured in an opera.

At least that’s what John Adams thought in 1983 when he began writing the score to his first opera to Alice Goodman’s libretto and Mark Morris’ choreography. Adams wrote the opera by the encouragement of stage director Peter Sellars, who saw the complexities of Nixon’s visit; it could have been an election ploy, a genuine diplomatic mission, or both. However, Adams and Sellars did not want to create another bland satire poking at the easy target of Nixon, an awkward power-hungry stiff who is perhaps the easiest American President to make fun of. The goal of the opera was to explore the humans on both sides of the meeting and to capture the historical moment from those who were actually there. Even the title Nixon in China invokes some involuntary humor – can you imagine Richard Nixon walking around in China? Adams understands what he’s going up against in his attempt to humanize Nixon, and the play’s success is how he often gets close to his goal.

The main characters are Nixon and his wife Pat, Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), and the two advisors of each leader, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. The opera is divided into three acts: Act One details the first night of the visit and the initial meetings between Nixon and Mao, Act Two follows Pat around rural China and exploring everyday Chinese life, and Act Three describes Nixon’s last night in China and everyone’s mixed feelings on the success of the visit.

Nixon in China has always been more influential than acclaimed – its initial reviews were mixed – but over the years it has earned its position as one of America’s most important operas. It is more famous for its existence than its success as an emotional engaging piece of music; few operas are based on a media event that was televised all around the world. Though the opera takes place in China, Adams’ score borrows almost entirely from Philip Glass’ minimalist style and rarely takes on any Oriental influence. That’s where Goodman’s libretto comes in, which is written in rhymed and metered couplets inspired by traditional Chinese poetry and theater.

American operas may not be as established or as grand as its European siblings, but Nixon in China was, and still is, a groundbreaking attempt at turning an old and inaccessible musical style into something modern and, dare I say, relatable? Also, does anyone think the beginning of the opera sounds like Elliott Smith?

Alban Berg – “Wozzeck”

Year: 1925

The best way to experience opera is in person, but the next best thing is to watch the film adaptation with subtitles. This was Berg’s first opera and it was based on Georg Büchner’s incomplete play Woyzeck (which is partly why the film version works). Berg began working on the opera in 1914, but soon he left to fight in World War I and experienced first-hand the desperate humiliation of fighting a war with people you despised. (Berg was also not the easiest guy to get along with, but still.)

Wozzeck is an early example of using Schoenberg-atonality in 20th century opera, and it’s considered a major step in bringing avant garde into the mainstream. The lack of major/minor tonality gives the music an uneasy feel, which Berg used to match his uneasy story of a German town caught up in wartime.

Now that it’s finally snowing a lot on the east coast, it’s a great time to stay in and watch some atonal opera on your computer.

Igor Stravinsky and “The Rite of Spring,” the Ballet That Caused a Riot


Before Dylan blew up Newport with his electric guitar, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky blew up a Paris theatre with “The Rite of Spring,” one of the most polarizing and influential ballets of the 20th century. It’s also one of the first instances of a popular musical piece causing an immediate and polarizing response, both emotional and physical.

Now universally acclaimed, Stravinsky’s ballet, which premiered on May 29, 1913, at Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysees, was met with strong criticism and an actual riot that took place within the crowd while the performance was still going on. Critics were sharply divided between praising and scorning the young composer for the same reason; Stravinsky created such a twisted and challenging piece of music that was unlike anything else. At the time, you could only call it innovative or barbaric.


Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer who studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a well-known composer who inspired young Stravinsky to incorporate Russian folklore and nationalism into his music. Stravinsky was always interested in testing the limits of what classical music could do both musically and within its social context – could music be more than just a passive leisure, and could it actually challenge and trigger the audience? – but Rimsky-Korsakov inspired him to also try to make Russian music for Russian people (ironically, the play was at first only played throughout Europe).

Stravinsky had already achieved fame with his first two ballets, “The Firebird” (1910) and “Petrushka” (1911), when Serge Diaghilev, director of the groundbreaking Paris ballet company Ballets Russes, approached him to collaborate on a new piece. The actual choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky, the male lead of Ballets Russes and one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century. From the very start, the intent was to create something that no one had ever heard, though it’s not sure if these three men knew exactly how polarizing their new piece would be.

The ballet is Stravinsky’s recreation of a pagan Russian tribe celebrating springtime, which includes violent dancing and climaxes with the sacrifice of a young girl who literally dances herself to death.

The ballet begins with a lone bassoon playing a simple and pleasant melody that evokes the serenity of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” which was what the audience in the packed theatre was probably expecting. Though it’s unusual for a bassoon to play in such a high register, the music itself is unassuming until it is gradually joined by other woodwinds and strings that slowly build tension from clashing with each other with dissonant notes and nervous rhythms that anticipate something wicked.

The curtain comes up and an old woman, fully dressed in a bizarre costume and whose face is covered in a tribe-like paint, foretells the future of Spring to a group of young girls also dressed in long rags and warpaint looking nothing like the flattering and revealing tutus of classical ballerinas. The young girls quickly jump up and down and stomp onto the ground in time with a repeated blast of strings and horns while aimlessly wailing their arms in sudden spurts. The young girls then perform the “Dance of the Abduction” and the “Spring Rounds,” in which the girls separate in different packs and move as units to and from each other in a sort of confrontational style. The orchestra moves between swift and sluggish, but the music always retains its dissonance and always seems on the verge of resolving yet never does, just like the young girls continually dancing whom can’t seem to stop.

But then the dancing does stop, and an old Sage enters to bless the earth and to join everyone in dance. This is the end of the adoration of the earth. It’s time for the sacrifice. A young girl is selected by fate and his honored as the “Chosen One” who then begins the long and violent ceremony of dancing herself to death in honor of her tribe and of the earth.

The music, so dark for its time, is strange on its own, but it’s the actual visualization of the music that makes this piece so vibrant (or horrifying). There’s nothing pretty about this dancing. The ballet dancers, rather than dressing in tutus showing off their elegant and nimble bodies, are fully dressed in bizarre costumes and face paint. The rhythmic accent of both the dancers and the instruments are intended to portray a very primitive and stark feel, much like the tribes which this ballet is depicting. Quite the contrast from the happy-go-lucky Mozart or the sweet and elegant Beethoven.


So how did the crowd react? Below is a BBC recreation of what the crowd was experiencing during the show.

From this video, you can hear jeering and hissing from all parts of the theatre (According to Amar Toor of The Verge, the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the crowd’s jeering, so Nijinsky had to shout out his commands from backstage). There were fist fights and violent confrontations, yet the performance continued to its end even among the chaos within the theatre.

The music itself was shocking, but the actual cause of the riots might have been the result of a long-building tension. This was Stravinsky’s supposed Russian Nationalist piece, yet this was during the chaotic years that would build up and finally explode into the Russian Revolution four years later. This was also right after the turn of the century, which was marked by many advancements in technology and art. This was the time of Picasso, Freud, Einstein, and a general sense of change and innovation. In art specifically, several different “isms” were beginning to form and clash, including Impressionism, Primitivism, and Expressionism. In a way, “The Rite of Spring” is a mixture of all these different “isms,” a sum of several different parts. With all this change, people were ready for the next stage in art and performance. “The Rite of Spring” also hinted at the kind of twisted future that music would confront, as one year after its premiere Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated and the world would deal with death on a global scale never seen before.

Stravinsky, and “The Rite of Spring” specifically, is now credited for ushering in modernism in classical music, which gave us Philip Glass, John Cage, and others who would further challenge our expectations of music.

Whereas Bob Dylan was seen as pissing on his fans who hated rock ‘n’ roll, Stravinsky was genuinely shocking his audience with music that sounded like nothing else before. It was a loud rejection of the traditional forms of classical music and it inspired musicians of all genres to break away from their forms and to push their boundaries.