01/14/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2014

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear

A close friend has been after me to write about 20th century music that I like. This comes after my dismissal of much of the music of Cage and Carter which has caused just a little consternation in the new music world. As I am not unrelenting negative about many works of the latter part of the 20th century, I have decided to make a stab at honoring my colleague's request.

I have written in other venues (see Academic Questions) of my great admiration for some of the music of Aaron Copland, particularly his three great piano masterpieces. But to talk of such a composer and his music is to talk about someone who is already acknowledged within the pantheon of great composers. I will take it as my task to write about composers, or at least a piece or two of theirs, that I admire, where matters are less settled. This process will be undertaken episodically and in no particular order. But my considerations have taken place over about a 40-year period and thus have had time to weather and change. Some of my former loves haven't held up, while other works seem to have increased in their power to move me. Those that now, or still, matter seem to fall within certain guiding principles.

For me, any piece of music worth its salt has to be about an idea. We know what that means with Mozart and Beethoven so I assume we can figure this out with our peers. If I retain something of a piece in my memory that's not a bad thing either, to paraphrase George Rochberg. And most really good pieces, as Schuller has said, should deal with all musical parameters at once. The pieces I mention will have a high degree of craft, contain large amounts of emotional content, tell me something that matters about the composer and his understanding of the world, be individual or personal, original and usually idiosyncratic and partake of that most elusive quality-genius.

I take as my starting point 1945-50 only because of the cultural break caused by the WWII; not because I believe the modernist premise that music had to start afresh at that time, for that is a belief that suggests the past is not part of our present if only we wish it so. This is an idea that negates the lives and music of those whose careers and music began before the war and continued long after the war. It is the early Boulezian idea that there is only one path of musical history that is righteous and right, an idea that is totalitarian to its roots. Then again, I also find the post-modern pervasive permissiveness to be equally pernicious.

I am inclusive and open to much within the parameters as noted above. However, I do not find all musics to be equal in their possibility for depth of expression, and thus I don't include what will become obvious. I withhold the right to discriminate -- to make judgements -- and thus to conclude that some music is more worthy of our attention than others. I also hold the view that we have no composers whose total output is as astounding as some composers of the past. However this does not negate their contribution of a number of great pieces, as it is those pieces that will mark our time. To give a more nuanced and rounded picture I will also make allusions to some of these pieces deficits and why I think other pieces of the composer's oeuvre are not worthy of our attention. Lastly, while my choices are my own, and thus personal and idiosyncratic, I do justify my choices with reasons that suggest my choices are not arbitrary. You may, of course, reject my choices and my reasons. I will look forward to hearing your responses accompanied by your reasons and justifications, as questions of Beauty do not quite have the concrete nature of matters of Truth and Goodness.

I also have no problem with the matter of taste. While those who love Wagner may not dote on Brahms, it is hard for those in either camp not to acknowledge the strengths or veracity of the other composer. Some find it in their hearts to love both. But then again, these composers have been well vetted over the course of time.

The music world is a tough one for composers, leaving very few standing at the end. That is just the way it is, as sustained genius doesn't come around all that often. I should also add that sometimes great pieces happen at a very young age (e.g. Mozart, although he was getting much more personal and rich at the end), and sometimes it just takes longer for a composer to hit his stride (e.g. Janacek, who really began hitting his stride in his 60s).

Lastly, I will write both for the professional musician as well as the interested lay person, thus the language is rarely technical. Those interested may consider this a useful survey of evocative music of the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and can seek out recordings for their listening pleasure and edification.