Monday, October 05, 2009

The Worst Piece of Classical Music

I attended the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, and while much of it was enjoyable (for example, Beethoven's 4th) and all of it professional, there was one piece that I would nominate for the worst piece of classical music ever written: Elliott Carter's "Mosaic" for harp and chamber ensemble. It was absolutely unlistenable. When a cell phone went off in the middle, I sighed with relief: at last, some tonality.

What are your nominations for the worst piece of classical music ever?

21 comments:

Paul said...

Schoenberg's atonal works are terrible and unlistenable.

Paul said...

Anything by Arnold Schoenberg. I just can't listen to that atonal noise without cringing.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's my age (mid 20s) but I love atonal music. I enjoy Beethoven, Mozart, et al., but find their color palettes, rhythms, harmonies, dull compared to contemporary classical such as Carter, Messiaen, Ligeti, Schoenberg, and Ad├ęs.

I realize this music isn't for everyone (the lack of melody does it for most people), but it does have its appeals. It's fresh and exciting compared to Beethoven.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

If you actually hate Schoenberg you'd probable hate Xenakis even more, for example... Or, perhaps, Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen... Even Debussy is unbearable for some (and used to be even more so), but why? I confess I "like" all the above. However, I dislike most of Philip Glass' music. I have not heard Elliot Carter's music, so I can't tell...

Deane said...

Jeff,

Do you like other Elliott Carter works? I found "Mosaic" on youtube.com, and I have to agree that it's not something that appeals a lot to me. But I think I've heard much worse classical music. Like others, I don't like Phillip Glass much, and I agree that even Debussy sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

I do like at least some Elliott Carter pieces, despite their atonality. I recall hearing Yo-yo Ma playing a sonata for cello and piano and absolutely loving it.

Here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lbivEE8kPU

Colin said...

I don't think of myself as having very catholic tastes but I've been enjoying Berg's Violin Concerto lately. I think Strauss' waltzes are probably my least favourite classical music. I've also found it impossible to get into Bruckner, but have no problem with Mahler.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Deane!

I can stand that piece of Carter's you suggested, although I'd never choose to listen to it voluntarily. But the one the BSO played Saturday night was really my vision of hell.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

A couple of additional remarks:

1. I find it a bit strange to classify all this music as "classical". We clearly need other terms.

2. Every kind of music has its uses. For instance, in the past, whenever I had students partying next door in the middle of the night (who, despite polite asking, would not stop) I would play Xenakis full blast with (my electrostatic) speakers against the wall. That worked. Perfectly. Nobody can stand the random high-pitched Xenakis sounds.

Anonymous said...

The mind that made that piece must thing of a junkyard as a very ordered place.

Eamon

Anonymous said...

Chuck Berry got it right with that classic, "Roll over Beethoven"
I find almost all modern classical music self-indulgent, predictable, and pretentious. While the Romantics and Baroques are listenable, and the modern greats notably Debussey have produced melodious and simple music, the rest of the moderns are plain bores. I am glad I enjoy access to rock, jazz, and the many flavors of modern popular music, including the vast output of Indian film music, and whistle past any symphony orchestra.

jbeck

Ralf Muschall said...

I think it is not the atonality which makes music unlistenable (Schoenbergs freely atonal stuff (i.e. before the invention of dodecaphonics around 1920) is more listenable than the latter).

Cowell's "The tides of Manaunaun" (Pgn4SQFgU9Y on youtube) is wonderful as well (but might still just count as tonal).

The problem is IMHO (A) the limited span of short-term memory (7 brain registers vs. 12 tones) and (B) Schoenbergs radical expressionism (Eisler wrote about Schoenberg "he expressed long before the invention of the airplane the fear that one experiences in an air-raid shelter under bombardment").

Most people
(including myself) probably won't find the tonal center of a nontrivial piece of music anyway (otherwise they'd get extremely confused by Coltrane's "Giant steps", but nobody but experts seems to notice the changes therein).

Blake Stacey said...

I could never stand Wagner. . . but like Takis Konstantopoulos above, I find it a little odd to lump all these different works together as "classical" music. Sure, they're all noises made by an orchestra, but we're capable of a little more distinction than that! (-:

smeldrick said...

I must be completely insane, because I found the Carter youtube sonota to be quite moving and deep, and the Xenakis to be totally hilarious! Those two responses together are probably a dead indicator of serial-killer tendencies or something...

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

smeldrick: This is to prove that music is a personal thing for most. For me, it's prolonged exposure to most of country music (Hank Williams and Johnny Cash excepted) that might trigger my killer instincts :-)

hkl said...

I would like to hear an explanation as to why you thought the music was so horrible. Is it simply the atonal aspect of it, or is there more in particular? Other comments have already suggested other composers such as those from second viennese school. Any opinions on them?

The second viennese school simply thought they were continuing and improving the great musical tradition as beethoven, brahms, etc have done (both of whom also broke a lot of harmonic rules for their time). You could try listening to schoenberg’s transfigured night and progress towards twelve tone theory to understand the transitions in music theory.

It’s also just fun to think about how composers like xenakis used boolean algebra, group theory, etc to compose music. Lately, some are even taking PDB files (a file that contains information for depicting 3d structures of biomolecules) and translating them into music!

Personally, I dislike vivaldi, bach, mozart... I’m convinced I can easily write a simple algorithm to compose the thousands of pieces they produced.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

HKL:

I don't generally like atonal music, but I can appreciate it if it seems to have some interesting ideas in it. But Mosaic was both ugly and uninteresting.

As for using an algorithm to generate the works of Bach and Vivaldi - I'm not sure why you think that is a criticism. Then again, my guess is that every composer is following an algorithm.

Avior Byron said...

Schoenberg said that his best teacher was Mozart. All the people that hate Schoenberg's music might think about that when they listen...

Anonymous said...

You are not in a position to judge Carter's music or music generally. The purpose of listening to music is not to decide whether you like it or not, but first to understand what took place in the compositions, which you are incapable of doing. Until you can make informed observations, your reactions are irrelevant to artistic discussions.

D. Swart said...

Much atonal music has often made me think and wonder, but not "What took place in this composition?", nor "What do I need to learn to make an informed observation?", but rather "What unheard layers and meaning could possibly be appealing enough to overcome such an unpalatable surface?"

Anonymous, today I think you've answered a piece of that puzzle: Perhaps it is merely elitist B.S..

How can an attempt to invalidate anyone's impressions as to whether they enjoy (like) a piece of music be construed as anything but?

Paul daley said...

Worst `classical' composition ever: `Red, Yellow & Black' by Sir Edward Elgar - a horrible unmusical pro-Belgian First World War propaganda piece in which a `poem' praising `gallant little Belgium' - in reality one of the cruelest colonial powers of all, is recited over an undistinguished muscial background. Still, he had to do something for the `War Effort'.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The purpose of listening to music...

As if the purpose you advocate is the only possible or only legitimate purpose!