1919 in Music

1. Charles Ives: Orchestral Set No. 2 (10/10)

The second “orchestral set” is assembled the same way as the first: three disparate evocations of moments combined together. Only this time there’s no overriding theme as there was with the first set. The first piece is brief and unlike anything else I’ve heard from him. It’s almost the orchestra equivalent of one of Satie’s, albeit with more Ivesian flair. The second piece is about as Ives as it gets and recalls much of his most famous orchestrated work in its lack of adherence to tradition. (It’s certainly as radical as the 4th symphony.) The third piece, like much of Ives’s most radical work, sounds like it could have been written decades later, when it became fashionable to physically move groups of the performers, as it opens with a barely audible choir and slowly builds to a chaotic and impressive climax. If anything this set is even more impressive than the first. It’s one of his greatest works.


2. Charles Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’ (10/10)

Though apparently completed in 1915, the “Concord” was not published until 1919 and not performed publicly until much later (to my knowledge) so I have listed it here.

The “Concord Sonata” is extremely radical for its day, as you might expect with Ives. From the opening notes, it sounds as if Ives studied under Schoenberg (to my uneducated ears, at least). And, aside from flirting with atonality, it also breaks other (perhaps unwritten) rules, including featuring different supporting instruments in the different movements. It’s a landmark and there’s a reason it’s possibly his most famous work.


3. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 [Revised version] (10/10)

The third version of Sibelius’ fifth symphony is supposedly the most conservative, rejecting the supposed concessions he made to modernism in the fourth. I don’t hear that perhaps because what I hear is Sibelius’ most immediate and accessible symphony. Normally that’s a bad thing for me, but this finds a balance between melodic lyricism and Sibelius’ usual inventive and compelling writing. The melody in the third movement could be a popular song. Seriously it’s that pretty.


4. Paul Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11 No. 4 (9/10)

Hindemith’s first viola sonata is a pretty radical late romantic (early modernist?) composition that manages to sound, at least to my ears, more conventional than it is. This appears to be Hindemith’s gift. The piece starts off sedately but comes alive soon after and features what almost sounds like sparring between the piano and the viola. Excellent stuff. (The finale is particularly great.)


5. Leoš Janáček: The Diary of One Who Has Disappeared (9/10)

This is just great. Janacek subverts our (my?) idea of what one of these should sound like with abrupt endings and multiple voices. It’s certainly among the cooler song-cycles I’ve heard from the era. It’s really great stuff and is the absolute favourite of everything of Janacek’s I’ve heard to date.


6. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [Revised Version] (9/10)

I’m sure I’ve heard the Fantasia before but it still stirs me. It is one of the most magnificent things to come out of English high art music in the years of the 20th century prior to World War I. It might be the best.


7. Edward Elgar: Piano Quintet (9/10)

I have definitely heard part of it before; it must have been used in multiple films or something because I really recognize it. In my mind it shows a balanced and interesting side to his writing.


8. Erik Satie: Nocturnes (9?/10)

Satie’s second last piano work has a weird reputation because of how serious he took them. I find them very pleasant to listen to but, as someone who has not listened to enough nocturnes, I’m not sure how far they deviate from the form. (Okay, I am sure they deviate from the form, I’m just not sure how far.) I like this music, but I’m not sure how radical it was by the time it was published.


9. Paul Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 11 No. 5 (8/10)

The first solo viola sonata is another one of Hindemith’s pieces where he straddles tradition and the avant garde, echoing the past, but playing with tempo (particularly) and tonality in ways that would be pretty foreign to even listeners of the late 19th century.

It is a worthy partner to the first viola/piano sonata, which is part of the same opus.


10. Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (8/10)

The cello concerto is less impressive than so much other early 20th century cello works, given when it was written (post WWI), but it is still very solid.

Certainly a good showcase for the instrument. And at least one of the movements is pretty famous.


11. Igor Stravinsky: Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (8/10)

As music, these pieces are pretty typical of how European composers couldn’t quite figure out the brand new genre of jazz – and when I saw brand new, I mean basically invented around this time – but this is still lively, compelling music and I think I would rather listen to this than nearly every other European attempt from this era to “capture” jazz, as it’s fun.

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