The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century

A while back, I ran across an interesting tidbit on my Facebook feed: Pierre Boulez’s list of the 10 greatest works of classical music in the 20th Century. Boulez, for those who aren’t immediately familiar with him, is a hugely influential/controversial composer, conductor, performer, and writer who has long been associated with the avantiest of avant-garde music.

I was intrigued to read his top 10 list—as he was at the epicenter of 20th Century music, his insights are invaluable. But in looking them over, I found myself in disagreement with several of his choices.

Naturally, I decided to come up with my own list.

A quick few words of explanation. Boulez’s list often focuses on works that broke barriers and transformed the musical world. This is a welcome contrast from the “greatest works” lists that simply give a rundown of the century’s most popular warhorses like Carmina Burana, The Planets and Boléro. Sure these works are popular, but popularity alone doesn’t mean that they are great.

That said, at times Boulez focuses on works that are, well… too revolutionary, and are more likely to be discussed among musical insiders than to be experienced in the concert hall. I’m pleased that he’s giving these works their due, but I have to say that my thinking about music has changed over the last few years—particularly as a result of the Minnesota Orchestra (and other) labor disputes.

These labor disputes really brought home to me the crucial fact about music and music-making… the public has to be part of the equation. I’m hardly the first to point out that that during the middle part of the century, public opinion became a secondary consideration for many composers. In 1999, Boulez himself stated in an interview that during the 1950s and 1960s, “Perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener.” Serious music can’t simply focus on complexity or the art of creation; to my mind, it has to give weight to communication. It has to bring the composer, the performers, and the audience on a journey together.

Therefore, my top 10 focus on works that pushed the envelope, and typified new ways of approaching music, but also touched people deeply and helped music find new audiences. Enjoy—they are listed in approximately the order in which they premiered.

* * *

Debussy: La Mer. Many people are conditioned to think that revolutionary music must be aggressive, bold… and probably, discordant. Debussy’s gorgeous La Mer (“The Sea”) shatters those expectations. It is certainly a revolutionary work, yet it makes its musical points in shimmering waves of sound. It is a masterpiece of impressionism—music that is atmospheric, without being conventionally representational. So, instead of seeking to literally portray storms, waves, and the crying of seagulls, Debussy sought to evoke the essence of the ocean and the emotions it stirs in the observer. But more importantly, the work created a revolution in its actual sound, tossing centuries of music theory and conventional harmony right out the window. Chords progressed, dissolved and reappeared as a result of their own internal logic, mirroring the motion of churning water. The result is remarkable. Boulez himself once remarked: “What was overthrown was not so much the art of development as the very concept of form itself, … giving wings to a supple, mobile expressiveness, … a miracle of proportion, balance and transparency.” Or, in Debussy’s own words: “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

* * *

Strauss: Salome. This is another work that really threw the doors to the 20th Century wide open, changing the course of music forever. Its 1906 performance in Graz, Austria was an Event that can scarcely be imagined today. Anyone who was anyone was there—Gustav Mahler with his wife Alma, Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Alexander Zemlinsky… and if he is to be believed, Aldolf Hitler himself. They saw a work that re-wrote the rules of what could be shown on the operatic stage, along with the kind of music that could emanate from the pit. The music itself is volatile and unsettled, a collision of harmony, themes, and musical ideas that mirror the collision of Roman, Jewish and Christian societies. It is a dangerous, unstable world where moral lines are too easily crossed, to the destruction of all. Salome was both staggeringly original and staggeringly successful, cemented Strauss’s reputation as an opera composer and as the voice of modernism in music.

* * *

Mahler: Symphony No. 6, Tragic. It may be “the first nihilist work in the history of music”, as conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described it. The work begins somewhat conventionally as a “hero symphony,” with hints of misgivings. The music becomes more unsettled until things really fall apart in the final movement, which one music writer describes as a “half-hour-long hallucinogenic, emotional nightmare-scape.” Three mighty hammer blows punctuate the finale, with the last one felling the unnamed hero “like a tree.” Although this is in some ways Mahler’s most conventional symphony since the First (four movements, no singers), it is a work that shatters conventions even as it fulfills them. It is coherent and straightforward, yet sonically surreal. And while it purports to be an objective piece of music, there are few works that so vividly—and so personally—place the listener at the center of the drama. Mahler’s masterpiece created a new level of intensity, of personal involvement in the symphony.

* * *

Schoenberg: Erwartung. It is hard to select a single work by this composer, as his composition style shifted from lush post-romanticism in his early career, to atonalism, and finally his famous (or infamous) 12-tone technique, also known as “serialism.” That said, Erwartung is widely hailed as one of his signature masterpieces—a work that marked a pivotal moment in Schoenberg’s thinking. It is hugely dramatic, depicting a single woman trapped in a nightmarish situation: she is desperately searching for her lover in a dark forest, and finally stumbles upon his dead body. It is the embodiment of expressionism in music; as Schoenberg wrote, “In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.” He makes this happen through a visionary score that abandons traditional themes and musical development, but relies on the drama of the action to bind the work together.

* * *

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. No list of 20th Century masterpieces is complete without The Rite of Spring. For many, it remains the quintessential work of “modern music,” even a hundred years after its premiere. Its 1913 premiere literally caused a riot, and it’s not surprising why—Stravinsky wrote shocking music to accompany a shocking scene of human sacrifice. The score was angular and sharp, serving as a direct challenge to the impressionism then popular in Paris, but also subverting the smooth, rational transitions characteristic of Germanic orchestral music. But more to the point, it gave new emphasis on rhythm—something that became the hallmark of 20th Century music.

* * *

Sibelius: Symphony No. 5. Many of the works on this list are here because they not only revolutionized music theory, but they sparked compositional schools of thought—inspiring new generations of acolytes who adopted these new musical ideas into their own compositions. Sibelius doesn’t fit that mold… there is no “Sibelianism” that compares to impressionism, expressionism, or serialism. But in part, that is by design. Sibelius was a champion of organic constructions, which meant that his musical themes determined where they wanted to go, rather than following into some externally-imposed structure. As a result, his works never come off as avant-garde, but they remain some of the most original, visionary works written. The Fifth is a brilliant example of his art, balancing high drama with an astonishing internal structure. There is simply no other work quite like it. The Fifth was not an easy symphony for Sibelius to write; he tortured himself through a variety of versions before landing on the present form performed today. But it seems that the struggle energized him. After he finally finished the Fifth to his satisfaction, he quickly produced his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and the tone poem Tapiola, which all build on the lessons of structural unity that the worked out in the Fifth. Sibelius might not have attracted his own musical “school,” but the Fifth served as an inspiration to composers such as William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams. And as Alex Ross points out in The Rest is Noise, the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture where he remarked, “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives, and the people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” He then began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.

* * *

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This work lands on many people’s short lists of the greatest works of the century—it is a score where all the threads of Bartók’s musical thinking come together into a powerful, unified whole. In this work, Bartók seems to channel the music of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, and Stravinsky, but on top of these musical ideas he adds an overlay of Hungarian folk tunes. The use of folk music is nothing new, but Bartók avoids the nationalism of the 19th Century in his writing, and instead follows a distinct, 20th Century sensibility. But more importantly, it is a giant step forward in the idea of expressionism, as if the psychological drama of his opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle were transferred into purely abstract music. Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of the piece in his movie, The Shining, is a testament to its otherworldly power of the music, which seems both alien and strangely familiar.

* * *

Britten: Peter Grimes. Britten’s opera is not just a great work in and of itself—it is a great work that created a musical earthquake. For most of the 19th Century, Britain was written off as “Das Land ohne Musik” (the land without music), suggesting that it had no natural talent of its own, and simply had to import it from the more “civilized” Continent. By the start of the 20th Century this had begun to change, as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams rose to international stature. But despite the fact that British orchestral music had come into its own, opera was still languishing in the darkness. But the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes changed all this. It was a sensation, and Britten instantly became a national hero. Britten went on to compose a series of additional operas that revitalized the art form and paved the way for such composers as Harrison Birtwistle and Thomas Adès. Its accolades are well earned, and Peter Grimes is a stunning work of theater. It focuses the tension between an outsider, English fisherman Peter Grimes, and the claustrophobic community that surrounds him. Its themes of alienation and belonging, brilliantly underlined by Britten’s score, remain starkly relevant today.

* * *

Adams: Harmonielehre. John Adams’s break-out work, Harmonielehre, is a curious piece that gathers up all the various threads of symphonic thinking of the late 20th Century and boldly goes on its own direction. It also serves as a bit of a manifesto—it takes its title from Schoenberg’s famous textbook that declared tonality is dead, and spends the next 40 minutes proving that no, tonality is still very much alive. Adams pointedly turns to Sibelius, Debussy, and Mahler for inspiration, but adapts these composers’ musical ideas with modern compositional techniques such as minimalism. The result isn’t just a fascinating blending of musical styles or a homage to the past… it is a visceral thrill ride. Adams has stated that the piece was inspired by a dream he had in which he was driving across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and saw an oil tanker on the surface of the water abruptly turn upright and take off like a Saturn V rocket… an apt metaphor of the piece. Every measure radiates a sense of discovery, as if new worlds are opening up before us.

* * *

Rautavaara: Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light. Prior to the 1990s, Rautavaara had built a solid career as a composer. He had received accolades from Jean Sibelius himself, and as a student he had studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and taken lessons from Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. Plus, he himself taught music theory and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. But although he wrote many extraordinary works (his Third Symphony is riveting), he was not particularly well known outside his native Finland. This all changed with the premiere of the Seventh Symphony, Angel of Light. It was a brilliant work that captured the spirit of a new era; while it is clearly a modern work, it is a work of neo-romanticism that seeks to communicate more directly with the listeners. The listeners responded, and the work became an international hit. Moreover, it brought new attention to Rautavaara, leading to a wave of new commissions and a recording contract with the Finnish label Ondine—which ensured his new works were recorded and released to the public nearly as soon as they were completed.

* * *

Obviously, this list has left off a great number of worthy works, and some of the omissions are quite painful. But I feel confident that these 10 pieces represent real turning points in 20th Century music.

What would your 10 works be?

[Edit: I’ve followed up this post with my selections for the 20th Century’s top 10 choral works, too.  Click here for more.]


10 thoughts on “The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century

  1. Your list is pretty hard to beat. The seemingly objective standard of “greatness” cautions me against making quirky selections from among my personal favorites (though I’ll quickly put in a plug for Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3, Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances, and Unsuk Chin’s Piano Concerto). The only modification I would make to your list would be to try to get some chamber and solo music in there, represented by Janáček’s Violin Sonata, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, and Ligeti’s Piano Études, Book One. But it’s hard to figure out which ones those would displace: the Rautavaara, probably, but the others are hard to argue with.


    • Indeed, the label “greatest” shifts the conversation remarkably… my list of favorite works would be considerably different. You’re right that I side-stepped chamber music by design, as that was going to complicate matters. Given my personal interests, I’m tempted to do a parallel list of choral works, as that’s another area that sadly got neglected here.


  2. Interesting, Scott. You’ve given me a listening assignment for the works on your list that I’ve not heard. The pieces I know I tend to agree with you about — so happy to see the Sibelius 5th on your list, for example. What has always impressed me about this symphony is the way Sibelius uses silence. And Adams’ “Harmonielehre” which is one of my all-time favorite works. You’re right that there are others that could be included on a list like this — something by Lou Harrison for example or John Corigliano — the usual suspects like Webern, Berg, Shostakovich and his incredible orchestrations as well as composers that might not come to mind immediately. Do you think that there was more innovation in composition in Europe or America during the 20th century?

    One of my favorite MN Orchestra concerts each season is Future Classics. I’ve been going to the rehearsals and/or the concert since 2006, and it’s been really fascinating to see the differences from year to year in the music presented — influenced I’m sure by the choosing committee as well as what’s submitted. This is such an important program — I talk it up whenever I get the chance — and I just wish that more people were open to being witness to the evolution of classical orchestral music.



    • It’s hard to compare innovation, as folks on either side of the Atlantic were “innovating” in response to different forces. I’m more curious about European trends, as there were so many interesting things that got overlooked by people flocking to the big schools of thought.

      And I agree, the Future Classics is an incredible valuable event, and I’m glad the Minnesota Orchestra supports such an initiative!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too see choral works neglected and will suggest Britten’s War Requiem might merit a place. Also, what about Porgy and Bess?


  4. Pingback: The Top 10 Choral Works of the 20th Century | Mask of the Flower Prince

  5. I would squeeze in at the expense of some early 20th century works: Shostakovich’s 10th and Dutilleux’s “Tout Un Monde Lointain” 🙂


  6. Pingback: Remembering Rautavaara and his Music | Mask of the Flower Prince

  7. Coming up with any “10 Greatest” list is an example of a good deed that will not go unpunished. Furthermore, limiting to the classical music genre privileges a certain type of music over other styles that are as valuable (and may be “better”). Are any specific works of Webern really “better” than the best of Cole Porter’s songs or those of Thelonius Monk or Lennon/McCartney? Is “Gesang der Junglinge” a “better” work than “Sgt. Pepper…”? However, here’s my alternative list of the 10 Greatest 20th Century “classical” works, not in any particular order:

    1. Mahler, Symphony No. 5
    2. Ravel “L’Enfant et les Sortileges”
    3. Stravinsky, “Les Noces”
    4. Janacek, “The Cunning Little Vixen”
    5. Schoenberg, “String Quartet No. 2”
    6. Stravinsky, “Le Sacre du Printemps”
    7. Britten, “War Requiem”
    8. Reich, “Tehillm”
    9. Busoni, “Fantasia Contrappuntistica”
    10. Shostakovich, “24 Preludes and Fugues”
    11. (’cause I couldn’t keep it at 10) Sondheim, “A Little Night Music”


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