My litany of off-putting things about most “classical” music written after 1900 should have included dissonance, atonality, and downright dreariness. Music can be serious, but it needn’t be boring or depressing or just plain unlistenable. But a trip through the list of 20th century composers turns up relatively few who wrote much music that’s endurable. Among the many 20th century specialists in sheer boredom or cacophony are John Adams, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, George Crumb, György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern.
If you want to hear how a true master delivers somberness and dissonance, all the while keeping the listener engaged, listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, op. 133. Click here and scroll down to track 7 to hear the first minute of Beethoven’s 16-minute masterpiece. Beethoven composed the piece in 1825-26. One hundred seventy-eight years have passed and no one has come close to matching its effervescent blend of inventiveness, sobriety, and esprit.