May 8, 2009

A Taste of the Dark Side: Music from the 20th Century

Not too long ago, one of my friends asked me to recommend some classical music that “wasn’t puppies and rainbows.” Inspired by this little interaction (and feeling a little huffy that the Bartók I sent in response was too much to handle) I wanted to share some of my favorite 20th century works, an era notorious in my theory classes for its “dark” qualities.

Dmitri Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 8: III. Allegretto

Shostakovich dedicated this string quartet to the victims of totalitarianism in Russia. As with much of his music, it’s both beautiful and grotesque. Performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Igor Stravinsky
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring): Act II – “Cercles Mystérieux des Adolescentes” and “Glorification de l'Elue”

The Rite of Spring is a ballet about a primitive ritual, in which a young girl dances herself to death in sacrifice. It’s a staple of 20th century music, and caused a riot on its opening night in 1913.

Bela Bartók
String Quartet No. 4: I. Allegro

We studied this quartet in my third year of college, as an example of arch form and a different way to approach tonality. Performed by the Takács Quartet.

Arnold Schoenberg
Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierre): Part II - VIII. Die Nacht

Performed by Christine Schäfer.

George Crumb
Black Angels: I. Departure

Crumb composed Black Angels for electric string quartet, influenced by the Vietnam War. The opening part is called “Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects.” Performed by the Kronos Quartet.


  1. While normally I would have listened to everything before I make a comment, my bandwidth limit made sure that I can't. I did listen to about a minute of the first piece though. I think it is pretty awesome, and sounds really cynical. It would make a good theme song for me, don't you think?

    (Oh..and that last one is just..horrific. What the hell's with that screech at the opening? Was that actually done on a synthesizer, or with just violins? (This is precisely why I play viola and not violin)

  2. It's written for "electric string quartet" plus some other random instruments that the performers are supposed to play (like crystal glasses and tam-tams), but the opening part is played by string instruments, not synthesizer. Pretty amazing, huh? Your beloved viola is doing the screeching too, actually!

  3. I've never gotten scared of music before... until now. O.o wow, that was... that was scary. The last one sounded like millions of dying rats choking at the same time. But strangely, I like it! XD