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Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909)

In Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, the composer explored ways to expand or even abandon traditional harmony. In the third movement, Schoenberg even moves away from melody and harmony entirely, relying entirely on orchestral color to bring interest to a single chord.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Concerto for Organ, Percussion, and Strings (1938)

Following the death of several close friends, Poulenc moved away from the flippant humor of his early music and rediscovered his Christian faith. Written in a single movement, the piece shows the influence of Bach and Buxtehude, as well as the French composer and organist Maurice Duruflé, who advised Poulenc on the piece.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

War Requiem (1961)

The War Requiem was composed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt following its destruction during World War II. Scored for enormous musical forces including three soloists, two choirs, organ, and two orchestras, the piece uses texts by English poet Wilfred Owen to provide context for the traditional Latin Requiem mass.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948)

Perhaps the most prominent French composer of the 20th century, Messiaen was also a church organist and a devout Catholic with a profound interest in mysticism. His ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie is a meditation on romantic love; the title is derived from a Sanskrit term which approximately means “song of love and joy”. The Symphony is composed for a large orchestra, including nearly a dozen percussionists and demanding solo parts for piano and ondes Martenot, an early electronic keyboard instrument.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Symphony No. 3 (1946)

This symphony is the culmination of Copland’s “Americana” music— the sound he created in Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. The musical material for the symphony is derived from Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which makes a majestic appearance at the beginning of the fourth movement.

José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958)

Sinfonietta (1945)

Moncayo was a member of “El Grupo de los Cuatro” (“The Group of Four”), a group of four young composers who met at college in Mexico City in the 1930s. Drawing on their national musical heritage, the composers and their teacher, Carlos Chávez, created a truly Mexican classical sound. Their music was highly influential on American composers like Aaron Copland, who socialized with the group during his trips to Mexico.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)

Symphony No. 5/Concerto Grosso No. 4 (1988)

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke was interested in synthesizing styles from throughout music history, and his music blends baroque, classical, and modern styles— a fact reflected in the dual title of this piece, which also includes significant quotes from Mahler in the second movement.

Steve Reich (b. 1936)

Music for 18 Musicians (1976)

Reich was known as one of the first minimalist composers. His music frequently features seemingly endless repetitions of small melodic and rhythmic fragments which slowly evolve and shift. Music for 18 Musicians is based on a progression through eleven chords which slowly emerge and evolve throughout the piece.

George Walker (1922-2018)

Lilacs (1995)

This work for soprano and orchestra is a setting of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. It was the unanimous choice for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music, making Walker the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer.

John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Symphony No. 1 Of Rage and Remembrance (1989)

New York composer John Corigliano was inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt to memorialize his friends who had fallen victim to HIV-AIDS. The piece is filled with personal references to departed friends and fellow musicians. In composing the third movement, he created music for words written in memory of these friends by the poet William Hoffman, then attached the resulting music to instrumental lines. This movement was later adapted into a work for choir and orchestra, in which the choir members are each instructed to recite the names of those they know personally who have fallen victim to the plague, making each performance a uniquely powerful local memorial. The Symphony won two Grammies and the Grawemeyer Award.

Further Listening

Stream our Classical Music 401 Playlist

  • Berg: Chamber Concerto
  • Stravinsky: L’histoire du soldat
  • Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto
  • Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
  • Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
  • Adams: Harmonielehre
  • Adams: Harmonium

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