There’s at least one album we can name from our teenage years that put us on the path to what we listen to today. For composers the equivalent are works that changed the trajectory of artistic identity. I can list mine effortlessly. Here’s my big 4 that, for me, are indispensable.
Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor
If composers today claim they’re not influenced by Debussy, you can bet their favorite composers have been. Outside of the famous Clair de Lune, Debussy’s string quartet gave me an introduction to the romantic period that lead me to listening to composers of the present day. It pays respect to its predecessors but also utilizes composition techniques that were uncommon for the time period. Though the work received mixed reviews at its premiere, it’s become a juggernaught in string quartet literature.
Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, and 4
I rejected the Bartók’s music first time I heard it. It was, at first, convoluted and too dissonant for my ears. I returned to Debussy’s music music for study until I read Bartók loved and respected Debussy as much as I had. That was enough to give the 20th century innovator a second chance. I listened to a recording of his second quartet with new ears. Then his first, his third, fourth, and on to his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Now I love these works and often return for a listen especially when writing a new work for strings.
Jefferson Friedman: String Quartet No. 2
A teacher once asked me to name 10 dead composers. Like most music majors it wasn’t a problem. Following my answers he asked for the names of 10 living composers. I stopped after 3. The moment class ended I rushed to my dorm room to find the names I should have been able to use for answers. I pulled up hundreds of composers from a Google search and by luck (or fate) clicked on Jefferson Friedman. It brought me to his String Quartet No. 2, a modern work that I, for the first time, could listen to from start to finish- two or three times a day. Three movements combining what I’d heard in classical music but shooting off in a new direction, a direction I can’t imagine most composers have considered.
Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit, Symphonies 1 and 2
My composition teacher was shocked I had never heard of this French composer. After getting to know his work I was shocked too. Henri Dutilleux is considered to be the author behind the next chapter in the book Debussy and Ravel started. The first time I heard Dutilleux’s work I considered, for the first time, quitting composition. The bar was too high. What he had done with tonality had past my hopes and expectations of creating novelty in music. These feelings jolted through me as I listened to his Ainsi la nuit. It’s heavy despiteit only being constructed with six notes, composed for only a string quartet. I moved on to his Symphonies 1 and 2 with caution. I had the same response. I can say I’ve learned more about orchestration from these scores than any other piece.
Samuel Barber (honorable mention): Piano Concerto, Piano Sonata, Adagio for Strings
From the lyrical Adagio for Strings to his harsh Piano Sonata Barber became the most versatile of American composers. He embraced the writing practices of his time and became one of the most acclaimed composers. Barber has taught me to show respect to the craft of composition but to also forget the craft. This allows for new doorways to be opened.