John Cage’s famous 4’33” consists of 273 seconds in which no one does anything at all, yet has enjoyed cult status since its ‘composition’ in 1952. Today, it can be downloaded on iTunes, watched on Youtube and there is even a 4’33” app. Most view it with wry amusement, others (ie men with beards) value it as an important exercise in making us re-think the very concept of music. Whatever, it will always hold a proud place in the list of the strangest music ever written. Cage, of course, was writing in a notably experimental era that produced all sorts of wonderful weirdness, but the boundaries of musical convention have always been there to be tested – composers had been doing daft things for centuries before Cage and co. arrived on the scene. Here, we take a look at 15 pieces of the strangest music, from the engagingly amusing to the downright barmy…
What are the strangest pieces of classical music?
1. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: Battalia
We begin our survey of all things eccentric in the Baroque period. Usually a composer of utmost craft and refinement, Biber went off on something of a tangent with his 1673 Battalia for string orchestra. Depicting life in an army camp, effects galore are employed by the composer to paint the musical picture just as he wanted it. For instance, the section called ‘Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’ has the orchestra playing in eight different keys simultaneously to depict drunkenness, while ‘Mars’ sees the double bass stick a piece of paper beneath the strings to create a rasping sound. It’s an entertaining listen, though quite what Biber’s own audiences would have made of it is anyone’s guess.
2. Johann Georg Albrechtsberger: Concerto for Jews Harp
Nothing much to remark at first about the 1765 Concerto in F major by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, esteemed Viennese composer, scholar and teacher of Beethoven – a pleasant, if unexceptional orchestral opening is adorned with gentle pluckings on the mandora (a type of lute). But then comes the entry of the other solo instrument. It’s a jew’s harp: basically, a metal spring that one places in front of the mouth and twangs. In the hands of an able player, it can just about be made to produce something vaguely resembling a melody, but no amount of skill, alas, can give it a sound other than ‘boinnnnggggg’. The overall effect? Think of a contented frog leaping from lily to lily, accompanied by a string orchestra. Remarkably, Albrechtsberger wrote not just the one but seven such concertos.
3. Leopold Mozart: Toy Symphony
History popularly depicts Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus, as something of a po-faced old moose, obsessed by eking every last drop out of his son’s prodigious talent. His Toy Symphony of around 1760, however, hints at a fun-loving side. As well as the normal orchestral forces, there are parts for toy trumpet, ratchet (essentially a football rattle), cuckoo and nightingale (not the birds, clearly, but toy instruments that sound like them…). It’s all a bit of a hoot, and rather charming – so is that why it was initially credited not to Mozart Snr but to the more genial Haydn?
4. György Ligeti: Poème Symphonique
Who needs instruments? Not György Ligeti. The Hungarian’s Poème Symphonique of 1962 – which will be performed in the same concert as Cage’s 4’33” at the Proms this year – simply requires ten players to take to the stage, each in charge of ten wind-up metronomes. All 100 metronomes are wound to their limit, and then set off and allowed to tick away until they have all wound themselves down. In theory, one could also try it out with battery-powered metronomes, though this might mean a performance going on for hours and hours and hours. Talking of which…
5. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Organ Symphony No. 2
The BBC Music Magazine team is proud to boast at least three organ music enthusiasts in its number – or ‘organ bores’ as the unenlightened sometimes like to jest – but even we think we might draw the line at sitting through the entirety of the Second Organ Symphony by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Completed by the English composer in 1932, this work for solo organ lasts a mighty nine hours. Yes, nine. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s never really caught on. At time of writing, it has yet to be recorded or broadcast, and has enjoyed just nine performances, all at the supremely talented (and, clearly, indefatigable) hands and feet of Kevin Bowyer. No record is made of how many attended those performances… or, more to the point, how many were still there at the finish.
6. Eric Satie: Vexations
Nine hours? Pah. Child’s play. Satie’s Vexations of 1893 lasts well over twice that length. Not that there is the greatest variety of material within those 20-something hours, mind, as it’s essentially the same short piece repeated 840 times. The umbrella-wielding, suit-wearing Parisian, whose lifestyle was as quirky as they come, didn’t specify on which instrument the work should be played, though he did include at the top the following enigmatic advice: ‘In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.’ He might have added, ‘and don’t forget to go to the loo…’
7. Rued Langgard: Carl Nielsen – vor store komponist
Quite how long a rendition of Rued Langgaard’s Carl Nielsen – vor store komponist (Carl Nielsen – our great composer) lasts is largely up to the conductor, as following the composer’s own instructions would, quite frankly, be impossible. Langgaard insisted that his 32-bar choral work should be ‘repeated for all eternity’. Helpful, that. Given that this 1948 anthem’s words consist solely of the title itself, one might be forgiven for presuming that here was one composer’s heartfelt tribute to the brilliance of another. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Langgaard was one bitterly sarcastic Dane, irked that, even 16 years after Nielsen’s death, his compatriot should continue to dominate their country’s musical scene. Any performance should, ideally, be accompanied by the sound of gnashing teeth and wringing hands.
8. Gioachino Rossini: Cat Duet
On to lighter matters, in the form of Rossini’s Cat Duet, a piece that makes Carl Nielsen – vor store komponist seem positively verbose. Composed to poke fun at warring divas, the Cat Duet features just one word: ‘Miaow’, repeated ad nauseam by two sopranos as a pianist trundles jauntily along underneath. It was probably hilarious back in the 1820s. Tradition dictates that after the concert, the two singers are presented with a saucer of milk and put outside for the night.
9. Luigi Russolo: Gran Concerto Futuristico
Nearly a century after Rossini was charming audiences with the Cat Duet, his fellow Italian Luigi Russolo was having the opposite effect with his Gran Concerto Futuristico. Russolo dispensed with traditional instruments, creating instead his various intonarumori (sound boxes), which produced a range of noises when operated by a handle – the ‘howler’ and the ‘exploder’ are just two examples. Russolo suspected that the concert-going public might not be quite ready for his musical vision. He was right. When he and his intonarumori performed the Gran Concerto in Milan in 1914, the audience rioted.
10. John Dowland: My Lord Chamberlain, His Galliard
‘Always miserable’ Dowland? Don’t believe the nickname. The Tudor master of lute and voice most definitely had a twinkle in his eye. Take, for instance, his My Lord Chamberlain, His Galliard. Published in Dowland’s First Booke of Songs or Ayres in 1597, My Lord Chamberlain is a duet for two lutenists… but just the one lute. The idea is that one player sits on the other’s lap, necessitating a cosy embrace if both are to comfortably reach the strings. Hee hee. The old rogue.
11. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A cheeky sense of humour, too, from Mozart (Jnr) in the form of a piece he wrote for Haydn. History has it that the two once had a bet for a case of champagne, in which Haydn, confident in his virtuosity on the keyboard, reckoned he could play absolutely anything that his brilliant pupil chose to write for him. Mozart rose to the challenge with a piece that required the right hand to be playing at one end of the keyboard, the left hand at the other… and then a note to sound slap-bang in the middle. How to play it? By simply leaning forward and pressing the key with one’s nose. The work has since been lost and the tale itself may well be apocryphal, but is worth repeating anyway.
12. Lord Berners: Funeral March for a Rich Aunt
Lord Berners was a man of many hobbies, one of which was to catch pigeons and dye them in assorted fetching hues. And the Englishman’s music could be every bit as colourful as those poor birds. Example? His Funeral March for a Rich Aunt from 1914, a work with nothing remotely funereal about it. In fact, it positively skips along, giggling and guffawing on its way – you can almost here the composer counting up his inheritance with glee in every semi-quaver run and light-fingered leap across the keyboard. The march, incidentally, is the third of a set of three for piano, the second of which is ‘For a Canary’. You get the idea.
13. La Monte Thornton Young: Piano Piece for Terry Riley
No list of this type would be complete without La Monte Young, king of the eccentrics and composer of snappily-titled opuses such as The Tortoise Recalling the Drone of the Holy Numbers as they were Revealed in the Dreams of the Whirlwind and the Obsidian Gong, Illuminated by the Sawmill, the Green Sawtooth Ocelot and the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. But even within the Dictionary of Dotty that is Young’s compositional catalogue, Piano Piece for Terry Riley stands out. The instructions for it read as follows: ‘Push the piano up to a wall and put the flat side up against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can. If the piano goes through the wall, keep pushing in the same direction regardless of new obstacles and continue to push as hard as you can whether the piano is stopped against an obstacle or moving. The piece is over when you are too exhausted to push any longer.’ Young wrote these instructions at 2.10am on 8 November, 1960. Two in the morning? Righty-ho. We’ll say no more.
14. Karlheinz Stockhausen: Helicopter Quartet
Take a string quartet. Give each member in a helicopter to fly in. Send all four helicopters skywards, with players bowing away furiously inside and shouting occasionally. Relay sound to audience via radio link and a bank of speakers. Bingo. You have the ‘Helicopter Quartet’ from Stockhausen’s Licht cycle of operas. Written in 1993, it has never really taken off, if you’ll forgive the pun.
15. Alexander Scriabin: Mysterium
The demands of the ‘Helicopter Quartet’ are relatively workaday compared to Scriabin’s Mysterium, surely the daftest of all daft works. In terms of performers, the Russian wanted his potential masterpiece to feature ‘an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation.’ So far, so manageable. But then Scriabin stipulated that a special temple should be built for the event… in the foothills of the Himalayas. And there’s more. Giant bells suspended from the clouds would summon people from across the globe to the site of the performance, which would last a full seven days. And, at the end of it, the end of the world would come, with humans being replaced by ‘nobler beings’. Cripes. Scriabin began work on Mysterium in 1903, but was still some way off completing it by his death in 1915. This is possibly a good thing.
Illustration: David Lyttleton