Can people recommend non-twee classical music?
November 17, 2014 12:32 AM   Subscribe

I like some classical music, and I love orchestras, but to my ears the emotional palette of a lot of classical veers towards the 'twee' end of the scale. Can people recommend me some non-twee pieces to listen to?

(This is in response to the response to my post over here)
posted by memebake to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
What do you like? What non-classical music do you like? That might help guide some suggestions I'd have.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:38 AM on November 17, 2014

Response by poster: What do you like?

Ok here's a quick list, there are more obviously

Suite No.3 in d-major: air - Bach
Valse Tempo di Valise - Tchaikovsky (just on the verge of too much twee for me but brilliant)
Calrinet concerto in a-major: adagio - Mozart
Piano concerto No.21 in c-major: andante - Mozart
Canon in d-major - Pachelbel
Piano concertro No.5 in e-flat major, OP.73, emperor: andante poco mosso - Beethoven
Piano concerto No.2 in c-minor, OP.18 - Rachmaninov
posted by memebake at 12:54 AM on November 17, 2014

Ok, so not to be mean or anything but Pachelbel's Canon in D is pretty much the epitome of twee classical music for me so I don't know how helpful I can be!

But anyway, I love Richard Strauss, whose work you almost definitely know from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's just the beginning of his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra which is pretty wonderful. I also especially love the string piece Metamorphosen and Four Last Songs.
posted by mr. manager at 1:11 AM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

This really seems very subjective, as to me the Strausses are more twee. One non twee to me: Bartok
posted by meijusa at 1:20 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

What you need is Finlandia.
posted by Vervain at 1:22 AM on November 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding Bartok.
posted by DeltaForce at 1:46 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should begin by stating that my preferences are towards the piano end of the classical spectrum, so make of that what you will. The quality will also vary quite a lot by performer, so my go-to recommendation is Vladimir Ashkenazy. Seriously, that man is amazing.

I would recommend pretty much any of Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos. I know you listed the 2nd, so I would add the rest of them to your list. Also, his preludes are wonderful and (IMO) not even remotely twee.

Some of the Beethoven piano sonatas are fantastic as well. In particular, I would suggest the Apassionatta sonata, the Tempest sonata, the Pathetique, and (in particular) the third movement of the Moonlight (the rest of it is maybe twee, depending on your definition?).

Again, go with Ashkenazy on those.

Grieg's A minor Piano concerto is also quite memorable.

Stravinksy is a safe bet. The Rite of Spring is pretty impressive.

Furthermore, the later Tchaikovsky symphonies (in particular, the fifth) are pretty non-twee.

Realistically speaking, Classical music covers an enormous range of styles. If you don't like a particular sound, try another composer, another era, another instrument. You're likely to find something in there, somewhere.
posted by vernondalhart at 1:47 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ok here's a quick list, there are more obviously

A lot of your pieces were written in the Romantic era, or were written by composers steeped in Romantic inspiration (like Rachmaninov), so that's probably a major reason why you make the association between classical and twee.

There are whole bodies of classical music that are very far from Romantic, and still quite powerful.

If you want to dive into cold, non-twee waters, you could start exploring work from the following 20th C. composers, just to name a few:

• Conlon Nancarrow
• György Ligeti
• Philip Glass
• Steve Reich
• Olivier Messiaen
• Frederic Rzewski

I'm not going to suggest any particular works, since the fun in this is exploration. You'll find loads of stuff on the video sites and even recommendations in previous Ask Metafilter threads where these specific composers are mentioned.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:27 AM on November 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

Yeah, to me, Mozart is the epitome of twee. Perhaps you have a different definition of the word than I do?

You might like what is known as contemporary classical. Basically modern "classical" music (classical actually refers to a specific period in music history). Think Phillip Glass, Andy Akiho, John Adams. A lot of it is kinda out there, but my sister plays in a contemporary classical group and every time I go to one of her concerts I hear at least one piece that profoundly moves me.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:25 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mind immediately goes to Mussorgsky, Holst's "The Planets", and Penderecki, none of which could be called twee, I don't think.
Ooh, and Orff.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:30 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Non-twee Strauss.

I'd also suggest looking at operas in general - they skew towards high drama and emotion rather than cutesy.
posted by tinkletown at 3:32 AM on November 17, 2014

I know what you mean about the twee thing, but I think it breaks down into several different flavours that don’t go down well if you’re not in the mood or aren’t used to the stuff.

I think of them as: 1) Symphonic full-orchestra music that’s been ripped off by so many film scores that you hear it as being cheesy even though it might not be. (I have this problem with bits of Wagner and Debussy’s orchestral music.) 2) Classical music proper that’s kind of maths-ily self-generating and genteel-sounding: the too-many-notes thing. (The outer reaches of Mozart and Haydn can have this effect.) 3) Baroque music in full-on wigged-and-powdered prancing mode. (Especially on harpsichord.)

For me the answer to the baroque problem is basically Glenn Gould doing his austere modernist thing with Bach and doing it on a piano: you can still hear the pulse of the music but the fussy, ye-olde courtier vibe is stripped away. His second recording of the Goldberg Variations would be by recommendation, followed by Casals’s recording of the cello suites and Rosalyn Tureck’s of the Well-Tempered Clavier. That’s how I got into baroque music, anyway.

Non-twee Romantic and Classical music: Schubert! (Really.) Check out his quintet in C, piano sonata in B flat major – these are seriously the shit. Also Beethoven’s 7th symphony and late piano sonatas, especially nos 29, 30 and 31.

I still haven’t completely conquered the film-score thing with orchestral music after Beethoven, but I’m getting there …
posted by Mocata at 3:35 AM on November 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think the ultimate way to go is to listen to Classical radio stations (or stuff on youtube or something) and to take note whenever you encounter something non-twee. Eventually you will find out what's more to your taste. But hear me out:

Another good trick is to try and read up on some of the composers and to place them in a geographical and chronological place. Sometimes you'll thus be able to establish some hotspots of over-cuteness, and be able to steer clear of them.

One special case is Mozart. Mozart grew up under a strongly controlling father who also was his concert manager, when he was young. As a consequence (I feel) much of Mozart's music displays a very strong trait of surface compliance to the styles of his time (which, between North-German Empfindsamkeit, Italianate galant music, and Mannheim-, Vienna- or London-imprinted early Classicism, have a rather high twee factor). You really have to listen to a lot, and carefully, to understand how raw and direct and definitely not-cute much of his music is under the surface (especially stuff from his last few years). So here, I'd recommend a lot of exposure, simply, and definitely not only to Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the Rondo Alla Turka.

I also note that your list is pretty twee in and of itself. My direct recommendation would be to listen to the other movements of some of the pieces you actually mention, or to listen to other pieces in the same genre by the same composer (Mozart's clarinet concerto and Beethoven's fifth piano concerto both have first and last movements of a much less sweet character than their slow movements; Beethoven's third piano concerto is pretty different from the fifth in initial drama; Mozart's concerto no. 21 (K. 467) has a much more dramatic twin in d-minor (K. 466); and Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto would be my choice over the second if I were looking for more muscle and less saccharine.)
posted by Namlit at 3:36 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Benjamin Britten is your man. His style contains equal parts beauty and discomfort (as it would if you were a gay man in early 20th century England, hyperaware of both the world's beauty and society's message that you have no place in it). And then there's the War Requiem, which is just fucking scary. Yeah. Britten.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:14 AM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also: since you already listen to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, how about some more Russians? Modest Mussorgsky is Tchaikovsky's contemporary, but his music is a lot stranger and more forward-looking, and was much less popular than Tchaikovsky's at the time (a useful measure of relative twee-ness). Mussorgsky's best-known pieces are Pictures at an Exhibition and Night On Bald Mountain, but his song cycles (especially Songs and Dances of Death are also splendid, and his operas Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (try the overture) are astounding.

The Stalin-era composers are also amazing for the various ways they used their talents to circumvent or otherwise react to the awful restraints placed on them. You might enjoy Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with its YOU WILL REJOICE UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD finale. But start with some Mussorgsky and see how you go.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:37 AM on November 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

I learnt about jazz by random sampling and just following what I liked then looking for "similar to" artists, this was mostly before the web so done in libraries and bookshops. Even assuming you have the same definition as me, the word twee is so subjective as to be meaningless. You are really asking "tell me stuff I will like".

You live in London, listen to Radio 3 or conversely, Classical FM (for me, the epitome of twee) for stuff you might want to avoid.
posted by epo at 4:52 AM on November 17, 2014

Oh yeah, re: Shostakovich. His 10th symphony is also amazing.
posted by vernondalhart at 4:56 AM on November 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Mahler's not to everyone's taste, but I don't think "twee" is an adjective that could be applied to his music.

My sister-in-law is a sound engineer and worked on a recording of Steve Reich's Music for 13 Musicians. She told me that one of the musicians, after recording it, commented that they thought the music was as close to god as it was possible to get. Even though she has been touched by the FSM's noodly appendage, I think she agrees. I know I do. You may not, but I don't think you would think it's twee.

You could also try early music. There's plenty of compilations out there, including on Youtube. I think it's haunting, ethereal, beautiful.

Bach cello concertos. I'm particularly fond of Yo-Yo Ma's performance on Inspired by Bach.

Holst's St Paul's Suite. Though it does have Greensleeves in it. That might make it twee. Hmm. I love it anyway, and it's certainly no more twee than Pachelbel's canon.

And what about Prokofiev? Try Lieutenant Kije and The Love for Three Oranges.

But really, I'm just thinking of things I like. The only way to really do it is to listen, listen, listen. Take notes when you hear something you like on the radio. Look up the composer. Find out what else they've done. Find out who they were influenced by, who they worked with. Try those people. And so on.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:05 AM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Also, I forgot to say that classical music often works very differently to pop, rock, jazz etc. There are shorter pieces, sure, but a lot of the time you actually do need to listen to the whole concerto or symphony in order to really get a sense of what's going on. I say this not as someone who's studied musical theory (because I haven't) but just from my own experience. It often takes a few listens and some actual paying attention to even begin to wrap your head round a longer work, and that can be hard in the time-poor, distraction-rich environment most of us live in. But it's worth trying, and not just skipping the slow bits or the bits that don't immediately grab you.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:44 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mahler.
posted by intermod at 6:04 AM on November 17, 2014

Lately I've been wondering why Ravel gets remembered so much for Bolero when he did stuff like String Quartet in F.

My sister-in-law is a sound engineer and worked on a recording of Steve Reich's Music for 13 Musicians.

Do you mean Music for 18 Musicians, or is there more glorious Reich goodness out there for me to discover?
posted by weston at 6:10 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Beethoven. Pretty much the opposite of twee. But music the expresses joy isn't twee, it's joyous. Could be an attitude thing.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:15 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thirding Mussorsky, if you know what his inspiration is for various pieces you can screen a lot of twee-ness. For example, from Pictures at an Exhibition: Unhatched Chicks is definitely twee (how could it not be), but there's nothing twee about The Great Gate of Kiev, and also if you listen to the whole thing together it's less twee and more deep/thoughtful (even the chicks).
posted by anaelith at 6:20 AM on November 17, 2014

posted by Obscure Reference at 6:21 AM on November 17, 2014

Actually I get somewhat twee over Firebird, so perhaps slightly later Stravinsky?
posted by sammyo at 6:27 AM on November 17, 2014

I have two suggestions:

Symphony #11 by Shostakovich
Symphony #3 by Saint-Saens
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:30 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anything by Albinoni!
posted by orrnyereg at 7:34 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out Q2 Music, which is WQXR's full-time contemporary classical streaming outpost.

Q2 played David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion a few years back at Christmastime and let's just say that for me it was a mind-blowing event of the distinctly non-twee variety.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 7:50 AM on November 17, 2014

Seconding Schubert (Mocata's suggestions are SERIOUSLY the shit); Brahms (try his 3rd Symphony?); seconding Mahler; and Bartók (1st Piano Concerto is pretty maximally non-twee); and Prokofiev (6th Symphony has plenty of Stalin/WWII-era gloominess, but still plenty of P.'s catchy melodies). And seconding lungful of dragon: I can't imagine anyone prancing in tights to modernists like Messiaen, Boulez, Ligeti, Lutoslawski (not to mention Schoenberg, Berg, Webern).
posted by mubba at 8:26 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know you gave some examples of what you considered not twee, but it might also help if you gave examples of what pieces you counted as "twee" because this is probably very personal. For example, for me, piano/wind would probably be more on the "twee" side than strings, but it may not be the case for you (and honestly, "twee" is not a descriptor that would really occur to me to use with classical music).

With that being said, some ideas for you to try out:

I really like Debussy's String Quartet. (I'm particularly fond of the third movement.)

Along similar lines, what about Ravel?

Do you consider Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise twee?

Bach's Cello Suites seem very not twee to me.

I'm by no means super knowledgeable about this, but these are just some pieces that came to mind for you to try out.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:36 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

memebake: I know that classical music ranges accross a very broad spectrum of emotions, but whereever it purports to range I still find a lot of twee-ness in it. Even in the really thundering pieces there's often a twee bit. I think the emotional palette for music must have shifted quite a bit over hundreds of years. And perhaps its something to do with symphonies always trying to use every part of the orchestra.

[For clarity this quote is from the thread on the post on the blue]

I don't think it is quite that the emotional palette has shifted as that modern pop music (if that's what you're talking about) will focus on one or two moods for this rock song then follow that up with a ballad. When pop/rock songs go for a broader range they can get called "operatic" or "symphonic" in scope. "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Total Eclipse of the Heart" are not twee overall but they have twee bits along with the shouty bits.

A lot of classical music is about contrast. That may be part of the disconnect I have been having with trying to think of pieces as twee; it's more that they have some twee bits, even if they go on to sturm un drang later.

If my understanding is correct the best way for you to go may be relatively short pieces that don't quite have time for so much range. The following are all very recent, very agitated pieces. Any peaceful bits are quickly overcome, except for the middle movements of the last two pieces (but at least give the other sections a chance!)

Osvaldo Golijov - Last Round
Heather Schmidt - Sychronicity
Marjan Mozetich - Dance of the Blind
Sergio Cervetti - Unbridled
Michael Torke - Saxophone Concerto

which I threw into a Spotify playlist. (Link. URI: spotify:user:1236893927:playlist:3p3AMWVojv3RgLzzVHbD8s )
posted by mountmccabe at 9:24 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Max Richter is not twee by any definition I can think of, though he may be a bit slow for your tastes. Try On the Nature of Daylight and Europe, After the Rain.
posted by yasaman at 9:58 AM on November 17, 2014

After looking up "twee" in the dictionary, I came to suggest Mahler's 1st Symphony, Sibelius' 2nd (and Finlandia), and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos.
posted by tckma at 12:35 PM on November 17, 2014

I disagree with the premise of your question, but think I understand what you're looking for.

In addition to the Shostakovich pieces already mentioned, try Violin Concerto No. 1.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 12:40 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Bach cello suites, and recommending Nathan Milstein's version of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Here's the Chaconne from Partita No. 2, one of the least-twee pieces of music in the history of the universe.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:48 PM on November 17, 2014

weston has it with Reich, 18 not 13 musicians. I also called Bach's cello suites concertos. Whoops. It was late, brain not working. Still sublime, and highly recommended.

I'm glad people have mentioned Sibelius and Rachmaninov and Ravel. Actually, all the suggestions have been great so thanks for asking the question. I have heaps of things to check out now too.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:02 PM on November 17, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions everyone, it will take me a long time to work through all this. I'm sorry 'twee' is such a vague word, but some people seem to know what I mean. mountmccabe perhaps explains what I mean quite well; its not that anything is twee all the way through, its that twee-ness often crops up at some point.
posted by memebake at 3:21 PM on November 17, 2014

Apart from more modern works, I'd suggest Beethoven's Grosse Fuge/Great Fugue for string quartet (also adapted for full string orchestra) or Bach's Art of the Fugue (which has been performed by pretty much any instrument or combination of instruments you prefer), both of which are fairly somber (not to mention among the greatest things ever written).
posted by uosuaq at 4:31 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a rough idea of what you mean by twee and I tend to enjoy more bombast and darkness when listening to classical music. The best classical thing I discovered this year is Vivaldi's Four Seasons, recomposed by Max Richter (who is recommended above).

Probably my favourite pieces are found in Gorecki's Symphony #3 though. Enjoy.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:38 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

its not that anything is twee all the way through, its that twee-ness often crops up at some point.

Well if that's your problem the solution is easy: pick look into music written before (roughly) 1750.

The idea to include contrasting moods in music is (very roughly spoken) a post-Baroque concept. A Classical or Romantic symphony, sonata, whatnot, would thus, for example, start with a dramatic first theme, whereupon you can bet that the second theme, minutes later, comes along sweet and soothingly. Or with a sweet and treacly first theme, and then the second one is agitated, for example.

(High) Baroque music, in contrast, often picks one mood per piece (affect, they called it), and switches moods from piece to piece...(the problem is perhaps, that the standard length of a piece is shorter. For the longer Baroque pieces look into Chaconnes, Passacaglias and Grounds).
So, back to Bach, Handel, and why not Rameau, for example, or Purcell's chamber music...Marin Marais; Antoine Forqueray...

Other than that, I learned to appreciate Classical and Romantic music because of certain passages that I recognised and liked. Just don't expect to "like" a whole piece...
posted by Namlit at 12:24 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

How has this thread gone on this long without mention of Gershwin?
posted by pwnguin at 1:48 AM on November 19, 2014

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