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Top Five Sounds of Silence

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“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his 1931 essay “The Rest Is Silence.” Previously, we listed the looked at the top five loudest works in classical music. But sometimes, the lack of sound can be as brash and bold as the most deafening fortississimo. Here are the top five composers to write for silence. 

1. John Cage, "4'33" - Our top composer comes as no surprise. After all his most famous work, 4’33 consists of exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds (not including pauses between movements) of a musician not playing his or her instrument. Cage often considered this piece his most important. However, it’s the impossibility of complete silence that Cage aimed to prove. The musician sitting still is a way to appreciate the ambient noise that often goes unnoticed.

2. Franz Joseph Haydn, String Quartet No. 33, “The Joke”- Few composers used silence for drama or comedy as much as Haydn.  He would stop an orchestra dead in its tracks, confusing his audience with a false ending such as in his String Quartet No. 33, “The Joke”. The Surprise Symphony decrescendos into silence before startling the audience with a sonic boom. Meanwhile, Haydn uses a similar technique for a more awe-inspiring result in the beginning of his oratorio, The Creation, when a hushed chorus sings “Let there be light,” and the orchestra breaks the quiet with a radiant C Major chord.

3. Claude Debussy & Maurice Maeterlinck, "Pelléas et Mélisande" - Debussy once said, “Music is the silence between the notes,” and the composer often expressed as much in pauses, rests and other quiet moments as he did with sound. In his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy found a kindred spirit in the librettist Maurice Maeterlinck, who similarly wrote in an essay titled “La Silence,” Speech is of time, silence is of eternity.” The result of their collaboration is a work that is evokes emotion for what is unsung as much for what is, such as Mélisande’s death, which happens without a word from the soprano.

4. Morton Feldman, "For Christian Wolff" - Morton Feldman was a larger-than-life New Yorker, whose six-foot frame was matched by his verbosity. His music, however, favored the opposite effect. These ethereal works in which softly played notes quietly emerge and then dissolve into silence produce an intensity on par with the loudest symphony because they require such careful listening. Describing Feldman’s “For Christian Wolff,” former New York Times critic Bernard Holland wrote, “Like the shadows of Plato's cave, it is a corporeal flicker of pure nothingness - the kind of music that in the heavens surely sets the toes of gods to tapping.”

5. James MacMillan, "Silence" - While many composers have incorporated the absence of sound into their works, the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan named his third symphony “Silence.” The title comes from the 20th century Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s most famous work. MacMillan, who finds all kinds of potential and promise in silence, dots this work (as well as many of his others) with pregnant pauses, and meditative moments. Even the climax is an “elongated silence.”