Top Five Sounds of Silence

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

“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.” 

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Comments [5]

Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

In my opinion, in Mendelssohn's "Elijah," those coronas in the score after the Priests of Baal sing out "Baal, we cry to thee," etc. certainly make dramatic sense and I think it was a stroke of genius to allow the silences to "speak."

Aug. 25 2011 10:59 AM
Michael Meltzer

As with most devices employed for dramatic efffect, when a great composer uses silence, we are usually not aware that they are doing it. That is their intent. Rossini was a genius at it, and Beethoven was no slouch, either.
Then there are the John Cages who like to play guru and adopt it as a philosophical affectation.

Aug. 25 2011 08:31 AM
Max Power

Robert Simpson - Symphony No. 9: He builds the most amazing amount of momentum, and right before the climax there is a massive rest that is truly FELT. The music pushes right through the silence creating something otherworldly. Like jumping out of a plane.

Aug. 24 2011 06:07 PM
MIchael Simpson

Brahms's Fifth Symphony.

Aug. 24 2011 04:48 PM
John Clare from San Antonio, TX

Erwin Schulhoff's Future from Five Pictures for piano should have made the list...rests are written out for the piano player - the entire movement has no notes, just rests!

Aug. 24 2011 04:41 PM

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