Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Classical Wednesday VII: Post-Romantic

When Did the Romance Die?

So sometime around the time of the first world war, something happens to classical music. In a way, it dies. In another way, it stays on life support but gets filed away in a museum. In yet another way, it is merely joined by a variety of other competing musical forms. Or, people just catch on that it had been an elitist art form all along, and begin acknowledging more populist forms of musical expression. And what really happened, of course, is all of the above.

So, what was it that knocked classical music off of its throne? Geez, it’s a million things. Take your pick:

  • Early records, which can only hold a few minutes of music on a side, work better for the short forms of jazz and country music than they do for sprawling symphonies.

  • The attention that composers had been paying to folk musics lead to people taking folk musics seriously. African American and Jewish American folk music, in particular, start amalgamating into the various forms of jazz, some of which eventually mutate and recombine with the music of the British Isles to spawn the various forms of rock, and here we are.

  • Saxophones, trap kits, and the electric guitar.

  • Increasingly professionalization among musicians make fielding an orchestra, never a cheap proposition, simply too expensive to support by ticket sales. Orchestras consequently become charitable institutions.

  • The accumulation of outstanding, enduring repertory over 250 years leaves very little room for new composers to make a splash.

  • There are only so many interesting noises you can make with a standard orchestra, and many of them have already been made.

And these are just obvious things that pop into my head. Somebody who actually studied the question could probably come up with a lot more.

Perhaps because Classical Music was losing its mass appeal, but certainly contributing to its decline, were the many 20th Century composers who wrote highly theoretical music intended for the admiration of other musical intellectuals. By ignoring (or, in many cases, oozing contempt for) the tastes of wider audiences, these composers and their supporters pretty much shot down any hopes for ongoing relevance in symphonic music, at least in the second half of the 20th Century.

OK, you already knew all that. What I’m here to tell you is, it ain’t all bad. Even the most abstruse of the academic composers – I’m looking at you, Anton Webern – were making arguably interesting experiments, and some of the experiments paid off. A gleaning is below.

The Usual Problem of Nomenclature

There is, as always, the question of what to call this stuff. I’m going with “post-Romantic,” to indicate “music composed after, and no longer of, the poorly named ‘Romantic Era.’” This beats other labels people use, like “Contemporary” (which is pretty ridiculous for describing, say, The Rite of Spring, written when our great-grandfathers were young) or “Modern” (a label which is so variously used as to have no meaning at all) or “20th Century” (which is becoming ever more tenuous as the 21st Century trudges on).

Listening Selections

1913: Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. The first time you hear The Rite of Spring, it sounds as crazy and anarchic as it did to the audience at its première, who famously rioted. As you get to know it a little better, it starts to sound more like regular old Romanticism, except more so. Stravinsky throws all of the extreme contrasts, unusual rhythms, and surprising key changes at you that he can think of, and like many early 20th Century composers he stops worrying so much about whether all of the notes are actually IN a key. The result is pretty dissonant in places, but also full of a fierce, fiery energy. Good to work out to.

1944: Copland, Appalachian Spring. Copland’s music is immediately identifiable for an expansive, open aural quality, and since he is the undisputed king of the American composers, his sound has come to sound highly American to us. Copland had a tremendous impact on movie scores, and is worth listening to if only so you can notice when background music is manipulating your emotions by emulating him. Appalachian Spring is a big friendly golden retriever among the Dobermans of mid-century music. It’s evocative, accessible, and frequently inspiring. Goes down smooth.

1959: Malcolm Arnold, Guitar Concerto. More angular and dissonant than Appalachian Spring, Arnold’s Guitar Concerto has enough rhythmic and tonal challenges to make you feel like a real musical brainiac. At it’s heart, though, it’s a gentle, upbeat piece with good intentions and some heartbreakingly lyrical melodies. Can be hard to find, but is worth the hunt.

1957: Shostakovich, Piano Concerto #2. Soviet officials insisted that all compositions must be accessible to The Worker, and the results included a lot of stirring patriotic dreck. A handful of Soviet composers pushed the envelope hard enough, however, that we can get a sense of what the twentieth century might have sounded like if composers in the West had remembered that people were listening. The Second Piano Concerto is the classical music equivalent of one of those parties where you are already kind of tipsy before the guests start arriving. By the rollicking finale, you are up on the kitchen table, dancing like a crazy person. But in a good way.

1954: Liebermann, Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra. Twelve-Tone composition is a fine example of how bluntly obtuse the musical establishment got in the early 20th Century. What happened was this: composers noticed a trend away from “tonality” as Classicism morphed into the early Romantic era morphed into the late Romantic era. In other words, composers were less and less concerned with keeping all of the notes inside a given key, and were more and more content with greater and greater dissonance. Determined to liberate music from key altogether, Twelve-Tone theorists elaborated a system where every note in the harmonic scale had to be used in a given order, throughout a piece. It’s very systematic, and as a theory it has a tidiness, a completeness, that is very seductive. That it necessarily sounds like shit is entirely beside the point.

Liebermann's Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra, to my knowledge the only listenable piece in the genre, proves that compelling pop rhythms and sheer energy can overcome even Twelve-Tone composition.

1987: Glass, Violin Concerto. A lot of people really dislike Phillip Glass, and I’m really not sure why. He is not my favorite composer, but the style of minimalism that he represents is really quite approachable. Minimalism can mean a lot of different things, but in this case it means the development of complex musical texture through the repetition and slow evolution of simple melodies and rhythms. In the Violin Concerto, Glass is at his most lyrical and evocative.

Advanced students may wish to check out John Adams’ minimalist opera “Nixon in China” (also 1987) or Terry Riley’s quasi-improvisational “In C” (1964). Extremely advanced students might seek out Branca’s Symphony #6 (“Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven”) (1989), scored for a growling ensemble of electric guitars.

1976: Gorecki, Symphony #3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”). In this piece, Gorecki represents another kind of minimalism, a typically slow-moving, stripped down music with spare melodies in austere settings. Often called “mystic minimalism,” this style never gets better than in Gorecki’s Third, a setting of three tragic poems for symphony and soprano soloist. Starting so quietly that it is almost inaudible, the piece takes around ten minutes to build up any kind of power, but once it gets there it packs a cumulative wallop. It is in parts almost painfully beautiful.

If you like mystic minimalism, you will want to check out the music of its leading practitioner, the Estonian Arvo Part. But please, not around me. To my ears, Part is new age music minus the breathtaking excitement.

2006: Jóhann Jóhannsson: IBM1401, A User’s Manual. Johannsson samples reel-to-reel tapes of musical noises created by his father on an early electronic computer, plus recorded passages from the user's manual for the same machine, and integrates them with a string orchestra in a piece of surprising depth, beauty, and emotional power. Accessible, thought-provoking, moving, and more than a little quirky, it is modern symphonic music at its best. Worth having just for the smug sensation of being smart and sophisticated enough to own some 21st Century classical music.

That's It

And that pretty much wraps it up for Classical Wednesdays. Hope you liked the series. Listen to classical music sometimes! It's cool.



Anonymous said...

M5000, That was a great Wednesday series, thanks. Good that you used mainly lay terminology. It would be nice if the whole series was combined somewhere and accessible via one easy link.

I see my vocabulary sucks tonight: great, good and nice. But I would like to say "Pulcinella"!

Karin said...

ahhh....Phillip Glass. Glass good.
That whole quatsi trilogy? Brilliant in content moved along and clarified seamlessly, yet powerfully by Glass' compositions.

"Appalachian Spring is a big friendly golden retriever among the Dobermans of mid-century music." M5K, I adore you and your command of the English language.

Rebel said...

No surprise, but Aaron Copeland is my favorite composer. His music is just pretty! That's all there is to say about it. ;)

Elizabeth said...

I recommend John Cage's work titled 4'33". If Philip Glass had composed more like this, I would like his music more.

Unknown said...

"That's it." Bummer! These were fun.

Michael5000 said...

@karma: Too kind! I will try to get them all together in one place. Eventually. Glad you liked!

@karin: Love the 'qatsis! And as the films went from brilliant, to OK, to unfortunate, the music just got better and better.

@rebel: Yes! But, Copland's pretty is a lot more challenging than, say, Mozart's pretty, so assign yourself some points for sophisticated tastes. Technically.

@elizabeth: You're sassy!

@becky: Oh, glad you liked! I got the idea when I was reading your Mozart conversations, did I tell you that? Have fun in Lisbon!