• Jackson Harmeyer

80. Listening Recommendations – Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, and the Classicists


Part One in the series “Regaining ControlTowards New Principles of Organization in the Years following World War I”


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

In the years which followed World War I, there was a consensus among many composers that the principles of tonality which had guided Western art music for two centuries were no longer functional or even valid. In fact, the devastation wrought by the war only reinforced this aesthetic decision which had been reached sometime earlier. As can be read in my previous article The Break with Traditional Tonality, the early Modernists had undermined tonality without providing any substitutes of wide-reaching consequence: only individual and temporary solutions had been found. The need for a new objectivity had been established, but that objectivity had yet to be found. The present series of articles will survey the music of the interwar years, a time when composers were actively searching for new principles of organization which could replace the tonal order the Modernists had defeated.


For several composers of the interwar period, the restoration of order necessitated a reconciliation with time-honored conventions like classical forms and genres in hopes of building a dialogue with traditional tonality. I call this broad category of composers “The Classicists,” and their new appreciation for tradition came without the same irony or sarcasm of Igor Stravinsky and the Neo-Classicists whose music will be addressed in my next article. This trend, less specific in its origins than Neo-Classicism, was truly international with exponents in France, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere each reaching the same conclusion more-or-less independently.


Especially in the case of MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937), one of the foremost Classicists, this reconsideration of past values did not necessitate a return to the old ways of Romanticism. Ravel never quit exploring new and exotic music whether that be American jazz and blues or Balinese gamelan. Instead, Ravel brought order to his fully Modern music by applying structural conventions of the past. His historical inspirations were also wide-ranging. In a work like Le tombeau de Couperin for solo piano (1914-17; Listen Here!), Ravel demonstrated an appreciation for the Baroque era, creating a suite thoroughly Modern in its harmonies but crafted around cherished Baroque dances (i.e. the forlane, rigaudon, and menuet) as well as other genres of Baroque origin (i.e. prélude, fugue, and toccata). Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor (1914; Listen Here!) takes instead a Classical-era approach, as Ravel utilizes a standard four-movement layout with the first movement in sonata-allegro form and even invokes traditional tonality by supplying his composition with a key signature.


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Among the other composers who I associate with Classicism in the interwar years are two Frenchmen whose late music is, admittedly, in some ways a holdover from the nineteenth century, but in other ways achieves a poetic sensibility quite distinct from the Romantic past. One of these composers is CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) whose three sonatas for wind instruments, written in the last year of his life, recall the Baroque-era sonata through both their scale and unpretentious charm. Here is Saint-Saëns's Clarinet Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 167 (1921; Listen Here!); the others are for oboe and bassoon, respectively. As in the works of Saint-Saëns, the late works of his friend GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845-1924) have a poetic sensibility and refinement that elevate them beyond their Romantic predecessors. If Saint-Saëns achieves this transcendence through simplification, however, then Fauré alternatively adds complexity, inserting many ornamental notes into his well-shaped melodies. As an example, here is Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 117 (1921; Listen Here!).


We sometimes forget that the Russian composer ALEXANDER GLAZUNOV (1865-1936) resettled in Paris in the last years of his life, working in the French capital from 1929 to 1936. Glazunov had served as director of the Leningrad Conservatory in the first ten years following the Revolution. But, as artistic freedoms became ever more restricted as Stalin consolidated his power and as Glazunov's own conservative style continued to receive criticism from colleagues and students alike, the composer finally chose self-exile in France. There, Glazunov wrote his Saxophone Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 109 (1934; Listen Here!), one of the first compositions by a major classical composer to feature the saxophone as soloist (despite the prominence this instrument had already attained in the jazz world). Listen especially to its fugal finale which, in its brilliant application of this centuries-old formal approach, shows considerable Classicist sensibility.


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

One of the young students at the Leningrad Conservatory who did the most to expose the rift that had emerged between the advances in Modernist music and Glazunov's conservatism was DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) who was a student at the Conservatory from 1919 to 1926. Works of his which I have shared previously (including the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, and his Aphorisms for piano) were fiercely Modern. Within a few years after Glazunov's departure for the West, however, Shostakovich ironically had entered his own Classicist phase. The Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 (1934; Listen Here!) was one of the first and most significant of these Classicist works by Shostakovich. It is set in four movements each appropriately modeled after an established classical form, and it has a stronger sense of tonality than any of his works mentioned in my previous article. Also note that Shostakovich's Classicist turn initially had little to do with politics: it was another year before Lady Macbeth was ever officially condemned. Nor was his rebellious streak necessarily over: the radical Fourth Symphony was not begun until the following year. Nonetheless, after Shostakovich was condemned in January 1936, he utilized the greater appreciation he had gained for classical form and traditional tonality to help facilitate his reconciliation with Soviet officialdom.


Like the Cello Sonata, the Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940; Listen Here!) marked another of Shostakovich’s first serious explorations into chamber music, and accordingly it also displayed his new regard for classical form and tonality. The first two movements are setup as a prelude and fugue pair (much like those pairs found in Bach's Well Tempered Clavier) while the later movements complete a modified Classical-era layout of scherzo-slow movement-fast finale. Unlike the Cello Sonata, however, the Piano Quintet does possess a political context: it marked the final step in his rehabilitation process which had begun with the grand Fifth Symphony three years earlier. As evidence that Shostakovich was back on good terms with the Party, his Quintet was awarded the 1940 Stalin Prize.


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Finally, the German composer RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949) also began to return to Classical values, in his case, even before World War I. His opera Der Rosenkavalier (1911; Listen Here!) followed two of that era's most daring and progressive operas, his Salome and Elektra, and was a conscious attempt to return to something more approachable -- if not an altogether more idyllic period in time. Although not completely removed from the advanced harmonic language of its two predecessors, Der Rosenkavalier is a comic opera set in eighteenth-century Vienna, complete with characteristic waltzes. The operas of Mozart are now Strauss's model as he attempts to recreate their lyricism and scale among other things, although Strauss here at least maintains the post-Wagnerian leitmotiv structure. Later operas by Strauss would pursue this Mozartian ideal even further, much to the chagrin of Arnold Schoenberg, for example, who had once praised Strauss's progressivism but now criticized him for turning his back on Modernism.


These were not the only composers, however, looking back to times past for guidance. Further articles in this series “Regaining Control” will consider many composers whose ability to accomplish something new required rediscovering and reinterpreting something old. Not least among these composers was Schoenberg himself whose formulation of serialism by 1923 was ultimately his own attempt to find contemporary meaning for classical form while at the same time bringing necessary structure to the new atonal vocabulary he had established a decade earlier. Perhaps, then, Schoenberg had criticized Strauss too soon…


JSH 16.09.25


About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he also sings with the University Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.


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