It has now been almost exactly four months since I started my first listening unit on twentieth-century music back in late April – a unit which documents THE BREAK WITH TRADITIONAL TONALITY. In that time, the music has grown more complex and also more distant from the tonal tradition of earlier centuries. Hopefully, the article which follows can accurately summarize these important developments to music history without becoming overcomplicated itself. My previous article The Last of the Romantics introduced two terms which also remain essential to this article: those terms are functional tonality and chromaticism. Another new term for you to know is MODERNISM. I still think the movement known as Modernism is best summed up by the poet Ezra Pound in his slogan “Make it New.” It is this interest in novelty – in breaking with the past – that makes a piece of music classifiable as Modernism. In a broader sense though, any music which applies a Modern vocabulary – regardless of its composer’s intention – may also be called Modernism. It is this broader definition that I employ in this article since attempting to discern a composer’s precise intentions can be quite futile when his materials are readily known. Beginning with the music Claude Debussy was composing in the late 1880s, there is a definitive break with the past – with traditional tonality – and so it is with Debussy that my article begins.
PART I – CLAUDE DEBUSSY, THE FIRST MODERNIST. The French composer Claude Debussy should be correctly considered the first musical Modernist. Although his music might not sound Modern to most casual listeners today, his compositions were the earliest to break with the principles of functional tonality which had guided composers as far back as the late seventeenth century. Although not yet atonal, they begin to achieve the tonal stasis that was so vital to later Modernist composers. For Debussy, the route away from functional tonality came through the usage of Medieval modes; non-traditional scales, whole-tone as well as pentatonic; extended harmonies built with ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths; parallel motion and symmetrical designs; and, in general terms, a vocabulary chosen for the way it sounds rather than the way it had previously functioned in Western music. Unlike the Romantics, Debussy allowed colors to guide his compositional decisions even when those decisions defied the established values of traditional tonality. For the casual listener, however, Debussy’s Modernist innovations are often overshadowed by this composer’s interest in depicting scenes from nature and everyday life – an interest which has often seen him labeled as an “Impressionist.” While Debussy’s pictorial manner is certainly characteristic, his various departures away from traditional tonality were incredibly significant in reshaping musical thought at the turn of the twentieth century as later sections of this narrative shall illustrate.
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, L 85Listen Here!
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): Nocturnes for orchestra & female chorus, L 91Listen Here!
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): La mer (The Sea) for orchestra, L 109Listen Here!
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): Voiles (Sails) from Préludes for piano, Book I, L 117Listen Here!
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): Cello Sonata, L 135Listen Here!
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison, L 139Listen Here!
PART II – IMPRESSIONISM BEYOND DEBUSSY. Contrary to popular belief, a unified school who embraced all of Debussy’s mannerisms wholesale and can be labeled as “Impressionists” never existed. Instead a wide array of composers learned from particular elements of Debussy’s language and created their own musical vocabularies enriched by these elements. Many of the composers discussed here in Part II chose to embrace either Debussy’s harmonies, orchestration techniques, or his pictorial manner. Meanwhile, the stasis first pioneered by Debussy became an underlying aspect of Modernism with composers as wide-ranging as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, John Cage, and Pierre Boulez all attempting to create a similar stasis in their music whether or not they consciously thought of Debussy as a predecessor. Maurice Ravel is the composer who – in specific works – came closest to echoing Debussy; works like the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and the piano pieces Jeux d'eau, Miroirs, and Gaspard de la nuit are the best examples of Ravel’s Debussyan manner. The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams studied orchestration with Ravel from 1907 to 1908, and it is primarily the orchestral colors he learned from Ravel that make him worthy of inclusion here, even though much of his music still has the rootedness of tonal Romanticism. He and his friend Gustav Holst also made use of modality – something we associate with Debussy. Even in a work like The Planets with its explosive opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War, Holst’s orchestrations and stasis reveal the influence of Ravel, perhaps as tempered by Vaughan Williams; the influence is particularly clear in this suite’s later movements. Another British composer Frederick Delius possessed a great appreciation for the music of Debussy, and – although he crafted a quite different sort of music – many of the characteristics of Debussy are also present in the music of Delius. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók likewise came to appreciate the music of Debussy: from about 1907, one can hear the language of Debussy beginning to intertwine with Bartók’s earlier Germanic models and the Eastern European folk music he loved so dearly. From 1904 to 1909, the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin lived in the West with time spent in Paris as well as Switzerland, the United States, and elsewhere; Scriabin whose earliest music had echoed Chopin instead came to resemble Debussy and Ravel during these years abroad, although this change likely occurred as a parallel development rather than as a conscious influence from either side. Others whose music shows the influence of Debussy – sometimes secondhand via Ravel and most often in orchestral color if nothing else – include the Frenchmen Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel; Spaniards Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, and Federico Mompou (who all lived in Paris before World War I); Italian Gian Francesco Malipiero; and Americans Charles Griffes and John Alden Carpenter.
Delius, Frederick (1862-1934): North Country SketchesListen Here!
Roussel, Albert (1869-1937): Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast)Listen Here!
Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915): Piano Sonata No. 4 in F# major, Op. 30Listen Here!
Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915): La Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), Op. 54Listen Here!
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958): Symphony No. 1 ‘A Sea Symphony’Listen Here!
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958): Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas TallisListen Here!
Falla, Manuel de (1876-1946): Piezas españolas for pianoListen Here!
Bartók, Béla (1881-1945): Két kép (Two Pictures), Sz. 46Listen Here!
Malipiero, Gian Francesco (1882-1973): Impressioni dal vero I (Impressions from Life I)Listen Here!
Grainger, Percy (1882-1961): Pagodes from Estampes, arr. from DebussyListen Here!
Griffes, Charles (1884-1920): Three Preludes for pianoListen Here!
PART III – SATIE, STRAVINSKY, AND THE BALLETS RUSSES. Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky were the two principal composers working in France in the years before World War I whose music fell outside both the traditionalist camp represented by Gabriel Fauré and the Paris Conservatoire and the more progressive composers who had incorporated elements of Debussy’s language into their own. Satie albeit was a friend of Debussy’s and, after Debussy himself had achieved some recognition, he became an advocate for the music of his still unknown friend. Outside of its basic stasis, Satie’s music is quite different from Debussy’s, however. And again, Stravinsky’s is quite different from Satie’s. What connects Satie and Stravinsky then is their association with the cutting edge and also, in the present context, the Ballets Russes – an itinerant ballet troupe led by Sergei Diaghilev which was often on the cutting edge itself. For Diaghilev, Stravinsky composed a total of eight ballets, including the three early ballets inspired by Russian folklore: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. It is these three that I cover as part of this unit plus Satie’s Parade and Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos – their immediate successors. Both ballets show the clear influence of The Rite of Spring: attempting to cause a scandal on the same level as the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Satie’s collaborator Jean Cocteau insisted on the addition of everyday noises (the clicking of typewriters, the firing of a pistol, etc.) whereas Falla’s score shows the same irrepressible energy of The Rite of Spring over an added Spanish element. In addition to the ballets, I also cover other music Satie and Stravinsky composed in the years prior to World War I. Similarly, the Ballets Russes was not the exclusive vehicle of either Stravinsky or Satie: Debussy’s Jeux and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé were both written for Diaghilev as were ballets by many other composers, including Richard Strauss, Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, and others.
Satie, Erik (1866-1925): Six Gnossiennes for pianoListen Here!
Stravinsky, Igor (1882-1971): Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)Listen Here!
PART IV – EXPRESSIONISM AND ATONALITY IN GERMANY AND AUSTRIA-HUNGARY. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the composers Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg brought tonality to its absolute breaking point, fully exploring the radical implications of Richard Wagner’s dense chromaticism. Strauss in his operas Salome and Elektra was so unconventional in his use of tonality as to almost cross into atonality; the same may be said of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók. Schoenberg, however, was the one to make the decisive break with tonality in 1909, finally convinced by Mahler’s Ninth Symphony of the futility of attempting to further develop chromaticism within a tonal context. It was Schoenberg’s realization that chromaticism could in fact exist apart from tonality, and he sought to develop a musical language where equal importance could be given to each of the twelve pitches in the chromatic scale. This notion was the foundation for ATONALITY – music which does not possess a tonal center and is no longer governed by the rules of functional tonality. Schoenberg’s first atonal works were the Three Pieces for piano, Op. 11 and the monodrama Erwartung, Op. 17 (both 1909) but – to me at least – the true masterpiece of this phase in his development is Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 of 1912. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern followed their teacher in adopting atonality, although Berg chose to retain the drama of Romanticism while Webern conversely decided to explore shorter, more abstract forms which were sometimes borrowed from the Baroque Era or even earlier. As the 1910s progressed, Schoenberg nonetheless became weary of free atonality as constructing larger forms began to seem impossible without inadvertently reestablishing a tonal center. Webern must have also realized this inconsistency for both he and Schoenberg resorted to writing music left with only its barebones before Schoenberg went into almost complete silence for seven years while he attempted to remedy this issue. Berg was not as concerned as his colleagues, however: from the beginning, Berg had been comfortable blending traces of tonality into his seemingly atonal music. In 1922 – while Schoenberg remained silent – Berg created his masterpiece of EXPRESSIONISM the opera Wozzeck which like the operas previously mentioned by Strauss and Bartók explores the psychological mindsets of its characters. Atonality was not limited to these three composers we often refer to as the Second Viennese School (i.e. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern): in Berlin, for example, Ernst Krenek and others were also exploring atonality in the early 1920s with quite different results from their Viennese counterparts.
Krenek, Ernst (1900-1991): Symphony No. 1, Op. 7Listen Here!
Krenek, Ernst (1900-1991): Symphony No. 2, Op. 12Listen Here!
PART V – THE ITALIAN FUTURISTS. Italy with its longstanding heritage of opera would have seemed an unlikely place for Modernism to emerge, but emerge it did and in one of the fiercest, most progressive forms Modernism would take prior to World War I. FUTURISM was an artistic movement which – in regards to music – posited that a new art of noises must by necessity supplant and replace traditional music. The Futurists believed that the music of the new century must reflect the world of industry that had come to define modern life. Therefore, the definition of music should be extended to include all kinds of sounds, from noises which mimicked the rumble of factory machines and the roar of airplanes to the sounds of warfare as well. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti founded the larger Futurist movement with his Futurist Manifesto of 1909. Although Marinetti himself was a poet rather than a composer, his ideas inspired several likeminded individuals to join him and it was these followers who created the earliest Futurist music. Francesco Balilla Pratella was the first composer to outline in writing how Futurist music should sound, yet his own compositions were quite conventional despite their provocative titles. Luigi Russolo – a painter by trade – was the first to create true Futurist music, and he did so largely by inventing noise machines he called intonarumori; these mechanical instruments reproduced industrial sounds, but could also regulate the harmony, pitch, and rhythm of these sounds much like traditional instruments. Russolo began writing compositions for these intonarumori – sometimes by themselves and sometimes as part of larger ensembles with traditional instruments – and began giving concerts in Italy and also abroad until World War I curtailed Futurist activity for some years. Neither audiences nor critics were too impressed for the most part and concerts occasionally ended in riots. By the late 1920s, Russolo – disparaged that his ideas had never reshaped the musical world in the way he had hoped – turned to mysticism, although a few notable composers had in fact been inspired to take up the fight and later the post-World War II avant-garde would come to embrace many notions that had begun with the Futurists. Beyond Russolo and his intonarumori, other interesting explorations made by the Italian Futurists include the improvisations of pianist Aldo Giuntini (as heard in the Sintesi Musicali Futuriste) and Marinetti’s 1933 sound collage Cinque Sintesti Radiofoniche which prefigures the electronic tape pieces of the post-World War II generation.
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1876-1944): Cinque Sintesi RadiofonicheListen Here!
Pratella, Francesco Balilla (1880-1955): La Guerra (The War), Op. 32Listen Here!
Russolo, Luigi (1887-1947): Risveglio di una Città (Awakening of a City)Listen Here!
Giuntini, Aldo (1896-1969): Sintesi Musicali FuturisteListen Here!
PART VI – FRANCE AFTER THE RITE OF SPRING. After the scandalous premiere of The Rite of Spring in May 1913, there followed considerable uncertainty among the composers working in France. World War I which started the next year was of course partially to blame, but The Rite of Spring itself provided an explosive conclusion to all that had come before and at the same time did not offer a definitive answer for where to go next. Stravinsky would continue to produce works inspired by Russian folklore in the first decade following The Rite of Spring but would now write for ensembles other than the symphony orchestra, foreshadowing the chamber orchestras that predominate in his Neo-Classical works of the later 1920s and 1930s. These include The Soldier’s Tale which makes use of a chamber septet supplemented by a narrator, actors, and dancers, and also Les noces which is for the unlikely combination of chorus, vocal soloists, percussion, and four pianos. This was also the era of the American expatriates, and many of the young American composers who came to Paris studied with Nadia Boulanger. George Antheil, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson were the most important American composers active in Paris at the time. Antheil was a devotee of Stravinsky and also embraced Futurist notions, creating what is perhaps the most famous Futurist composition – Ballet Mécanique – which is scored for player pianos, airplane propellers, a siren, and various percussion instruments. The player piano – categorized as a mechanical instrument like Russolo’s intonarumori – is a piano capable of playing itself without the need for a human pianist, yet much of the Futurist noise-music heard in Ballet Mécanique not unexpectedly comes from the propellers and siren. The members of Les Six were also emerging at this time, and Arthur Honegger echoed Futurist sentiments with orchestral works like Pacific 231 inspired by the steam locomotive – an industrial subject – and Rugby – based on the violent contact sport of that name. The orchestration and scope of Percy Grainger’s The Warriors make this work comparable to Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, although Grainger was based in Great Britain at the time.
Satie, Erik (1866-1925): Les pantins dansent for small orchestraListen Here!
Stravinsky, Igor (1882-1971): L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)Listen Here!
Stravinsky, Igor (1882-1971): Les noces (The Wedding)Listen Here!
Honegger, Arthur (1892-1955): Pacific 231 for orchestraListen Here!
Honegger, Arthur (1892-1955): Rugby for orchestraListen Here!
Antheil, George (1900-1959): Violin Sonata No. 2Listen Here!
Antheil, George (1900-1959): String Quartet No. 1Listen Here!
Antheil, George (1900-1959): Ballet Mécanique, original 1925 versionListen Here!
PART VII – EXPERIMENTALISM, POPULISM, AND THE FATE OF SOVIET MUSIC. Although Russia might have seemed like a cultural backwaters in the nineteenth century, the perseverance of its musicians and musical institutions had made Russia one of the most formidable musical superpowers by the outset of the twentieth century. Among the great Russian composers active in Russia in the first decades of the new century, Alexander Scriabin who returned from the West in 1909 developed an atonal approach independently of Schoenberg which comes across most clearly in his late piano sonatas. About this same time, the young Sergei Prokofiev caused quite a stir while still just a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Original compositions by Prokofiev astounded listeners as distinguished as Glazunov and Taneyev; a fearsome pianist, he also advocated the music of other Modernists and, for example, gave the Russian premiere of Schoenberg’s Opus 11 in 1911. Travels to the West began in 1914 where Prokofiev established ties with Diaghilev and Stravinsky, before the Russian Revolution of 1917 encouraged him to settle abroad more permanently. The composers who remained in Russia in the first decade following the Revolution found themselves split into factions through their struggle to define how music would sound in the new Soviet Union which had formally emerged by 1922. Composers like Nikolay Roslavets and Alexander Mosolov believed that the masses – now liberated – could rise to embrace their experimental compositions, influenced respectively by Scriabin’s atonality and the industrial emphasis of the Futurists. Others believed music should be simple so that all could participate in its performance regardless of musical ability; their preferred genre was the mass song with uplifting texts that glorified labor and the state. In his earliest compositions, Dmitri Shostakovich demonstrated he was aware of both sides of the argument as he was also aware of the latest developments in Western music – he was particularly a fan of Berg, Krenek, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. This multiplicity in Soviet music withstood Lenin’s rule but the Soviet avant-garde was soon eradicated as Stalin began to gain total control in the late 1920s. The careers of Roslavets and Mosolov both came to abrupt halts; Shostakovich, however, was able to rebuild his career but had to greatly reform his style in order to regain official favor. It would have been interesting to see what these talented composers – and particularly Shostakovich – might have created if allowed to follow their original artistic inclinations.
Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915): Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 ‘Black Mass’Listen Here!
Roslavets, Nikolay (1881-1944): Dances of the White Maidens for cello & pianoListen Here!
Roslavets, Nikolay (1881-1944): Piano Sonata No. 1Listen Here!
Prokofiev, Sergei (1891-1953): Piano Concerto No. 1 in Db major, Op. 10Listen Here!
Prokofiev, Sergei (1891-1953): Sarcasms, Op. 17 for pianoListen Here!
Prokofiev, Sergei (1891-1953): Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19Listen Here!
Mosolov, Alexander (1900-1973): The Iron Foundry, Op. 19Listen Here!
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975): Aphorisms, Op. 13 for pianoListen Here!
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975): Symphony No. 2 in B major, Op. 14 ‘To October’Listen Here!
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975): Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Op. 29Listen Here!
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975): Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43Listen Here!
PART VIII – AMERICAN VISIONARIES: IVES, ORNSTEIN, AND VARÈSE. Charles Ives was the first American composer to break with the Eurocentric approach advocated by his teacher Horatio Parker and the other American Romantics active at the start of the twentieth century. Ives’s First Symphony – completed in 1902 as the graduation project for Parker’s class – already gives the impression of a thinly-disguised parody of famous European works, especially Dvorák’s New World Symphony with echoes of this composition occurring most prominently in its second movement. Ives’s Second Symphony is a more representative work for this composer, however, and it seems almost stitched together from an assortment of well-known American tunes, including Camptown Races, Turkey in the Straw, and America the Beautiful. As this work and later, even more Modernist compositions prove, Ives was as great a master of counterpoint as pastiche, and familiar elements are as likely to coexist peaceably as they are to subsist in conflict. The Russian-born American composer and pianist Leo Ornstein was another figure who like Ives was at the cutting edge of American music in the first decades of the twentieth century. From approximately 1914 until the early 1920s, Ornstein through his piano recitals introduced the music of the European Modernists as well as his often even more radical compositions to American audiences, earning both praise and also notoriety wherever he went. Significantly, Ornstein was the first composer to make integrated use of the tone cluster – a strong dissonance which occurs, on the piano, when more than three adjacent keys are struck at once. The French composer Edgard Varèse who resettled in the United States in 1915 brought with him Futurist notions and, like Antheil, wrote music which utilized enlarged percussion forces complete with sirens. Varèse took things much further than Antheil ever could, however: Varèse made elements like rhythm, timbre, and spatial placement as important in his works as pitch, melody, and harmony had been in earlier music. Unfortunately, all three of these composers suffered from a society which was not yet ready to accept their innovations: by the mid-1920s, Ives had already written the majority of his compositions and Ornstein had virtually retired from giving public concerts, softening his compositional style in the process; Varèse persisted for the time being but his composing had also slowed by the mid-1930s. It would take the next generation of American Modernists – the group led by Henry Cowell in the later 1920s and 1930s – to establish a community in which Modern music could thrive in the United States.
Varèse, Edgard (1883-1965): Amériques for very large orchestra & offstage bandaListen Here!
Varèse, Edgard (1883-1965): Ionisation for thirteen percussion with pianoListen Here!
Varèse, Edgard (1883-1965): Écuatorial for bass voices, two ondes Martenot, & ensembleListen Here!
Ornstein, Leo (1895-2002): Danse Sauvage (Wild Men’s Dance) for pianoListen Here!
Ornstein, Leo (1895-2002): Suicide in an Airplane for pianoListen Here!
WHAT’S NEXT? The break with traditional tonality that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century was essential for music to progress in its ever-continuing evolution. In fact, the break was inevitable as the tonal vocabulary had become exhausted and the weight of chromaticism unbearable. Nonetheless, a suitable replacement for tonality had yet to be found by any of the innovators so far discussed as of the first years of the 1920s – approximately when this unit concludes. Debussy had given music the first elements of a new vocabulary, but had not developed a universal system that could be utilized to organize the new vocabulary. His successors, therefore, either integrated his innovations into the old language or chose to look for further answers of their own. Stravinsky and the Futurists through their radicalism contributed further to the disintegration of tonality, and meanwhile in central Europe Schoenberg and Webern – if not Berg or Krenek necessarily – were finding it increasingly more difficult to write in larger forms while still maintaining neutrality to a tonal center. Finally, in the mid-1920s, both Stravinsky and Schoenberg would make their breakthroughs and seemingly solve the issue of organization in post-tonal music. Stravinsky’s innovation – Neo-Classicism – would capitalize on elements already essential to his style: explosive energy, exciting rhythms, and short forms. At approximately the same time, Schoenberg would develop the method known as Serialism as a way of providing structural logic when composing with the full chromatic scale. These innovations shall be discussed more fully in upcoming articles, but before going any further I must first discuss a different innovation in Modern music that I have so far omitted. This is the development of sound recording and the new permanence this technological innovation brought to folk and popular traditions. Significantly, this development allowed for the rapid diffusion of ragtime, blues, and especially jazz – musics of the African-American tradition that had in fact already opened up new possibilities for many of the composers discussed in this unit.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a composer, music scholar, 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 will remain active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. Jackson has in fact written program notes for many of Central Louisiana’s key music presenters, including the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, Arts Council of Central Louisiana, and Northwestern State University. 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. Jackson has followed classical music around the world, including trips to Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and the BachFest Leipzig in Germany. 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. His four-movement Suite for solo guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 and has also been aired on public radio. In fall 2016, Jackson will begin graduate studies at the University of Louisville with the ultimate goal of earning his doctorate in musicology. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.