enriching lives through music

Music History 101.6

Late Romantic, Impressionism

Good Tuesday, everyone — We have finally made it into the 20th century! Composers born in the late 1800s were going in all directions. The Late Romantic period evolved with Strauss, Mahler, and others. Some would call it an extension of the loosely termed German School. In France, Impressionism became the label for Debussy and Ravel. And then there was the Second Viennese School. This group was headed by Schoenberg who began as a late romantic but veered into uncharted waters with atonal and serial compositions which shocked the musical establishment. You could say the latter two categories were a reaction to the first. There was much admiration between the groups but also some fierce rivalries. As with post Beethoven, splitting off was inevitable. The world was changing fast and so was music!

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) – The man’s lifespan covered all the major shifts in 19th century composing. When he was born Chopin was still composing. When he died atonal music and jazz were becoming the new norms. Unlike his teacher Saint-Saens, Faure went with the flow, willing to explore new idioms of the times yet retaining his core beliefs: a sensual French style characterized by understatement, warmth, and transparency in orchestration. Universally admired by all his contemporaries, he truly was the link between the German school and impressionism at the turn of the century. Here is the finale from his 2nd piano quartet (1887).

and a fascinating arrangement of Pie Jesu from his Requiem.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – The first British composer of note since Henry Purcell (d. 1695), some say Elgar put the Great back into Britain.
His most often played tune is played every spring at graduations. Here is Elgar conducting it at the dedication of Abbey Road Studios in 1931.
Notice he says “play it like you’ve never heard it before.”

Of course there were masterpieces to his name, notably the oratorio Dream of Gerontius, Enigma Variations, the cello concerto, and Falstaff: A Symphonic Study which he stated to be his favorite. My own personal fave is the Introduction & Allegro for strings. The piece is loosely based on the concerto grosso concept, with a solo quartet. And the 1st violin part is not easy. After all Elgar’s primary instrument was the violin! Start @ 7:39

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), opera composer who wrote in the ‘verismo’ style characterized by realistic portrayals of the common man, which could sometimes be sordid and violent. Verismo also introduced a highly declamatory way of singing featured by overblown vibrato to capture the dramatic emotion of the moment. Puccini’s operas were generally sung through without breaks or recitatives. Oftentimes the singer would be supported by an instrument(s) playing the the tune an octave lower for emphasis. Here are two final scenes from Tosca. First, Act 1

and here the horrifying end of Act 3 (if you are not familiar with the story, the bullets were supposed to be blanks!)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), a fiercely independent personality determined to find his own way in the musical world. Thus he was not fully accepted by his contemporaries or the public. Conductor/composer Pierre Boulez said “modern music was awakened” by Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Though Debussy firmly rejected the label ‘impressionistic,’ his music does reflect the commensurate shift in the art world with all the reflected light and unfocused images of nature and its beautiful surroundings. Here is ‘Prelude.’

When Debussy visited the world’s fair in Paris in 1889 he was taken with the Javanese gamelan exhibit featuring percussive instruments. The gamelan influence found its way into the scherzo of his string quartet 4 years later with lots of pizzicato and cross rhythms.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), an example of a full fledged romantic who carried his style half way through the 20th century while making subtle changes in orchestration and harmonies along the way. He inspired many of his 20th century contemporaries including Elgar, Ravel, and Bartok. Though he wrote two early symphonies, his 10 tone poems are his contribution to the symphonic genre. They tell epic stories using every section of the orchestra in bravura fashion. Here from his first successful tone poem, Don Juan (1888) conducted by George Szell, a Strauss protege. Start @23:00 to end of Don Juan.

The final works by Strauss were the Four Last Songs written in 1948. They are a reflection on his life with a soaring soprano and beautiful French horn solos. His wife was a renowned soprano and his father a horn player. In the the third song the composer inserts a heart wrenching violin solo. He was, after all, a violinist himself. Here is When Falling Asleep with Jesse Norman. Start @9:14 to end of song.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) – Finnish violinist/composer who came of age as Russia was doing its best to squelch the culture of his homeland. If there was an artistic figure to unite the Finns, it was Sibelius. Drawn to the music of Bruckner, he similarly incorporated brass into his symphonic works giving them a signature identity. The Second Symphony is his most popular and for good reason. Though Sibelius said he wasn’t writing it with any nationalistic theme in mind, the Finnish soul comes through loud and clear from the quiet opening to the sweeping grandiose finish. Start @33:25

Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) – English composer who did not blossom until his late thirties after studying with Ravel who, in complimenting him, said that Vaughn Williams was his “only pupil who does not write my music.” Despite being in his 40s Vaughn Williams volunteered for the British army in WW1 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1917. One could say he was the first composer to give Britain its own musical voice, one that wasn’t tied to compositional customs of the Continent. He himself said that studying with the modernist Ravel helped him escape “the heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner.” His favorite choral work was Sanctus Civitas, composed between 1923-1925. Start @15:46

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), virtuoso pianist, composer and conductor. He left Russia in 1918 to escape the revolution and came to NY with his family. From that time until his death in 1943 he embarked on a vigorous touring schedule that provided him with a stable income and a lifestyle which allowed him to hire Russian servants and a chauffer. Unfortunately it kept him from composing. “I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country I lost myself also.” During this time of 25 years he completed only six works. But thankfully he left us an abundance of recordings which display his incredible virtuosity. His hands were huge; he could play a C major chord plus a fifth! Here is Daisies, recorded in 1940.

and Flight of the Bumblebee, recorded in 1929

Third Piano Concerto – played by his good friend Vladimir Horowitz. The story goes, when asked how to play this piece the composer replied “ask Horowitz.” Start at 38:00

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Austrian born, also a writer and painter, and one of the most controversial figures in the music world at the beginning of the 20th century. When his wife briefly left him in 1908 his composing style radically changed from late romantic to that of having no key and sounding atonal. Later he introduced serial, or 12 tone music whereby each 12 notes of the scale could not be repeated until all the others were heard. At this point Strauss dismissed him. Mahler continued to support him as his protege even though he did not understand him. Conversely Schoenberg himself was very harsh on Ravel and Stravinsky calling them “mediocre kitchmongers” and threatening to “teach them to venerate the German spirit and worship the German God.” And the division continues. One can understand why such a well known figure to this day, 150 years after his death, still does not have a foothold in the performance repertoire of classical music. Here is the sublime ending of an earlier ‘tonal’ work – Transfigured Night.

and his first atonal writing. Start @ 20:30 (one song, 1 & 1/2 min)

Occasionally he did return to tonal writing, as here in his Second Chamber Symphony (1939)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) – Not a prolific composer, Ravel turned out only 85 compositions, and many of those were transcribed from the piano version to orchestra. The process of composing was painstakingly slow for him. His success lies in the combined influences of classicism, impressionism, modernism, multiple nationalistic dance forms, and jazz -the latter because he spent many an evening in the cafes of Paris. As a student of Faure he also had the benefit of a long line of French composers before him, Debussy included. Another composer who went to war in his 40s, Ravel lost much of his stamina and subsequently composed about one piece a year. But those works were some of his best, including La Valse, Bolero, Concerto for the Left Hand, and the G Major Concerto. Here is the latter with all his masterful orchestration, alternating moods, swooping glissandos, and all-star percussion! 1st movement.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – Austrian-Bohemian born and later a converted Catholic, Mahler endured conflict and resentment his entire life, a permanent sense of exile – “always an intruder, never welcomed.” His 10 symphonies dominate his compositions. However he was equally renowned as a conductor, though a hard driving dictatorial one. Tchaikovsky and Brahms both praised his opera work. There were 6 years at Hamburg Opera – 744 performances; 10 years in Vienna – 645; 4 years in NY at the Met and the Philharmonic until his death at 51. But it was never smooth going. With anti-semitic attacks from the Viennese press, and constant fighting with singers, orchestra members and stage crews it is no wonder he died relatively young.

As a late romantic Mahler drew from just about every composer in either ‘school’ of the 19th century. Like Beethoven he used soloists and chorus in his symphonies; like Berlioz he continued with a picture painting programatic style; and like Wagner and Bruckner his symphonic works were lengthy, the orchestration massive with multiple instrumental means of coloration and huge climaxes. “A symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.”

For excerpts I’ve chosen the dramatic endings of three of his symphonies. I could not decide on one so I invite you to pick! They are all fantastic. Mahler is slightly out of chronological order here, and for good reason 🙂

Second Symphony ending
Third Symphony ending – a virtual performance by the Baltimore Symphony, very moving!
Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) ending. After the premiere applause went on for 30 minutes.

Next week: Music 101 wraps up with the 20th century masters such as Bartok, Britten, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, & Shostakovich. After which we will hit pause and figure out what to do next! Thanks again to Carol for youtube assistance.

Stay safe everybody!

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