enriching lives through music

Music History 101.7

The 20th century

Welcome back everyone to our final Music 101! Once we are in the heart of the 1900s pretty much anything goes. It would be hard to attach any kind of ‘style’ to a particular composer. Rather each one attained a signature depending on where he came from. Take Bela Bartok (1881-1945), who with his friend Zoltan Kodaly traveled the Hungarian countryside with heavy equipment to collect and record hundreds of Magyar folk melodies. Subsequently the tunes found their way into most of their compositions. In his First Rhapsody(1901), Bartok keeps the folk music primary; anything ‘new’ is secondary. Here it is, played by the dedicatee and composer.
First movement

From his 4th String Quartet (1928), a movement with pizzicato only. You’ll hear 3 types: regular plucking; snapping, in which the string is pulled hard enough to snap against the fingerboard; and strumming, like a guitar.

And now to one of Zoltan Kodaly’s (1882-1967) most popular pieces from the Harry Janos Suite (1926). Note the presence of the gypsy sounding cimbalom, a dulcimer on 4 legs set up with 125 metal strings to be hit by two hammers. It is the national instrument of Hungary. First, a version with good sound. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Io0gF-L0_eE

and a peek at the cimbalom (sound not as good)

Let’s head to Berlin in the 20s. The music here took on a mix of cabaret, some 12 tone serial, and jazz. Out of this period came Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) Three Penny Opera, a corroboration with the Marxist Bertold Brecht.
Mack the Knife came from this work, here sung by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya.

And another example from this time, The Song of the Brown Island. Feel free to sort out the lyrics here, 5th poem scrolled down:


Back to Berlin in the 20s – Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), violist supreme, wrote this not so subtle dig on Hitler and his favorite composer, Wagner. Note the lengthy title!

And he also got out of Germany. Goebbels labeled him an “atonal noisemaker” and pressured him to go to Turkey before ending up at Yale in 1940. Here is the slow movement from his concerto for viola and small orchestra (1935).

A little more accessible than the cacophony you just heard!

Back in 1908 the Austrian Alban Berg (1885-1935), pupil of Schoenberg and the New Viennese School, wrote this lushly sung ‘Nightingale.’ Originally scored for piano, he later orchestrated the accompaniment.

Like his mentor, he soon gravitated toward the atonal world. The Lyric Suite (1926) is an example. Quite different!

Meanwhile in New York, show tune writer George Gershwin (1898-1937) sought out lessons from Maurice Ravel in Paris but was turned down. “Why become a second rate Ravel when you are a first rate Gershwin?” Both of them loved jazz, naturally, and in the end each composer had influence on the other. Here is Gershwin’s Lullaby (1919).

Another New Yorker on the scene was Aaron Copland (1900-1990). After studying in Paris he returned home determined to write in a style which would “reflect the ideas of American democracy.” Though he dabbled in some 12 tone writing, his most successful works were designed to reach the mass public. His signature was a combination of jazz, jagged rhythms, folk based and original tunes with open harmonies suggesting the vast prairie and pioneer spirit. Here is Hoedown from his ballet Rodeo(1942).

and something calmer: Lark for chorus(1938)

In Russia, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) left his homeland after the 1917 revolution and stayed in the US and Paris before returning home in 1936. Though restricted by government guidelines for composing, some of his most popular works come from this period such as Peter & the Wolf and Romeo & Juliet. A particular trait of his is composing in the extreme low (tuba/bass) and high (violins/flutes) registers, as heard in this poignant section of Romeo & Juliet (before the couple separates for good). There are spine tingling moments here.
Start @ 33:27 to end of mvt.

From Russia also was Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Not until the age of 57 did he come to the US. He spent years in France as well. The story of the premiere of Rite of Spring in 1913 is well known — fights breaking out in the Paris audience over the daring choreography and rhythmically charged music. Indeed Stravinsky’s “primitive, off beat rhythmic drive” (Philip Glass) became his calling card. Here is an example from L’Histoire du Soldat (Soldier’s Tale): Three Dances – Tango, Valse, Ragtime.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one Russian who remained in his country. His music denounced twice (1936 and 1948) by the Soviet government, Shostakovich walked the fine line between getting his message out and pleasing the Politburo. Some say he inserted secret protest codes into his scores. In 1960 he joined the party and was a delegate to the Supreme Soviet. Articles he did not write denouncing individuality in music appeared in Pravda. A response to these agonizing times was his Eighth Quartet, subtitled “To the victims of war and fascism.” Privately he confessed “nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” Here is a stunning performance of the quartet arranged for string orchestra. First 3 movements to 12:26

Shostakovich gave high praise to Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) when he proclaimed his War Requiem (1962) to be “the greatest work of the 20th century.” Commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (bombed in WW2), the work commemorates the dead from both world wars and is scored for 3 soloists, boys choir, chorus, chamber orchestra and full orchestra. All forces finally come together for the first time at its conclusion, seen here, where the tenor and bass sing “Let us sleep now…” On a side note, my sister played oboe in this performance and said she was blown away. I myself was fortunate to play the piece as a freshman in college. I had the same reaction. Start @1:23:12

Well, that is one moving, tough act to follow to close out our tour, but I’d like offer an alternative which puts Britten in a totally different light. Here is the jaunty final fugue from one of his most popular pieces, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Follow each instrument from top to bottom, that is: from piccolo to percussion and everyone else in between! with the glorious Purcell hymn at the end.

Just like that, we have traveled through 650 years of music in seven weeks! So it is time to take a break and let everyone catch up. I have enjoyed putting this all together and have learned an immense amount of material! Let me know your thoughts and any ideas you might have going forward. It is hard to know when we will be back together in person, so if the muse cooperates I will be back soon!

Cheers to you all,

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