Wednesday, May 29, 2013

turning points in musical history

Today is the centenary anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, one of the most famous, or infamous, premieres in musical history. It was also one of the most influential. My editors appear to have chosen not to run the article I sent them on spec about this, so I'll present to you instead my theory that The Rite of Spring was the third of four, so far, "turning point" musical premieres since 1800 which came along at roughly half-century intervals and seem to me to have sparked paradigm shifts in the writing of classical music. Not necessarily the greatest works, though they're among the greatest, they are the most influential. They violated the conventions of their day and set new conventions for the future, and pervade the work that came after them. (Curiously, though, they all took a decade or two to be absorbed before they became influential.) Here's the four:

Turning Point no. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, "Eroica"
First public performance, April 7, 1805, Theatre an der Wien, Vienna

What made Beethoven's Third Symphony stand apart from his first two, and from the Haydn and Mozart works that had been his models, was its sheer scale and size. It's an enormous piece of nearly an hour, which packs in entire fugues and huge towering climaxes that no previous symphony had had time for. That subsequent symphonies, like Beethoven's own Ninth and the works of Mahler, are even huger has blinded us to the impact of the "Eroica" and to how difficult it was for its first listeners to absorb. Supposedly a listener at the first performance cried out in agony, "I'd give another kreutzer if the thing would only stop!"

Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies, in particular, were even more daring. The "Eroica," though, was the pioneer. For a couple of decades, no other composer dared to follow Beethoven's symphonic path. Even Schubert kept on writing light symphonies in a Haydnesque mode. It wasn't until Schubert's abortive "Unfinished" of 1822 that another composer attempted to write a symphony of the scale and weight of the "Eroica," and not until his Great C Major a few years later that he completed one. After that came Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, and the floodgates were opened. For the generation of the 1830s – Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt – Beethoven was the master, and by the time Brahms came around he could only groan that he heard Beethoven's footsteps forbiddingly behind him whenever he considered writing a symphony. Beethoven's is still the prime name among symphonists, and the "Eroica" is the work that made it so.

An old show with MTT discussing the Eroica.

MTT conducting the entire Eroica with the London Symphony.

Turning Point no. 2
Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde
First performance, June 10, 1865, National Theatre, Munich

This time music history turns not on not just a single work, but a single chord, the "Tristan" chord, as it's called, which comes near the start of the prelude to this opera that Wagner had completed in 1859 but which took six years before he could arrange for a performance. The "Tristan" chord combines several different chromatic intervals – combinations of notes – considered exotic, even painful, in earlier music, all into a single sound. The result is something weird, tense, and strange. It riveted the ears of its listeners, and it set the course for avant garde composition for the next half-century, as composers explored further and further into harmonic discords and disintegration. Everything we call "modern music": the florid, hothouse air of Debussy and the Impressionists, despite their mixed feelings about Wagner, the equally lush and intense harmonies of Mahler and Richard Strauss, and finally the twelve-tone method – the complete negation of traditional, pre-Wagner harmony – pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg, may all be traced back to this single chord.

Stephen Fry babbling orgasmically about the Tristan chord.

Turning Point no. 3
Igor Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
First performance, May 29, 1913, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris

Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was probably more scandalous than the music, but the music was strange enough. Its brutal angularity and complex, unusual, and sometimes conflicting rhythms made Stravinsky's reputation. It was a new thing in music, and, more importantly, a hugely influential thing. From the work of fellow-Russian Prokofiev to that of Americans like Copland and Bernstein and Europeans from Orff to Britten, generations of subsequent composers for half a century were permeated by Stravinsky's idiom – his orchestration, his harmonies and textures, and above all those rhythms – and no other composer and work of its time outweighed its importance.

There's an impressively accurate reproduction of the performance, and the audience reaction, at the beginning of the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. The movie isn't on YouTube, but the first thirty seconds of this trailer give an accurate impression.

Part 1 of 4 of the SFS playing the Rite.

Part 1 of MTT's "Keeping Score" show on the piece.

Turning Point no. 4
Terry Riley, In C
First performance, November 4, 1964, Tape Music Center, San Francisco

After those marquee names in classical music history, Terry Riley? Maybe so. Certainly minimalism, which didn't start with Riley or In C, but for which this was the breakthrough work, has been the most innovative and influential movement in concert music in the last half century. That's true regardless of opinions of the music itself. Some listeners want to yell catcalls and blow whistles at minimalism, as their predecessors did to Stravinsky, or denigrate the composers as was done to Wagner. Supposedly a concertgoer at an early performance of Steve Reich actually screamed, "Oh God, just make it stop!" – just like the man who didn't like Beethoven. None of this has actually stopped musical innovation, or dented the broad appeal of many minimalist works.

In 1964 it was a startlingly new thing. Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing the concert, wrote that Riley "has developed a style like that of no one else on earth, and he is bound to make a profound impression with it." In C is the antithesis of the complex, strictly-determined Stravinsky and Schoenberg-influenced music then in vogue. The score is only one page, on one staff, consisting of 53 brief cellular modules to be repeated in a semi-improvisational manner by any number of instruments. After ten minutes, it may make the listener want to scream, but after half an hour, it can have an intensely spiritually calming effect that only minimalism can produce.

As Frankenstein predicted, it made an impression. In C became the first widely-distributed work of strict minimalism. Gradually, other minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich moderated their technique by combining it with traditional structures. By the 1980s, minimalist techniques like Riley's cells, Reich's phase-shifting, and Glass's additive structures had become simply yet another set of ordinary tools in the compositional toolboxes of post-minimalist composers, starting with John Adams and continuing with many others.

And it all began right here in San Francisco. In C was composed in March of 1964 at a small house up on Bernal Heights, and first performed that fall in a small concert space on Divisadero Street between Oak and Page. Vienna, Munich, Paris – and San Francisco. And there you are.

A 15-minute excerpt of a good all-percussion performance of In C.

An impressively consonant performance of four minutes at the beginning.

If you prefer something more raucous, try this one.

Or this one. Both are full performances, but short (half-hour).

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