“Modern music is as dangerous as narcotics”
Pietro Mascagni - Italian Composer (1863-1945)
We were discussing the different periods of musical development in western civilization last week and ended with the Romantic Era. This week let’s look at the music of the 20th century. Seems like a straightforward purpose and simple enough task. Yet the compositions of the last century are much harder to pin down and generalize than one might be inclined to believe. In the last 100 years, ideological changes and technical advances have affected not only the way that music is enjoyed but also the way that it is composed. The one generalization we can make is that these composers have all explored new and uncharted territory in terms of tone and structure, often abandoning -- challenging -- or combining the preconceived notions about the nature of music itself, which we discussed a bit in last weeks story.
Although I suggest it was a bloodless revolution, it’s casualties, like elephants shot by big game hunters, remain standing even to this day. This Revolution did not happen overnight . Events in the Romantic period led directly to the Jacobinic musical subversions of the next century. The latter part of the Romantic Period gave us Wagner, Mahler and Scriabin. Together, they pushed the tonal system into the red, pegged the needle, and exploded the gauge. The first responders to this emergency were Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. I discovered quickly that there is simply too much diversity in this music to do any meaningful journalism within the constraints of a single article. In this week’s musical outing, we’ll be taking a closer look at Debussy and his contemporaries.
The Impressionist Movement
Recently an art thief in Paris nearly got away with stealing several paintings from the Louvre. But, after taking them off the walls and eluding the guards, he was captured only two blocks away when his van ran out of gas. When asked how he could mastermind such a theft and then make such a blunder, he replied: “I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh.”
Debussy (and Ravel) experimented with whole tone scales and became associated with the impressionist movement. (Throughout history, art and music have developed in parallel with each other.) Impressionism in art began in France near the end of the 19th century. impressionist painters did not seek to show reality in the classical sense of a picture-perfect image; instead, they emphasized light and color to give an overall "impression" of their subjects.
In much the same way, musical impressionism aims to create descriptive impressions, not necessarily to draw clear pictures. The music is not designed to explicitly describe anything, but rather to create a mood or atmosphere. This is done through almost every aspect of music: melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm, and form. Melodies tend to be brief and repeated in different contexts to reflect different moods, notes are often drawn from scale systems other than the traditional major and minor. These would include pentatonic, whole-tone, or other somewhat exotic scales including chromaticism. Asian music inspired Debussy more than the western traditions of the time. The use (or misuse, as critics of the time were known to say) of harmony was a key ingredient in the impressionist‘s bouillabaisse. For nearly the entire history of Western music, chords had been used to build and relieve tension using dissonance and consonance. Mozart’s Sonata in A is a good example of traditional harmony. You can definitively hear the chord structure leading the music forward until it reaches resolution on the final note. Now listen to "L'îsle Joyeuse" ("The Island of Joy") by Claude Debussy. This is actually a musical interpretation of Jean-Antoine Watteauthe’s painting "The Embarkation for Cythera".
Both the painting and the piece tell the story of a journey to the mythical island of Cythera the birthplace of Venus, an ideal place of love and beauty. (I wonder if Travelzoo or Expedia can get me there at a discount?) The opening trills suggest the excitement and anticipation of the travelers; a middle section depicts them floating over the water; their arrival is heralded by jubilant trumpeting; and their ecstatic joy in realizing their destination provides a climactic finish. (OK, time for a cigarette, how was it for you?) The chords in this piece sometimes serve no harmonic purpose in the traditional theoretical sense. But rather they convey the joyful mood and color of the piece. Sometimes the melody isn't very clear, but it is implied... we only get an impression of it.
(Note: My art historian friends tell me today, the painting is believed to actually depict the departure from the island, and symbolizes the brevity of love. But that‘s not how Debussy saw it and since I can‘t email the only true authority on the subject…Watteau himself for an explanation, I leave the exegesis of the painting to you dear reader, to interpret for yourself.)
"I am trying to do 'something different' -- in a way reality -- what the imbeciles call 'impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics."
Igor Stravinsky referred to Ravel as the "great Watchmaker". Ravel would labor over the intricacies of of small parts of his music before placing them in the larger finished work a bit like a watchmaker. Maurice Ravel was another acclaimed composer of this period. I’m sure we are all familiar with his “Bolero”. The worlds longest crescendo. He wrote, "I am not one of the great composers. All the great have produced enormously. There is everything in their work - the best and the worst, but there is always quantity. But I have written relatively very little . . . and at that, I did it with a great deal of difficulty. I did my work slowly, drop by drop. I have torn all of it out of me by pieces. . . and now I cannot do any more, and it does not give me any pleasure." Ravel wrote Bolero, while on holiday in his hometown of Ciboure France. Each year, his whole family would return to visit Ciboure for their annual vacation, and he had continued to visit even after his parents died. Bolero is built on two musical themes which are repeated eighteen times during the work. It is not an attempt at Spanish dance music (Although his mother was Basque), nor is it a bolero, or a folk dance at all. It is a slower tempo than a bolero dance. The piece is a combination of a polonaise, chaconne, and sarabande. Throughout the piece the rhythm of the snare drum beats relentlessly. People seem to either love or hate this piece. Many think it is repetitive and boring while others find it hypnotizing and fascinating. It is, in any event, the world's longest musical crescendo.
In fact, on Sept 1, 1997, a British study published in the French 'Psychiatric Bulletin' claims Ravel may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease because of its repetitive melody. Dr. Eva Cybulska, who authored the study, suggests this possibility due to the fact that most people with this affliction suffer from an obsession with repeating words and gestures. For a really beautiful vocal rendition of Bolero, Check out Angelique Kidjo's "Djin Djin" Cd, reviewed a few weeks ago here.
Ravel was an interesting fellow, a confirmed atheist, and a great defender of liberal politics. Among Ravel's completed works, there is a notable complete absence of religious forms or references. His habitual inspiration came from nature, from fairy tales and folk songs, and from classical and oriental legends. Politically, he was totally opposed to all social inequality. When Jean-Jacques Liabeuf was condemned to death for shooting two policemen in 1910, Ravel was among the most vocal to secure a reprieve. He was against the death penalty under all circumstances. He also said that Liabeuf had been the victim of a trumped-up charge simply because he was an anarchist. The blind fury which had led him to avenge his honor by shooting his accusers was understandable. After Liabeuf's execution, Ravel was so upset that he shut himself up in his home, refusing to see anyone for many days.
Ravel always spent Christmas Eve with the Clemenceau family, Paul and Georges. Georges Clemenceau, left-wing politician and journalist, was prime minister 1906-1909 and again 1917-1920. When Ravel composed his “Trois Chansons” in 1917, he dedicated the third of the songs, Ronde, to Sophie Clemenceau, wife of George’s brother, Paul. The second song of the same group, Trois beaux oiseaux de paradis, was dedicated to Paul Painlevé, mathematician, pilot, and liberal politician who was twice prime minister of France (1917 and 1925).
In 1927 Ravel began to show signs of dementia, and suffered from muscle problems and aphasia. After a car crash in 1932, his symptoms worsened and he eventually lost all abilities to communicate. In 1937 he underwent an unsuccessful brain surgery to remove a brain tumor and died 9 days later, in Paris, at the age of sixty-two.
Impressionist composers such as Debussy, Ravel, and Satie took the first major steps into the 20th century.
Impressionism poked a hole in the fabric of tonality
From time to time I like to recommend recordings that I believe are outstanding. Virtuoso guitarist Steve Hackett (one of my personal favorites!) and his brother John(on flute), has recently recorded an entire CD of Eric Satie’s beautiful impressionist music.
I think it’s a “must have“. Just as Claude Debussy was inspired by Asian music, Satie found his inspiration in the simplicity of plainsong. Satie’s work had been sadly ignored until the last 30 years or so, perhaps another case of an artist being way ahead of their time. If your old enough, you may recall the excellent album 'Blood, Sweat & Tears' (released by Columbia in 1969) by the band of the same name. The opening piece on the record was "Variations on a Theme" which was actually adapted from Satie’s “3 Gymnopédies”. Satie preferred to write without bar lines or time signatures often in red ink. His scores are full of whimsical instructions for the performer such as "Light as an egg", "Here comes the lantern", "Open your head", "Muffle the sound", "With astonishment", "Work it out yourself", etc.
Yes he was very humorous at times and a bit eccentric, writing under his portrait
"I have come into the world very young into an era very old."
Here are a few anecdotes about Satie's eccentricities:
In his one-room apartment Satie had two pianos. He placed one on top of the other, and had their pedals interconnected. ???
His room must have been pretty crowded, for it also contained his collection of over 100 umbrellas.
Satie would buy a dozen identical gray velvet suits at a time. He wore one till it no longer looked nice, then he threw it away and put on a new one. When he left the planet, 6 identical gray velvet suits remained… along with his 100 + umbrellas.
When Satie was criticized for writing music without form, he immediately composed "Trois Morceaux en forme de poire" (Three Pear-shaped Pieces. They are piano duets… in the form of a pear…. now that‘s humorous).
Satie's delightful eccentricity is apparent in “Vexations” a composition of 180 notes in length, directed to be repeated 840 times. It was recorded in 1963 in New York. It took a relay team of 10 pianists over eighteen hours to perform. For all you trivia fans, it is the longest single piece ever written.
It was the great avant garde composer John Cage who first suggested that Satie’s music was well suited to modern dance. Satie is now regarded as one of the best composers to use for contemporary choreography.
"Smoke, my friend. Otherwise someone else will smoke in your place."
- Erik Satie