MUSIC 256 - Music Since 1900

Laura Gray

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Table of contents

The Era & its Music

Music Since 1900. What is this era? Time frame: 20th Century; 21st Century?

Do we define the era based on dates or other factors?

Cohesion? Is there an overriding style or structure?

co-existing diversity:

  • Many contrasting trends (“isms”)
  • styles, forms, techniques, nature of music

Relationship with past

  • had to compete for concert stage with classics of the past
  • self-consciously “modern” (1889-1918)
  • founded on past but need to break away:
  • quest for originality:
    • every work an artistic statement
  • challenge the past:
    • Functional tonality, goal-driven structures
    • Some radical breaks with the past
  • not a steady “development”:
    • decisive moments/events

19th-Century Precedents

We trace precedents on 2 paths:

  • Austro-German tradition
  • non-Germanic, French/Russian traditions

Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883), Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1859/65 premiere)

Stretched the bounds of tonality through:

  • Increased chromaticism:
    • distant keys & stepwise melodic motion
  • Prolonged dissonance
  • Less dependence on keys that support the central tonic

decisive historical “moment”

  • “crisis in Romantic harmony” (E. Kurth)
  • 1st chord in 5-hour opera:
    • 4 dissonant chords in a row
  • g# b d# f: ambiguous function
    • Conflation of 2 chromatic Leitmotifs
    • recurring themes attached to characters, concepts, objects
  • Tonic chord (A minor) & cadences avoided
  • deepens tension & resolution of tonality: for drama
  • Clear resolution at very end of opera

The idle, noisy day is over

MODEST MUSORGSKY(1839-81): “The idle, noisy day is over”, Song No. 3 from Sunless (1874)

Strong key of C: anchor, but freely roams:

  • Introduces “foreign” elements (B♭ & A♭)
  • Juxtaposition of chords for colour only, not tonal function: G♭
    • e.g., G♭triad –> G7 chord (mm. 6-7, 14)–> C
  • Chromatic melody: moves by step
  • Whole-tone scale suggested (voice, mm35-36)
  • Influenced Debussy: piano, m16ff: Debussy borrowed pattern in Nuages

Nuages gris

FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886), Nuages gris (Grey Clouds, 1881)

key signature & tonic triad (m.2 G B♭D) suggests g minor, but rejects traditional harmonic functions

Points to exhaustion of tonality, anticipates the crisis:

  • Highly chromatic: semitone movement
  • Augmented triad = central harmonic unit (= 2 major 3rds)
  • Parallel movement vs conventional chord progressions
  • Static bass line: oscillates B♭ - A
  • Avoids cadence structure, even very end of piece
  • Last chord = Augmented triad (E♭G B) + A
    • = 4 notes from whole-tone collection: A E♭G B
      E♭[F] G A B [C#]

French Modernism I: Debussy

Claude Debussy (French, 1862-1918): Different direction: “pleasure in the moment”

Some Influences and Inspiration:

  • sought independence from Austro-German tradition: Wagner
  • French tradition
  • Russians: Musorgsky
  • medieval music
  • Asia: Javanese gamelan; Chinese & Japanese music
  • Impressionist painters & Symbolist poets

Some keys to Debussy’s style:

  • common-practice harmony avoided, weakened:
    • tonal focus remains: but without chordal functional relationships; quasi-independent chords
    • undermines need to resolve: no urgency or drive towards end goal
  • creates, juxtaposes musical images:
    • themes & motives: not developed
    • dissonances: don’t need to resolve
    • Sonorities/chords move in parallel motion
    • instrumental timbres/colours intrinsic to musical content
    • contrasts of scale types, exotic scales
      • some scales used by Debussy: whole-tone, pentatonic, octatonic
  • Impressionism : music that evokes moods & visual imagery through colourful harmony & instrumental timbre
    • a) Monet: through colour & light: Monet, “Impression: Sunrise”, 1874
    • b) Debussy: through harmony & tone colour

“Nuages” from Nocturnes

“Nuages” from Nocturnes (1897-99, premiered in 1900 & 1901):

title: “Nocturnes”, focus on colour

form: A B A’: typical 3-part form

large orchestra: for colour

  • divided muted strings: “shimmer”
  • dabs of colour: brief motives (2 or 3 notes)

interaction of tone colour with motive, scale type

  • oscillating pattern fifths, thirds
    • modelled on Musorgsky, Sunless piano acc’t
    • appearances feature different tone colours, pitches
  • octatonic English horn motive: c# d e f b (m.5)
    • motive never developed, transposed, always English horn
    • complete identification between timbre and motive
  • middle section (B) of “Nuages”:
    • 1889: Paris Universal Exposition: “Decisive moment”
      • Javanese gamelan: Indonesian orchestra – mostly gongs & percussion
  • pentatonic tune & similar articulation (harp & flute)

French Modernism II: Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) : some characteristics

  1. often grouped with Debussy as impressionist
  2. outsider, independent streak
  3. impressionist works: strong musical imagery, colorful harmonies
  4. Interest in Classic forms, genres
  5. French tradition: stylized dances, suite
  6. Varied Influences:
    • a) French symbolism
    • b) Jazz elements, Blues
    • c) Viennese Waltz
    • d) Spanish idioms
    • e) French/Russian

Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole (NAWM 173)

  • orchestral suite in 4 movements: I “Prélude à la nuit” & II “Malagueña”
  • multiple influences: evocations of Spain, authentic flavour & Rimsky-Korsakov

NAWM 173a: I “Prélude à la nuit” (Night Prelude)

  • Dynamics: mostly quiet
  • Repeating figure (ostinato): F-E-D-C#
    • Opening: descending pattern: muted strings, duple meter
    • Evokes Spanish accompaniment pattern
    • Ambiguous: d minor scale or octatonic?
    • Creates nocturnal mood
  • M14: clarinets: Seguidilla-like gestures
  • M28: diatonic string melody, woodwind flourishes (e.g., 2 bassoons)
  • Ends on A

NAWM 173b : II “Malagueña” = a Spanish dance or song in flamenco style

  • Triple meter Phrygian mode
  • Usually in 2 parts
  • Opening:
    • plucking low string ~ guitar
    • Repeating descending 4-note pattern ~ flamenco guitar pattern
    • Muted trumpet: new f#-minor melody based on 4-note pattern
  • Second part (m.73): Song in Flamenco style: English horn
  • Closing (79): Return of 4-note pattern from I: F-E-D-C#
    • Played on celesta

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