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New Music

20th Century Experiments

Major influences in 20th century music.

In the second article in this regular series, Eddie Franklin-White identifies some of the major influences in twentieth-century music, and begins to make a few suggestions for your record collection of New Music.

Arnold Schoenberg

In making recommendations of recordings of new music it is necessary to take into account both personalities and specific works that have affected the course of 20th century music.

One such work is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes it was first performed in Paris in 1913 when Stravinsky was 31, and at the first performance it caused one of the most famous uproars in the history of music. With its complex rhythms (showing African influence), harsh dissonances and strong driving force it is one of the recognised landmarks in the history of music and, even today, a good performance can still be a shattering experience, either in the concert hall, or, as originally intended, in the theatre. Stravinsky, of course, remained a highly individualistic force in music until his death in 1971.

However, from the point of view of long-term influence on the mainstream of Western music, there is no doubt that a central place must go to Arnold Schoenberg and his two famous pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

In the years leading up to 1921 Schoenberg formulated his 'twelve note' system. This uses, as a pattern, a 'Dodecaphonic' scale similar to the Chromatic scale, but one which considers the twelve notes as being of equal status. In this sense it is unlike the Chromatic scale, which is merely a Diatonic scale with extra semitones for 'colouring'.

The arts are constantly growing and the history of art is quite largely a chronicle of new ideas and new ways and means, developing from the old. While the onlooker and the listener may constantly find fresh delight in the arts of all ages, the artist must break new ground and, in doing so, invent new disciplines and find new freedoms. Schoenberg's twelve note system was one such new discipline.

It is doubtful if Schoenberg ever, in his own works, fully realised the potential of his new system and the same may even be said of Berg's lyrical (if disciplined) music, but to Schoenberg's other famous pupil, Anton Webern, it was a different matter. This quiet, unassuming composer had found the discipline he needed.

Between the early 1920s and his death in 1945 Webern produced a series of works, all of them short, in which he used the twelve note system to help him reduce his compositions down to the barest minimum; they have a crystalline quality but their very shortness (often only one or two minutes for a completely formed and rounded statement) and their simplicity often make difficult listening — one short lapse of concentration and you may have missed a section or even a whole work!

In recent years musicians as varied as Pierre Boulez, Oliver Messiaen and Luciano Berio have acknowledged the debt to Webern; Berio even going so far, in a TV interview last year, as to make a statement to the effect that a study of Webern is essential for young composers and that many contemporary composers have been affected by his work. This may seem a strong claim, but the effect of a strong personality can be very pervasive, even if indirectly.

There is a parallel here in the visual arts, where it can be said that a great many European artists of today have in some way and to some extent been influenced by the 19th century painter Cezanne.

In the early part of this century there were, of course, a great variety of composers — Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Ives and the symphonic composers Sibelius and Nielsen, to mention but a few — but the fact remains that much as these men may have contributed to our enjoyment of music, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the later works of Webern are essential to our understanding of the development of 20th century music.

Some recommendations, then:

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring.

There are many fine recordings available, but probably the one to go for would be that conducted by Stravinsky himself (CBS 72054) which also has a commentary in which the composer gives historical background and something of his own attitude to the Rite. This is well recorded and highly recommended.

If you would like to try some of Stravinsky's more light-hearted works, Concerto for Strings, Dance Concertante and Dumbarton Oaks are available on one disc, either conducted by Marriner (HMV ASD 3077) or Davis (Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60050). Both are well-recorded.

Berg and Stravinsky: Violin Concertos

Berg's lovely last work was 'to the memory of an angel', ie 19 year old Manon Gropius. Stravinsky's concerto is a sprightly, early neoclassical piece. An enjoyable coupling on Philips SAL 3650.

Anton Webern: String Quartet, Op 28

This only lasts for eight minutes and there is a good performance in a collection of Webern's works, on Deutsche Grammophon 2720 029 by the La Salle Quartet. More difficult listening than the Stravinsky but worth it. Try listening to it three or four times over rather than playing the whole disc through. A good recording.

Oliver Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time.

Not particularly avant-garde in sound but surely some of the most beautiful music written by a living composer. If you have any doubts try the calm 5th movement first, then listen all the way through, sitting peacefully in dim light. Try RCA RL 1 1567 (1977), or VOX STGBY 670 (1974).

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kontakte, Stimmung.

Stockhausen is without doubt a major composer. He has produced a great range of works and I have chosen Kontakte, a powerful major work for electronics and percussion on Wergo WER 60009, and the gentle Stimmung for voices on DG 2342 003. My first choice was Telemusik. This is unavailable even in Germany, but try and get to hear it. Stockhausen is later than the other composers in this list but just cannot be left out of these first recommendations.

Unfortunately these first suggestions do not even begin to show the range of new music available on disc and tape but they should prove interesting either as a starting point or as an extension of your collection. More comments and suggestions next month.

Previous Article in this issue

The Rhythm Section

Next article in this issue

Tape Machines Survey

Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


Sound International - Jun 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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