Now that we are going on 18 years into the 21st Century, the music of the 20th Century seems almost classic, encompassing a spectrum from Late Romanticism to Modernism to “Post-modernism” to the latest avant garde. To make sense of it all, and to be prepared to absorb 21st Century “classical” music, we have embarked on this Survey of 20th Century Music. Our findings from the first decade of the 20th Century are listed below. The next installments in the series will be the operas of 1900-1910, works from the 1910’s, operas from the 1910’s, and so on.
Over the past 4 months, the Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature has been spinning discs (LP records and CDs) of the great musical premieres of the 1st decade of the 20th Century. Comments have been posted on Facebook along with portraits of the composers. Here is a summary of our musical explorations:
Sir Edward Elgar. The Dream of Gerontius. Arguably the greatest English oratorio since Handel’s Messiah.
Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 4. His most often programmed and most accessible symphony.
Sergei Rachmaninov. Piano Concerto No. 2. One of the most intensely Romantic of early 20th Century works, plumbed for film scores ever since its premiere.
Arnold Schoenberg. Verklarte Nacht. Chromaticism preceded the invention of 12-tone music in this early Schoenberg work, still probably his most programmed piece.
Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 5. It’s big at 70 minutes, but more tightly structured than most of his sprawling symphonies. Highlights include the opening funeral march with homage to Beethoven’s 5th, the horn solos in the third movement, and the touching Adagietto. Mahler reportedly said after the premiere that “nobody understood it.” Like just about all his work, it is more popular now than during his lifetime.
Jean Sibelius. Violin Concerto. His only foray into the concerto form, and now the most recorded violin concerto of the 20th Century. From the opening movement’s plaintive violin solo with Brucknerian orchestral punctuations to the whirling dervish finale, this is wonderful music in every way. Desert island music that should be on everyone’s top 100 list.
Claude Debussy. La Mer. Bridging Romanticism and Modernism, Debussy created lush soundscapes that had not been heard before.
Frederick Delius. Sea Drift. Chromatic, impressionistic setting of Walt Whitman’s poem about love and loss. Think of Delius as the English Debussy.
Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 6. Sometimes called the “Tragic” symphony. It is massive, but there are many sublime moments. I like the way the military march in the first movement keeps intruding on some society ball, and then after a while, the two join in kind of an anthem; I like the way the slow movement builds inexorably to a sweeping climax; and the last movement is just devastating, thus the “Tragic” nickname. Mahler’s symphonies are gigantic and draining, but what an experience!
Arnold Schoenberg. Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. In this work, Schoenberg left behind the Late Romanticism of Verklarte Nacht and started down the road to modernism. Chromaticism and quartal harmonies in a compressed symphony for 15 solo instruments—5 strings and 10 winds.
Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 7. Another massive work, running almost 80 minutes. One of Mahler’s least appreciated works during his lifetime, complex, misunderstood, and accused of “incoherence”; it has since been resurrected by Leonard Bernstein and others.
Alexander Scriabin. La Poème de l’extase. 20-minute symphonic poem in one movement full of chromaticism and shifting harmonies. On the piano, Scriabin was the ultimate Late Romantic morphing into a modernist, not with radical shifts of a Schoenberg, but with much more subtlety. His Poem of Ecstasy, with its chromaticism and shifting harmonies, is maybe the next step beyond Verklӓrte Nacht without altogether abandoning tonality the way that Schoenberg did.
Gustav Mahler. Das Lied von der Erde. A “symphony” of 6 orchestral songs. Powerful and affecting music, among the best things Mahler ever produced.
Sergei Rachmaninov. Piano Concerto No. 3. Lush late Romanticism, full of Rachmaninov’s Big Melodies, breathtakingly beautiful and a pianistic showpiece.
Igor Stravinsky. The Firebird. Before becoming the composer of the decade in the 1910’s, Stravinsky produced this fine ballet in the tradition of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff. This was the culmination of education as a composer, but he was going to blow the musical world wide open by 1913
Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). This was Mahler’s crowning moment as a composer, a work that was celebrated in its own time. The second movement, based on the final scene of Goethe’s “Faust,” is the closest thing to an opera that Mahler ever wrote.
Arnold Schoenberg. Das Buch der hӓngenden Gӓrten. This song cycle is interpreted by some as a metaphor for the passing of the old music, which reached its peak in Romanticism, and the advent of the new Modernism. By 1910, Schoenberg’s conversion from Romantic to Modernist was complete.
Looking back on the decade, the greatest shadow is cast by Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom were somewhat marginalized during their lifetime—Mahler largely because he was Jewish, and Schoenberg because he wrote weird music.
But the most memorable works of the decade are all Late Romantic masterpieces: the second and third piano concertos of Rachmaninov and the violin concerto by Sibelius.
Next up in the Survey of 20th Century Music: the operas of 1900-1910, beginning with Puccini’s “Tosca.”