Friday, 15 March 2019

Great Music of the 20th Century

Great Music of the 20th Century

Great Music of the 20th Century


The music of the 20th century—dazzling, varied, and often dauntingly difficult to listen to—can only truly be understood and appreciated against the backdrop of a century gone mad. It was a century that saw the human race come face-to-face with modernity, with rather mixed results.

The degree of change endemic to the 20th century was mirrored by an explosion of new musical languages. This course is about the century and the concert music that mirrored it. Starting with the compositional triumvirate of Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg— whose work between 1894 and 1914 laid the foundations for 20th-century musical modernism—this course ranges through to the year 2000 and explores the compositional styles of the century.

The course begins by tracing the roots of 20th-century musical innovations to Beethoven, the issue of German unification in the 1870s, and the subsequent musical renaissance in France, which found its culmination in the music of Claude Debussy. That music was rooted in an entirely new musical syntax based on the nuance and color of the French language itself.

From there, the course moves on to discussions of the early life and works of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Between the years of 1894 and 1914, the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg would shape much of the music of the remainder of the 20th century by expanding exponentially the syntax of timbre, rhythm, and pitch available to composers.

The course examines Stravinsky’s pre–World War I compositions, including The Firebird of 1910; Petrushka of 1911; and the work that would become, arguably, the single most influential musical composition of the 20th century: The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1912. The course also examines Stravinksy’s post–World War I compositions as part of its discussion of the neo-Classicism that followed the devastation of World War I, including Pulcinella (1920) and the string of masterworks that succeeded it.

Another topic of this course is the pre– and post–World War I works of Arnold Schoenberg, including Pierrot Lunaire—the crowning glory of Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” period—and his 12-tone method, which was invented by Schoenberg as virtually an analog to the traditional tonal system that he had abandoned between 1908 and 1913. Twelve-tone music by Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern (among many others) demands a level of focus and sympathy that goes far beyond what audiences expected to bring to traditionally tonal music.

The music of the Hungarian-born Béla Bartók occupies a special place in this course, as his extraordinary ability to synthesize Western compositional techniques with the indigenous music of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East has become a model for many composers here in the 21st century.

No single event impacted the 20th century more terribly and profoundly than World War II. Lectures will examine the issues that led to the war; the brain drain of powerful, creative, and productive people who fled the murderous persecution policies of Hitler and the Third Reich; and the horrific wartime experiences of a number of young people who would go on to become the principal postwar composers.

The post–World War II period saw an explosion of new, very modern musical languages intent on creating music divorced entirely from the sort of mystical self-expression and nationalism that were perceived as being responsible for the twin catastrophes of fascism and Nazism. To that end, lectures examine such new musical movements such as Ultraserialism, Stochasticism, electronic music, sound mass music, and Minimalism, with an emphasis— respectively—on the music of Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse, György Ligeti, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

The course offers a vivid and multifaceted view on the significant contribution of the United States to the global music world, from spiritual music, blues, ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, and the American musical theater. Also receiving attention are such iconoclastic American concert music composers as Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and others.

The concert music of such far-Eastern composers as Tōru Takemitsu, Chinary Ung, and Tan Dun is explored, as well as the 20th-century concert music of Central and South America and such composers as Carlos Chávez, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Alberto Ginastera. The course goes on to identify such postmodern trends as the new tonality, pastiche, eclecticism, and Pluralism as exemplified in the music of George Rochberg, George Crumb, John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Higdon, Thomas Adès, and others.

The course concludes with a lecture about the presenter’s own compositional work from the early 1970s until the year 2000, which is intended as neither an analysis of his work nor as memoir, but simply as an example of one composer’s influences and development over the course of the last quarter of the 20th century. 

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