Chapter 23

Chapter 23: Music, Politics, and the People in the European Twentieth Century

Composer Biographies

 

Igor Stravinsky

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia

Died: April 6, 1971, New York

Return to Just Listen: Era : Composer

In his own words....

"Consonance, says the dictionary, is the combination of several tones into a harmonic unit. Dissonance results from the deranging of this harmony by the addition of tones foreign to it. One must admit that all this is not clear. Ever since it appeared in our vocabulary, the word "dissonance" has carried with it a certain odor of sinfulness. Let us light our lantern: in textbook language, dissonance is an element of transition, a complex or interval of tones that is not complete in itself and that must be resolved to the ear's satisfaction into a perfect consonance."

Composer and conductor. Russian by birth, later a citizen of France and the United States.

Igor Stravinsky is often considered something of a revolutionary, in part based on the riotous reception of his ballet The Rite of Spring . Stravinsky's career, however, suggests more evolution than revolution. Perhaps no other composer in this century—or any—has written in such a variety of styles. And it is the unique genius of Stravinsky that his musical personality is detectable in each of these styles.

Stravinsky came from a musical family, although his training was limited, reflecting his family's desire that he pursue studies in law. As a student at the university in St. Petersburg, he made the acquaintance of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and studied with the older composer. His music quickly caught the attention of Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes in Paris. Stravinsky was commissioned to write a ballet for the theater, his Firebird (1910). This was quickly followed by Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Stravinsky continued his association with Paris, but with the advent of World War I and the turmoil in Russia that would lead to the October Revolution, Stravinsky took refuge in Switzerland. After the war he returned to Paris, writing more ballets for Diaghilev, as well as a wide variety of other works, many (such as his Piano Concerto) serving as performance vehicles for the composer. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he attempted unsuccessfully to write music for films. He continued composing late into his life, and when he was well into his eighties he embarked on a full schedule of performances as conductor, both in concert and on record. These recordings serve as valuable documentation of Stravinsky's ideas concerning his own music.

Along with his changing nationalities, Stravinsky's music underwent remarkable change over the course of his life. His early music (for example, the Symphony in E flat) show the influences of his Russian models. His ballets show a wider range of influences, including that of Claude Debussy. By The Rite of Spring , Stravinsky had broken new ground entirely, writing in a complex rhythmic style and a harmonic style that included the use of polytonality. This increasing complexity came to an abrupt end with his move to Switzerland, and he produced a seminal group of pieces in a pared-down instrumental style (often without strings), the most notable being the small dramatic work, Histoire du soldat for four speakers and a small instrumental ensemble. When he returned to Paris, he continued this more austere style, and added to it an interest in older forms and methods, beginning his well-known neoclassical period. The culmination of this can be seen in his opera The Rake's Progress , a modern adaptation of the classical style of Mozart's late comedies. Late in his life, Stravinsky once more changed styles, embracing the methods of twelve-tone and serial composition. What resulted is a remarkable series of works including his ballet Agon (1957) and a great deal of religious music.

In all these works, certain qualities remain constant. First and foremost is a clarity of sound, an almost transparent texture heightened by his masterful use of orchestration. Along with this is an approach to rhythm that articulates his melodies with a certain dryness, adding to the clarity of sound. Finally, there is a concise and economical approach to form. This has its roots in the simplified style of his music from the 1920s, but was a hallmark of his style throughout his career.

Works

  • Orchestral music, including Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924), Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938), Symphony in C (1940), Symphony in Three Movements (1945) and Ebony Concerto (1945)
  • Ballets, including L'oiseau de feu ( The Firebird , 1910), Petrushka (1911), Le sacre du printemps ( The Rite of Spring , 1913), Les noces ( The Wedding ), 1923, and Agon (1957)
  • Operas, including The Rake's Progress (1951); opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927); other dramatic works, including Histoire du soldat ( The Soldier's Tale , 1918)
  • Choral music, including Symphony of Psalms (1930), Canticum sacrum (1955), Threni (1958), and Requiem Canticles (1966)
  • Chamber music; piano music (solo and for two pianos); song

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Musical Examples

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Links

  • A Basic Biography
    This site, from the Classical Music Pages, provides a biographical essay taken from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music . It also includes a works list, a picture gallery, a bibliography and an extensive essay on Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka .
  • A More Extensive Biography
    Along with a lengthy biography, this site includes separate essays on The Firebird and The Rite of Spring .
  • A Large Stravinsky Site
    A class project by a student at Cal Tech. Contains a great deal of well-presented information. There is also a discussion of Stravinsky's religious music, an area seldom explored.
  • Stravinsky's Ballets
    The English Classical CD On Line site includes a brief overview of three of Stravinsky's ballets, with sound clips.

 

Bela Bartok

Born: March 25, 1881, Sînnicolau Mare, Hungary

Died: September 26, 1945, New York

Return to Just Listen: Era : Composer

In his own words....

"Many people think it is a comparatively easy task to write a composition on found folk tunes...This way of thinking is completely erroneous. To handle folk tunes is one of the most difficult tasks; equally difficult, if not more so, than to write a major original composition. If we keep in mind that borrowing a tune means being bound by its individual peculiarity, we shall understand one part of the difficulty. Another is created by the special character of folk tune. We must penetrate it, feel it, and bring out its sharp contours by the appropriate setting...It must be a work of inspiration just as much as any other composition."

Hungarian composer and pianist. Bartók is best known for his use of Hungarian folk music to create a distinct individual style.

The folk music of Hungary was central to the music of Béla Bartók. He was not the first composer to make use of this music (we can see it as far back as Haydn), but he was one of the first to take it at face value, and to exploit its idiosyncrasies. More important, he integrated it fully into his own style, so much so that one of his biographers talks about Bartók's music as "imaginary folk music"—music that is wholly his own, yet of a piece with the folk music that was its inspiration.

Bartók was born into a musical family and received good pianistic training from his mother. He was something of a prodigy, and began composing at the age of ten. In 1898 he was accepted at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but chose instead to stay in Hungary at the Budapest Academy. His early work was influenced greatly by Strauss and Liszt, but his first major work, the symphonic Kossuth (1903), also stands out for its telling of a nationalist story.

In 1904 Bartók began collecting folk music by recording musicians on wax cylinders. This had a profound impact on his compositional style, for in these pieces he found elements that he began to incorporate into his own writing. The melodies of these folk tunes, removed from the traditional major/minor tonality of Western music, provided new melodic and harmonic resources, and the powerful and often asymmetrical rhythms (often freely mixing groupings of twos and threes) became a hallmark of Bartók's rhythmic style.

In 1907 Bartók was appointed professor of piano at the Budapest Academy and he continued his compositional activity, creating works of greater complexity. By the early 1920s his music was verging on an atonal style. He gained international success with a less challenging work, The Wooden Prince (1917), and by the late 1920s his music started to take on more of a neoclassical approach.

The crises leading up to World War II forced Bartók to flee Hungary and settle in the United States. The move caused both financial and personal difficulties, and failing health heightened these. Nonetheless, in his final few years he created a group of important pieces, including the Concerto for Orchestra .

Bartók's music is marked by its precision of execution. His forms (especially in his later works) are intensely symmetrical. Often they create an arch or palindrome (ABACABA, for example). He also exploited different sonorities and instrumental effects, including an antiphonal orchestra in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). His tonal language continued to be colored by his work with folk music, and in some cases he made use of quarter tones. Although Bartók wrote in all mediums, he may well be best remembered for his six string quartets. These works, a summation of his compositional style and development are often viewed as the logical successors to those of Beethoven.

Works

  • Orchestral works, including Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936), Concerto for Orchestra (1943), 2 violin concertos (1908, 1938), and three piano concertos (1926, 1931, 1945)
  • 1 opera, Bluebeard's Castle (1911)
  • 2 ballets, T he Wooden Prince (1917) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1926)
  • Chamber music, including 6 string quartets (1908–39); Contrasts (for violin, clarinet, and piano, 1938); sonatas, duos
  • Piano music, including Allegro barbaro (1911) and Mikrokosmos (6 books, 1926–39)
  • Choral music, including Cantata profana (1930); folk song arrangements
  • Songs, including folk song arrangements

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:

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Links

  • A Basic Biography
    This site, from the Classical Music Pages, provides a biographical essay taken from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music . It also includes a picture gallery, a list of works, and a bibliography.
  • Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra
    The English Classical CD On Line site includes a brief biography and an overview (with audio clips) of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra .
  • Works and Recommended Recordings
    A list of works, sources, and recommended recordings from the Classical Net site.
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