How has classical music evolved from the time of Beethoven through the early 21st century? What are some of the style features, genres, and formal structures seen in the major historical periods covered since midterm? How did each era treat the elements of melody, harmony, texture, form, and rhythm? Include in your discussion at least one representative composer and musical work from the textbook and CD’s for each of the following four stylistic periods to support your arguments: 1) Beethoven and the Early Romantics; 2) the Late Romantics; 3) Early Modernism (1900-1950); 4) Classical music since 1950.
Beethoven is said to have changed the style of music from his very early beginnings but particularly with the symphony where his nine contributions to the genre very much blazed a new trail for these works and their format. Several composers followed who also contributed greatly to music and continued changing the style. One observes composers such as the early romantics, Mendelssohn and Schumann, the later Romantics such as Bruckner and Wagner, early modernists such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev as well as more modern composers such as Berio and Philip Glass.
Felix was a prodigy, performing and composing while a teenager, and it was as a seventeen year-old that Mendelssohn created the miraculous Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he added further incidental music for Shakespeare’s play a few years later. For all his relatively short life, Mendelssohn enjoyed a packed and fulfilling time – one of notable appointments and much travel. In London, a favourite in royal circles, he played Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto; his trip to Scotland inspired the Scottish Symphony (No. 3) and the overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave); and his ‘ Italian’ Symphony was as a direct consequence of an extended visit to that country.
The four movements of the ‘ Italian’ Symphony include a sunny opening one (Ernest Ansermet omits the repeat of the exposition, despite Mendelssohn’s several bars of lead-back, albeit usually the norm for performances of this era), a nocturnal march for the second, a relaxed minuet-like third and a swirling Salterello (an Italian dance) for an invigorating finale. He opts for typical clarity and point in the first movement, leaving no doubt as to Mendelssohn’s skills as a melodist, contrapuntalist and orchestrator.
When Bruckner completed his Second Symphony in the autumn of 1872, he sent it to the Vienna Philharmonic. After a run through, conductor Otto Dessoff – who already had rejected ‘ Die Nullte’ because he claimed to be unable to find a main theme in the first movement – called the new symphony ‘ Unsinn’ (nonsense), and the composer was prevailed upon to consider making some cuts. Even after Bruckner did so, the symphony was considered to be ‘ unspielbar’ (unplayable), although it seems that not all of the musicians in the Philharmonic were of the same opinion.
Fortunately for Bruckner, he had a wealthy patron in the person of Prince Johann of Liechtenstein. If the Vienna Philharmonic would not play his new symphony voluntarily, then they could be paid to do so. And so, a year after the symphony had been rejected by the Philharmonic, Bruckner proudly mounted the podium and told the members of the orchestra that they could rehearse as long as they liked, because someone else was paying for it.
At first, the musicians disliked the work and made little effort to hide their displeasure, but as rehearsals progressed, they gained an appreciation for it. After the premiere in October 1873, Bruckner was ecstatic, and wrote to the Philharmonic, asking their permission to dedicate the work to them. (Bruckner also offered the dedication to Richard Wagner, but Wagner declined it, preferring the Third Symphony instead.) However, the Philharmonic did not respond, and in 1884, Bruckner finally dedicated his Second Symphony to Franz Liszt, whose response seems to have been more polite than enthusiastic.
Serge Prokofiev spent much of the war out of harm’s way in settlements arranged by the Soviet government, some of them quite far from Moscow. By 1944, however, the Axis was on the run, and the Soviet Composers’ Union was given a rural estate some 50 miles from Moscow near the town of Ivanovo. It was to this ‘ Composers’ Home’– actually a stone mansion surrounded by several cottages – to which many of the Soviet Union’s most important composers were invited. All of their needs were provided for, and although wartime conditions still prevailed, life was good and a collegial atmosphere prevailed. It was here that Prokofiev wrote his Fifth Symphony.
That was more specific than what Prokofiev had intended, but it enhanced the symphony’s success greatly. If Prokofiev had objections, he kept them to himself. He simply referred to the work as ‘ the culminating point of [his] creative life,’ adding, ‘ I imagined the symphony as an expression of the greatness of the human spirit.
Classical music since 1950
Oedipus Rex, composed in 1926-27, bears the subtitle ‘ Opera-Oratorio in two acts after
Sophocles’. Stravinsky decided to relate Sophocles’s tragedy in Latin for its solemnity
and universality; the French libretto by Jean Cocteau was translated into Latin by Jean
Danièlou. In order to make it practical for the audience to follow the plot, Stravinsky
employs the device of a narrator, who summarizes the events of each scene, in
French, before its performance. Most of the characters are to wear masks and remain
stationary; entrances and exits are managed by means of curtains or trap doors. This arrangement, the prominence of the chorus in setting up and commenting on the action, and the music itself give the work an impression of monumentality, but also of formality or detachment.
The plot itself is highly concentrated, focusing on the climax and denouement of Sophocles’s play: Thebes is suffering from a plague, and the oracle has decreed that in order for the city to be saved, the killer of Laius, the king, must be discovered and driven from the city.
Oedipus, who has vanquished the Sphinx and is now king, demands that the blind seer Tiresias reveal what the gods have told him. At first Tiresias refuses to speak, but when Oedipus accuses him of being the murderer, Tiresias reveals that the king’s murderer is not only in Thebes but is himself a king. Oedipus denounces Tiresias, accusing him of conspiring with Creon, brother of Queen Jocasta.
In Act II the messenger and the shepherd arrive, revealing that Oedipus, having been abandoned as an infant, had indeed killed Laius as foretold, and returning to Thebes had married Jocasta, his mother. Jocasta, realizing the truth, kills herself; only then does Oedipus understand his deeds, and in his horror he puts his eyes out with her brooch. The work ends with the chorus, the citizens of Thebes, casting Oedipus out as demanded by the gods, with the words, ‘ Farewell, Oedipus. We loved you once’.
Joseph Kerman and Gary Tomlinson. Listen. (Seventh Edition with 6 CD set). New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. ISBN-10: 0-312-60267-7 and ISBN-13: 978-0-312-60267-3
Donald Francis Tovey (1911). ” Bruckner, Anton”. In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
” Bruckner, Anton”. Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.