This concert featured pieces by four composers who were all innovators in the areas of harmony, orchestration, musical form, and music-drama. Here’s some examples of what they did and where they came from:
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
Below is the first part of the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene in Der Freishchütz. Note Weber’s use of low, dark orchestral string colors and demonic shrieks from the woodwinds to represent cavorting with dark powers in this eerie space. The arrival of Max, the young gamesman, is accompanied by bright horn calls, our constant reminder that he is a man of the hunt.
[The production below, overall, is pretty cool and certainly very striking. If you are easily offended by rabbit pornography, however, I'd recommend skipping 1:40 - 1:50.]
Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
The best part about researching 19th century composers is getting to read their own writings. This is especially true in the case of Berlioz. Never has there been or will be a more over-the-top, extravagant musician or man, prone to bouts of depression and, especially, exaggeration. Berlioz’s Memoirs make for immensely entertaining reading, and I recommend them highly. All you have to do is look at some of the chapter and page headings:
Berlioz’s memoirs take us back to a time when artists still presented themselves passionately, vividly, fearlessly. In recent times, this seems to have gone out of fashion.
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
The Civic Orchestra concert included the little known Wagner work Eine Faust-Ouvertüre. Another work dating from around the same period (1839 – 40) is the overture Wagner wrote for the German playwright Guido Theodor Apel’s Columbus. Here’s what it sounds like:
Wagner presented this piece on a concert that was attended by Berlioz. He writes in Mein Leben about the experience of presenting this work in Paris:
One great objection was the difficulty of finding capable musicians for the six cornets required, as the music for this instrument, so skillfully played in Germany, could hardly, if ever, be satisfactorily executed in Paris. I was compelled to reduce my six cornets to four, and only two of these could be relied upon.
As a matter of fact, the attempts made at the rehearsal to produce those very passages on which the effect of my work chiefly depended were very discouraging. Not once were the soft high notes played but they were flat or altogether wrong. In addition to this, as I was not going to be allowed to conduct the work myself, I had to rely upon a conductor who, as I was well aware, had fully convinced himself that my composition was the most utter rubbish – an opinion that seemed to be shared by the whole orchestra. Berlioz, who was present at the rehearsal, remained silent throughout. He gave me no encouragement, though he did not dissuade me. He merely said afterwards, with a weary smile, ‘that it was very difficult to get on in Paris.”
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951)
Schoenberg is so well known both by lovers and haters of 20th century modernism as its radical founding father, that it’s interesting to remember his firm grounding in the Wagnerian Romantic tradition:
List #2 in my Top 10 Top 10 lists game. Today, we look at the composers whose music inspired the musicians who came after them. I’d like to note that, in general, this is something that is totally out of a composer’s control – how can they possibly know if their musical language will be absorbed by anyone following them? [The big exception is people like Shönberg who were also significant teachers and disseminators.] So, I’m mostly trying to judge a simple historical fact here, not a composer’s talent or skill in “being influential”.
1. Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377)
I realize it’s sort of obnoxious to start my list with someone who is only slightly older than music itself, and whose name is only vaguely familiar to the most astute of Early Music History Review students, but isn’t being sort of obnoxious one of the tenets of good blogging?
Guillaume really does deserve pride of place here for a lot of reasons – basically, he influenced a century and a half of musicians after him, something that very few other people have done. He popularized the use of four voices in mass settings, he added complexity to popular song forms, and he was also an accomplished poet. His intense vanity compelled him to publish his “collected works” in several volumes at the end of his life, something noone else had ever done and something that added considerably to the idea of music publishing and dissemination, not to mention scholarship.
Influenced: Basically every 14th, 15th, and 16th century composer right up through Josquin and Vittoria. In fact he’s so influential, that some crazy person let loose on the grounds of Deutsche Grammaphon’s corporate headquarters even released a CD of Machaut remixes (including one by Brad Mehldau).
2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
Time to break out the big guns, boys – Johann’s in town. Bach’s name will appear on a good many of these lists, because he did a good many things. Even though he was beyond everyone in his own time period, he was considered old-fashioned. Ever the musician’s musician, he continued to be revered by composers and scholars even when his public image languished.
Influenced: His sons (JC, CPE, and the rest of his alphabetic brood), Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Hindemith, and probably everyone that ever wrote two lines of counterpoint.
And he very definitely influenced Mahler. From deep in the bowels of the “Resurrection” Symphony:
3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)
In his short lifespan, George Gershwin wrote popular tunes that were irresistible to broadway, classical, and jazz musicians alike. Jazz musicians in particular latched on to his melodies and practically invented the idea of “standards” around them.
Meanwhile, he influenced several generations of popular classical composers (especially Lenny Bernstein) to try out jazzier idioms in the concert hall. I don’t think any single person is more responsible for the state of popular music worldwide than George Gershwin.
Here’s a little tour through 20th c. popular music history via Gershwin’s “Summertime”:
Influenced: Bernstein, Sondheim, Ravel, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Ferde Grofe, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, every jazz musician who ever soloed over “Rhythm Changes”, every jazz composer who ever wrote a new tune over “Rhythm Changes”, every pop composer up to the present time who ever stole the descending bass line pattern from “I got Rhythm” (otherwise known as “Rhythm Changes”), at least.
4. (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Papa was on our first list because he was a musical ground-breaker, but he appears on today’s because all his innovations were taken up by other people.
Influenced: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel, and literally anyone who ever wrote a symphony or a string quartet.
5. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)
Master of every domain, including opera, chamber music, symphony, and concerto, Mozart cast a wide net over his successors. Not surprisingly, opera composers down the ages worshiped him – Rossini was even dubbed “The Little Mozart” because of his affinity for the composer.
Tchaikovsky, however, was probably his most ardent admirer. Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades is totally saturated with Mozart, but I don’t even know if Mozart could have written as Mozartean a number as this:
This poor man is so maligned for having opened the Pandora’s box of 20th century modernism in music. And with good reason. Starting with his close circle of pupils in Vienna, everyone just had to compose using his various systems. The real hook was dodecaphony, Schönberg’s principal for organizing the 12 pitches into previously unthought-of combinations. The 12-tone technique spawned an even more mathematically rigorous offspring: serialism.
There’s no point in judging whether or not this was a good thing – it simply is what happened.
Influenced (for better or for worse): Berg, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Eisler, Babbitt, Sessions, Wolpe, and leagues of other composers who wrote even uglier music.
7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven’s an interesting case – sometimes he even influenced people not to compose. That was the case with Brahms who couldn’t get it up to write a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow was still in the room. More than any technical specific procedures, I think Beethoven’s biggest influence was in the philosophical scope of music – would Mahler ever have been able to compose the “Resurrection” symphony without Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”?
Influenced: Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Ravel (I think), Bartok, Mahler, anyone who put a chorus in a symphony, anyone who ever thought music could literally change the world.
8. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Few composers had such a devoted cult in their own lifetime (not to mention after). Wagner’s innovations were far reaching, and spread like wildfire. Others had used themes to represent characters and objects before, but Wagner’s organized use of leitmotifs became a principle followed by several generations of composers. He also influenced a number of non-compositional disciplines: conducting, dramatic staging, architecture, and, unfortunately, philosophy.
Influenced: Mahler, Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Franck, Sibelius, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Elgar, Max Steiner, Karl Goldmark, Howard Shore, and anyone who wanted to convey a dramatic impulse through music.
9. Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857)
I know hardly anything about this man or his music, but what I do know is that any time you read anything about a Russian composer who came after him, those guys are always talking about how big an influence he was. So, it’s a slightly “provacative” inclusion on this list (and yes, I do expect wide-spread violence as a result of it) but maybe it will induce someone – anyone – to give his music a first listen and a fair shake.
Tchaikovsky adapted this theme from Glinka’s “Ivan Susanin” for the head motif of his 5th symphony:
In the first list, I quoted the eminent music scholar David Ewen in noting Monteverdi’s profound accomplishment. The fact that we still have people writing operas today is largely due to him CM, not to mention the fact that he more or less invented the idea of instrumental tone painting.
Influenced: Schütz, Cavalli, Lully, Scarlatti, Rameau, Vivaldi, and essentially everyone who ever wrote an opera.
Rules of the game: either submit your own top 10 list, or submit one or more alternates to my list in the comments section. If you choose the latter option, note that you must replace someone on my list, and make sure you tell us who it’s going to be.
Or just use this space to chat amongst yourselves about various Influential composers. “Composers”, for our purposes, means people who write music using any Western notation (it could be of their own devising). There is no limit as to genre or time period, so I’d be very interested to see some bizarre responses (think: Anton Reicha).
Day 1 in my audacious response to Anthony Tommasini’s Wild and CRRRAzy idea of choosing the top 10 composers. Today, we focus on Innovation and Originality. Which composers took the boldest risks and were willing to suffer the consequences? Which composers were marked by thinking of musical ideas and sounds that simply nobody had ever thought of before?
I’ll further define this list in opposition to tomorrow’s list. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Top 10 Most Influential Composers. Today’s composers could all be cul-de-sacs in musical history – no later composer need have taken up their particular style or innovations. We’re talking about brazen, unfettered originality for originality’s sake.
1. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
For my money, Berlioz is the greatest musical innovator. His experiments often failed, but they never lacked for ambition. Every piece was grander, bolder, and less practical than the next, beginning with the Symphony Fantastique and continuing up to his sprawling 4 1/2 hour opera Les Troyens. Berlioz never wrote in a prescribed form: he preferred inventing them. He created tone poem-symphonies (Fantastique), symphony-concertos (Harold in Italy), and even bold admixtures of drama, narration, art song, and choral symphony (Lélio).
Before Berlioz, composers had depicted birds chirping, storms raging, and the rolling seas. Berlioz depicted opium hazes, witch’s covens, and rolling heads:
The Renaissance Italian prince is primarily known for two things: 1) finding his wife in flagrante with her lover and subsequently murdering them both (which, btw, was not only his prerogative, but his duty as a member of the nobility) and 2) composing Renaissance madrigals that made use of outlandish, expressionist harmonies. Anybody who writes something like this in the 16th century is pretty original:
In a lot of ways, the music that lead up to Schönberg’s radical departure from tradition did pave his way: Mahler and Strauss and Zemlinsky and those types were already stretching the boundaries of the Tonal system of chords and scales. But Schönberg took their groundwork in much bolder directions. He then concocted, out of thin air, a mathematical re-imagining of how notes could be structured into music – that is a real innovation, and that’s exactly what Schönberg did with his 12-tone system in 1921.
The results are sometimes strangely beautiful. Sometimes, they are unspeakably ugly. Usually, they are at least cool:
Compared to the archaic vocabulary and methods of his predecessors, Monteverdi’s operas represent an entirely new art. This is not a revolution: there was nothing before Monteverdi that he could have revolutionized. This is invention, the discovery of a brave, new world. He was the first one to understand and appreciate the role of the orchestra in an opera, to use an instrumental style and resources as an ally for his dramatic mission. To use instruments for the purpose of mood painting and characterization was simply without precedent. He knew how to make his characters not the abstractions they had been before, but human beings.
This French-American composer wrote the first piece for an ensemble made up exclusively of percussion instruments: Ionisation from 1931. Many composers invented ensembles, but percussion instruments lack one vital element of music: pitches. [Usually.] In eliminating all reference to traditional pitch systems and leaving himself with only rhythm, timbre, and dynamics, Varèse forced himself to create a musical language all his own.
Even when he did use more traditional instruments and ensembles, his music displays an undeniable individuality that was not linked with any of the prevailing trends in musical modernism. That he later turned to electronic composition in the 1950′s simply confirms his ever-curious musical mind.
Please let’s not forget about everything Haydn did while he was toiling away in an obscure Hungarian field somewhere: he invented the symphonic form (four movements, fast – slow – minuet – faster), modernized the orchestra, invented the string quartet – both as a genre and as an ensemble (although, can you really separate the two?), and totally revolutionized musical language. He is also the first composer to ever make significant use of folk music as source material for his compositions.
Suffice to say, when he started writing music, it sounded like this:
This Czech composer was a really late bloomer – his early works were indebted to a folkloric, watered-down version of Brahms that he received via Dvorak. And then, something happened – maybe it had to do with the death of his daughter, perhaps with his increasing fame and prosperity, but slowly and late in life, he forged a deeply personal style, especially in opera.
Janáček was everything you’d expect from an eccentric, craggy composer – he was an ill-tempered and obstinate man. His radical style often sounds like it:
Almost all the composers listed above were chosen because they created brash, aggressive, dramatic new sounds. Debussy did just the opposite – he explored the many cool, washy colors that classical instrumentation had to offer.
It’s really important to remember that Impressionists in music and Impressionists in visual art may have ended up with “similar” effects, but they came at it from totally different starting points: whereas Visual Impressionists were trying to add vagueness and mood to their canvasses (so as to lessen distinction and increase the sense of an “impression”), Debussy was doing the exact opposite – he was trying to enrich his musical language so that sounds could actually turn into musical scenes with literal places and characters.
His real innovation was to combine the mellifluous sounds of Indonesian gamelan music with the greatly expanded harmonic palette of Wagner and Massenet. Thus:
I’m going to resist the temptation to write about all of my notable mentions, because that would defeat the purpose of just putting up 10 people, and plus, the whole point of this exercise is the discussion. Your job now is to argue with me and point out all of the people I either stupidly left out or stupidly included.
My only request is that if you propose a composerly alternative to any of my suggestions, please specify who you would like to remove from my list to be replaced with your contestant.
More than anything, I’d like to hear your all’s Top 10 Most Innovative Composers Lists.