Posts Tagged: Stravinsky

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song – UPDATES

I made the above video this past December, very shortly after the “re-premiere” of Stravinksy’s Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) Op. 5. Basically this piece is one of only a handful of works that young Igor completed prior to his astonishing success with The Firebird. It was re-discovered just in 2015 and re-premiered by Valery Gergiev and the Mariyinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

This past weekend I was in Chicago giving pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Symphony at the U.S. premiere (actually, the North American premiere… actually the Americas premiere) of this work which was given by the CSO with Charles Dutoit. I did a whole new round of research and I just thought I’d update/clarify a few things from this video:

1. It’s really sunk in just how amazing the progress that Stravinsky made from his earliest completed compositions to The Firebird. His first real work (though, he didn’t give it an opus number) is a piano sonata in F# minor. Listen to this:

which basically sounds like Victorian salon music that could have been written by Chopin or Schumann (with, perhaps, tinges of Grieg) and compare it to Katscheï’s dance:

The sonata was written when Stravinsky was about 22 (he got a very late start as a composer, though he had soaked up tons of the Russian operatic repertoire through his father, a notable bass soloist); Firebird came just 5 years later. Show me another composer who made such progress in such a short time!

2. Speaking of King Kashchei (or however you want to spell it) it turns out that Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had written an opera on that very same subject just a couple of years before Stravinsky began studying with him. There’s a definite commonality between the opening of Rimsky’s opera, the opening of the Chant funèbre, and the opening of The Firebird:

3. I talk a lot in the video above about chromatic music v. diatonic music, but since making it, I’ve delved more deeply into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own octatonicism and it turns out that probably has an even greater impact on the Chant funèbre.

4. There’s also a bit of history that I was able to suss out. Stravinsky’s memory of the Chant funèbre, it turns out, was pretty hazy; for one thing, he recollected having scored it for winds alone, rather than for full (Wagnerian) orchestra. Another thing that he either got mixed up about, or perhaps never knew, is the fate of the score.

Of course, the piece has been retrievable to us because the orchestral parts were preserved. Stravinsky himself assumed that the parts would be found somewhere in a vault in St. Petersburg (he was right) but he lamented that the score had been lost during the Russian Revolution.

It appears he was not quite right about that. Stravinsky had composed the piece at his summer getaway in Ustilug, on the present-day border between Ukraine and Poland. In those days, this whole region, Volhynia, was part of the Russian Empire (and who knows, it may again be before long.) During the “season”, the Stravinskys were living abroad in Switzerland, and during the spring of 1915, Ustilug was caught in the firestorm of a major Austro-German offensive into the Russian Empire.

Stravinsky’s house sustained considerable damage, but not before his brother-in-law, a neighboring landowner, could load his personal items onto on a train bound for Warsaw for safekeeping. Unfortunately the trunk containing Stravinsky’s documents was lost in transit. The best guess is that the score of op. 5 was in this trunk.

5. The big picture takeaway that I have settled on with further study and reflection, is that what this piece shows more than anything is that Stravinsky’s ability to reinvent himself and his music in every piece was already in evidence from the very start of his career. His piano sonata has, as mentioned above, bits of Schumann, Chopin, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky; his Symphony in E-flat, op. 1, is very much in the Glazunov vein. By opp. 3 and 4, he’s showing a pronounced influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chausson, and now in op. 5 it’s Wagner and Scriabin.

This anti-pattern of a pattern continued throughout his entire career. In many ways Stravinsky’s artistic output mirrors that of his contemporary Pablo Picasso, in that they both changed styles constantly and yet somehow stayed true to themselves. A tough trick indeed.

OK and the final final takeaway is the same as I reached in this video: I like this piece more every time I hear it. Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll get a good, clean, professional recording rather than the myriad livestream bootlegs currently littering the YouTube landscape!

CSO Addenda: Trumpet Treasures

Since the trumpet is the major feature of this week’s concert, which features the brilliant playing of CSO principal trumpeter Christopher Martin, I thought we might take a further look at the history of the instrument and why there are so very few trumpet concertos in the repertoire.

Ancient Trumpets

Trumpet were in use at least 3,500 years ago, and from there earliest days, they had a regal association.  How do we know?  Well, two of the earliest trumpets that we have come from the tomb of King Tut.  They were played on a special broadcast by the BBC in the 1930’s:

Notice that each of those trumpets sounds about three or four notes.  This is an inherent physical property of the trumpet – and of any vibrating body, really – that without recourse to keys or valves, it is limited to the notes of the harmonic series.  So for an awfully long time, trumpets – even of the European variety – were limited to sounding about five notes with any consistency.  Hence the very familiar sound of the trumpet fanfare.

Clarino Playing

Around the time of Bach, however, some very diligent players developed a technique known as “clarino” playing.  This takes advantage of the fact that the higher up you play on the trumpet, the more notes become available.  The ascent in pitch is a perilous one though: the higher the note, the easier it is to crack, slip, or outright miss.  The practice of clarino playing lasted from perhaps the High Renaissance to the High Baroque, and it is a fortuitous fact of history that it coincided with the lifespan of one Johann Sebastian Bach.

Because of this, we are left with such gems as the second Brandenburg Concerto (check out the third movement which starts at about 3:40):

Nota bene, the group playing above is called the Freiberger Barockorchester, a so-called “period instrument” ensemble.  However, there’s a dead give-away that the trumpeter here is playing on a modern recreation of a trumpet from Bach’s time rather than an original instrument.  Do you notice little holes that the trumpeter covers with his fingers while he plays?  Those little finger holes are a modern improvement that allow the trumpeter to play the high notes more in tune, and they are not an original feature of the trumpets of Bach’s time.

Now, make no mistake – the bearded gentleman above is a complete virtuoso, and he is in fact using the very same clarino technique that was used by the players of Bach’s time.  This little enhancement simply makes the notes sound more mellifluous to the ears of the Auto-Tune Generation.

[Full disclosure: There is significant debate about just what sort of instrument Bach composed this part for.  Some people think it was a written for a more horn like instrument.  Toscanini, for some reason, had it played on a piccolo clarinet.]

The Keyed Trumpet

The first step towards the modern valve trumpet was an endeavor called the “keyed trumpet”, invented by (or perhaps, for) the great Anton Weidinger, trumpeter of the court orchestra of Esterházy family, who also happened to employ one Franz Joseph Haydn.  So it’s no surprise that Haydn himself wrote the first major piece for this new instrument, his Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major.  Incidentally, this is also the first major concertate piece for the trumpet that is still played today (excepting Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto).

[Like all esoteric brass instruments, the keyed trumpet has a major following in Britain.  This web site is sort of amazing – whoever wrote the text of the front page did everything in his or her power to make you follow the link to the rest of the site.]

The keyed trumpet never gained traction, despite the concertos written for Weidinger by Haydn and his successor at the Esterházy court, Johann Nepomuk Hummel.  The instrument was said to have sounded like a “demented oboe”.  The English trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins, one of the few contemporary champions of the instrument, does at least as well as that in his recording of the Haydn Concerto:

The Cornet

The modern trumpet is really an amalgamation of the old trumpet and the piston cornet.  The cornet is a slightly obsolete instrument now – most listeners can not distinguish its sound from that of the modern trumpet.  Earlier in the past century though, before trumpets were regularly made with valves, the cornet was a highly prized virtuoso instrument.  Hence the dazzling solo that Igor Stravinsky wrote for it in his 1911 ballet Petrushka:

Top 10 BEST Composers

Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.

“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics).  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined.  Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece.  So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design?  Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?

My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al.  As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.

His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example.  But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous.  It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.”  You know?

Here’s what I came up with.  We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:

1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.

(Goldberg Variation 21, Glenn Gould ’54)

2. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Here’s some mad compositional technique: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, second movement, letter D.  This audio begins 4 bars before the printed excerpt.  Here’s what happens:

(Concertgebouw, Jansons)

00:00  Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to

00:11  The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to

00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.

00:32 Letter D:

Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into

00:48  Parallel section to 00:21

This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure.  But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony.  This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.

3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:

4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn.  That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form.  But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc.  Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.

So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs.  The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:

(Wiener Phil, Lenushka)

(score picks up on 00:04)

It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started.  That’s Haydn.

5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)

I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music.  But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.

Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”.  It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically.  Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds.  Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.

They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts.  Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme.  Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass.  There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass.  The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds.  The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds.  What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.

You try to do that.

(Hilliard Ensemble)

6. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

I’ll turn over the floor again, this time to Esa-Pekka Salonen:

7. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”).  This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach).  It’s just one vivacious bar after another:


8. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.

Here’s “Flying Robert”:

(King’s Singers)

So what makes this so great?  Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.

Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”).  Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note.  The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.

Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line.  Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern.  So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.

Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value.  Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.

So again, what’s so great about this?  It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable.  It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.

9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.

Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:

(Symphony of Psalms, LSO/MTT)

10. Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)

Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far.  Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.

What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements.  He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony.  He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies.  He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.

His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms.  But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:

Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach.  What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive.  He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music.  Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music.  By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.


So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:

1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)

2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)

3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)

4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)

And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score?  Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency.  Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.

So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria?  And who fits it?  My guys, or some other peops?

If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!

Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings

Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”.  Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium.  In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium.  In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall.  (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall.  Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)

Each of these media requires something different.  Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage.  Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip.  Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function.  But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.

1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer.  The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater.  His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.

But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written.  Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music?  That’s good theater.


2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music?  No way.  His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best.  Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.

He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.  He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want??  Whatever it is, he’s got it.  A horror score using only strings?  Psycho.  A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure?  North by Northwest.  An intricate psychological dreamscape?  Try this:

3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along.  The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it.  Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s.  He is a brilliant musical storyteller.  Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.

More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American.  And what could be more  American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December.  No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.

Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi.  He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage.  Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.

My biggest problem with opera is pacing.  A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths.  That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it?  Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?

For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.

5. John Williams (1932 – )

Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.

Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine.  The two are ideally suited for each other.  They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.

John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material.  But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen.  His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot.  But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.

I mean, come on, right?

6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet?  Could have fooled me.


7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

An analogy:


During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms.  It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul.  One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.

I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar.  Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves.  The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.

8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything.  And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage.  Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.

My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say).  Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music.  Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.

He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces).  But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):

(and p.s. Herrmann:Hitchcock::Iglesias:Almodovar::Stravinsky:Balanchine, yes?)

9. Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical.  Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want.  The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.

Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?


10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )

Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music.  Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction.  I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.

OK, so the guy writes his own music.  And it’s really, really cool.  I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself.  And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?

The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.

(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)


So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd.  But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick.  Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz?  Will there by any video game music people out there?  Will anyone say Adam Guettel?  Will Gabe say Monteverdi?

And are there any Lost fans out there?  I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation.  And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?

Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music.  But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly.  So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.

Top 10 Most Innovative Composers

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:

(Symphonie Fantastique, MTT)

2. Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613)

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:

(Beltà poiché t’assenti, Concerto Italiano)

3. Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951)

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:

(Moses und Aron, CSO/Solti)

4. Harry Partch (1901 – 1974)

How much more original can you get than inventing your own instruments, scales, notational system, and musical language?  I mean, what’s even going on in this score for “Delusion of the Fury“?

While there’s no denying that everyone on this list had plenty of influences, Partch really stands out as an individualist.  What planet did he wander in from to write this?:

(“The Street”, Newband)

5. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

David Ewen writes:

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.

(Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Concerto Italiano)

6. Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965)

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.

(Ionisation, Die Reihe Ensemble/Cerha)

7. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

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:

(Symphony No. 8, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orch/Fischer)

and when he finished, it sounded like this:

(The Creation, LSO/Colin Davis)

8. Igor Stravinsky (1876 – 1963)

I know that Igor Stravinsky stole left, right, and center from Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and probably a lot of other people.  But did any of them write this?

(The Rite of Spring, LSO/Davis)

I didn’t think so.

9. Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928)

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:

(String Quartet No. 1, Melos Quartet)

10. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

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:

(Ibéria, Cleveland Orch/Boulez)

Talk Amongst Yourselves

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.

Let the games begin.