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:
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.
I was just in Chicago giving another talk at Symphony Center on Monday and, as usual, I came totally over-prepared and unable to cover even a fraction of what I wanted to talk about. The subject was Appalachian Spring and Symphonie Fantastique — kind of a disparate program, but from a lecturer’s point of view, it’s a dream come true: both pieces have so much interesting background and, more importantly, so much that you can hear in the music. Plus, there’s just so much documentation and critical appraisal from which to draw.
Here are some snarky little addenda to my talk, and interesting things I found while researching:
1) The Berlioz is written for 2 Ophicleides. OK, nothing groundbreaking about that point, but rarely does one get to hear the instrument in action:
That’s Douglas Yeo of the BSO. (The audio, not the picture)
Here’s what Berlioz had to say about the Ophicleide:
There is nothing more coarse, I might almost say more monstrous or less fit to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra … It is as if a bull escaped from its stall had come to play off its vagaries in the middle of a drawing room.
That’s from the Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation (p. 175).
Seems kinda harsh, no?
Here’s a lovely little poem I found about the Ophecleide. I think it’s just charming:
The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.
It’s pitch was vague, it’s tone was dim,
It’s timbre, rude and burpant.
Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata.
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide sonata.
Thus spurned, it soon became defunct.
To gross neglect succumbing.
Some were pawned, but most were junked,
Or used for indoor plumbing.
And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished.
I nominate the Heckelphone
To be the one next banished.
Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled.
“I died of Ophicleidicide.
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”
LOL! If there’s anything funnier than ophicleide humor, I haven’t found it.
2) I think the Symphonie Fantastique contains the single worst bar in the entire standard orchestral litterature. To wit:
First, there’s the call from the flute, then the response from the horn in the distance, then – Hey there Hector, not quite. I don’t think we can let that transition slide… just where did he come up with those pitches? No, that won’t do at all.
3) OK, this I did talk about, but I just can’t resist including it, because Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with SanFran is just so damn good. Have you ever heard rhythmic dissonance quite like the end of this clip?
I’ve found that since I have to edit my remarks at these talks on the fly, it’s a real good idea to keep a closing line hidden up your sleeve, a real zinger to cap things off and leave the crowd smiling and eager to listen. Just my luck, my boy LB had the perfect such material:
Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.