POST-SOVIET MUSIC AND WESTERN EUROPEAN COMPOSERS
In fairness to the non-communist composers in the former Soviet Union, it is certain that many of them wrote in the “underground,” producing music which was difficult to claim when to mention authorship might me either censure or imprisonment. Two composers who swam against the tide and endured censure are mentioned in A History of Western Music, Fifth Edition (Grout and Palisca), pages 704-705.
Alfred Shnittke (1934—)
Alfred Shnittke, who is of German and Jewish extraction, wrote for film scores. The way he writes is called polystylistic—that is, he makes use of several styles to express himself. In one piece, his Concerto Grosso #1 (1976-77) uses, among other things, a prepared piano. (We will see that prepared piano is a commonly-used device by modern composers to make an instrument sound in a different way than it was meant to sound. Even the tiny recorder has been altered by modern composer to produce a different sound, in what might be called an “experimental” style.) Usually, various implements are inserted into the strings of a grand piano to make it sound different, just as tacks were inserted into some pianos to give them a “tin pan alley” sound.
With the prepared piano, the Concerto Grosso #1 uses the unusual combination of two violins, harpsichord, and string orchestra, a combination one would not find particularly striking except for the addition of the piano. This creation is in six movements and is quite modern in outlook and realization.
Grout describes Shnittke’s music as “personally intense, aggressive, and blustery.” (p. 704) Yet his typical “modern” sound, in that respect, is tempered by the use of older forms and gypsy-tango episodes, and “striking combinations of instrumental color.” One of Shnittke’s major compositions was created for the new Gewandhaus Hall in Leipzig.
Sophia Gubaidulina (1931—)
The composer Sophia Gubaidulina is a Christian composer who was not allowed to travel to the West before 1986. When she was able to do so, her compositions gained international stature. One of these is reproduced on the Norton CDs and almost all of her works have not only a spiritual dimension, but use Christian themes (Introit, On the Cross, Offertory, Jubilation, “Out of the Depths” from Psalm 50). The fifth movement of Rejoice!, which was first performed in Finland in 1988, is inscribed with the text, “Listen to the still, small voice within.” (Grout, 705) It is a Sonata for violin and cello and describes going from the calm experience of ordinary life to the heights of spiritual joy.
Grout (or more probably, Palisca) critiques Gubaidulina’s work as being composition “without a system or model, but a composite of intuitive choices made by a creative personality of great originality and resourcefulness.” (p. 705)
Listen to NAWM 134 to hear this brave Christian woman’s expression of joy and thanksgiving. But do not expect it to be anything similar to what you have heard before in Christian music!
I suppose if one were to name the most popular import of British music in the twentieth century, one would have to name the Beatles, a group which did much to change the history of popular music and even to influence life styles in the Western world. However, at this time we shall approach the music of the “classical” composers, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst, William Walton, Sir Edward Elgar, and Benjamin Britten. (We cannot leave England without mentioning two present-day composers, Tavener and Rutter, who have also made their mark as musicians who have taken Christian themes and set them to interesting and attractive music.)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams’ life overlapped the centures, and his music reflects the more conservative trends in twentieth century music. Vaughan Williams was inspired by traditional English literature and song,, by earlier English composers, and by his association with the writers of the English Hymnal, to which he contributed a few good songs.
In my judgment, it is most unfortunate that all hymns, both good and bad, have been entirely excised from the worship of many churches today. One has only to look at the words and listen to the stirring music of For all the Saints, I Bind Unto Myself Today, and Hail Thee, Festival Day, to understand a small part of the loss. Not only is the poetry of past saints lost to our understanding, but, as in the case of Vaughan Williams (and Holst, as well), great composers often set themselves to the task of writing quality hymns for the church. The discarding of traditional hymnals has resulted in a loss, not only of connection with the past—which is also our Christian present—but it has caused people to stop reading hymns, which is truly a sad development. In turn, that has meant that present-day spiritual songs lack musical sophistication, which the hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams certainly did not. He wrote concerning his work on the hymnal, “Two years of close associaion with some of the best (as well as some of the worst) tunes in the world was a better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues.” (p. 706). Can we afford to give up this experience entirely?
But to continue with the story of Vaughan Williams: One of the greatest of the British composers, he worked steadfastly against many odds, because some of his contemporaries felt that his music was very much outdated. His works include nine symphonies and other orchestral pieces (Fantasia on the theme “Greensleeves” is a popular number), songs, operas, and choral pieces, including Masses. He was very British, and strongly influenced by British folk-song as well as hymnody. For amateurs, he wrote a composition called Household Music (1941) and a funny Concerto Grosso which included a part written for open strings, if the players preferred.
Vaughan Williams’ works include the London Symphony (1914-1920), the Sea Symphony (1910), and the Pastoral Symphony (1922), in which he uses the pentatonic, or five-tone, scale, free rhythms, and folklike tunes. He even wrote a symphony about Antarctica, which refers to the discovery of the North Pole by Captain Scott and his crew. The Pastoral Symphony, a work of some proportion, was referred to as “a cow looking over the fence” by a rival composer. But you can’t please everyone—especially jealous rivals!My favorite Vaughan Williams, however, is a set of songs for chorus and soloists called the Mystical Songs (1911), set to the magnificent poetry of George Herbert (written 1633) and based upon the story of personal salvation and of the resurrection of Christ. Of these, “The Call” has been preserved as a hymn in the Methodist Hymnal.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Gustav Holst was an excellent composer, and I suppose the work which comes to mind most often in association with Holst is The Planets (1916). There is something wonderful in the way he was able to make sound evoke the appearance and, as it were, spiritual quality of the planets, especially Mars. Holst was influenced by both British traditional song and Hindu mysticism, writing Songs from the Rig-Veda in 1912, but five years later, he wrote The Hymn of Jesus. Holst also set two poems of Walt Whitman, Ode to Death (1919) and Dirge for Two Veterans (1914), for male voices, brass, and strings.
Holst has also contributed to hymnology, setting at least the two Christmas carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1906), with words by the distinguished poetess Christina G. Rossetti (1872), and a very vigorous, thoroughly British-sounding hymn, “On this Day Earth Shall Ring” (Personent Hodie), to the tune of a sixteenth-century Latin carol. This carol, like the hymns of Vaughan Williams, is not a quiet cradle-song, but is best imagined with a mighty organ thundering forth the pedal-tones while a hearty male choir roars the refrain!
William Walton (1902-1982)
Walton is another good, solid British composer with several outstanding pieces to his credit, including Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) which, as its name implies, tells the story of the wicked king, Belshazzar, and the handwriting which appeared on the wall at his immoderate feast. A composer with a sense of humor, he wrote Facade (1921-1942), an opera entitled The Bear, and the opera Troilus and Cressida (1954).
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten, a noted rival of Ralph Vaughan Williams, produced many folk song arrangements and choral pieces of great charm. Perhaps he is the most popular of the mid-twentieth century British composer, at least the best-known. Many choirs have enjoyed his Ceremony of Carols (1942), written with harp accompaniment, and based upon medieval texts which portray the joy of Christmas in a beautiful, childlike way.
Benjamin Britten’s folksong arrangements are well known and are very appropriate for young singers. Simplicity characterizes his work, together with the intelligence not to overdo the arranging of what is already beautiful music. The best-known of his operas are Billy Budd, based upon the story, Billy Budd, Foretopman, Peter Grimes (1945) and The Turn of the Screw (1945), based upon the rather strange novel of Henry James. Britten constantly collaborated with his friend and companion, Pear, for whom he wrote much of the music for the tenor voice. His operas possibly tended to favor homosexual themes, a matter of great controversy, particularly at the time they were written.
Perhaps one of the most appreciated and striking of Britten’s works was his War Requiem (1962), which was performed in Coventry Cathedral. In it, the usual words of the Requiem Mass are intertwined with the verses of Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who was killed in France in 1918.
Michael Tippett (1905—)
In the course of reading about the British composers, time and again one comes across the idea that the material which from which they borrow inspiration is from historical, modal, ethnic, or non-Western styles. The fact is that many twentieth-century composers seemed to borrow from a simpler time and incorporate such things as folk-song and chant into their compositions. Michael Tippett had a long career as a choral conductor, and he took inspiration from English Renaissance music as well as other sources.
Most of Tippett’s early music made use of the traditional classic forms. In addition, Tippett used spirituals and jazz in his oratorio, A Child of Our Time and his Piano Sonata #1 (written in 1938 and revised in 1947). One of his oratorios inspired by Christian themes was The Vision of St. Augustine (1963-65).
Tippett also enjoyed Javanese music, including the gamelan, and employed sounds like gongs and bells and “slowly-changing blocks of static harmony” in the Piano Concerto (1953-55) and the Triple Concerto for violin, viola and cello (1979).
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Friends who knew Paul Hindemith remember him as a practical and humble man who was a wonderful pedagogue as well as a fine composer. Paul Hindemith was one of the creative musicians who chose to leave Nazi Germany and enriched our country with his fine teaching.
Hindemith deserves a chapter of his own, and I hope you will read more about him. He was a fine, solid composer. He wrote books about the study of rhythm for his students in Berlin School of Music (1927-37), Yale University School of Music (1940-53) and the University of Zurich, where he taught after 1953. He was a good violinist and played the viola, and played other instruments as well. He came into his own in the 1920s, when the “new music” was at its peak. In 1923, he wrote a devotional work on the life of the Virgin Mary, Das Marienleben, for soprano, to the wonderful poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, but he revised the composition 25 years later. He was very concerned about the fact that the public was increasingly alienated from the strange world of modern music, so he attempted to write music that was useful as well as music which was reasonable. It varied from tuneful flute sonatas to the complicated symphony, Mathis der Mahler (1934), which means “Matthias the Painter.” (So now we know that “Mahler” means “painter” in German.) The opera he was writing in connection with the symphony is quite difficult; I had to help with the preparation for the tenor part at one point, and found that the best way to prepare it quickly was to get a recording and listen to it several times, and then read it.
Mathis der Mahler was the story of an artist who ran afoul of the government, just as Hindemith ran afoul of the Nazi regime because of his critical attitude. During the piece, “Hindemith followed a new harmonic method he devised and called ‘harmonic fluctuation.’ Chords that are fairly consonant progress toward combinations containing greater tension and dissonance, which are then resolved either suddenly or by slowly moderating the tension until consonance is reached again.” (Grout-Palisca, p. 712)
Because Hindemith was a conscientious teacher, many of his works were conceived as teaching pieces. For example, he wrote Ludus tonalis, which means “Tonal Play,” in 1942, which was a study in counterpoint and tonal organization similar to that of J. S. Bach in its intent.
Late works of Hindemith include the Fifth and Sixth Quartets (1943, 1945), the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber (1943), When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d , a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, and the new version of the Marienleben. He began to write The Harmony of the World, an opera, in the 1930s, but it was not presented until 1957, in Munich.
It can be said that Hindemith was a conservative modern composer. His desire was to make modern music acceptable to a wider public and to write in neo-classic forms. The Grout gives him the great compliment of being in the line of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Reger, with additional influences in his work coming from Bach, Handel, Schütz, and the German sixteenth-century song composers.
We have touched upon a few representative composers from Great Britain and Western Europe, but will cover many more in this unit, continuing our study with a few more German composers.