Part 2 Twentieth Century Music

Project 1 – 1900 – 1945

Impressionism – Debussy

Claude Debussy 1862 – 1918

Apple Music Playlist

Folk and Rhythm – Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky 1882 – 1971

Apple Music Playlist

Pitch organisation – Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951

Apple Music Playlist

Anton Webern 1883-1945

Apple Music Playlist

Alban Berg 1885 – 1935

Apple Music Playlist

Pierre Boulez 1925 – 2016

Apple Music Playlist

Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992

Apple Music Playlist

Toru Takemitsu 1930 -1996

Apple Music Playlist

Exercise : Impressionism, Rhythm and Pitch

Debussy – Jeux (1912)

I enjoyed this immensely. There seemed to be an intensity from the outset with rapid changes creating interest throughout the piece.

As I listened to the piece I found that the rapid changes contributed to the piece having a somewhat playful element to it, although there were slower parts to it. The words that sprang to mind during listening were: curiosity, naughtiness, drama, mischief. I believe this to be an overall joyful piece. This rapidity suits ballet in my eyes, rapid moving sections, with grateful elements. Colour wise I felt that the whole piece had a brightness to it, so I would seek out the lighter colours on the colour wheel, conveying a sense of playfulness. This playfulness was the flutes picking out the top notes in rapid succession and also some of the strings playing the higher strings. There were some darker elements to the piece on hearing the brass there was a sense of urgency, or considering the playfulness of the piece maybe that is where the curiosity appears and we head towards a darker tone.

I am very intrigued by this piece and am going to see if I can find a piece online where the ballet is performed and see how well I have got there idea of this piece and use this part of my reflection for Assignment 2.

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring (1913)

I was not entirely keen on this piece and it did not have the effect own me that Debussy had.

The piece was interesting stylistically and darker than the previous piece. The words that sprung to mind were – fraught, intensity, edgy, bleak. This was a slower piece than Debussy but did pick up I places. Chords built up to crescendos and usually involved some intense percussion. When hearing the percussion I heard drama and I found it so intense. Some parts I felt were echoing a chase of some sorts, so there was some tension throughout the piece. The bi tonality was interesting and I thought that it sounded like there were more strings in the piece than there actually were. The duet between the cor angles and alto flute was again a darker piece.

Overall this was an intensely dramatic piece and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought that I would.

Schoenberg -Pierrot Lunaire (1913)

This was my first ever listen of Sprechstimme and I have to admit that I loved it from the outset especially in the context of this work with the German so perfectly ennuciated. I found it engaging from the start. The sets were definitely different, with the movements completely different across the whole piece. The first set seemed to veer from light and airy to mildly dramatic with vocals gentle in places almost quite in one movement and ending dramatically. The middle set was much darker, fraught and intense, somehow questioning. With piano and cello taking a more central stage here. Set three is lighter again but not as light as the first set we heard, there is a little intensity but towards the conclusion that eases.

I really enjoyed this piece and have decided to see if I can find a translation and use this as my reflection in Assignment Two.


At the outset of this exercise, if I had not been told that these three pieces were all written within a year of one another I would never have believed you so different were they from one another. My favourite of the three is the Debussy one but I must admit I did enjoy listen to Schoenberg. Stravinsky’s piece not so much. The differences as I see them are as follows:-

  • Debussy and Stravinsky used a full orchestra whereas Schoenberg used a chamber orchestra.
  • Schoenberg added voice, Sprechstimmer style, whereas Debussy and Stravinsky had no voice.
  • Debussy gave a light, cheerful feeling throughout the piece, whereas Stravinsky’s piece came across as dark and Schoenberg was a mixture of the both.
  • Debussy more vibrant and suited to dance.
  • Stravinsky had a dark intensity to it that I do not think would work with dance.
  • Schoenberg – I felt that this music could probably be suited to dance with the narrator to the side of the stage where they could be seen but not be in the way of the performers.
  • Debussy used the playfulness of the flute and the strings to convey the lightness of the score.
  • Stravinsky used the full percussive elements available to him and went all out for the dark and dramatic using every part of the orchestra for effect
  • Schoenberg used the small chamber orchestra and drew on instrument ranges to convey emotions
  • Debussy had rapid changes of music, Stravinsky was more consistent and Schoenberg used a motif based piece with just indications on the score of the pitch.

Exercise – writing programme notes

Biographical notes on Sibelius

8th December 1865 – Hameenlinna, Finland

Spoke Swedish at home but attended Finnish speaking grammar school (groundbreaking at the time)

1885 moved to Helsinki to study law but also enrolled at the Music Institute and soon abandoned law.

1889 leave to study in Berlin and then Vienna.

April 1892 premiered Kullervo a 5 movement piece for voices and orchestra inspired by Finnish epic poem Kalevala.

18890s political unrest in Finland, due to the increase of decrees coming from the Russian empire. Sibelius produced many works promoting Finnish nationalism.

1896 – his only complete one act opera Jungfrun i  Tornet (The Maiden in the Tower)

1898 – First major theatre scorer

1899 First symphony premiered in Helsinki

19904 leave Helsinki for Jarvenpaa

1908 – throat tumour removed

1914 visited the use

1915 – commissioned by Finnish government to write a symphony to be premiered oh his 50th birthday

Mid 1920s onward stopped producing major works

Died 20th September 1957

From 2011 on his birthdate it s flag day, also called The Day of Finnish Music

Score writing programme Sibelius named after him.

Biographical notes on Nielsen

Born 9th June 1865 – Funen Denmark .  Parents were poor but musically talented.  Learnt to play violin.

1st November 1879 – became a trumpeter in the Sixteen Battalion in Odense

December 1883 – auditioned and took the entrance exam for Conservatory of Music (Royal Danish Academy of Music) and entered on a scholarship

1883/4 -leaves to study in Copenhagen.

1886 – leaves the Conservatory with a good mark but not outstanding

17th September 1887 – official debut as a composer

1889-1890 began a 16 year stay as a second violinist in Chapel Royal Orchestra (Royal Danish Orchestra)

1890-1891 funded by the Ancker Award, he went to study in Germany, Paris and Italy.  Getting married along the way.

1894 – took leave from the orchestra agin to travel but this time to promote his own music

1901 onwards – received a state grant of 800 crowns

1903 – signed with publisher Wilhelm Hansen

1904-05 took over as deputy conductor of Royal Orchestra

1908 made permanent conductor

1914 resigned from the Royal Orchestra

1915 became the leader of the Copenhagen Music Society.

Regularly conducted the orchestra in Gothenburg

Died 3rd October 1931

Programme notes for Sibelius’ 5th Symphony

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No5 in E Flat Major Op.82

The Finnish government commissioned Sibelius to write a symphony to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1915. The symphony was a work in progress  until 1915, only being completed a short time before its premiere. The defining moment in the composition came on 21st April 1915 when Sibelius saw 16 swans  in flight and in his diary described it as “One of the greatest experiences of my life? God, how beautiful.”The complete work was premiered on 8th December 1915, with Sibelius conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, his 50th birthday celebration, and  a national holiday in Finland.  However the symphony premiered then is not the one you will hear today, there were two more revisions, in 1916 and 1919.

The score uses: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.  All movements are in a major key, the only one of Sibelius’ symphonies to do this. The first movement opens with a “horn call” motif which occurs throughout the piece. The second movement contains gentle flute and strings, giving a pleasant feel to the piece. Finally the third movement begins with strings playing a rapid melody building up to the conclusion, 6 staggered chords separated by silence.  A truly unique and original ending, not in the first version.

As you listen you may think that you have heard parts of the symphony elsewhere. There are examples  in popular culture that give a passing nod to the symphony: “Since Yesterday” by Strawberry Switchblade (1984),”I Don’t Believe in Miracles” by Sinitta(1988) and more recently, in “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz. In”Beach Baby “by The First Class (1974), you can hear a straightforward reproduction in the coda of the song

Music between the wars 1919-1945

George Gershwin
Aaron Copeland
Edgard Varese
Vaughan Williams
William Walton
Paul Hindemith
Eric Satie
Darius Milhaud
Francis Poulenc
Arthur Honegger
George Auric
Louis Durey
Germaine Tailleferre

Exercise – Music Between the Wars

George Gershwin

I chose to look at Gershwin as I liked what I was hearing but as I delved into the back catalogue I was ashamed that I did not know that he had written some of the most famous and endearing jazz classics that are still performed today. I have listened to some of those and enjoyed thumbnut especially when performed by the iconic Frank Sinatra.

I consider his three most important works to be

  • Rhapsody in Blue
  • An American in Paris
  • Porgy and Bess

I have heard Rhapsody in Blue a few times and each time it very much makes me feel relaxed. I love the combination of classical and the jazz music of the time it was written – 1924. However it is that leading clarinet that really sticks in my mind..the glissando as it is referred to. It is very memorable when you hear it. Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1923 and received its premiere on 12th February 1924 at New Yok’s Aeolian Hall as part of a concert entitled “An Experiment In Modern Music” with Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra. It seemed to capture the mood of the public, maybe because Jazz was becoming more popular at the time and the mix of jazz and classical just caught the imagination. By 1927 had been performed by Whiteman’s orchestra 84 times. Its recording had sold a million copies. It has become one of the most performed and recorded orchestral compositions of the last 100 years. This is the only orchestral composition that George Gershwin did not orchestrate himself, he did not have sufficient knowledge of orchestration at that time.

At the time the piece received mixed reviews, as can be seen here (excerpt from Wikipedia).

The fusion of jazz into a classical setting did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries. In an article by Chris Grey of the Houston Chronicle, Carol Andres Botero, Huston Symphony Orchestras musical ambassador believes Gershwin’s influence on Ravel is unmistakeable in his Piano Concerto in G. (1931).

Rhapsody in Blue has influenced many over the years and a list of them can be found here (wikipedia). It has also evolved as a piece over the years as it has been adapted from the original performance. It broke ground as it moved away from the jazz and blues structure and developed a life of its own.

An American in Paris is a musical film which was then adapted for the stage and incorporates a number of works which George Gershwin scored, with his brother providing the lyrics. Originally premiered in 1928 and subtitled “A Tone Poem for Orchestra”, there is no piano but jazz and harmonies. It was adapted for screen in 1951for the film “An American in Paris” starring Gene Kelly. the music in the film is very danceable and apr for Gene Kelly to dance. The lyrics are beautifully coordinating with the music and give the film quite an upbeat feel. I think I may have seen the film and I am going to look to see if I can find it anywhere however I think the trailer for the film sums up the mood and the importance of the film the it was released. This gives a really good impression of how innovative the film was, over 20 years since the original music had been composed.

Porgy and Bess is considered to be the first great American opera and one which is based on a book by DuBose Heyward called Porgy and published in 1925. Hayward worked on the lyrics with Ira Gershwin. This opera was very controversial at the time and also progressive. Gershwin wanted an all black cast and in the past he had been forced to use non coloured people using blackface but he stuck to his guns which in 1935 would have been very progressive. Set in South Carolina, Gershwin wanted the songs to reflect the area and also the African American speech. At the time this was criticised as the opera was said to stereotype African American stereotypes. However the opera was praised for featuring a black cast in a serious operatic work. When you hear the songs, and I listened to the original cast recording you can hear the African American rhythm of speech which Gershwin was aiming for.

This opera now sounds very dated and I don’t think it could be successfully portrayed on a modern stage due to the current mood of #Black LivesMatter.I However looking at it now, it was very progressive as in 1935, there was intense prejudice towards Black African Americans. The songs are ones which have been adapted as jazz standards.

The opera has been reworked over the years with some controversy in places where it has been adapted for the country. http://Porgy and Bess – Racial controversy. Would it be staged now? Yes I think it could be – it could be reworked to portray African American people in a more positive way and also deal with the underlying issues of the day, so the songs could still be sung and interpreted to be more modern but the essence of the opera would remain the same.

Gershwin Apple Music playlist

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Website Powered by
%d bloggers like this: