Part 2 Twentieth Century Music

Project 2 – After the Second World War

Electronic Music

Ondes Martenot


This part of the course is one which I know I am going to find interesting because I do enjoy modern electronic music and it is going to be interesting to see how this developed. In looking to find out a little more about the instruments used and the people who were at the forefront of electronic music I discovered two rather interesting sections in the Encyclopaedia Britannica which are devoted to Electronic Music and Electronic Instruments. The piece on the instruments is very interesting indeed especially on the workings of the instruments and I have found this really informative. The piece on the music gives mention to some of the names which are to be looked at in this section and I am looking forward to investigating these further. I have already encountered some of Stockhausen’s work but I am hoping that as I am further along in the course I will appreciate his innovativeness much more. I have recently read a book on Kraftwerk and his name appeared as an influence so I am looking to hear those influences if I can.

Some of the earliest works using electronic sounds were created by Messiaen and Varese who I have encountered briefly before. Other innovators in electronic music are :-

Pierre Schaeffer (1910 – 95)

Pierre Henry (1927 – 2017)

The Groupe de Musique Concrete was formed by Schaeffer and Henry and it became a leading research centre for electronic music and attracted Varese and of course Stockhausen.

From the 1950s composers who started to combine sounds with live instrumental music included., The aforementioned Varese and Bruno Maderna. However the most influential of the composers is Karl Heinz Stockhausen.

šŸŽ¼Edwin Roxburgh – At the Still Point of the Turning World

I do not like this piece of music at all. I found it so irritating I only listened to 8 minutes. The electronics in this make the entire piece sound artificial and if I were to choose a word – “tinny”. The piece is for a solo probe and as it merges with the electronics it is obscured and to me ruined. It does not sound quite right. When you hear the oboe at the start it sounds real but from what I heard the entire piece ends up feeling manufactured and I do not like the distortions. I hate the way the oboe is made to sound. I cannot hear the live oboe and I could not tell you if any other instruments were introduced. I simply do not like this piece at all. An oboe ruined!!

šŸŽ¼Luigi Nono – Sofferte onde Serene

I cannot say that I love this piece but this was a much nicer piece to listen to on the whole, and I enjoyed it, actually managing to listen to the entire piece. . The electronics and the piano are indistinguishable and I cannot tell which is which. Both the live piano and that on the tape feel real in the context of the piece. The both parts work to form something which is very unique. I can hear the gentle lapping of the water in some of the higher notes and also the bells. The tape does not ruin the live instrument but blends and harmonises with it which makes for a much more listenable piece.

šŸŽ¼Kaija Saariaho – Noa Noa

And the surprise here is I liked this piece, having totally hated one piece I had heard by the composer before. I think to fully appreciate the piece you have to know that it refer to an artwork by Gaugin and that the spoken word is from his travel diary. I do feel listening to this that Tahiti is reflected, with the beautiful flute and the text. It sounds pacific islands set. I am not sure what fully are the electronics. I can hear waves so I assume that some of the words are on tape and some noises but this blends in perfectly and enhances the flute. This piece complements the live flute, I think it shows how versatile an instrument this is in the right hands. Whatever is in the electronic part works in harmony to get the best out of the flute and the flautist. I think this is a beautiful piece, yes I said it, beautiful. Everything just works to convey Tahiti. Yes I loved it!!!

Indeterminacy also known as Aleatory music

John Cage is mostly associated with this kind of music. Studied with Henry Cowell and most notably Stockhausen. Varese influenced his work too. His early music was based in serliallism and his rhythmic structures were built around eastern patterns, The development of these eastern ideas lead to the creation of his Aleatoric style. His most famous work is 4″33″ (Research point)

Extended tonality – Benjamin Britten

Research point

Gloriana by Benjamin Britten

This opera is a three act opera written to coincide with the celebration of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The opera was given its debut performance on June 8th 1953, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London and dedicated to the new Queen – who had been crowned only six days previous at Westminster Abbey.

The opera consists of three acts and is  based on Lytton Strachey’s 1928 Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History.

Set in England around 1600, Queen Elizabeth is approaching the end of her reign.

The opera centres on in her duty to the monarchy and her illicit love for the very much married Earl of Essex. This is tested as Essex grows increasingly ambitious and uses her love for him to advance his ambitions as he asks to be appointed her Deputy in Ireland in order to quash the rebel Tyrone.  She is cautioned by her advisors but ultimately gives in and appoints him to the role he craves.  She is unaware that he has also been plotting to have her removed whilst flattering her to achieve his ambitions. His time in Ireland is a disaster and upon return to England and pleads with her his cause.  Meanwhile Sir Robert Cecil informs the Queen that Essex has been plotting her replace her. The plot fails and despite pleas from his immediate family , Queen Elizabeth has been betrayed and she signs the death warrant.  The opera concludes in the final scene where the queen is dying and she reflects on the tests that she has faced during her reign.

Shostakovich and politics

Symphony no5 in D minor (A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism)

šŸŽ¼ Exercise – Interpreting the final section of Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony

Versions listened to for this exercise

After listening to these two versions I feel that they differ very much in feel and the listeners’ reaction. I listened to the recordings as shown above. Starting with the faster paced version. I do believe that the “Allegro Non Troppo” does not fit this version. Quick but not too quick. This feels all wrong for what I see as a a very rushed piece. I say rushed but that is how it was sounding to me. The piece was rushing to get somewhere. Knowing a little of Russian history I know this was a very bleak and austere time for Russia and this piece really does not fit this. At one point I thought this could even reflect a sense of trepidation about the future. It sounded scared in parts. Scared of the way in which Stalin was implementing his austerity onto the Russian society. This is trying to be joyful but I wonder if it is just trying too much. It is much more joyful at the end and ends with fantastic percussion.

My own personal preference is for the slower version. Firstly I believe it fits with its “Allegro Non Troppo”. To me it has a more austere feel than the quicker version and more Russian sounding, if there is such a thing. I believe it sounds more optimistic in comparison with a rushed feel in the quicker version. I hear a cleaner and much more refined and dynamic piece. I can hear the instruments much clearer and it feels like it is flowing more. The strings sound more idealistic and almost romantic instead of fraught as before. It altogether sounds more joy but this could be forced. I found that I could hear many more of the Russian Influences I this piece. it altogether sounds more Russian.

I know a little about Russian history and that has shaped some of my thoughts. However in 1928, Stalin put the first of his 5 year plans into action. There were strict rules placed on Soviet culture and music with a certain style demanded. Jazz and Avante garde were banned in 1932 and even Tchaikovsky was out of favour. in 1936 Shostakovich found him at the receiving end of Stalin’s anger after he had seen a performance of “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”. The opera was officially condemned and so was he. Shostakovich was bitterly attacked in the press and his unreformed 4th symphony was withdrawn as well as the opera. This is why the 5th symphony was named “A Soviet Artist’s reply to just criticism”.

In light of the research I believe that the slower tempo is the right fit for the symphony as it fits in with what Stalin was adamant should be included. References to folk melodies and that Russian style, which I automatically assume is Russian when I hear it. The thing is I believe that the slower version would satisfy all the rules in force at the time. I myself was more moved by the slower ending than the fast. The course notes describe that the symphony conforms to Soviet ideas of “heroic realism” and the conformity brought Shostakovich back into favour. If he had rebelled then what would have happened to him. Maybe he saw that communism may not be the good thing it was initially hailed as which leads some people to conclude that the slower version is more forced joyfulness. If there is evidence of the work being interpreted two ways then this is a very clever ploy by Shostakovich. The faster version is less Russian in its feel and feels much more optimistic than its slower version. The piece ends on a very breathtaking percussion part that felt very positive. Its is a more cheery piece too. Whilst I prefer the slower version, and it fits in with the time it was written there is a strong case for the faster version in my opinion.

Reference for research

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