Category Archives: 20th- and 21st-century music

Ulysses Kay’s prelude for unaccompanied flute

Ulysses Kay

Ulysses Kay’s larger works have received world-wide acclaim, but his instrumental works, particularly the compositions for flute, have received far less attention.

Kay conceived of his Prelude for unaccompanied flute (1943) as an etude for developing proper breathing techniques, and its metronome marking 50 beats per minute creates long dramatic phrases that challenge the stamina of young flute players (indeed, most recordings of it are a bit faster).

The work is based in the key of D minor, with modal mixtures disguised by smooth voice leading; it seems to evade a true cadence until the last note. The tonality shifts at organized points in the structure of the music: Each section is marked by a new statement of the theme presented in a different register and a new key.

This according to Music for Flute by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995): A descriptive analysis with performance notes for three selected works by La-Tika Shanee’ Douthit, a dissertation accepted by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 2013.

Today would have been Kay’s 100th birthday! Below, a performance by Kedgrick Pullums, Jr.

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Oscar Levant, composer

oscar-levant

Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.

Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.

This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).

Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.

BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.

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Virgil Thomson and “Four saints in three acts”

Four Saints

Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.

The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.

Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.

This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.

BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Literature, Opera

Paul Creston, didactic autodidact

paul-creston

A winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, Paul Creston was entirely self-taught as a composer.

Nevertheless, he was the author of three books on composition—Principles of rhythm (1964), Creative harmony (1970), and Rational metrical notation (1979)—and contributed many articles to various musical periodicals; he wrote the first three, on dance, when he was only 17 years old.

This according to “Creston, Paul” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [2005] pp. 100–101); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Creston’s 110th birthday! Below, the opening of his Concertino for marimba and orchestra (1940).

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Šostakovič and Bach

shostakovich-bach

The invocation of Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier in Dmitri Šostakovič’s 24 preludes and fugues creates an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the latter’s compositional choices and style.

Through composing alternative solutions to fugal problems, Šostakovič’s ironic musical signature is revealed to have several major, previously undefined components. In large part, this signature creates a dialogue between traditional associations and modernist dissociation.

His remarkably consistent compositional choices define techniques that create musical dissociation. Important elements include the use of a rigid, virtually academic fugal format, the invocation and frequent use of traditional counterpoint and harmony, the preparation of musical confirmation and its subsequent absence, and the final achievement of musical affirmation through dissociation.

These techniques, displayed against the background of Bach’s fugal schema, put into relief the effects that traditional and nontraditional materials and approaches have on each other; they also reveal how a powerful sense of irony—the simultaneous recognition of irreconcilable opposites—can be created.

This according to The treasons of image: Bach, irony, and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, op. 87 by Evan Bennett, a dissertation accepted by Princeton University in 2004.

Today is Šostakovič’s 110th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter performs selections from the cycle.

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Komponisten der Gegenwart

Komponisten der Gegenwart

 

Today, 7 September 2016, RILM music encyclopedias has just completed its regular quarterly update. The ongoing encyclopedia of contemporary composers Komponisten der Gegenwart (KdG)—the only music encyclopedia that offers exhaustively complete chronological works lists—offers revisions of the articles on Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Gilberto Mendes, Friedrich Schenker, and Brunhilde Sonntag, and new entries are added for Bill Dietz, Matthias Kaul, William Schuman, Ying Wang, and Peter Manfred Wolf.

KdG started as one of those rare loose-leaf encyclopedias whose format allowed them to revise and expand. Many of us recall the thick, unwieldy ring binders (above) that new pages were alphabetized into when they arrived in the mail. Users of RILM music encyclopedias no longer have to cope with these bulky volumes, and their updates appear online every three months!

Below, Lachenmann’s Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung).

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U.S. mavericks

Anthony_Philip_Heinrich (1)

From colonial times to the present, U.S. composers have lived on the fringes of society and defined themselves in large part as outsiders. This tradition of maverick composers illuminates U.S. tensions between individualism and community.

Three notably unconventional composers—William Billings in the eighteenth century, Anthony Philip Heinrich in the nineteenth, and Charles Ives in the twentieth—all had unusual lives, wrote music that many considered incomprehensible, and are now recognized as key figures in the development of U.S. music. Eccentric individualism proliferates in all types of U.S. music—classical, popular, and jazz—and it has come to dominate the image of diverse creative artists from John Cage to Frank Zappa.

This according to Mavericks and other traditions in American music by Michael Broyles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Above, a portrait of Heinrich, nowadays the lesser-known of the three composers; below, “Victory of the condor” from The ornithological combat of kings, or, the condor of the Andes (1847), which remained his favorite work throughout his life.

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English modernism and rabid youth

In its 1 May 1925 issue The musical times included the following notice in “The amateurs’ exchange”, a regular column that printed free announcements by amateur musicians wishing to collaborate with others:

“A very young man wishes to meet another very young man who has violently ultra-modern tendencies in all four creative arts. M.J. Howe, 185 Marlbro’ Avenue, Hull”

The anonymous editor of the column (perhaps Harvey Grace, who was then the Editor of The musical times) appended a note:

“The above announcement is somewhat beyond the scope of this column. We feel, however, that if this extremely young man has a prototype anywhere, the two should meet, in order that they may go through their artistic scarlet fever together.”

This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above, the English modernist Roger Fry’s portrait of the English modernist poet Edith Sitwell. Below, Gustav Holst’s Mars, the bringer of war from The planets, an early English modernist work.

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Mushrooms and new music

morels

Can it be a mere coincidence that in many English dictionaries the words mushroom and music are right next to each other? Points of contact between mushrooms and new music go beyond the figure of the self-proclaimed mushroom-lover John Cage.

One fundamental similarity is the fact that both exist in marginal social zones whose inhabitants are often dismissed as other-worldly weirdos. In the early 21st century there is only a difference in degree between the social acceptability of composers and woodland gnomes.

This according to “‘After all, nature is better than art’: Exkursionen ins verborgene Verhältnis von Pilzen und (neuer) Musik” by Dirk Wieschollek (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik CLXXIII/1 [2012] pp. 32–37).

Above, Morchella (morel), a favorite of Mr. Cage. Below, Václav Hálek composed over 1000 works referencing different varieties of mushrooms.

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Unperformable music

ligeti etude 14a

Some artworks—works of music, theatre, dance, and the like—are works for performance. Some works for performance are unperformable.

Some such works are unperformable by beings like us; others are unperformable given our laws of nature; still others are unperformable given considerations of basic logic.

Musical works that fit into each of these categories really are genuine works, musical works, and works for performance, and the very possibility of such works is ontologically significant. In particular, the possibility of these works raises serious problems for type-theoretic accounts of the ontology of music as well as certain mereological or constitution-based accounts.

This according to “Unperformable works and the ontology of music” by Wesley D. Cray (British Journal of Aesthetics LVI/1 [January 2016] pp. 67–81.

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above and below, György Ligeti’s Étude No. 14A: Coloana fara sfârşit (Column without end), one of the works discussed in the article.

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