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

Anne Brown and “Porgy and Bess”

Anne Brown literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in an opera that was originally to be called Porgy.

Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.

Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.

In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.

This according to “Anne Brown, who was Gershwin’s Bess, dies at 96” by Douglas Martin (The New York times 18 March 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-633).

Anne Brown would have been 100 years old this month! Above and below, a filmed excerpt from her performance.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Black studies, Opera, Performers

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

Related articles:

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

Debussy and gamelan

Claude Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.

While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.

Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.

“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”

This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa (RILM Abstracts 1988-4625).

Today is Debussy’s 160th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence may be best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.

Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Impressionism

The Fokker organ

In 1950 a pipe organ built to the specifications of Adriaan Fokker (1887–1972) with octaves divided into 31 steps was inaugurated at Teylers Museum in Haarlem. The instrument originally enjoyed considerable fame, and a lively circle of composers and performers developed around it.

Since 1942 Fokker, a physicist who had studied with Einstein, had been occupied almost exclusively with music-theoretical subjects. His interest was particularly captured by the writings of Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), who advocated the adoption of just intonation. This theme became the backbone of nearly all Fokker’s music-theoretical publications.

To turn his theories into sounds, Fokker had a small organ built in 1943. This instrument was the prelude to the realization of his greatest dream: a pipe organ with 31 tones per octave. This instrument was built starting in 1945 in close cooperation between Fokker and the organ builder Bernard J.A. Pels (1921–96).

Then for years the organ was forgotten; it was even dismantled and placed in storage. But since 2009 the instrument sounds again, in the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam. And again composers are inspired by the Fokker organ and its intriguing microtonal system.

This according to “Microtonaliteit van het Spaarne naar ’t IJ. Zestig jaar 31-toons orgel” by Cees van der Poel (Het orgel, 107/3 [2011] pp. 4–10; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-1372).

Below, Ere Lievonen performs on the instrument.

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Stravinsky and cubism

 

Stravinsky’s Svadebka/Les noces—an assault of nonsense syllables, snatches of conversation, and ritual fragments—is a cubist reconstruction of a Russian peasant wedding. Despite its invocation of Christian saints, the work might be Neolithic or even Australopithicine, so backward-looking is its range of auditory allusion.

All of the action is accompanied by chatter, out of which a whoop or intelligible phrase may emerge—we hear pet names, silly games, much commentary on the wine and beer, and some veiled sexual talk; it is the auditory equivalent of the strips of newsprint that Picasso glued to some of his canvases.

This according to Stravinsky: The music box and the nightingale by Daniel Albright (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1989-12654).

Today is Stravinsky’s 140th birthday! Above and below, Bronislava Nijinska’s original choreography for the work.

 

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dance, Visual art

Laurie Anderson and “O Superman”

“You know the reason that I really love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them. We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up… But we are reaching for them.”

Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall (2018)

Typically, academic writing on Laurie Anderson’s performative electronic storytelling has not explicitly addressed its musical characteristics. Instead, Anderson’s pieces are often viewed as postmodern performance, video, or multimedia art, and analyses have focused on (hyper)mediation; the technological fragmentation of the subject; politicized language games and multiplicities of textual meaning; and Anderson’s androgynous, cyborg performance personæ. 

One major exception to this trend is Susan McClary’s chapter on Anderson in Feminine endings, which serves as the starting point for an analysis of O Superman that examines its harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic features, focusing on her resistance to establishing a tonic key, use of additive and subtractive processes, and avoidance of entrainable metric regularity. 

Ultimately, these features culminate in a kind of estranging ambiguity, inviting us to actively shift how we listen to—and interpret—one of Anderson’s most enduring musical negotiations of the social, political, and technological terrains of American life. 

This according to “Once again, on the music of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (for Massenet)” by Lindsey Eckenroth (American music review XLIII/2 [spring 2014] 21–24; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-6985).

Today is Anderson’s 75th birthday! Above, photographed by Annie Liebovitz; below, the official music video.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers

Intertextuality and Britten’s War Requiem

Intertextuality is an integral part of Britten’s musical rhetoric in War Requiem, for which he interpolated nine of Wilfred Owen’s poems about World War I within the Requiem text.

Britten created a dialogue between the Requiem text and the poems, and between the Requiem genre and other works—in particular the medieval planctus and Bach’s Matthäuspassion.

During the Middle Ages, texts in Latin and the vernacular were interpolated into liturgies as commentary, sometimes adding an emotional response to the ritual. The War Requiem expresses a similar theological dialogue between traditional and nontraditional imagery in the postmodern age. Britten presents the voice of Owen’s soldier as the voice of Christ, expressing the pity of war.

This according to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: Parody and the transmutation of myth, Thomas Francis Rooney’s 1997 dissertation for Boston University (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1997-7442).

Today is the 60th anniversary of War Requiem’s premiere. The work was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940. Above, the ruins of the original 14th-century structure; below, the same space as it looks today, serving as a courtyard adjacent to the new building.

BONUS: In the first section of the work’s Dies irae Britten contrasts the glorious trumpets of heaven in the Latin text with the bloody bugles of men in Owen’s Bugles sang; Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Politics

Aurel Stroe and the Romanian avant-garde

In the 1960s Romanian culture had just escaped from communist control, and free expression was only recently permitted. Aurel Stroe represents the first Romanian avant-garde wave in composition.

Stroe’s artistic development may be viewed in three compositional stages. The first one relates to the aesthetic ideas of composition classes, to tone-chord music, and to geometric music with certain archetypal intersections. The second stage, dating to the 1970s, is in compliance with morphogenetic music. The third stage, which started in the 1980s and lasted to the end of the composer’s life, employed the sound palette of music written in different tuning systems.

This according to “Aurel Stroe’s artistic ideas within the context of the aesthetic turmoil of the composition scene in Romania and world-wide (1960–1990)” by Octavian Nemescu (Musicology today: Journal of the National University of Music Bucharest XXX/11 [July–September 2012] 121–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-7829).

Today would have been Stroe’s 90th birthday! Below, his Arcade for orchestra (1962).

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Germaine Tailleferre and 1920s feminism

In 1923 Germaine Tailleferre completed Le marchand d’oiseaux for the Ballets Suédois, with a scenario, costumes, and set designs by the artist and poet Hélène Perdriat.

While the (male) critics generally praised the ballet, they primarily commented on it as the work of two women; for example, one wrote “here is something that will certainly please the feminists”, while another drew comparisons to the equally male-dominated field of sport: “Nervous and supple like the manner of these female tennis champions, who triumph so easily over the raw brutality of hard masculine wrists…Mme Hélène Perdriat…has imagined the affabulation [sic]…with a sprig of perversity….These candid and malicious games are exactly to the taste of the lovely Muse who dictates to Mlle Germaine Tailleferre her better inspirations.”

Despite this patronizing reception of Le marchand d’oiseaux as a female work, there is nothing feminist in the dramatic action or the music. The ballet is a neoclassical creation that may be seen in the context of a wider trend within interwar modernism, and Tailleferre may be understood as contributing to the development and propagation of this musical style.

A product of two female artists whose immense talents allowed them to overcome the misogynistic social tendencies of their time and achieve success on the Parisian ballet stage, Le marchand d’oiseaux demonstrated that despite all of the French government’s best attempts to suppress the voices of women, with sufficient talent and determination they could still succeed and be recognized as contemporary creative artists.

This according to “Germaine Tailleferre and Hélène Perdriat’s Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923): French feminist ballet?” by Laura Hamer (Studies in musical theatre IV/1 [2010] 113–20; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-14319).

Today is Tailleferre’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer as photographed by Man Ray around the time of the ballet’s premiere; below, Tailleferre’s score for the work.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Reception, Women's studies

Erste Wiener Gemüseorchester

The Erste Wiener Gemüseorchester (also known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra) performs on instruments made entirely out of fresh vegetables: cukeophones, radish-marimbas, carrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, and so on.

The instruments are all made from scratch one hour prior to each performance, using about 90 pounds of the freshest vegetables available; after the performance they are cooked to make a tasty soup for the audience and performers to enjoy together.

This according to “Music with taste” in Gastronomica (IV/4 [fall 2004], p. 126; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2004-21764).

Below, the group prepares and performs on their instruments in 2010.

BONUS: A newer video, from 2017.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Food, Instruments