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Chapter 12: The Early 20th Century

Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle

Written in 1911, but not premiered until 1918, Bartok wrote only this one opera during his life. This work is a good example of expressionism, a movement generally associated with the free atonal works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Like many expressionistic works, Bluebeard's Castle can be seen symbolically as an abstract psychoanalytic exploration. Lasting approximately one hour, there are only two singing roles: Judith (mezzo-soprano) and Bluebeard (Baritone). Since it's presented in one act, Bluebeard's Castle is usually paired with another short opera by another composer or often times with Bartók's pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

Krisztian Cser and Andrea Melath performing Bluebeard's Castle at the Tianjin Grand Theatre (China) in 2013

Judith and Bluebeard have recently married, and Judith arrives to live with Bluebeard in his castle. She knows of many rumors about the demise of Bluebeard’s former wives and fears she may become his next victim, yet she is intrigued by his secrets and truly loves Bluebeard. She decides to enter his home.

She confesses her love to Bluebeard and believes that through her love she will be able to change him. To begin, she demands that the doors be opened to bring light into the hall and make the house less gloomy. As she continues to profess her love for him, Bluebeard finally acquiesces and opens the first room.

The first room is a torture chamber which she finds both repulsive and intriguing. She pushes Bluebeard to continue opening doors. The second door is opened to reveal an armory of weapons. Behind the third door is an immeasurable treasure, and the fourth door discloses a beautiful garden. The fifth door is a room with a window overlooking Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. Items in each room are stained with blood. At the sixth door, Bluebeard begs her to stop and claims that the castle is as bright as it can be. Judith persists.

Bluebeard opens the sixth door and reveals sea of tears. This is the only room that is not bathed with blood. Bluebeard begs Judith to love him for who he is and not ask him to open the seventh door. Convinced that the corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives reside behind the seventh door, she accuses him of murder and insists that the final door be opened.

Upon opening the door Bleubeard’s three former wives silently emerged. They are alive and are wearing flowing gowns, crowns, and jewelry. Bluebeard lies before them and begins praising each one. Bluebeard turns to Judith and begins praising her as his fourth wife. She begs him to stop, but he begins placing jewelry on her. Soon, the weight is too much for her to bear and she submissively follows the first three wives along a beam of moonlight into the seventh room where she will exist in space between life and death.

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Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemp (the Rite of Spring) premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, The Rite of Spring presents various Russian pagan rituals and ceremonies prompted by the arrival of spring. The work comes to a climax with the sacrifice of a young maiden.

The video below is the result of the collaboration between Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal to celebrate the centennial premiere of Stravinsky's masterwork. "See inside" this music with Stephen Malinowski's brilliant animation that places rhythm, orchestration, dynamics, pitch, and texture in this stunning video. To learn more about Stephen Malinowski's "Music Animation Machine", visit http://www.musanim.com.

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Ancillary Readings Opera Synopsis: Bluebeard's Castle
Music Animation: The Rite of Spring
The word that best describes the music of the 20th century is eclectic. So many styles have proliferated that it is difficult to identify a single musical language that is characteristic of the period. These styles, often referred to as "isms", are numerous and diverse. These "isms" include impressionism,InformationA style associated mainly with French composers, such as Debussy and Ravel, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in Paris. It has a visual analogue in the paintings of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, etc. expressionism,InformationA primarily German musical movement in the early 20th century associated with the free atonality of Arnold Schoenberg. new-romanticism, serialism, primitivism, minimalism,InformationA movement reflected in the visual arts and architecture, minimalism utilizes spare harmonies, repetitive rhythms, and simple melodies to refine a natural progression from modernist aesthetics. exoticism,InformationA movement with origins in the 19th century, improved communication and travel led to interest in the art of other cultures. symbolism, futurism,InformationIn the early 20th Century, composers imagined the future and made art they thought would suit. Every tenet of music in the past was rejected, and new instruments, new timbres, and new aesthetics were promoted. Centered in Italy. and neo-classicism.InformationA movement in the 20th century where composers revisited the aesthetics of the Classic period. Many people have an image of 20th century concert music as highly dissonant,InformationA degree of harmonic instability within a context. even cacophonic, experimental, and avant-garde in style; but most of it is still based in traditional materials and techniques.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Biographical Sketch
Possibly the most influential composer of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky came to music rather late in life compared to most other composers in history. In 1902, at the age of 20, Stravinsky met the famous Russian composer, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who encouraged the young law student to study composition with him. Rimsky-Korsakov passed away in 1908, and Stravinsky never had another formal composition teacher.

Stravinsky's first success came in the form of a ballet, The Firebird, which was composed in 1910 for the famed Ballet Russes led by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). This ballet was followed by two more ballets for the Ballet Russes: Petrushka (1911) and the barbarously rhythmic work, The Rite of Spring (1913) which also sparked a famous riot in Paris. These three ballets constitute Stravinsky's first period known as primitivism.

After World War I, Stravinsky began to look back toward the cultural and artistic aesthetics of the Classical Period. Embracing concepts of the Classical Era, (i.e., ORB: objectivity, restraint, and balance) Stravinsky's neo-classicismInformationA movement in the 20th century where composers revisited the aesthetics of the Classic period. period resulted in numerous compositions over the course of 30 years. Famous works from this time period include his Octet for Winds (1923), Symphony of Psalms (1930), and Symphony in C (1940).

When World War II erupted in Europe, Stravinsky along with many other composers fled to the United States. In 1940, Stravinsky became an American citizen and lived in Hollywood, California, for the remainder of his life. In 1952, after the death of Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky entered his third compositional period when he began using serial techniques to compose; the technique that Schoenberg had developed many years earlier. Numerous masterpieces such as Canticum Sacrum (1955) and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) were written during this time.

Unlike many other composers, Stravinsky lived long enough to be honored through many significant awards and commissions. He spent the last few years of his life conducting and recording his works. Today, his influence on concert music composers is immeasurable.

Some of Stravinsky's best known compositions include:
    The Firebird
    The Rite of Spring

    Large Ensemble:
    Symphony of Psalms
    Symphony in C
    Symphony in Three Movements
    Suite from Pulcinella

    Chamber Music
    Octet for Wind Instruments
    Symphonies of Wind Instruments
    In Memoriam Dylan Thomas
    Histoire du Soldat

This lecture highlights four major composers of the first half of the 20th century. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Hindemith were all Europeans who came to the United States as adults, Europe being in a state of political turmoil during most of the period. The first two ended up on the West Coast and the second pair on the East Coast. Schoenberg and Hindemith became important composition teachers, the former at UCLA and the latter at Yale.

Many consider Stravinsky to be the greatest composer of the century. His ballet, The Rite of Spring, would probably win first prize for the greatest score of the century. Thousands of persons who have no interest in ballet or symphonic music came to know it through Disney's Fantasia, which supplied an animated plot based on the creation of the world and dinosaur warfare. While very amusing, it had nothing to do with the plot of the original ballet, a story of primitive rites, including human sacrifice, that might have given old Walt pause.

The ballet created a scandal and a riot when it opened in Paris in 1913. The music depicts the primitive rites of an ancient society. When you listen to it you may understand why it spawned the term "primitivism." Stravinsky sustained a high level of creativity during his long lifetime, going through several style changes, but nothing ever exceeded Rite of Spring in impact. This is a truly monumental work.

Bela Bartok was a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist who collected folk material and used it in much of his composition. He composed fluently in every genre. His string quartets rival those of Beethoven in their importance to the repertoire. His Mikrokosmos is a six-volume graded piano series that explores in small pedagogical pieces the same techniques he used for his larger works. His most popular work is the Concerto for Orchestra, a work that might easily be mistaken for a symphony. The unusual title indicates his desire to link it with the concerto grosso of the Baroque, a precursor of the symphony.

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most influential musicians in history. His method of composing with 12 tones created a paradigm that is studied by every composition student, just as he predicted. The technique assures that the composer avoids any combination of notes that would suggest tonality. A series of 12 chromatic notes is offered as prime material and then manipulated by inversion (upside down), retrogression (backwards), retrograde inversion (both), and transposition. As you listen to 12-tone music, often called serial music, the most important thing to remember is that it is a method of pitch selection, nothing more. It's a fairly simple paradigm to teach that provides almost endless possibility for thematic development.

Schoenberg is worshiped by musicologists and vilified by the public. Understanding what he was trying to do doesn't always help one to like the sound, but repeated listening and maturity does! Composers of film and TV scores have taken advantage of this musical language to communicate stress or fear to audiences. For that reason, young people much more accepting of this music than older people who haven't studied a lot of music. At any rate, Schoenberg had a great influence on younger composers, both as a professor at UCLA and through his music, which they imitated.

When he first started writing this music in Vienna, Schoenberg was ridiculed by critics and the public, but championed by no less than Gustav Mahler. His two most famous disciples also became major composers: Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. Because both studied with him in Vienna, where the movement began, it is sometimes called the Second Viennese School. [The first was Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.]

Paul Hindemith represents the aesthetic antipode to Schoenberg. He believed that tonality was as integral to music as gravity to our world—he considered it a force of nature. Indeed, tonality is based on the overtone series, which is a fact of acoustics, a branch of physics. While Hindemith was capable of writing some pretty dissonant music in his youth (the 1920s), his later works are much more accessible. His output is truly staggering in quantity and quality. His Symphonic Metamorphoses is an excellent introduction to his late style. The finale is a rousing march that sounds as if it might be the model for all the star wars music of the 70s.

As professor of composition at Yale, Hindemith trained a whole generation of fine young composers and established the Collegium Musicum for the performance of early music. Despite all his success as a composer, he continued to teach, conduct and perform all his life. He often appeared as a viola soloist with major symphony orchestras.

Chapter 12: Music for Listening