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Earthling, What Do You Choose? Part 2

In the last issue of The Post, I outlined some recent research indicating that when Earth was destroyed by Prostentic Vogon Jeltz to make way for a hyperspatial express route, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent were given the opportunity to rescue ten works from each branch of the Arts for preservation. Sadly, Ford and Arthur failed miserably in this task and I turned to wondering, if we were in the same position, what we would choose to keep from the field of classical music. The objective is to select, or rather identify ten works that demand to be included, irrespective of personal preferences or general popularity. In part one, five works were identified:

  • JS Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV244 (1727)
  • Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium (c.1570)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 (1803-4)
  • WA Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K.488 (1786)
  • Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin D.795 (1823)

Now we must continue our mission and identify the remaining five works.

One of the great genres of classical music is that of opera, and it is inconceivable that our list should not include at least one example. Since the 17th Century, opera has been dominated by three threads: Italian opera, German opera, and to a slightly lesser extent French opera. It should be noted that we are talking about operas sung in Italian, German or French, irrespective of the original language of their libretti; here the nationality of the composer has little bearing: Mozart wrote both Italian and German language operas. Within the umbrella term opera, we have sub-divisions including among others, dramatic operas, often telling a tragic story of ill-fated lovers, destined to be united only in death (e.g. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde and Verdi: Aïda), comic operas in which one or more of the principal characters is a figure of fun or a victim of ridicule (e.g. Rossini: The Barber of Seville and Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro) and bel canto operas (eg Bellini: Norma and Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor), in which the plot, although just as well crafted as in dramatic and comic operas, is secondary to the principal objective: the opportunity to show the melodic beauty of the human voice.

How are we to choose between all the possibilities here? Hmm, with difficulty, so perhaps we'd better set the problem to one side for the moment and return to it later.

It is in the very nature of things that each succeeding generation is eager to find something new to say, even if that something new is in reality something old expressed in a new way. Music has been and continues to be no different; throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, the basic framework for composition was that of diatonic harmony—the use of the established system of major and minor keys. The 'rules' of diatonic harmony were never rules as such, just the common practice of 300 years of composing. If 'school' is the correct collective noun for a group of artists whose work exhibits a common style, then for perhaps three-quarters of the 20th Century, a whole 'academy' of composers tore up the composition rule book and abandoned diatonic harmony, and in some cases all harmony, completely.

Two works from the first quarter of the 20th Century demand inclusion in our preservation list. The first of these is Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The story of the riot that accompanied the first performance of this work at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris in May 1913 is well known. For Stravinsky, rhythm was the new melody. The music for the entire ballet is conceived as a set of complex, ever-shifting rhythmic patterns— in some places there are whole series of bars in which the time signature changes with every bar, and its use of dissonance is legion. With its raw, driving ferocity, the work remains, even today after almost 100 years of being performed, an astonishing composition.

Late in the 19th Century, diatonic harmony was being invaded more and more by chromaticism, the frequent use of notes not belonging to the scale of the diatonic harmony that otherwise provides the tonal centre. Indeed the very idea of a tonal centre was eroded, moving towards what in the early years of the 20th Century came to be described as 'progressive tonality'. One man, Arnold Schönberg , forged a new musical language, abandoning tonality completely and giving equal importance to all 12 notes of the octave. Not since about 1600, when the major-minor tonal system replaced the older, so-called 'church' modes, had such a fundamental shake-up of established music practice occurred.

Abandoning a time-honoured set of rules did not however lead to musical anarchy, at least not for Schönberg and his pupil-disciples Anton Webern and Alban Berg, a group that came to be known as the Second Viennese School1. Schönberg created for himself a perhaps even more rigid framework of rules than diatonic harmony implied— the rules of twelve-tone composition. In essence, the composer pre-decides the basic building block of his or her twelve-tone composition, the tone row. This must include all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, arranged in any preferred sequence, such that each note appears once and once only in the row2. It is from this tone row and its three mathematical variants: the row backwards, the row inverted (the intervals between consecutive notes are kept the same but in the opposite direction), and the combination of these two, the row inverted and backwards, that the composer must create their composition3. It was with his Variations for Orchestra Op.31, that Schönberg first fully realised his new compositional technique, at least in a work for a large orchestra4. Twelve-tone composition, and the wider principles of serial composition and atonality, dominated the musical language for the next 50 years or more.

Music it is said transcends all things: Language, Time, Politics, War etc and it is to this last category that we must turn for our next musical must-have. At the fall of France in June, 1940, the composer Oliver Messiaen, serving in the French army as a medical auxiliary, was captured by the advancing German army and interned in a POW camp at Görlitz in Silesia (now Zgorzelec, Poland.) Among his fellow internees, he discovered three other musicians. For the four of them he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du Temps in the original French), a masterpiece born out of adversity. Necessity being the mother of invention, the quartet was written for the unusual combination of piano, violin, clarinet and cello and was given its first performance, with Messiaen playing the piano part5, in a freezing-cold barrack hut in Stalag VIII-A on 15 January, 1941. The audience of 5,000 prisoners, guards and German officers were enthralled by a vision of the Final Moment, not as an apocalyptic tumult, but as an ethereal calm— a positive vision that, like much of Messiaen's work, is informed by his unshakable Catholic faith. Of the eight movements, only four use all four members of the quartet; three create different instrumental colours by combining them in different ways, and a fourth is for the clarinet alone.

Just two months before the première of Messiaen's Quartet, the city of Coventry in the Midlands of England was heavily bombed, completely destroying vast areas of the city, including its cathedral. Ten years after the end of WWII, a new cathedral was started in the shadow of the old one and was finally consecrated on 25 May, 1962. To mark the occasion, the English composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a new work. With no specific brief, Britten decided on a setting of the Latin Mass, combined with settings of poems by Wilfred Owen, certainly the greatest war poet of his generation and possibly of all time; Owen had the misfortune to be killed just a week before the Armistice that ended WWI. The first performance of Britten's War Requiem was given five days after the consecration. It is scored for large orchestra, a chamber orchestra, choir, boys' choir and three soloists: soprano, tenor and baritone. Britten wrote the solo parts specifically to match the voices of Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). Sadly, the Soviet government would not permit Vishnevskaya to travel to the UK and her place was taken by the Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Melos Ensemble performed the roles of the main and chamber orchestras respectively. It is undoubtedly Britten's finest composition and achieves a perfect symbiotic expression of the power of faith and the utter futility of war. The following year, 1963, an LP recording of the War Requiem was made, conducted by the composer, in which the three intended soloists finally came together to perform the work that had been written for them.

So we almost have our final list of ten musical works that must be preserved:

  • JS Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV244 (1727)
  • Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium (c.1570)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 (1803-4)
  • WA Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K.488 (1786)
  • Franz Schubert: Song cycle Die schöne Müllerin D.795 (1823)
  • An opera
  • Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1912-3)
  • Arnold Schönberg: Variations for Orchestra Op.31 (1926-8)
  • Oliver Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (1940-1)
  • Benjamin Britten: War Requiem Op.66 (1962)

Returning to the question we put aside at the start of the second part of this column— which opera will represent its genre? I find myself totally unable to decide on a single opera; my shortlist would have to include Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Tosca. So dear readers I throw it open to you to suggest which opera you want to save. Remember, we are not looking for the most popular or for personal favourites, but the BEST opera. Let us know your view using the thread at the foot of this column before the next issue of The Post.

Till then, happy listening.

Musical Notes Archive


19.02.09 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1The First Viennese School being Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.2A note can be repeated if it is in an adjacent sequence of the same note, but an earlier note cannot.3The tone row can be transposed to start on any of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale; therefore in combination with its three variants, there are 48 combinations to play with.4Schönberg's Suite for Piano Op.25 (1923) was his first actual twelve-tone composition, but the continuation of the technique into the orchestration of the Variations brought it to maturity.5The other performers were Jean Le Boulaire (violin), Henri Akoka (clarinet) and Etienne Pasquier (cello).

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