ArtsWeek: The Rest is Noise (5)—Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Bartok, Janacek, Satie and Stravinsky

The first two decades of the 20th century saw a remarkable rise in nationalism in music. As we indicated in our last post, this wasn’t unusual in and of itself—composers such as Dvorak and Brahms had been doing this already in the second half of the 19th century. But what emerged in the early part of the 20th century was qualitatively different—there was a deliberate search for national identity in many cases, and music was being used to help provide that identity, as opposed to providing a pretty melody to construct a movement around. And all of this was taking place during a period of artistic ferment and political disintegration. As Patrick Wright pointed out in one of discussion sessions, this was all taking place at the end of a period of unbroken peace in Europe. Between 1870 and 1914, there were no land wars in Europe. Which made the next four years all the more catastrophic and traumatic—to say nothing of the decades that followed.

Historian Christopher Clark set the stage for all of this with his talk comparing the pre-war idyll with what followed, pointing out, among other things, that everyone was literally on holiday when the war broke out—one of the reasons why no one took it seriously to begin with. And the idealization of nationalism that followed—of poets like Rupert Brooke in England, but such idealization was hardly confined to England—masked the fact that four empires were destroyed by the war. This was one of the factors raising nationalist hopes—in eastern Europe, for example, both the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire were finished. No wonder Bartok started wandering the hills of Romania, recording the songs and dances of what he hoped would inspire a new nation.

And all of this was taking place at a time when technology was being felt. The introduction of the recording cylinder made it possible for composers and folklorists to wander the hills of England (Vaughan Williams) or Romania (Bartok) and actually record what the folk songs were. Clark also discussed the technological imperative that emerged here—not just the technological developments mentioned above, but the acceleration of everything. There was a sense of heightened speed, especially in the cities, where everyone was moving. The Italian futurists thought this was exciting, even sublime. The machine became the icon of the era, especially the automobile, which became the embodiment of speed—but it didn’t take much for this to spill over into tanks and military aircraft and battleships. Advances in manufacturing technology meant that dreadnoughts, the newer, considerably more efficient battleships, could be produced in a six month period—unheard of twenty years earlier. No wonder everyone knocked them out so fast. Others weren’t so sure, because with speed came a loss of control, and this led many, including composers, to embrace ancient past—Stravinsky, who loved technology but felt deeply ambivalent about it as well, for example. This is one of the drivers for the search for folk tunes—the search for some sort of historical authenticity at a time when everything, including the rules of musical composition, was changing.

So there is a certain schizoid quality to what was going on in music at this time. Ralph Vaughan Williams was wandering the English countryside, just like Cecil Sharpe, taking down folk songs. Unlike Sharpe, however, he was incorporating them into his symphonic and choral works, and his operas as well. But he wasn’t just idealizing rural England. His London Symphony, ably presented by the London Philharmonic, is a cacophony of urban sounds, a celebration of the urban experience, complete with Big Ben. And inspired by William Blake’s poetry—you can’t get much more English than that.

But Vaughan Williams was nothing if not an overachiever. Because in the midst of all this he found the time to reorganize the English church Hymnal into the English Hymnal, published in 1906. This was meant to replace Hymns Ancient and Modern, which first emerged in 1861, and had gone through several revisions since then. The New English Hymnal was an ambitious attempt to replace HAAM, and bring the Church of England Hymnal into a more progressive light, which it largely did (although Hymns Ancient and Modern remains in print even today.) Vaughan Williams’ efforts here mirrored those of a number of composers—a relentless search for the folkloric roots of national identity, but coupled with a significant international cosmopolitanism. Because The English Hymnal, under Vaughan Williams’ stewardship, contained not only English songs, some going back hundreds of years, some of which became associated with hymns for the first time—but it also contained hymns with melodies based on songs from France, Germany, Russia and the Nordic countries—even Wagner.

This was also the period in England when the notion of rural England became somewhat symbolic of Englishness, and when the National Trust—created to safeguard national treasures like ruined abbeys and grand old houses—came into existence. In fact, there was some effort put into this creation of the rural myth by many conservative thinkers of the period such as G.K. Chesterton—but, in fact, it wasn’t particularly partisan.  Chesterton, a conservative, was in this regard following directly in the tradition of William Morris, socialist, utopian and craftsman; John Ruskin; and William Cobbett before them. Imperialism and Empire were the enemies for both Morris and Chesterton. Little England emerged around this time, with its fear of the machine, and its retreat into agrarian ruralism. This was the England that Vaughan Williams collected folk songs from. Nor was it just England. There was a heady mix of nationalistic enthusiasms all over Europe, including eastern Europe, with consequences that would become all too clear, all too soon.

So the post-war environment was one where what had gone before was being eclipsed by nationalism. But as Stephen Johnson discussed in his elegant talk on the composers, nationalism, which started out as a left-wing progressive force in the early part of the 19th century, often had become a conservative, even reactionary, movement by the end of the war—even before. Vaughan Williams was perhaps the exception here—he remained an unrepentant leftie all his life. Janacek, on the other hand, was a pan-Slavicist, and believed that Russia was the natural leader of the Slavic peoples—and he was perfectly happy to help that along. His composition Taras Bulba, one of the pieces presented last week, was a paean to the Russian nationalism that he hoped would emerge. Instead, he got something else. Still, it was a lively thing, with a suitably Russian, ie depressing, story line—Taras kills one of his sons, watches another one die in battle, and then gets himself killed. Inspired by Gogol story, this is Janacek’s response to the war—a brutal result from a brutal war. But Janacek does something clever in the piece—something he often did. Janacek, like other composers from the period, spent time wandering around, but not just the countryside. Janacek would wander the streets of the cities noting the speech patterns of Czech speakers, and incorporating them into his music. Which is what he does in Taras Bulba.

Much of this is a search for an ideal musical landscape—the creation of an ideal land, and Johnson suggests. We find this again in Ravel, with his idealized images of Spain—more on this below. And, of course, all these people knew each other, and were active correspondents. We’re not talking huge distances here—the geographic range from London and Paris to, say, Moscow is only half that between Boston and San Francisco—and with the emergence of the wireless and the increased use of the telephone and telegraph, it suddenly became easier to be in touch with your composer friend in Paris, or Munich—or New York. Mobility was a factor as well—Bartok could roam the countryside in Romania, but he had to get to the countryside first—and newly built trains and roads made this a whole lot easier than when Dvorak was wandering around the hills of Bohemia in the 1870s. It also made it a whole lot easier for him to lug his equipment around too. Technology, as indicated earlier, was encroaching—setting up another tension. Some reacted negatively—Debussy, for all his modernistic tendencies in music, wasn’t particularly happy with the pace of technology. On the other hand, Cocteau, the spiritual leader of Les Six (of whom the most famous was Poulenc), loved it.

There are several things that strike me about many of these composers whose works characterized the first two decades of the 20th century, above and beyond their innovations. The first is that they loved to rewrite stuff. All composers steal, and some steal shamelessly—Handel comes to mind here. But this was different. This was re-composing a piece that had already been composed by someone else. So we have Schoenberg, that radical, but also a deep lover of Brahms and Mahler, re-composing a Brahms piano concerto into an orchestral piece because he thought the piano was too loud in Brahms’ version, at the expense of the orchestra. So he fixed it. Well, there you go. We have Mahler himself taking two Bach Orchestral Suites and combining them into a single work. Similarly, we see Webern deciding that Bach’s Musical Offering wasn’t Bach enough, and re-composing it. Or Stravinsky, who took some pieces by Pergolesi and re-composed them, Pulcinella being the result—or his later dabbling with Gesualdo, which resulted in a ballet Monumentum pro Gesualdo in which Stravinsky orchestrated a number of Gesualdo madrigals. This wasn’t completely new—Mendelssohn messed around with Bach, certainly. But it’s striking to me that there was this much interest in not just borrowing themes, which has always occurred, but actually rewriting someone else’s music to make it sound better.

Second, it struck me that much of what was supposed to be “radical,” especially in Schoenberg, sounded vaguely familiar. In fact, there were moments in some of the orchestral pieces that reminded me of the background music to a car chase in an episode of Mannix. Well, of course it did. Schoenberg lived in Los Angeles when he moved to the US, and had a powerful influence on any number of musicians and composers there, including a number who scored films and television. We’ve been listening to Schoenberg-like music for decades, we just don’t realize it. But we’re surrounded by it, every time we see a film or a television show. I’m not sure that Schoenberg would admit to this as one of his achievements, but there it is. Schoenberg’s music, in a strange kind of way, has indeed become something approaching the music of the people. This is probably not what he intended—this is more Vaughan Williams or Janacek territory—but it’s there as one of his legacies.

Third, even after the “revolutionary” works of the first two decades had been performed—Schoenberg’s String Quartets and Orchestral Suites, Stravinsky’s Firebird and Rite of Spring (although the controversy over the latter is more mythical than real), Debussy and Satie’s piano pieces—most composers, even some of these composers, continued to compose music in a tonal, harmonic style—Sibelius was perhaps the most radical of these, but other composers as well. In a way, this was particularly true of composers who were borrowing heavily from the nationalistic folk tradition—Vaughan Williams, Bartok, Ravel, Janacek. These composers were experimental as well, but still produced symphonies, smaller orchestral pieces and tone poems that were melodic, and had something of a narrative.

This past weekend’s concerts offered such a contrast. On Saturday we were treated to the LPO doing several “nationalistic” pieces, by Respighi, de Falla and, particularly, by Ravel. Ravel’s mother was Basque by birth, and spent her childhood in Madrid, so Ravel carried these influences around with him. All of these works were deeply melodic, with Ravel in particular seeking to capture the colors of Spain through the textures or orchestral sound. Much like Debussy, Ravel was most interested in the shades of sound he could produce from an orchestra, or even a single piano. And these are, at least in contrast to Schoenberg’s String Quartet, what one would have to call “easy on the ear.” All these pieces have remained in the concert repertoire throughout the past century.

The contrast to Sunday’s concert couldn’t have been more striking—Satie’s Socrate, about the death of Socrates, with various dialogs set to music and for soprano voice; several short (six minutes or so) pieces by Stravinsky, ending with Stravinsky’s romp, Renard—about the life and death of a greedy fox. It’s hard to imagine where most of these pieces could even be performed these days. The Satie piece was sung by the multi-talented and vocally-gifted Barbara Hannigan (she conducted the Stravinsky Renard as well) about as well, I imagine, as it could possibly be sung. This is a highly emotive piece, with the lone soprano voice, accompanied by a discreet single piano, managing to capture the pathos of Socrates’s death as it approaches. It’s stunning piece, about 30 minutes in length, with the lyric derived from three separate dialogs. Where would one go to hear this if one wanted to hear this live? It’s not likely to be included in any concert program by any symphony orchestra—it’s a small work, for a smaller venue. Do these venues even exist these days outside of conservatories? Granted, the concert itself was structured as a concert in the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, who commissioned any number of significant pieces, including the Satie.

When much of this music was composed, recitals still took place in private homes. There were patrons, not state funding agencies. And this naturally led to the creation of “smaller” works—I assume partly because you couldn’t fit a full orchestra into someone’s drawing room, but a soprano with a piano, or a chamber orchestra, would fit nicely, along with a smaller audience. So much of the music I’ve heard over the past month has been of this sort—even the Stravinsky Renard, which has a pretty full orchestra and four male soloists, is only 18 minutes long. I don’t imagine I’ll hear a live performance of this again, more’s the pity. We’ve lost something here.

The Stravinsky pieces were great. He’s got rhythm, all right—someone (I forget whom) suggested that Stravinsky was the first composer to raise rhythm to a level comparable to melody, and that sounds about right. Even in his very short pieces, of which we heard several, there’s a pronounced rhythmic element. And in Renard, it’s constant—there are times when the singers are nearly drowned out by the rhythm of the strings and percussion. This is another piece commissioned by the Princesse. The London Sinfonietta did a bang-up job here, pun absolutely intended. Because the other thing that constantly strikes me about Stravinsky, who was apparently a deeply serious person, is the sense of humour that comes through—not just in Renard, which one would have to call a comic opera (albeit a very loud but short one)—but also in his shorter pieces. There were a couple of occasions in the 3 pieces for string quarter when I almost laughed out loud. And Renard is a romp. The libretto, written in Russian by Stravinsky, is based on a folk tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev. The orchestra beats a solid, pulsing rhythm, and the four men sing what sounds like nonsense—each is an animal, a fox, chicken, goat or cat. It’s non-stop—it doesn’t let up for a second. And it’s very Russian sounding, appropriate given the source material. He even uses a dulcimer to make the music sound more Russian. Stravinsky called it a burlesque for singers, and that’s about right. As well as being an absolute delight. Nijinsky did the original choreography, as he often did for Stravinsky.

So we continue to trundle along here. Next weekend—more Ravel and more Stravinsky!

The stamp above is a really boring stamp that I imagine is supposed to honor Stravinsky, and really, since it’s the US, with some of the ugliest stamps in the world, they may feel that this stamp really does this. There were more attractive ones, but I couldn’t resist.