You Gotta Know These 20th-Century Composers
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). He studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and completed two grand ballets for Sergei Diaghilev: The Firebird and Petrushka. His Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring (1913), however, is what inaugurated music’s Modern era. A pagan story featuring polytonal music, The Rite of Spring shocked the audience so much that riots ensued, leading a stunned Stravinsky to pursue rational, "neoclassical" music, such as his Symphony of Psalms. In 1940 he moved to Hollywood, where he composed his one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, with libretto by W. H. Auden. Late in life, he adopted the serialist, twelve-tone style of Anton Webern, producing the abstract ballet Agon (1957).
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). This Austrian pioneered dodecaphony, or the twelve-tone system, which treated all parts of the chromatic scale equally. Schoenberg’s early influences were Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, as evident in his Transfigured Night (1900) for strings. Yet by 1912, with the Sprechstimme (halfway between singing and speaking) piece Pierrot lunaire, he broke from Romanticism and developed expressionist pieces free from key or tone. His students, especially Alban Berg and Anton Webern, further elaborated on his theories. Fleeing Nazi persecution in 1933, he moved from Berlin to Los Angeles, where he completed A Survivor from Warsaw. The first two acts of his unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, are still frequently performed.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). Reviver of the opera in the U.K., most notably with Peter Grimes (1945), the story of a fisherman who kills two of his apprentices. Britten broke through with Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), a tribute to his composition teacher, and wrote incidental music for works by his friend W. H. Auden. With his companion, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and wrote operas such as Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice. Britten’s non-operatic works include The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946) and War Requiem (1961), based on the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed during World War I.
- Aaron Copland “COPE”-lund (1900–1990). At first a modernist, he was the first American student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1920s, where he finished his Organ Symphony and Music for the Theater. By the 1930s, Copland turned to simple themes, especially the American West: El Salón Mexico was followed by the ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring (1944), the last containing the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Copland’s Third Symphony contained his Fanfare for the Common Man, while Lincoln Portrait featured spoken portions of Abraham Lincoln’s writings. Copland wrote several educational books, beginning with 1939’s What to Listen For in Music.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). He wrote seven symphonies, of which the First (“Classical,” 1917) is the most notable. While in Chicago, he premiered the opera The Love for Three Oranges, based on Italian commedia dell’arte. Prokofiev moved to Paris in 1922, where he composed works for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, including The Prodigal Son. In 1936 he returned to the USSR, where he completed the popular children’s work Peter and the Wolf and the score for the film Alexander Nevsky. When Stalin denounced Prokofiev as “decadent,” the composer was forced to write obsequious tributes to the premier. Prokofiev survived Stalin, but only by a few hours; both died on March 5, 1953.
- Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975). His work was emblematic of both the Soviet regime and his attempts to survive under its oppression. Shostakovich’s operas, such as The Nose (1928) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, were well received at first—until Joseph Stalin severely criticized his work in Pravda in 1936. Fearful for his security, Shostakovich wrote several conciliatory pieces (Fifth, Seventh/Leningrad, and Twelfth Symphonies) in order to get out of trouble. He made enemies, however, with his Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi Yar”). Based on the Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem, Babi Yar condemned anti-Semitism in both Nazi Germany and the USSR.
- Béla Bartók (1881–1945). A young girl singing a folk tune to her son in 1904 inspired Bartók to roam the Hungarian countryside with Zoltan Kodály, collecting peasant tunes. This influence permeated his music, including the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) and the ballets The Wooden Prince (1916) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919). A virtuoso pianist and an innovative composer, Bartók refused to teach composition, contributing to financial problems, especially after he fled Nazi-allied Hungary for the U.S. in 1940. Bartók wrote many prominent instrumental pieces; best known are six string quartets, the educational piano piece Mikrokosmos, and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936).
- Charles Ives (1874–1954). He learned experimentation from his father George, a local Connecticut businessman and bandleader. Ives studied music at Yale but found insurance sales more lucrative; his firm of Ives and Myrick was the largest in New York during the 1910s. Privately, Ives composed great modern works, including the Second Piano (Concord) Sonata (with movements named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau); and Three Places in New England (1914). His Third Symphony won Ives a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, while his song “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” was based on a Vachel Lindsay poem. Poor health ended both his insurance and music careers by 1930.
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). His Basque mother gave him an affinity for Spanish themes, as evident in “Rapsodie espagnole” and his most popular piece, “Bolero” (1928). Ravel produced Pavane for a Dead Princess while a student of Gabriel Fauré, but was frustrated when the French Conservatory overlooked him for the Prix de Rome four times. He completed the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912) for Sergei Diaghilev, and followed it with Mother Goose and La Valse. He also re-orchestrated Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. His health declined after a 1932 taxi accident; unsuccessful brain surgery ended his life.
- George Gershwin (1898–1937). Known at first for producing popular songs and musicals with his older brother Ira, Gershwin successfully melded jazz and popular music with classical forms, most famously the Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925), and the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), based on a story by DuBose Heyward. Gershwin’s first major hit was 1919’s “Swanee,” sung by Al Jolson, and his 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38.
- John Cage (1912–1992). An American student of Arnold Schoenberg, Cage took avant-garde to a new level, and may be considered a Dada composer because he believed in aleatory, or “chance” music. His Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) used twelve radios tuned to different stations; the composition depended on what was on the radio at that time. The following year’s 4′33″ required a pianist to sit at the piano for that length of time and then close it; audience noise and silence created the music. Cage also invented the prepared piano, in which screws, wood, rubber bands, and other items are attached to piano strings in order to create a percussion sound.
- Ralph rayf Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). Best known for reviving the Tudor style and folk traditions in English music, as exemplified in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1909). Vaughan Williams completed nine symphonies, the foremost his Second (London) in 1914; other principal symphonies included the First (Sea), Third (Pastoral) and Seventh (Sinfonia Antarctica). His orchestral work The Lark Ascending was based on a George Meredith poem, while Sir John in Love (1924) was a Shakespearean opera that featured the “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Hugh the Drover and The Pilgrim’s Progress are other major Vaughan Williams operas.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). A highly skilled pianist and conductor, Rachmaninoff twice turned down conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He failed to reap the monetary benefits of his early pieces (notably the C-Sharp Minor Prelude of 1892), because he sold them cheaply to a publisher. Treated by hypnosis in 1901, Rachmaninoff began a productive period with his Second Piano Concerto and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909). He moved to the U.S. in 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution. There his output decreased, though he did complete the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.