You Gotta Know These Early-20th-Century European Composers
- Béla Bartók (1881–1945) is, after Franz Liszt, the most important composer from Hungary. Among Bartók’s best-known works is his Concerto for Orchestra (1944). Unlike what its title might suggest, the work does not feature a single soloist; rather, Bartók chose the name because of his virtuosic treatment of every orchestral family. Notable sections of the piece include its second movement, a “Game of Pairs.“ Bartók wrote six string quartets, which are arguably the most influential works in that genre after Beethoven’s. Bartók’s quartets contain many examples of his “night music,“ music that is intended to evoke quiet, moonlit natural scenes. Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, based on a folk tale, follows a new bride as she opens a series of doors. In addition to his work as a composer, Bartók was a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology, the study of folk music, and was among the first to use a phonograph to record folk music as performed by rural peoples.
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918) was a French composer who developed a modernist style of composition as a reaction against the work of Richard Wagner. Debussy is often described as an Impressionist composer, though he despised being labeled as such. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) is an orchestral work that begins with a solo flute playing a descending and ascending partial chromatic scale; the work was later choreographed as a solo ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky. Debussy’s work often used non-traditional scales and harmonic progression—his two books of Preludes for solo piano include “Voiles“ (“Sails“), which utilizes the whole-tone scale; and “The Engulfed Cathedral,“ a musical depiction of the legend of Ys that features chords moving up and down in parallel planing, as opposed to traditional progression. Debussy’s only opera was 1902’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck; rather than use a prepared libretto, Debussy set the text of the play as Maeterlinck originally wrote it.
- Paul Hindemith (1895–1965) was a German composer who moved to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. Hindemith’s music is often cited as an early example of new tonality—music that has a clear tonic pitch, but which does not follow traditional rules of harmony. Among Hindemith’s best-known works is his opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter), based on the life of the 16th-century artist Matthias Grünewald, who created the Isenheim Altarpiece. Much of Hindemith’s music fit into his ideal of Gebrauchsmusik, or “music for use“—works written for a specific purpose, time, or ensemble. During Hindemith’s time in America, he taught at Yale University, where his students included many of the most notable American composers of the later 20th century; his pedagogical texts are still used in the teaching of music today. Hindemith was a virtuoso violist, and premiered the solo part in his viola concerto Der Schwanendreher.
- Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) is often cited as the most important symphonist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During his life, Mahler’s composing time was very limited—he was a renowned conductor, leading at various times the Vienna State Opera, as well as the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Mahler’s best known works are his nine completed symphonies; many of his early symphonies incorporate his settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. His Fifth Symphony (1902) includes an oft-excerpted Adagietto for strings and harp generally considered a love song for his wife, Alma. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, whose enormous performing forces led it to being nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand,“ sets both the hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus“ and the concluding section of Goethe’s Faust. Mahler’s life was marked by tragedy, including the death of his daughter Maria and his discovery he had a heart defect that would eventually kill him; his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a vocal symphony that sets translated Chinese poetry, was a major expression of his despair.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was a Russian composer who moved to the United States following the Russian Revolution. Rachmaninoff, in addition to being a composer, was a virtuoso pianist, renowned for his massive hands that allowed him to play extremely wide chords. Rachmaninoff suffered a major setback early in his career when his First Symphony was criticized by Russian composer Cesar Cui as being a product of a “conservatory in Hell;“ Rachmaninoff subsequently fell into a deep depression and did not write for nearly three years, until intense hypnotherapy helped him overcome his demons and write his Second Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff wrote a total of four piano concertos, which have become some of the most popular and oft-performed works in the entire genre. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a concerto-like work for piano and orchestra, consists of a set of 24 variations on the 24th and final of composer Niccolò Paganini’s caprices for solo violin.
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) was a French composer who, along with Debussy, was commonly described as Impressionist; like Debussy, he hated being labeled as such. Ravel’s best-known work is Bolero (1928), an orchestral work based on a single repeating melody over a snare drum ostinato (a constantly-repeated rhythm), to which is gradually added more and more of the orchestra; Ravel conceived the work as an attempt to write “one very long, gradual crescendo.“ Ravel—like nearly all Europeans—was deeply affected by World War I; his 1917 piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin modernizes the form of a Baroque dance suite, and contains six movements that each memorialize a friend who died in the war. Ravel was a master of orchestration; his orchestral version of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is still the version most commonly performed today.
- Erik Satie (1866–1925) was a modernist French composer whose work is often cited as an early type of minimalism. His Gymnopédies, for solo piano, employ alternating chords that rarely change underneath a melody that floats above the repetitive harmony. Satie’s Gnossiennes—also for solo piano—were written without bar lines, implying a freedom from any regular sense of meter. Due to a note Satie left on his short keyboard fragment “Vexations”, the common modern performance practice is to repeat the fragment 840 times. Satie’s longer works include the ballet Parade, based on a scenario conceived by Jean Cocteau about a preview of a circus performance; the work also included a backdrop and cubist costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Satie was a major influence on a young group of modernist French composers known as Les Six, who included Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud.
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was an Austrian composer instrumental in many of the most important developments in post-tonal music. Around 1910, Schoenberg began writing music that was atonal, meaning that it had no traditional tonic pitch. His 1912 work Pierrot lunaire utilized the technique of sprechstimme, a type of half-sung, half-spoken recitation on approximate pitch. In the early 1920s Scoenberg developed the twelve-tone method of composition, a technique in which each of the twelve chromatic pitches is ordered in a twelve-tone row, and each pitch is used before one is repeated; his first fully twelve-tone work was his Suite for Piano, opus 25, which he finished in 1923. The use of musical elements (including pitch) in a predetermined order would eventually become known as serialism. In addition to composing, Schoenberg was also an influential teacher: he and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern are together known as the Second Viennese School.
- Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) was a Finnish composer who often drew upon his homeland for inspiration. Sibelius’s best-known work is Finlandia, an intensely patriotic work written during Finland’s occupation by Russia, and which had to be presented under alternate titles due to censorship; the work’s final section, “Finland Awakes,“ is a hymn-like tune that has been adapted into many songs. Sibelius further drew on his homeland for his Lemminkäinen Suite, which is based on the Finnish folk epic the Kalevala; the suite’s movement “The Swan of Tuonela” is often performed as an excerpt. Sibelius was a prolific symphonist, writing seven works in the genre; his Seventh Symphony, in C major, is innovatively in only a single movement. Sibelius stopped composing during the last three decades of his life; he reportedly burned many of his works, including a draft of an Eighth Symphony that he never finished.
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was a Russian composer and one of the most towering figures in 20th-century music. Stravinsky’s output is generally divided into three main periods: his Russian period, his neoclassical period, and his serial period. Stravinsky was first catapulted to fame via three Russian period ballets he wrote for the Ballets Russe, headed by Serge Diaghilev, in the 1910s: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913), the latter of which caused a riot at its premiere due to the shocking modernistic aspects of the production. His neoclassical period (which lasted from about 1920 into the early 1950s) was sparked in part by his work on Pulcinella, a ballet (also commissioned by Diaghilev) based on older music (incorrectly) attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi. Stravinsky’s other major neoclassical works include his Symphony of Psalms and his “Dumbarton Oaks“ chamber concerto. In the 1950s, Stravinsky turned to serialism, though he used it less rigorously than many other composers. His major serial works include Agon, a plotless 1957 ballet choreographed by George Balanchine.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.