Assignment – Part 2 – Reflective account

Posted on February 9, 2013


Part Two – Reflective review

Open College of the Arts assignment, Music 1, Part Two

Tibor Kovacs, December 2012


Studying the music of the twentieth century has been a great experience, I feel I could spend another year with it. Although some of the pieces that I listened revealed their beauty quite readily on first listening, like the great symphonies and the opera Wozzeck, others required repetitive, active listening and reflection before they became “accessible”, for example, the music of Pendercki and Stockhausen. This century was full of revolutions, new, conflicting views, currents and great reconciliations. Musical composition and the way composers have been thinking about and defined music has undergone several radical transformations.

It seems to me that one of the most important causes of these radical changes was a struggle between opposing forces of composers’ needs for organising principles and for freedom of expression. The years of optimism and confidence that characterised Western societies before the First World War brought about great advances in science, such as the theory of relativity, evolution and psychoanalysis, and a strive towards abstract, free and highly individual expressive forms became obvious in visual arts. This makes, in my view, the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most exciting eras in the development of the Western civilisation. These changes were paralleled in music by the emergence of composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Busoni, Skryabin and others, who distanced themselves from the classical tonal system and liberated the language of music by using unusual rhythmic patterns, tone colours and texture. This gave rise to a fantastic abundance of interesting works and veritable masterpieces that I thoroughly enjoyed listening. Composers who remained more or less faithful to tonality reached new levels of complexity and emotional expressiveness in their music, like the great symphonists of the century including Sibelius, Nielsen and Shostakovich. I was particularly impressed by the music of Shostakovich and his gigantic struggle to keep his music authentic and progressive under enormous political pressure.

The current that I have chosen for my assignment was Schoenberg’s music and the Second Viennese school. It seemed to me extremely stimulating as it sounded so very different from anything I heard before. After a period of free experimentation these composers created a fundamentally new musical system, out of an internal need for coherent organising rules. I admire their courage and rigorous commitment to their guiding principles, which brought about perhaps the most radical process of transformation in the history of music. Then again, it was interesting to see how this system was stretched to the extreme, leading to another revolt against organising principles, in the form of indeterminacy and the many alternative musical currents in the second half of the century. To turn the coin again, towards the end of the century composers tried to bring order to chaos by directing their attention towards extreme simplicity and clarity (Minimalism) or extreme complexity (New Complexity).

Several of the great representatives of this varied musical heritage invited for more exploration, and I have spent significant time learning about the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, the Second Viennese School, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Nielsen, John Cage and Elliot Carter. It was fascinating to feel the pulsation generated by the opposing forces that shaped twentieth-century music.  I have also had the opportunity to attend some of the live performances of contemporary music, including compositions of Brian Ferneyhough and Thea Musgrave. Trying to cover music that was new to me, I have concentrated less on currents I was previously familiar with, such as blues and jazz as well as minimalist music, although they have been organic parts of the century’s musical thesaurus.

Posted in: Part 2