It is difficult to perceive the passage of Time. I don’t mean the days, the months or the years of a life, measurable with a watch or a calendar, not even the centuries, studied as an historical subject, but the thousands and the millions of years, above all the ones to come, if and how many. However, I do not wish to speak about Eternity but of human life in Time. Eternity is a philosophical concept or Faith; one either believes or one doesn’t. Instead the passage of Time, seen as a string of events that have taken place, is comprehensible to most people but it is often confusing in perspective because the interest for the particular makes one lose sight of a wider space of Time. One is no longer able to view the historical evolution in a wider sense. The year becomes more important than the decade, the decade more important than the century and so forth. The human mind seldom stands up to a distant perspective.
Bach died more than 250 years ago, but for some he is still alive. If one thinks of Beethoven and Brahms in succession, even they seem just as distant and just as alive. For us these three successions that occur at a distance of approximately 70 years from one another mean little and make less of an impression than the recent death of a dear friend.
It is as though Time, under certain aspects, didn’t exist. It is only the passage of personal experiences that one tries to measure, classify, describe or explain in an exasperated search for self-assertion. One tries to measure oneself during the course of life so as to create illusions of immortality. Here one finds the greatest difficulty due to the lack of personal experiences. Even though it is extremely difficult, it is however easier to understand the passage of time of one’s own life than that of a previous or subsequent lives. Man will always have blinkers. Only few elected persons are without but no individual will ever have an all-embracing vision.
Man is born ignorant and has to learn everything about life right up to his death. He will make the same mistakes that his ancestors made; he will love and hate like them, feel atavic emotions and sensations as new and personal. This cycle repeats itself continuously and often the individual, even having understood it through experience, forgets it because human memory seldom remembers distant perspectives other than those of its own life.
The difficulty of having a balanced perspective of the passage of Time in the 20th century is greater than at other historical periods because, whilst the average life of Man has lengthened, the technological changes are more rapid and consequently even “fashions” or stylistic periods follow one another in rapid succession. In fact, Man today finds it more difficult to measure the passage of this multitude of different and sudden moments of Time in the space of his life. The same thing happens in the musical field.
Though one cannot identify a precise moment to determine the passage from the Baroque period (1650-1750 circa) to the Classical one (1720-1820 circa) and from the Classical to the Romantic (1820-1920 circa), one can vaguely say that each period lasts approximately a century. In the 20th century stylistic periods at first have an overall duration of approximately 30-40 years, i.e. Impressionism (1890-1930 circa), Neo-Classicism (1917-1952 circa), but then they follow one another more frequently with different and inferior overall durations, (Expressionism and Dodecaphony). From 1950 onwards Serialism itself is made up of periods in continuous evolution that overlap one another and it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish their durations. Electronic Music and Aleatoric Music follow one another rapidly during the early 1950’s. The same can be said with the advent of New Simplicity, Minimalism, Ethnic Music, music with Sound Effects, Neo-Tonality, New Age Music etc. from the early 1970’s onwards. At the present time one can notice that every few years styles change and that many of these intermingle with one another, though one can approximately subdivide the music between that of Tonal or Atonal origin.
If, for example, one examines in retrospective “masterpieces” written in the space of 5 or 10 years, one has a “human” vision, that is more restricted, but if we examine “masterpieces” written in the space of 50 or 70 years or even preferably 100 years, one can evaluate far better the “historic” evolution. With the word “masterpiece” the present essay does not mean to express an “artistic” judgement but exclusively an “historical” one.
It is extraordinary to notice that during the period 1893 to 1898 the following extremely diverse masterpieces were born:
|1893||Tchaikowsky: Symphony N. 6 “Patetique”
Dvorak: Symphony N. 5 “New World”
Debussy: L’Après-midi d’un Faune
Mahler: Symphony N. 2
|1895||Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel|
Bruckner: Symphony N. 9
Puccini: La Bohème
Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
Mahler: Symphony N. 3
|1897||Dukas: L’Apprenti Sorcier|
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Surely, the complex of the harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and timbric innovations of Debussy can be understood better now that more than 100 years have passed. We clearly perceive that “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” was the first “modern” composition that influenced all the music that came in the following century.
Consequently, during the period 1899 to 1909 Debussy seems less “innovative” than Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Sibelius: Symphony N. 1
Ravel: Pavane pour une Enfante Défunte
Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht
Puccini: La Tosca
Mahler: Symphony N. 4
Sibelius: Symphony N. 2
Rachmaninoff: Concerto for Piano N. 2
Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Mahler: Symphony N. 5
Ravel: Jeux d’Eau
Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Mahler: Sinfonia N° 6
Debussy: La Mer
Lehar: Die Lustige Witwe
Sibelius: Pelléas et Mélisande
Mahler: Symphony N. 7
Mahler: Symphony N. 8
Schoenberg: Kammersymphonie Op. 9
Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnole
Ives: Central Park in the Dark
Webern: Passacaglia fur Orchester
Berg: Sonate fur Klavier
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Skrjabin: Poeme de l’Extase
Schoenberg: Quartet N. 10
Mahler: Symphony N. 9
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony N. 1
Schoenberg: Funf Stucke fur Orchester
Webern: Sechs Stucke fur Orchester Op. 6
The works of the “School of Vienna” are now comprehensible to most musicians, but they were not at the time. Only with study and exercise in listening did they become so. Notwithstanding this, many people find their music still incomprehensible or maybe comprehensible but not totally acceptable. For many the “barrier” has been and remains Atonality, not entirely present in the other masterpieces listed here and thus not assimilated as a language.
However, without “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” (and the consequent masterpieces influenced by it) the “Sacre du Printemps” wouldn’t have existed, neither the stylistic development of Schoenberg, Berg and, above all, Webern.
|1910||Strawinsky: L’Oiseau de Feu
Skrjabin: Prometheus ou Le Poème de Feu
Mahler: Symphony N. 10
Ravel: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales
Ravel: Daphnis e Chloe
Gliere: Symphony N° 3 Op.42
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Ives: The Unanswered Question
Ives: Symphony N. 3
Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
|1913||Strawinsky: Sacre du Printemps
Schoenberg: Der Gluckische Hand
Webern: Funf Stucke fur Orchester Op. 10
Notwithstanding every masterpiece mentioned above has striking artistic originality, Ives, Schoenberg, Strawinsky and Webern capture the greatest attention for their “innovations” during the period 1910 to 1913. No other compositions can any longer appear “shocking”, not even the first two Twelve-Tone works Op. 23 and Op. 25 for piano by Schoenberg. If one compares Schoenberg’s atonal works to his Dodecaphonic ones, they appear less diverse from each other than to the Sacre du Printemps, but also to the “Sechs Stucke fur Orchester Op. 6” and the “Funf Stucke fur Orchester Op. 10” by Webern. In fact many works of Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone period seem more “tonal” than those of the successive Atonal period. Therefore Schoenberg’s original application of Atonality and successively of Dodecaphony (but also Berg’s) is less innovative to the ear than that of Webern, where there is harmonic, melodic and rhythmic “innovation” but above all timbric and “spatial”, which is more radical and similar to the advent of Debussy’s “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” in 1894. The same can obviously be said about Strawinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Thus, it is not the abstract invention of a musical technique that allows the creation of a “masterpiece” but its application so that it results alive and clear to the ear. If so it means that the process of communication has taken place. This could not have been easily understood in those times due to the lack of comparison with other “masterpieces”. One understands this best after a few decades.
An interesting “historical” period is that between 1926 and 1931. It is incredible to notice that Puccini was still writing an opera like “Turandot” only one year before Varese’s “Arcana” and that Ravel wrote his “Concerto in G” three years after Schoenberg’s “Variation’s for Orchestra Op. 31”. This kind of observation is applicable to “masterpieces” in the space of the 20th century.
|1926||Kodaly: Hary Janos
Janacek: Glagolitic Mass
Sciostakovic: Symphony N. 1
Krenek: Jonny Spielt Auf
|1928||Gershwin: An American in Paris
Strawinsky: Apollon Musagète
Schoenberg: Variationen fur Orchester Op. 31
Berg: Lyrische Suite
Webern: Symphonie Op. 21
Weill: Die Dreigroschenoper
|1929||Respighi: Feste Romane|
|1930||Strawinsky: Symphonie des Psaumes
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane
Roussel: Symphony N. 3
Sciostakovic: The Nose
|1931||Ravel: Concerto in G
Ravel: Concerto in D (left hand)
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast
For over a century multiple musical styles and techniques have coexisted and prove that “Masterpieces” have been created independently of stylistic choices imposed by passing “fashions”. Every real composer, urged by his own natural artistic vitality, has continued to compose according to his inclinations and not under pressure from any of the artistic, political and social “cleansing”, which, in the long run, has never had any effect. Shostakovich may be considered a successful compromise, but not always. It was pointless to banish Rachmaninov from Russia because he was ” bourgeois” in 1931 and just as pointless to banish Beethoven and Schubert from China because they were considered “capitalists” in 1974. Just as pointless is that exasperated imposition of “Radicalism” at all costs on the part of composers, historians and musicologists of the last decades and pointless are the defences of their equivalent “Reactionaries” at the opposite extreme.
In a few thousand years or more, will it matter that Bach lived approximately a hundred years before Beethoven? If the Earth still exists and Humanity with it, maybe all that will be remembered is that in the second half of the second millennium A.D. (will Humanity still record time according to Christian faith?) there were composers who wrote Music using mainly a language called Tonality and that, for example, the above two composers used Tonality in a different style from one another. Will it ever matter that Bach came before Beethoven?
Time is only Relative and Irrelevant.
Time makes a mock of us all and, paraphrasing Molière, one can say that Time has nothing to do with artistic values.