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Into the Twentieth Century (AoS E)

Video Introduction to early 20th Century music

Set work notes: Debussy ‘Nuages’ Revision Notes (Debussy Nuages Revision Video) / Poulenc Revision Notes

Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel)

Impressionism is a term borrowed from a style of French painting at the end of the 19th century. This style aimed not at exact representation (as in a photograph) but in capturing an impression of a scene, particularly through the subtle interplay of colours and light. It is characterized by vague, blurred outlines, and often captures a particular mood or atmosphere. Neither Debussy nor Ravel liked the term but there is no doubt that there are some similarities between the ambiguous harmonies and blurred structures of this music and impressionist painting.

Listen out for: colourful and often lush instrumentation, rich harmonies with added notes, exotic harmonies such as those based on whole-tone scales, traditional harmony, rhythm and melody is often quite blurred by these features

  • Core Wider Listening 1: Ravel String Quartet (1903), second movement (score / revision notes)
  • Core Wider Listening 2: Debussy Preludes Book 1 (1909), ‘Voiles’

Expressionism and Serialism (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg)

Video Introduction to Serialism

[Expressionism is] a term applied to prominent artistic trends before, during and after World War I, especially in the visual arts and literature in Austria and Germany. By analogy it may apply to music of that time, or more generally to any music, in which an extravagant and apparently chaotic surface conveys turbulence in the composer’s psyche.

(New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

“One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! … Not all those acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive.’

(Schoenberg in a letter to Kandinsky).

Schoenberg’s intense and disturbing monodrama Ewartung (1909) is the classic of Expressionism. This anguished piece, which depicts a woman becoming increasingly crazed as she searches for her lover in a forest, was written in the white heat of instinctive creativity, taking only three weeks to write.

Expressionism of this extreme kind was a relatively brief phase. In the 1920s Schoenberg a method of composing atonal music from transformations of an ordered series of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This ‘twelve-tone’ or serial technique provided a way of generating pitch material for composers who wanted to avoid the traditional language of tonality.

Schoenberg’s two most famous pupils (the three together are sometimes called the ‘Second Viennese School’, the first being Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) followed him in this innovation. In practice it is hard to distinguish between Serialism and Expressionism when confronted with a brief extract that you haven’t heard before, so these two styles are grouped together for listening purposes.

The basics of how the pitches are generated is as follows:

  • The composer creates the prime by writing out all twelve notes of the chromatic scales used just once in an order of their choice. This original form of the row can, like all of the following, be transposed to start on any note of the chromatic scale.
  • The retrograde is the backwards for m of the row, which is constructed by starting at the end of the prime and working back to the beginning. Again, there are eleven transpositions, making twelve retrogrades in total.
  • The inversion is the mirror form of the row. If the prime goes up a semitone, for example, its inversion will go down a semitone.  The retrograde inversion is the mirror form of the row but backwards

Of Schoenberg’s pupils, Webern applied the serial technique to his compositions particularly strictly and severely whereas Berg was much looser in his application and tends to write more traditional-sounding music.

Listen out for: high levels of dissonance, chromaticism and irregularity in general. This music often sounds deliberately anti-traditional.

  • Core Wider Listening 1: Anton Webern, Quartet Op. 22 (1930) , first movement
  • Core Wider Listening 2: Alban Berg Wozzeck (1922), Act I scenes 3 & 4

Neo-Classicism (Poulenc, Stravinsky and Prokofiev)

The term Neo-Classical in music history has two overlapping meanings:

1) a trend in the 1920s to write simpler, clearer and more economical music in reaction to maximalism of various kinds including Expressionism, Serialism and PostRomanticism

2) twentieth century composers that take features of an older style of music and present them in a more contemporary language and context (this is typically be aspects of structure, genre, melody and/or harmony)

Neo-Classical traits can be identified in many composers but they arguably dominate in Poulenc, middle-period Stravinsky and some (but not all) Prokofiev, the three composers studied in this AoS.

Listen out for: traditional sounding rhythms, melodies, harmonies etc. but given a twentieth century twist (often with more complex and dissonant harmonies)

Core Wider Listening 1: Poulenc, Sonata for Trumpet, Horn and Trombone (1922), first movement

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