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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

Complete History of Music: Lesson 9

Hello friends and welcome back to the penultimate lesson of this whirlwind tour of Western music. I left you thinking about the polymaths Richard Wagner and listening to an extract from the last opera he conducted in his Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany.  In fact, many of the composers we've looked at were German... or French.  The past lessons have also taken us to Vienna and London and we've looked at how Italian musical tradition dominated, in particular, the writing of opera.  But what about outlier countries?  Countries such as Russia, or Czechoslavakia?  Of course the whole notion of country, or nation was coalescing during the centuries leading to the performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882.  The world had seen the rise and fall of Empires but nationhood was a hotly debated concept. Interestingly, the way in which national interests influenced musical thought actually opened doors to innovation .  Take the case of Mikhail Glinka, considered the father of Russian classical music.  (What about Tchaikovsky, I hear you thinking!  Tchaikovsky, Glinka's contemporary, the iconic Russian composer was certainly the father of Classical music in Russia but not of Russian classical music... read on). 

How did the music of Mikhail Glinka set off a trend towards nationalism in Russian music?

Glinka, although trained in the Italian tradition, was moved by memories of the folk music of his childhood.  We have to think back to a time, pre Youtube and Spotify, pre LPs, CDs and mp3s when music was something you did, something you participated in.  Communities had their own repertoire of songs and dances that everyone knew and shared.  And these songs and dances were influenced by language and custom.  You can imagine that a language which chooses to accentuate the first syllable of every word (Hungarian) will generate a different type of song than one (French) that chooses to accentuate the last.  The very shape and cadence of the language will dictate rhythms, patterns, even sonorities.  So you can see that folksong might offer some novel takes on the accepted forms or patterns, the rhythms and even the scales of traditional Western music.

And that's exactly what happened.  Glinka took a big risk in incorporating into his two operas, 'A Life of the Tzar' and 'Ruslan and Ludmila', many folk elements.  Russia, since the late 18th c, venerated all things European, particularly French.  In fact, the upper class spoke French to one another rather than Russian.  Glinka had made his obligatory European tour as a young man, had met Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Liszt amongst others and studied composition in Milan.  But on returning to Russia in 1834, he came to see that what really inspired him was his own heritage and in particular the songs of the peasant choirs of his childhood.  These choirs employed a technique called podgoloschnaya which used improvised dissonant harmonies below the melody; from our previous lessons you might be able to imagine the disturbing quality this would generate, but here is a taste of what Glinka might have been remembering:

You may have been aware that in these folksongs the same section of music was repeated several times as opposed to one section of music developing and leading to another.  Interestingly, that limitation in the structure of folksong stimulated Glinka and his successors to find other ways to create variety; the use of orchestral colour.  Again as the technology of instruments improved, composers were stimulated to capitalise on their unique sound qualities giving the orchestral repertoire a vibrancy and magic that hadn't been seen before - but more of that later.

Here is the famous overture from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila, the story of the abduction of Princess Ludmila by an evil wizard and the attempted rescue by the knight Ruslan, from a poem by the great 19th c Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.  (It is notoriously difficult for the double bass and the camera in this video obligingly gives us a view of the flying fingers of one of the bassists).

Perhaps you noticed at the end (3:56) the punchy descending scales?  Except they don't sound like normal scales, do they?  They aren't.  They are called whole tone scales because they are comprised of  of 6 whole tones rather than the usual scale with its mixture of 8 whole tones and half or semitones (see Lesson 1!)  This whole tone scale, inspired by folk music, became a new and important tool for composers in the 20th c but again, more of that later.

Who were The Five and what did they contribute?

Glinka's daring spawned a new generation of composers in Russia  who came to be called The Five: Mily Balakirev who was the guiding light, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. These 5 men collaborated in St Petersburg between 1856 and 1870 in a shared project of developing a Russian musical language.

You'll already know or know of, some of their work:  Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade or Borodin's Prince Igor. What is astonishing is that they were all self-taught amateurs and to that extent were open to looking outside the box. Like Glinka they experimented with forms based on folksong and with the whole tone scale. They explored 'Orientalism' and used material and techniques of music from the Middle East and Asia (notably the pentatonic scale, 5 notes which have a Chinese flavour). And, like Glinka,they exploited the different timbres of orchestral instruments to weave veritable magic.  Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade is a case in point.  Based on an Eastern theme - the tale of One Thousand and One Nights -  the Sultan and Scheherazade herself are characterised by their own leitmotifs (see Lesson 8) which are reworked in countless ways. 

Here are 4 movements that conclude Scheherazade:

You will probably have recognised the foreboding Sultan theme and the windy and sinuous Scheherazade theme which dips around a chromatic scale. Scale overload alert!  You probably are getting quite irritated with these unusual scales but here is a very short video in which you can hear the scales I've been mentioning:

What about musical nationalism in other countries?

This kind of searching for a sense of place in music which Glinka and The Five were engage in also cropped up in other 'outlier' countries. Bedřich Smetana, Antonin Dvořák and later, Leoš Janáček tried to, and succeeded in evoking the flavour of their beloved Czechoslavakia through their music, while Enrique Granados, Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla wove the characteristics of Spanish folk music into their work. Although you may have heard some of this music in the past, you perhaps may not have realised how much weight and influence these composers had in countries that were trying to establish an identity.  Smetana is considered the father of Czech music and his set of 6 symphonic poems (see Lesson 8), Má vlast or 'My Homeland', evokes the history, the countryside and the legends of his native Bohemia. It was written in the late 1880's, a good 40 years before Czechoslovakia achieved independence. You will probably recognise Vltava or 'The Moldau', one of the tone poems in the cycle:

Listen to the wonderful colours that Smetana creates with the initial winding flute theme and then the searing main theme in the violins which would make any reluctant nationalist love his country!

Somewhat later in Spain the evocative Moorish intervals and ornaments (in music an ornament or decoration is a quick note or notes that play around a main note in the melody) that were part of the native flamenco style, found their way into so-called Art Music.  In fact, in 1918, two iconic Spanish artists, the writer Federico García Lorca and the composer Manuel de Falla, collaborated to create the Concurso de Cante Jondo which literally sang the praises of Flamenco. Four years earlier at the beginning of the war Falla wrote his Siete canciones populares españolas, 7 popular songs, each telling a tale of love from a different canton of Spain. Here is the wonderful Teresa Berganza to beguile you with them.  Can you hear the ornamentation I mentioned?

This is our penultimate lesson.  In next week's final lesson we will be talking about 20th century composers who completely broke 'the rules' of the music of previous centuries.  But I cannot end this lesson without telling you about three composers born in the latter part of the 19th c. whose thought and music have added so much, not just to musical innovation but to our pleasure and understanding of the human condition.  These are Béla Bartók in Hungary and Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France. All three might be described as having a predilection which became the focal point of their work.

How did Béla Bartok research and use folk music?

The story goes that Bartók developed a fascination with Magyar folk music after hearing a young nanny sing to her charge. But he was also inspired and encouraged by his colleague, Zoltán Kodály to embark on a thorough investigation of this music. Together they scoured the countryside and recorded more than 20,000 folk melodies, discovering in the process that rather than gypsy music, this Magyar peasant music shared traits with the music of Central Asia. Given the exhaustive detail of his research, Bartók could be said to be the first ethnomusicaligist.  But in his hands the countless folk songs and dances that he recorded were transmuted into the most original and stirring art music.  You might be familiar with the well-known Romanian dances here played in such a captivating way by Janine Jansen:

However in music such as his 6 Bulgarian Dances at the end of the 6 Books of Mikrokosmos (6 beautifully and brilliantly graduated books of pieces that he wrote to teach his son Peter to play the piano) the original songs become something quite other.  Here is Bartok himself playing them:

And back to Paris where things were changing...

Meanwhile in the hotbed of creativity that was Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, two musical giants were rethinking the meaning of music.  Though an ardent nationalist, for Claude Debussy the innovations of musical nationalism became fodder not to glorify his own country but to open its doors.  At the World Fair of 1889 held in Paris, Debussy first heard Javanese Gamelan music as well as the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and was drawn to the new textures, rhythms and tonalities they used. (Interestingly, it was Debussy's fascination with these new musical ideas that was fed back to Bartók after his friend Kodály, visited Paris in 1907. What goes around, comes around?)

Debussy, however employed these new musical ideas in the service of something quite novel: an evocation of the ineffable.  His two books of Piano Preludes for instance contain titles (well not strictly titles as the descriptive heading actually always comes at the end) such as Voiles and Les Sons et les parfumes tournent  dans l'air du soir from a poem of Baudelaire.

Here are both these preludes:

Imagine the audacity of trying to create the impression of gauze or perfume through music. I wonder if you think he succeeded? By the way, I use the word 'impression' advisedly as it became attached to Debussy's style to his horror. He said:

“I am trying to do 'something different'...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics.”

Ravel the brilliant orchestrator...

Meanwhile Debussy's colleague and, at times, rival was motivated by entirely different obsessions.  Here, 'obsession' is a rather good word as Maurice Ravel was nothing if not obsessive.  I think today we might say he suffered from OCD.  He was fascinated by the repetitive sounds of the new technologies and factories and by mechanical toys.  His well-known Boléro, of course uses that obsession to good effect.  But another aspect of Ravel's work which you might not have thought about is his fascination with the colours of orchestral instruments.  He orchestrated  several of the works he wrote for piano creating something new and brilliant in each version.  Here is the wonderful Minuet from his Le Tombeau de Couperin (a homage not so much to the Baroque composer Couperin as to Ravel's friends who had died in WW1) in both the piano and orchestral version. Which do you prefer and were you surprised by the instruments Ravel chose in the orchestral version?

Whew, that was a lot of information to take in. I hope you are not too overwhelmed and have enjoyed listening to the music. Next week we'll be talking about some rather strange musical techniques. I look forward to seeing you then!

Musical Terms: Whole tone scale

Pentatonic scale

Chromatic scale



Composers Mentioned:

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)

César Cui (1835-1918)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Enrique Granados (1867-1916)

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

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