This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is rolling back the clock, reelin’ in the years, and turning back time. We’re looking at composers borrowing older styles of music in a show we’re calling “Back In Time.”
Check out our historical playlist:
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Elijah – Felix Mendelssohn was already famous around Europe when he made the bold decision to revive the music of the past. When he was 20 years old, he conducted the 100-year-old work the St. Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. This event prompted a 19th-century revival of the Baroque master all over Europe. Mendelssohn pored over the cantatas and passions of Bach, as well as the oratorios by Handel, and decided to write one of his own. Like the oratorios of Bach and Handel, Mendelssohn went to biblical sources. His first oratorio was St. Paul, based on the Acts of the Apostles, and his second was Elijah, based on the Old Testament prophet. Mendelssohn wrote both English and German versions of the oratorio, and like Handel’s Messiah, the work premiered in the UK in English. It was a resounding success, cementing Mendelssohn's legacy as the reviver of past styles.
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Pulcinella – The 1920 ballet Pulcinella was inspired by two earlier 18th-century sources. Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev had the idea to create a ballet based on the 18th-century Italian theatre tradition known as commedia dell’arte, and their set of stock characters. Pulcinella was an “everyman” character from commedia, known for his crooked nose and baggy clothing—he was also the basis of “Punch” from the “Punch and Judy” puppet tradition. To get that 18th-century sound, Diaghilev gave a number of works to Igor Stravinsky thought to have been written by the popular 18th-century composer Giovanni Pergolesi. Stravinsky fashioned these into this creative pastiche, blending the 18th-century sound with his 20th-century “neoclassical” sound. It turns out that only some of these works could be attributed to Pergolesi. The others were by lesser-known composers like Domenico Gallo and Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. This was a popular practice by many publishers—attaching Pergolesi’s name to lesser-known works simply as a way to bank on his popularity.
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Le Tombeau de Couperin – Maurice Ravel had always been interested in the music of the past. In 1914, he decided to pay homage to his great predecessor and countryman François Couperin with a new work for solo piano. Unfortunately, World War I intervened and Ravel was enlisted to serve as an ambulance driver, delaying the composition. After the war, Ravel came to view the work as a multifaceted tribute. It honored not only Couperin (and the influence Baroque France had on a culture that he felt was disappearing forever), but also his fallen comrades who had died in the war. He inscribed the original six movements to friends who had been killed in the war, placing their names at the beginning of each movement. The movements themselves are also based on popular forms from the French Baroque, including a Prélude, Minuet, and Forlane.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 "Classical" – About this symphony, Prokofiev wrote, “I imagined if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have preserved his manner of writing and at the same time would have absorbed something of the new. That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write.” While there are no quotations of Haydn’s music in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, it certainly evokes the 18th-century sound, albeit it with a 20th-century twist. You can hear the balanced phrases and tonal melodies of the 18th-century interspersed with harmonic twists that sound contemporary. This style of music is often referred to as “neo-classical” music, an inter-war style of classical music that evoked the music of 200 years prior. Prokofiev certainly experimented with it, but the biggest neo-classical composer was Stravinsky, who used this style in popular works like Pulcinella (as we discussed) and The Rake’s Progress.
- Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), Ancient Airs and Dances – Respighi's musical output is defined by his interest in ancient history. His most well-known works are three tone poems—Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals—all based on ancient scenes from Rome, the city where he would spend 20 years of his life composing. His Ancient Airs and Dances are based mostly on the music of Italy as well, but these three orchestral suites are all reworkings of 16th- and 17th-century pieces originally written for lute. The lute was the most popular stringed instrument of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and though its popularity declined after the Baroque era, the amount of music written for the instrument spans over 1200 years, and rivals that of the modern canon. The original lute pieces used in Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances come from famed lutenists Santino Garsi da Parma, Vincenzo Galilei (father of astronomer Galileo Galilei), and a number of anonymous composers.
- John Tavener (1944–2013), The Last Sleep of the Virgin – John Tavener’s works are often deeply religious in character, and while they have a twentieth-century sound, they are also lyrically melodic and draw on the modal harmonies of the early Christian church. All the same, it would be hard to mistake his music for that of sixteenth-century English composer John Taverner (with an “r”). The piece we just listened to combines ambient drones from a modern string orchestra with a handbell choir ringing out chant melodies that date back to the medieval church. The handbell choir is itself an ancient ensemble. However, unlike the modern handbell which uses an interior clapper and a handle for ringing, the medieval bell choir used large wooden frames from which bells were suspended called bell trees. Rather than swinging the bells, the player would use a set of wooden mallets padded with leather to strike the outer surface, chiming out the chant melodies.
- Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), Palladio – Englishman Karl Jenkins was trained as a classical musician at Cardiff University and the Royal Academy of Music in London before spending most of the 70’s playing with a number of Jazz and Jazz-Rock fusion projects. He scored a huge hit with his 1994 album “Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary” which sold over a million copies. The album featured a baroque styled concerto grosso called “Palladio” whose first movement was used in television commercials by De Beers Diamonds and cemented Jenkins’ popularity in the states. The theme of Palladio harkens back to an earlier musical style, but in fact, it was composed only in 1995. The concerto’s name also references Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose building style is considered one of the most influential in history and can be seen in the architecture of many United States government buildings.
- Harry Partch (1901–1974) (arr. Ben Johnston), Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales – American composer Harry Partch was obsessed with different tuning systems. He hated equal temperament, the tuning system used by everyone from Bach to the Beatles and beyond, and preferred using just intonation—a system that features mathematically-sound and purely-consonant intervals. Just intonation can require different scales than our typical twelve-note chromatic scale (depending on how you are justly tuning your intervals). So Partch had to create new instruments to accommodate his new scales featuring 29, 37, 43, and 55 tones within an octave. These new scales not only maintained a more direct connection to the music of non-western cultures, but also to the music of the ancient past. Ancient musicians were similarly invested in just intonation and experimenting with new tuning systems. Here we have two of Partch’s studies on two Ancient Greek scales, tuned differently than the equal tempered scales that emerged over a millennia later.
- Nina Simone, "Love Me Or Leave Me" – Jazz pianist and singer Nina Simone was always hiding her true persona and true passion under a mask. For one, Nina Simone was not her real name—she was born Eunice Waymon, a young African-American in a small town in North Carolina hoping to make it as a classical pianist. As Eunice was attempting to enroll at the Curtis Institute of Music, she was moonlighting as a jazz pianist, hiding her true identity under her new assumed persona. When she started gaining success in the late 1950s, her earlier classical influences began to slowly emerge. On her debut album, she covered the old jazz standard “Love Me Or Leave Me.” In her piano solo, Simone goes back in time. Slowly, she transforms from a jazz swing to straight-eighth notes, imitation, ornaments and phrasing that more resemble her training in Bach inventions than her new career in jazz improvisation.