By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Jump back a few decades — to 1880, say. The European bourgeoisie prospered; the great cities celebrated their grandiosity by building concert halls and opera houses. Virtuosos flourished — sopranos, pianists, conductors. The old masters held their place — Beethoven, Haydn, Bach in monstrously perverse reorchestrations; just the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that supremely romantic gesture of bringing the music in gradually as if from a distant cloud, became the gambit for dozens of latter-day rip-offs, some successful. It was taken for granted, however, that by far the majority of the concert and operatic fare was to be music hot off the press. The audience eagerly awaited the latest Brahms symphony, the latest Verdi opera. Richard Wagner died in 1883, and the world awaited with bated breath the emergence of his successor, assuming beyond argument that there would be one.
Around 1900, however, the first signs of a schism appeared between "music" and "new music." Wagner had implanted some of the attitude with his orotund pronouncements about "the music of the future." By 1900, too, Europe’s great music-publishing houses had caught up with the past, with complete performing editions of practically every major composer, from Bach to Beethoven and on through Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz. Performers could, better than before, think in terms of a "repertory" of past masterpieces; audiences, too, developed a fondness for wallowing in the familiar. The world at large no longer awaited the next symphony by Mahler or the next string quartet by Debussy with the hunger for newness that had driven taste in, say, 1880. Newness had become newer, and therefore more fearsome, than in the good old days. The impact of Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring — and the dozens of similar assaults on the musical status quo — drove the wedge.
Music’s world expanded beyond its traditional French/ German/Italian/Slavic boundaries in these years. Finland’s Jean Sibelius brought his country its first fame, with music rooted in the mainstream past but with at least one splendid work, the bleak, ascetic Fourth Symphony, which does indeed mirror the shrouding fogs of its native soil. Spain’s Manuel de Falla wrote Spanish-tinged music that went past post card prettiness in a dark, edgy and wonderfully witty manner. England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams, though defiantly anchored in his country’s ancient musical styles, at least turned out a repertory of symphonies that did not sound fresh off the boat from Germany, as did those of his countryman Edward Elgar. And the United States, whose handful of respectable 19th-century musicians also composed with heavy German accents, produced its first generation of indigenous crackpot geniuses with the likes of good ol’ boy Charlie Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and the émigré Edgard Varèse, who proclaimed his Americanness with a wildly dissonant piece called Amériques, which had the critics disputing whether it was more descriptive of a zoo or a boiler factory.
The War happened, and then jazz happened, and the timing was just right. Great wars always leave the creative world with the need for a fresh start. In the post-WWII decade, composers would flop around for a time in desperate search of fresh impetus, adopting and rejecting a variety of artistic possibilities; but in 1918 that impetus had come ready-made, or so it seemed: an immensely vibrant language laden with fascinating interconnections to other arts (Cubism, for one), its potential beyond reckoning. Like the music, its very name — jazz — was a hybrid of arguable origin. Almost everybody was hooked at first. Visiting New York, France’s Darius Milhaud raided the shelves of Harlem record shops and returned home to create his "ballet nègre," The Creation of the World; Germany’s Paul Hindemith blended the kicky new rhythms into his Bach-inspired chamber concertos; Stravinsky tried his hand at a couple of ragtime pieces, both terrible. Paul Whiteman toured Europe with his big, symphonic jazz band and played George Gershwin’s synthetic Rhapsody in Blue to awestruck crowds — lively stuff, even if neither jazz nor symphony. In Paris, another young innovator, Aaron Copland, was urged by his teacher — the legendary Nadia Boulanger, godmother to a generation of American composers — to use music as a way to define himself and his world. He did so by including, in his delicious, lighthearted Music for the Theater, a generous admixture of the newfangled jazz.
Stravinsky’s revolutionary orchestration in The Rite of Spring gave off all kinds of messages about new ways to make musical sounds. Ten years after The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky created Les Noces, depicting a Russian folk wedding, with an orchestra consisting of four pianos and a large battery of percussion; the American George Antheil, in cahoots with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger, did some of the same in his Ballet Mécanique, whose scoring included an airplane propeller. Before either of these, a San Francisco teenager named Henry Cowell astonished audiences with his piano pieces that involved reaching inside the instrument to stroke the strings, or whomping down on the keys with a fist or forearm to produce what he called "tone clusters." Later, Cowell would become mentor and role model to the most carefree and influential of the century’s innovative spirits, the Los Angeles–born John Cage.