By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
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 from some zero point. In the post-WWII decade, the musical world 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: a fresh, immensely vibrant language, laden with fascinating interconnections to other arts (Cubism, for one), its horizons far out of sight. Like its music, its very name — jazz — was a hybrid of arguable origin. Its vitality was, however, beyond argument. 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 nègreThe 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 later, Stravinsky created Les Noces, depicting a Russian folk wedding, with an orchestra consisting of four pianos and a huge 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.
If Arnold Schoenberg had little taste for percussion ensembles or airplane propellers, he had his own visions of musical sounds hitherto unheard. Six months before Stravinsky’s bombshell went off in Paris, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had earned a comparably hostile — if less vociferous — reception in Berlin: music in which a solo voice keened, wailed, howled and whispered poetry about a moonstruck madman, joined by a chamber-music ensemble enhancing the spooky atmosphere with music devoid of any sense of harmonic progression or key. Standing aloof from all the jazzy razzmatazz, Schoenberg sought to codify his wholesale revision of traditional musical values with his “method of composition employing all 12 tones,” which he perennially explained as the logical extension of principles reaching back to Bach. His 1923 Suite for Piano, his first “pure” piece employing all 12 tones in strict serial order, did indeed link hands with Bachian models. But it was Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg, in Wozzeck, his harrowing, immensely powerful operatic setting of Georg Büchner’s play, who proved, even more fluently than his teacher, the expressive potential of the Schoenbergian style, moving in and out of 12-tone writing, and also in and out of the Mahlerian shadows, as the moods of the intensely moody story dictated. Just by themselves, The Rite of Spring and Wozzeck were enough to prove that the new century had not lost the ages-old power to produce masterpieces.
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