Stravinsky first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Russian Ballets): The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913).
The Rite, whose premiere famously provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design. The premiere involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet.
The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.”
Harvard University professor Thomas Kelly suggests that one of the reasons that the Paris premiere of “The Rite of Spring” created such a furor was that it shattered everyone’s expectations. The evening’s program began innocently with a performance of “Les Sylphides.” However, as the follow-up piece, “The Rite of Spring” turned out to be anything but spring-like.
One of the dancers recalled that Vaslav Nijinsky’s shocking choreography was physically unnatural to perform. “With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.” The music itself was angular, dissonant and totally unpredictable. In the introduction, Stravinksy called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. In fact, the instrument was virtually unrecognizable as a bassoon. When the curtain rose and the dancing began, there appeared a musical theme without a melody, only a loud, pulsating, dissonant chord with jarring, irregular accents. The audience responded to the ballet with such a din of hisses and catcalls that the performers could barely hear each other.
A scene from Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen.
One of the primary aspects of Romantic Period music is a decisive break with the past. Rather than continuing to develop Classical forms, Romantic composers such as Berlioz, Brahms and Mahler wanted to create entirely new melodies and forms. They often succeeded, but they also took occasional glances toward the past. The deep, deep past.
Perhaps the greatest monument of Romantic music is Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring od Nibelungen), better known as “The Ring Cycle.” Few works in the history of music have been more innovative. In fact, Wagner took musical form so far that composers who followed him — particularly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern — decided that there was nothing to do but move away from “tonality” altogether. Nonetheless, one of Wagner’s major sources was a work written a thousand years earlier: the German epic poem The Song of the Nibelungs.
The Song of the Nibelungs is the story of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer and his wife Kriemhild. Siegfried’s initial story is very similar to that of Achilles: after slaying the dragon, he bathed in its blood, rendering himself invulnerable. However, a leaf fell on his back, and left a small patch of his body exposed (like the ankle left exposed when his mother Thetis dipped Achilles in the River Styx). He is eventually killed with a spear through his vulnerable spot, and the second half of the epic concerns Kriemhild’s revenge.
An important element of The Song of the Nibelungs is a ring that Siegfried took from the Icelandic Queen Brünhild. The Ring was an important leitmotif in Wagner’s opera. It also figured prominently in another work that owes a great deal to the Middle German Epic: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As usual, ancient stories provided the raw material for extremely diverse modern works.
A great deal of 20th-century music is based on the foundation that the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) laid with his two greatest innovations: dissonance and the twelve-tone scale.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the greatest composer of the classical age, was only thirty-five years old when he died. Franz Schubert, dead at thirty-one, was even younger. If Schoenberg had passed away at a similarly young age, he may have been remembered as a minor twentieth-century figure whose Gurrelieder was an impressive work in the tradition of Richard Wagner. It wasn’t until Schoenberg outlived both his Viennese predecessors that he began using his most influential techniques: atonality and the twelve-tone scale.
In the years preceding World War I, Schoenberg began to create radically new musical works, transcending what he called “every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.” His first innovation was the use of atonality. Atonality overturned the traditional relationship between “dissonance” and “consonance” in Western music. A “dissonant” chord or note is one that sounds unresolved, hanging in the air, and requires a “consonant” sound to balance it. (Imagine a conductor dramatically raising his hands near the end of a symphony, and then slowly lowering them to indicate the final, “consonant,” note.) Schoenberg ignored the distinction between consonant and dissonant sounds altogether. He declared this an “emancipation of dissonance,” still perhaps the best definition of atonality.
The twelve-tone (or “dodecaphonic”) scale is different. If atonality was a grand rejection of the Western musical tradition, the twelve-tone scale was an attempt to integrate atonality into everything that came before it. In writing a “dodecaphonic” work, a composer begins by arranging the twelve notes of the chromatic scale (C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – Bb – B) in a non-repeating set. This forms the melody of the piece, which is repeated, inverted, reversed, and otherwise manipulated (much like the melody in a fugue). Schoenberg called this “The Method of Composing with Twelve Notes only related to one another.” It is the technique he is most famous for, but atonality had a much more lasting impact.
Self-proclaimed “Prince of Darkness” Ozzy Osbourne, former lead singer of the Heavy Metal Band BlackSabbath, came under intense fire from Christian activist groups for his dark music and stage antics, which they believed portrayed images of devil worship. Osbourne denied these accusations, claiming that his stage acts were “done in good fun” and performed for shock value only. In fact, Osbourne claims to be a faithful Anglican and has been quoted as saying that he prays before all of his performances.
On October 26, 1984, nineteen-year-old California teenager John McCollum fatally shot himself while listening to the Ozzy Osbourne album, Blizzard of Oz, which contained the song, “Suicide Solution” on it. McCollum’s parents subsequently sued Osbourne, alleging that the lyrics of the song had convinced their son to commit suicide, despite the fact that their son had suffered from clinical depression. The attorney for the McCollum’s even went so far as to assert that Osbourne should be charged criminally for enticing a teenager into committing suicide.
Osbourne defended himself by testifying that the song “Suicide Solution” was actually written about the horrors of alcohol abuse; he wanted to urge caution to his listeners, after he witnessed a close friend drink himself into an early grave. This explanation is borne out by the lyrics:
Wine is fine but whiskeys quicker
Suicide is slow with liquor
Take a bottle and drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows
Evil thoughts and evil doings
Cold, alone you hang in ruins
Thought that you’d escape the reaper
You cant escape the master keeper
cause you feel like you’re living a lie
Such a shame who’s to blame and you’re wondering why
Then you ask from your cask us there life after birth
What you sow can mean hell on this earth
Now you live inside a bottle
The reapers traveling at full throttle
Its catching you but you don’t see
The reaper is you and the reaper is me
Breaking laws, knocking doors
But there’s no one at home
Made your bed, rest your head
But you lie there and moan
Where to hide, suicide is the only way out
Don’t you know what its really about
Despite the heightened emotionality and media frenzy surrounding the case, the Court ultimately ruled in Osbourne’s favor, on the grounds that the McCollum’s death was not a foreseeable result of Osbourne’s song. Amazingly, Osbourne was sued AGAIN in 1991, by the parents of Michael Waller, for encouraging their son’s suicide. Luckily for Osbourne and champions of freedom of speech, the court again ruled in his favor and the case against him was dismissed.
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died suddenly on November 6, 1893, a mere nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. The cause of his mysterious demise has never been conclusively solved, and has remained a source of intense speculation since his death. Most scholars believe that Tchaikovsky died of cholera, probably contracted from drinking contaminated water. They point out that Russian medical records from that time indicate that a cholera epidemic swept through Russia in May 1892, infecting some 504,924 people before finally dying out in February 1986, claiming the lives of 44.9% of the infected.
However, a growing number of scholars have disputed this hypothesis, advancing the theory that Tchaikovsky committed suicide by poisoning himself with arsenic. Some biographers have opined that he was driven to suicide because he was being blackmailed by someone threatening to publicly out him as a homosexual. Another intriguing (albeit incredible) theory alleges that his alma mater, the School of Jurisprudence, put him on trial for his “sexual deviancy” before a court of honor, and ordered to commit suicide.
It is also widely believed that the composer’s profoundly pessimistic and unorthodox final symphony, considered one of his darker and quieter works, was the musical equivalent of a suicide note. The first movement contains a dramatic musical non sequitur, where the theme and tone abruptly changes from a rapidly progressing evolution of the strings to a mysterious and mournful harmonized chorale of trombones. This trombone theme has been an enduring source of curiosity to musicologists because of its unusual placement and seeming irrelevance to the themes of anything proceeding or following it in the piece. In fact, it was taken from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the dead, and is sung to the chilling words, “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.”
They were not based on a pair of identically idiotic political blowhards. They were not early forerunners of French critical theory, as Lewis Carroll would have you believe. And, finally, they were not just another pair of völkisch characters, drawn from a stock of traditional Anglo-Saxon nursery rhymes (famously edited by the indefatigable Mother Goose). No, dear reader, there were no such antecedents for Messrs. Tweedledee and Tweedledum; if anything, their genesis bears the imprint of a far nobler stamp, plucked, as it were, from the Eternal Harmonies of the Seven Spheres.
In the 1720s, the elite circles of English society were still in some turmoil following the accession of George I, a German prince, to the throne. The new king spoke very little English, and, while the practice of promoting favorites was neither unique nor unexpected, his practice of advancing German courtiers provoked the ire of native-born aristocrats, who felt that their provenance had been usurped.
One notable favorite of King George was his kappelmeister, or chorus master, whom he brought with him from Hanover: George Frideric Handel. Handel had met with much early success in Italy and was well regarded throughout Europe. However, he was not yet the dominant composer of the Messiah and Water Music that lorded it over the English scene when he was appointed director of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His main rival in these years proved to be one Giovanni Battista Bononcini, himself a beneficiary of patronage from the powerful and anti-Hanoverian Duke of Marlborough.
The rivalry between the two composers soon became quite fierce, and support for either one bore a suspicious affinity to political allegiances. There were accusations of musical pilfering from both parties and, in fact, there was pilfering by both parties: When asked why he borrowed material composed by Bononcini, Handel is said to have replied, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.”
At the height of the controversy, John Byrom, a minor poet and writer of hymns from Manchester, penned an epigram which gently ridiculed the spat (the last two, relevant lines of which are occasionally attributed to both Pope and Swift). In the poem, he assigns the composers onomatopoeic names that poke fun at the notion that there could be any serious difference between two men whose musical measures are separated solely by a “dee” and a “dum:”
Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
Bononcini was eventually forced to retire from London in ignominy; he was caught passing off an entire composition written by someone else as his own, and this was plagiarism beyond the pale. In our own time, Handel’s reputation occupies the loftiest of perches, while Bononcini is forgotten. Of course, contrariwise, it could be argued that Bononcini’s memory is preserved, if only in two notes—his tweedle-dum lives on.
The sea shanty (from the French chanson: song) is a product of the explosion in European maritime exploration and trade, roughly corresponding the era A.D. 1600-1900. It is also a remarkable industrial management technique. While iconic amusement park rides and movies would have us believe that early modern crewmen were a merry and melodic bunch, prone to the spontaneous round or two at work or on the bowsprit, they do a disservice to the sea shanty in downplaying its essential role as metronome, or pace-setter, for backbreaking ship-side labor. (It is also probably best to avoid speculation on the relative psychological demeanor of sailors, one way or the other.)
Shanties established the working rhythms for nautical tasks, which called for synchronicity, in pre-mechanical days. Many of the songs encoded specific stage directions pertinent to the work at hand (that seemingly opaque line—“hooray and up she rises”—is all about the sail); a shantyman, or unofficial chorusmaster, would set the tempo by leading the call and response featured in so many of the tunes. Different chores gave rise to different kinds of shanties. Roughly, they can be broken down into categories:
•Long-haul (also called “halyard” or “long-drag” or “what you’re in for”) shanties: sung when a job of hauling on a line was expected to last a long time, generally feature two “pull” lines in each chorus.
•Short drag shanties: for shorter, difficult hauls, characterized by one strong pull in each chorus.
•Capstan shanties: The capstan was a giant winch to which the anchor was attached; the song was sung while pushing it.
•Stamp-’n'-go shanties: used on large ships to choreograph the complex series of movements and actions needed to raise the sail.
•Pumping shanties: sung while pumping the bilge of excess water.
•Fo’c's’le (Forecastle) songs: not actually shanties since they were sung in leisure hours; about as close to Disney as the shanty gets.
Below is a video of the Cornish antiquarian revival group, the Fisherman’s Friends, singing “South Australia”, a long haul shanty (heave away! haul away!) that was probably sung during the embarkation leg of the journey:
Though technology has made the practical use of the shanty obsolete, there is a fair amount of contemporary interest in the form, particularly in folk circles. For a list of sea song festivals worldwide, you can visit The Bitter End—the following is a sample of what an updated shanty sounds like (basically, a lot less elbow grease, a lot more ambient sound). Avast!