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Thoughts on the Close of the Century

(written March, 1999)

A few years ago it occurred to me that it would not be long before I could no longer so casually use the terms contemporary music and 20th-century music interchangeably, even though I feel a continuity between the music of today and the music of the early 20th century.

Once the calendar moves us into the 21st century, composers will get a new life. New music will be just that, new music, and 20th-century music will become, for better or worse, a category to itself. It seems now to be an appropriate time to reflect on some of the extraordinary music that has been created in the last 100 years.

Written in the early years of the century, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has held up, I think, as the finest piece of music composed in our century, and also its most influential. The Rite of Spring was composed in the years right before World War I, a time of extraordinary social unrest and turmoil. If you think our world is crazy, we live in absolutely placid times compared to the first two decades of the 1900's.

As we know, Stravinsky's work was one of many pieces of that time-period that inspired a riot, a scandal, at its premiere. It certainly is in a way a spectacle piece, a "big piece" in the way Beethoven's 9th Symphony was the "big piece" and without doubt the most influential composition of the 19th century.

But the two pieces impacted on composers very differently in their respective centuries. Beethoven's 9th was frequently referred to as "towering" over its successors -- almost an intimidating presence that cast a heavy shadow. Brahms didn't dare to publish his 1st Symphony until he was 43, and when someone pointed out the similarity between the theme to the finale of that symphony and the theme of the finale of Beethoven's 9th, he irritably replied, so the story goes, "any idiot can see that." (Actually, I expect if the story is true, Brahms used more potent German slang.)

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring didn't cast a shadow, but rather light. Stravinsky's composition was truly seminal -- his new ideas in harmony, melody, and rhythm were seeds that were broadcast in different fields, inspiring composers with their blossoms.

Composers quickly recognized that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is not really spectacle by design, despite its surface impact and impression. You can hear a little bit of the Rite of Spring in almost every piece of 20th-century music -- but at the same time, you'll never hear a lot of it. This is not only because the Rite is such a unique piece, but because the ideas in this piece, which has allowed composers throughout the century could develop them in their own individual ways -- develop, not imitate -- thereby creating their own flowers.

These thoughts were part of spoken commentary offered with the Celebrating the Century program. Your reactions to the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)