Spanning the decades – 20th century

Wot no Bach?

I was musing the other day, while listening to the Early Music Show on Radio 3, about what it would be like to live in another time period. What would I miss? What would I enjoy?

This particular episode of the Early Music Show concentrated on sixteenth century English motets. Well, I would certainly enjoy the music. Instruments I play existed then, so I’d be able to join in, I’d be able to see Shakespeare in a contemporary setting, and find out if Elizabethan theatre was really as raucous as is claimed. There’d be different recipes to try, and buildings that don’t exist anymore to admire. It’s a period I’m really interested in, so what’s not to enjoy? And then it struck me – there’s all the music that I would never get to hear because it hadn’t been written yet – worst of all, there would be no Bach. For me a calamity.

In fact, until recorded sound became generally available, you were largely thrown on to your own resources. You could hear what you, and your family, friends or local music societies could perform or compose, you would hear (except in the case of some religious groups) what was played at church or chapel, and you could attend concerts, although, unless you were in a metropolis, it might take some effort. Just think of Bach’s famous 550 mile round trip to hear Buxtehude – that’s the equivalent of walking from Cambridge to Land’s End and back, or a one way walk (getting your feet slightly wet in the North Sea) to Berlin. There’s a fascinating talk about Bach’s journey given by Richard Townend in 2015, see below.

You can find out more about what musical life would have been like in Cambridge in earlier centuries from Susi’s posts about the Black Bear Music Club.

This got me thinking about what I would have had no chance to hear at certain points in the century. By the 20th century, many homes would have had access to radio or gramophone recordings, but even so, there’s all the music that is still waiting to be composed. So, in each decade, what was new, what would I personally have found exciting?

The Noughties 1900-1909

A tricky one for me, Tosca, was premiered early in the decade, but in 1904, one of my favourite pieces of music received its premiere – Ravel’s String Quartet. It had to be included.

The teens 1910-1919

No doubt in my mind, what would be my choice from this decade – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The stories about the premiere may be apocryphal, I would love to have been there to experience what really happened. Whether or not it caused a riot remains arguable, its originality though is beyond doubt. There is nothing else quite like it

The video I’ve chosen was filmed in the theatre, Theatre des Champs-Elysees, where Rite was premiered, and features, as near as possible, the original choreography and set and costume designs. The choreography was long believed lost, and was reconstructed in the 1980s.

The roaring twenties 1920-1929

If the 1920s roared, as far as classical music is concerned, they seem to have come in fairly quietly with two of my favourite works, Erik Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt set in a sombre Bruges, and Vaughan Williams’ ethereally lovely The lark ascending. Lark must surely have been a response to the noise, and barren treeless and birdless fields of the First World War, which was only recently finished. The decade ended with Singin’ in the rain (though without its iconic choreography – that was another 25 years away), and one of the earliest examples of music used in film. Although they were still not always fully in sync, and the true glory of film scores was yet to be revealed, this must have been an astonishing moment.

The music that I would miss, if I had lived pre-20s would be The lark ascending, but what a moment in film history.

The Thirties 1930-1939

It would be hard to choose a song from the Thirties, as there are so many good ones, with Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin alone composing hit after hit. Possible contenders would be the musicals, 42nd Street and Swing Time, both of which have a stunning array of songs. Rather different is Herbert Howells’ simple but moving hymn tune, Michael, used for All my hope on God is founded. It’s a great hymn of faith, with the tune named after Howells’ son, who died tragically young.

The thirties was also a great era for French organ music, and included both Jehan Alain’s Litanies and Olivier Messiaen’s La nativite du Seigneur.

The Forties 1940-1949

The 1940s was the decade of unforgettable popular songs from When you wish upon a star to Moonlight Serenade, wartime classic The White Cliffs of Dover, and best selling single of all time, Bing Crosby’s recording of White Christmas. The work with the best story behind it, and the most amazing premiere must be Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (Symphony no. 7). You can read M.T. Anderson’s story of the events behind the Leningrad Symphony in Symphony for the city of the dead (M674.c.201.29).

The Mravinsky-Leningrad Philharmonic recording was apparently Shostakovich’s favourite interpretation.

The Fifties 1950-1959

Rock and roll stormed in, shocking parents and invigorating teenagers; yodelling reached the American charts, and Glenn Gould completed his first recording of the Goldberg variations. Rodgers and Hammerstein dominated Broadway with South Pacific opening the decade and Sound of Music closing it. 1957 was the premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites – no other opera has quite such a powerful ending.

The Sixties 1960-1969

Beatlemania erupted across the UK and then the world, Oliver! dominated the West End stage, and then was hugely successful on Broadway too. A film of the musical in 1968 won six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

I’ve chosen the score to a rather different film to be my sound of the ’60s – Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score to Psycho. The music is sparse but impactful, and is one of those pieces of music that everyone recognises, even if they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

The Seventies 1970-1979

I’m old enough to remember the winning appearance of ABBA at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. The costumes look rather silly now, but then they were stunning even on a black and white TV. The energy of the group was incredible, it was a real show-stopping moment, and the start of one of the few brilliant careers to come out of Eurovision.

The Eighties 1980-1989

Some wonderful pop music from this era, but the work that has stayed with me the most is a simple tune from the start of the ’80s. It has since been played in many arrangements.

The Nineties 1990-1999

Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus dominated the classical charts, as did Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of sorrowful songs, written in the ’70s but given a new lease of life by Dawn Upshaw.

Rap and Hip-hop were ubiquitous, but my favourite album of the decade captured the soul of Cuba. This was the wonderful Buena Vista Social Club. The story of how the album came into being is a delightful one. American guitarist, Ry Cooder, had planned to travel to Cuba to collaborate on a project with some Malian musicians. An unfortunate mix-up led to no visas, and no musicians from Mali. Not wanting to waste the studio time booked in Cuba, Cooder decided to change his plans, and to record Son music with local musicians. The album featuring popular Cuban standards and musicians (many of them elderly) led to an album, and a touching documentary about their lives as musicians and Cubans. The music and the musicians are unforgettable.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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