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Why is Modern Orchestral Music so hard for common people to understand?

During the course of man’s existence, Music had developed, through new ideas from innovative people and different cultures. Music had also been influenced by religion through hymns and chants of these cultures. These new ideas ranged from the Gregorian Monks’ chanting to the brilliance of persons such as Johann Sabastian Bach. Bach, a virtuoso pianist and organist for the new Protestant sect in Christianity founded by Martin Luther, created a system that is still used today in writing hymns and choral music. Advances in writing were also helped by advances in the invention of instruments and printing of the music. The Romantic Period of the 19th Century was dominated by the genius of Richard Wagner, who set the standard of the time period. He wrote Opera’s which are still done today, and wrote pieces such as Die Meistersinger and The Ring Cycle. The Late 19th Century into the 20th brought in some new idea’s; new idea’s which came from Debussy and Ives, which started composing pieces which had some romantic influence, but also wrote pieces that clashed with all the previous styles, using new systems such as the 12 tone system and new dissonant (very harsh and unusual sounding) melodies and harmonies. Through the idea’s from these men and many others during the early to mid 20th century such as Bela Bartok, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and John Cage, the Modern Era was born. However, this new style was not understood because the general public was not open minded about these new idea’s and still wanted to hear music from the romantic period (Because it was very deep and emotional sounding music that the listener could comprehend). This fact and the Modern Composers’ defiance to write anything in the Romantic style and the development of pop-music has led to the general lack of interest in classical music. Therefor, through education and exposure, the common ordinary person can understand the fine art of 20th century music. Understanding music for anyone can make it an enjoyable experience. There has been some rather enjoyable works that have been composed by composers such as Charles Ives that is very pleasing to the ear; although he did write some rather bizarre he also wrote pieces such as his Second Symphony which are based in his life’s experiences, and in which he incorporates local folk songs from his native Danbury Connecticut and from well known tunes from around the country and uses his own composition to create a beautiful work that also had new idea’s of the time period. Understanding the background of the composer and the pieces that the composer writes and understanding the techniques used by the composer compared to other composers in the past can really make the difference in whether a person can truly appreciate this music or not. Otherwise, the person will only care to learn of pop music which in the past 17 years has taken a sharp downfall in quality due to the re-emergence of backward forms of music; a good example of this is Rap, which is purely rhythm and verbal improvisation, with very basic and constantly repeating chords. Again, through education an exposure, the common person can understand the fine art of 20th century composition.
Chapter 1: Music Theory and Music Complication
Music has a certain set of rules and principals that composers follow in order to create a piece. Understanding theory enables the listener of music to understand the logic and understanding involved in the composer’s way of writing the composition. It also trains the ear to listen for one’s (The composer’s) mistakes in one’s compositions. If the piece moves in a logical progression (Or is written in a smooth, pleasant sounding way) then the listener can hear something that is pleasing to the ear due to this background. (Porter, Pg. 2) Generally, if these rules are not followed, mistakenly or intentionally, then it sounds harsh and is not pleasing sounding. However, composers who break rules know how and why they are breaking rules, have developed there own system based on the older rules, and get away with doing so because they keep to their own logical patterns that can be understood. (Porter). These rules and standards were created by changes; changes in a large religion of the time that they were created. When Martin Luther broke away from the Roman Catholic Church forming the Protestant church, he insisted on a new kind of music, which was both easy to sing and was straight forward and understandable (Porter). These new hymns of the Protestant church were called chorales, and they grew in number and importance. Johann Sabastien Bach took these chorales and took them to a higher level, and since his time, his system is now used as a teaching tool for future composers. This system helps the writer move in a logical order, or Progression, and must be understood before these rules of the choral are broken. What does studying the choral entail? Studying a choral first requires the knowledge of all the basics; Major and Minor scales, time signatures, etc. Other systems such as Roman Numeral Figured bass (Which spells out the chord in the choral) are also needed. (Porter, Pg. 2) Now we can see the complexity of something as a four part Choral can be, and remember, this was back in Bach’s time; today’s systems are far more complex and use Mathematical and Scientific aspects of sound and music. One can only appreciate the genius of the modern day composer for being able to understand and write compositions for a full orchestra with instruments in different keys. Music History with the knowledge of music theory can also explain a lot about certain pieces. The 1812 Overture by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky is a good example. The 1812 Overture is an example how history is portrayed though music. The piece is about Napoleon’s attempt to attack Russia that was countered by the Russian Army. It includes parts of the piece that is Russian Dance music of the time period representing the Middle Upper Class who are oblivious to the French Army which is approaching. During the ‘Battle’ he uses firing cannon’s as part of the percussion at the climax of the piece, and he uses different themes during the piece to represent the different army’s during the piece, and through Tchaikovsky’s interpretation (Evens), the listener, with the understanding of the history of the piece, can figure out what is going on through the Composer’s interpretation of the piece. In this way, music can be a historical source from the time period it was written through understanding the history of that time period. Understanding music’s history and the way’s it had been written helps to understand why and how music became very complicated. Radical changes were first started by the Russians. The Russians were the first to move away form Germany’s ‘Guidelines’ of music. By doing so they created what was to become the some of the beginnings of modern orchestral music. Glinka was the person responsible in moving towards Russian independence in its music. He inspired a young group of talented student musicians to make their own rules (Hamm). Suddenly they were “Launched into the midst of things; they had to make their own bricks (and even learn the technique of brick- making) as well as to discover the architectural principals of which they stood in need. Considering the formidable difficulties in their way, the wonder is, not that they failed to do better, but that they achieved as much as they did” (MD Calvocoressi, Aaron Copland’s THE NEW MUSIC 1900-1960 Pg. 24). This radical new way of thinking also caught on to other composers during the 20th century. Twentieth Century composers also seemed to have that attitude that music from the romantic period was far too emotional. Said Modern day composer Aaron Copland: “The German Romantic was highly subjective and personal in expression of his emotions... The tempo of Modern Times calls for a music that is more matter-of-fact, more concise, and especially, less patently emotional” (Aaron Copland’s THE NEW MUSIC 1900-1960 pg.18). Clearly this shows the thinking that had brought us into the modern orchestral time period. But with this thinking brought some music far too out of touch with the people who listened to Orchestral music. John Cage’s radical new idea’s brought a bizarre new aspect to music. John Cage was a modern composer who studied with Henry Cowell. Henry Cowell was innovative in that he played within the piano, rather than playing by depressing the piano’s key’s, which the instrument was intended to be played. By doing so he created an instrument sounding halfway between a harp and a Hungarian Cimbalom (Hamm). Cowell also invented Note Clusters, which is when all the adjacent notes on a piano keyboard are depressed at once. John Cage studied with Cowell before adding new radical idea’s himself, creating such pieces as Sonata’s and Interludes for prepared piano (A prepared piano is when the player of the piano places foreign objects into a piano to alter the sound. These objects range from bottle caps to paper to paper clips); Fontana Mix, an Early Electronic Composition, and Concerto for piano and Orchestra. These new idea’s made some of the music that they wrote very bizarre and hard to understand, even for musicians themselves. Many time these new idea’s would even make the pieces more difficult to play for the musicians because the musician is used to more common and more logical forms of music. Another good example of how music was becoming much too bizarre is called TOTAL SERIALIZATION. Total serialization formed like the Gregorian modes (The Basis of Bach’s Logical Chorales), but sounded more like Oriental music then the Gregorian modes that was the basis of Bach’s chorales (Nettle). Total Serialization allowed music to be made by machines, as two composers, Pierre Schaeffer (Born 1910) and Pierre Henry (Born 1927) did when they recorded common place sounds such as Heartbeats and Train Noises. They accomplished this by speeding up the disk they were played on or slowing them down; raising and lowing the pitch of the sounds and making music (Hamm). And again, the incorporation of mathematics to calculate pitches and build chords in modern day music made music of the 20th century using this concept sometimes made it sound strange to the ear (Brians). These are good examples how some 20th century music became far too bizarre to understand for the common listener of even Classical Orchestral music to understand, let alone an audience of Pop-music lovers whom rarely hear Orchestral music period. However, one must not be totally mistaken. “Some good music was produced by the doctrine of totalization: All pieces are worth hearing nowadays, and give pleasure once you have learned the language, not necessarily by studying the grammar and syntax, but by living with it and becoming accustomed to the sound of it.” (William Mann, James Gallaway’s MUSIC IN TIME, pg. 348) New inventions of the late 19th Century have also had a major impact on how we listened to music in the 20th century and continues to effect us today. The Phonograph has had a huge impact on Orchestral Music in general. The Phonograph allowed Musical Students for the first time to hear any piece at any time, demonstrating styles, idea’s, and techniques of whatever type of music is being discussed, and they have the opportunity to hear those works as many times as they wish. However, this had it’s downside. Students now learn by ear rather than learn the technical aspects of the music they are listening to on paper (Nettle). But the phonograph was a boost to Classical Music’s popularity in general. The invention of the phonograph helped people become more interested in classical music. Record company’s became involved in recording works from composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, and all others from the past. As the technology became more sophisticated, the sound allowed the listener to feel more like the listener was really hearing a live performance of the work being played on the record player (Swafford). The phonograph was the beginning of Orchestral Music’s availability to the general public to listen to it and the Music Community’s ability to be able to better teach it’s students through use of the phonograph.
CHAPTER 2: Modern Orchestral Composers
Obviously for the first Chapter, one can see that history and new idea’s have played a major part in the development in Modern Day Orchestral music. The role of certain individuals has made an impact in music’s past and present, and the 20th century is an example of this. Three of these many individuals have shown that their own creativity has paved the way for music in the future and the present. Bela Bartok of Hungary, Charles Ives of the US, and Claude Debussy of France, were Composers of the late 19th century through the early to mid 20th century whom influenced other composers throughout the 20th century. These men were not the only contributors to 20th century standards, but for now this paper will center on them, for without them, many aspects of 20th century composition would not have been born. Bela Bartok was a nationalistic writer, whom used aspects from his own culture’s folk and dance music in his work. He was influenced by Debussy and early Stravinsky, and of course, the music from his own culture (Mann). His music is described as ..”Adventurous, poetic, superbly crafted, creative work...”. Bartok “Remained Hungarian (In style of music) and obliged the rest of the world to learn his musical language” (Author from James Gallaway’s MUSIC IN TIME by William Mann Pg. 256) . Bartok was unique in his music, exploring new idea’s, while using much of the aspects of Hungarian culture, especially his culture’s music, and reflected off aspects such as peasant life. Bartok would use Hungarian meter (Normal time is 3/4 or 4/4), such as 5/8 and 8/8 time. He was very much affected during the late 1930’s into the 1940’s due to his mother’s death. Also, the Nazi’s rapid advance during that time into Hungary created a state of panic for Bartok which caused him to flee the United States (Brians). It was during this time his music sounded depressing due to the fact that he was relatively pessimistic in his musical writing, which clearly reflected through some of his works. Bartok’s new idea’s was shown in his works and are a good example of 20th century composition. Charles Ives is another Great Composer of the 20th century whom has a great influence on 20th century composition. He was born in 1874 in Danbury Connecticut, only 2 hours away (The author of this Research Paper Resided in Danbury for 6 1/2 years) to a musical family. His father, George Ives, was also a musician in that area, and trained his son to play piano. He would encourage his son to experiment since the beginning of his musical experience, encouraging his son’s piano playing with his fists, creating Note Clusters (Swafford). However, he only allowed his son to do so if he agreed to learn the rules of writing music before he went ahead breaking the rules. Charles Ives’ works including his Variations on America was written in his teens when he was experimenting and later became a favorite Pops Orchestral piece (Swafford). He was Shunned for his experimenting in college, for his idea’s were too bizarre for people of his time to comprehend, and so he became a very rich, successful insurance agent until his retirement. He then continued to compose until Ives’ death in 1954. His idea’s were felt in music world wide. “He was thus a prophet of both Modernism and post Modernism, without really belonging to either.” (CD Covor to CHARLES IVES SYMPHONY NO. 2) During the time that Ives was first starting out in the late 1800’s, Clause Debussy was a composing great works in France, His works consisted of tone poems that used different pitches and instruments to create a tonal work of art. To truly understand this, one has to listen to his work. Slightly different, with a little understanding and background, again, the keys to appreciation, one can enjoy his music. His work influenced future composers, including Bartok, whom also used idea’s from Stravinsky and his own country’s Music and Cultural Background to compose in his own style (Sir Langham Smith). This is also a great example on how the work from one composer can influence another in the future whom may create his own masterpieces in his own style to influence yet others whom influence others, etc. This process is how music has developed, and without knowing history and appreciation of back’s chorales and how music was developed after that, how is one supposed to appreciate Orchestral Music as a whole? Charles Ives wrote very bizarre pieces indeed. This was in part that he was the first to completely explore some of the aspects of 20th century composition, in area’s such as polytonality, polyrhythem, dissonant counterpoint, atonality, tone clusters, quarter tones, chance music, spatial music, and many more aspects (Byrnside). His idea’s, as described above, spread world wide, and there is even currently a Charles Ives Society in the former USSR and in the Netherlands. Ives’ work’s effect and reason for the way he wrote confuses listeners even today; the listener expecting the writer to be classical, modern, popular, or any other individual style (Byrnside). He was all these at once, and because of this the music he wrote was not understood by the general public. He was “Refusing to settle into any convenient slot in western tradition” (Author Jan Swafford THE VINTAGE GUIDE TO CLASSICAL MUSIC Pg. 377). Ives’ Forth Symphony includes many different ragtime tunes of his time playing in different keys and different rhythms, which created something very bizarre to listen to even for the experienced musician. However, not all of Ives’ music is written in such a manner. He also blended European Romanticism with American Folk tunes and other familiar pieces to create something unique in his work, and this is shown in his Second Symphony, in which America the Beautiful is incorporated into one of the slow movements which is a very beautiful movement showing Ives’ ability to write music the common listener can like, in a style that is clearly 20th century also (Burkholder). This can show that there is more than just Bizarre out of touch music from the 20th century out there from even the composers stereotyped as being the writers of out of touch and bizarre music. People that listen to Orchestral Music today still prefer to listen to Romantic Period music of the 1800’s rather than listen to music written in the 1900’s. “Few Music lovers realize to what an extent we are dominated in music by the romantic tradition of the 19th century. A large porportion of the music heard nowadays was created in that century, and most of it came from German speaking countries. Nothing really new was possible in music until a reaction had set in against that tradition (From the composers of 20th century music). The entire history of modern music, therefor, may be said to be a history of gradual pull away from the Germanic musical tradition of the past Century” (Aaron Copland, Aaron Copland’s THE NEW MUSIC 1900-1960 Preface). Indeed, many works performed today in Orchestra’s work wide still play a great deal of Romantic Music due to it’s demand by audiences everywhere. Germanic Romantic music is very emotionally written music and can be better understood. This is why it is still popular with audiences today. Today there is much talk about a new composer emerging in the Orchestral Music Area. Ellen Taafe Zwilich an American Composer for orchestral music who has won the Pulitzer Prize for her first symphony. She has been commissioned and played by most of the country’s professional orchestras. Many regard her as the next major contributor of modern Orchestral music, and it is hoped that she will indeed be the next major contributor of modern orchestral music (Griffiths). There is so many different composers and styles available today with the ability to purchase and enjoy music in the comfort and convenience of one’s home that it is surprising that Modern Orchestral music today has not gained the respect that it most defiantly deserves. Only people with the courage to try to learn Classical music history and some of the basics can truly gain the full value of Orchestral music. Even with all the programming on documentary programs on the Television and the ability to even learn about music through sources on the computer using the world wide web has not really changed things all too much. These days, when you ask a friend or acquaintance if he/she has ever listened to Charles Ives, they look at you funny, and usually they will say “What are you talking about?”. Sadly, nothing can really be done about this. What no one realizes is that pop dies out is forgotten, yet Classical Music is forever. Will anyone remember who Nirvana (a grunge rock band of the 1990’s) and Modern Rock was 200 years from now? We regard Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Ives, Debussy, etc. Musical geniuses. And with only the will to understand and appreciate these works, one can forever appreciate both Classical and Modern Orchestral Music.
Sources Used:
  1. 1. Copland, Aaron. The New Music 1900-1960 McGrawl Hill Book Company, Inc., 1968.
  2. 2. Mann, William. James Gallaway’s Music in Time Mitchell Beazley Publishers and R.M. Productions, 1982.
  3. 3. Swafford, Jan. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music Quatrain Associates 1992.
  4. 4. Hamm, Charles; Nettl, Bruno; Byrnside, Ronald Contemporary Music and Music Cultures Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1975.
  5. 5. Burkholder, J. Peter; (CD program notes) Charles Ives Symphony No. 2 Performed by New York Philharmonic, Conducted by Leonard Bernstein; Deutche Grammophon (Producer) 1990.
  6. 6. Porter, Steven; The Harmonization of the Chorale Excelsior Music Publishing Company, NY, N.Y. 1987.
  7. 7. Smith, Sir Langham; (CD program notes) Debussy: La mer, Nocturnes Performed by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Sir Georg Solti, London (Publisher, CD company) 1991.
  8. 8. Evens, Roger; (CD program notes) Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (Containing 1812 Overture) Performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin, BMG Music Group, NY, NY 1995.
  9. 9. Brians, Theodore The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Music Cultures
  10. Volume A-J Bela Bartok (Pgs. 211-230) Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, Inc.,
  11. New York 1980.
  12. 10. The New Oxford Companion to Music Volume A-J CHARLES IVES (Pg. 963) Smith, Elizabeth Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford, London (England)
  13. 11. The New Yorker March 15th, 1997 ‘ Zwilich in F Sharp’ Paul Griffiths, pgs.