Wednesday mornings 10.15-12.15
Autumn term 2018 October 10, 17, 31; November 7, 14, 21
Spring term 2019 February 6, 13, 27; March 6, 13, 20
The famous ‘Tristan’ chord in Wagner’s 1865 opera changed music for ever. Conveying a sense of harmonic uncertainty, it unsettled the expectation that music sits comfortably in one key, venturing occasionally into related keys but always returning to a reassuringly familiar tonal ‘home’. After Tristan, tonality began to dissolve, and composers had to think afresh.
While some continued to espouse well-tried forms like the symphony, pouring new material into ‘old’ structures, others pioneered new approaches to writing, developing techniques no longer reliant on the accepted rules of keys and harmony. Performers too had to cultivate different skills, while audiences were obliged to embrace new ways of listening. Everything was changing, and so was music.
Music in Time and Place spotlights a series of major works across Europe and the USA, each illustrating a particular style of music after 1900. Though the music is always centre stage, we also consider the context – historical, political and cultural – of the work’s premiere, capturing a sense of what it was like to be there, on that day, at that performance. Sessions include occasional contributions from artists and writers adding further perspective. Finally, we examine the intriguing area of performance reception: what those present – audience, performers and critics – thought of the music they were hearing, and why.
Wednesday 10 October, 10.15–12.15 Katy Hamilton Presenter
Claude Debussy: L’après-midi d’un faune December 1894, Paris
It seems astonishing now that the premiere of this most sensuous, revolutionary work went almost unnoticed at the time, but Debussy’s magical realisation of the Symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé has become one of his best-loved pieces. We raise the curtain on fin-de-siècle Paris, its poetry, its love of ambiguity and exoticism, and this orchestral work which, in Mallarmé’s own words, transforms his words ‘into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness’.
Wednesday 17 October, 10.15–12.15 Karl Lutchmayer Presenter
Arnold Schoenberg: The ‘Scandal’ Concert, 31 March 1913, Vienna
Two months before the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg and his circle presented a concert in the hallowed halls of the Musikverein. Following fast on the heels of the great success of his Gurrelieder the previous month, the Expressionist outlook of the music proved too much for the bourgeois audience in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a full-blown riot ensued. Just as with Gavrilo Princip’s fateful bullet the following year, this could be said to have marked the turning point from 19th century certainties to 20th century existential crises.
Wednesday 31 October, 10.15–12.15 Katy Hamilton Presenter
William Walton Symphony No. 1 in B at minor, 3 December 1934, London
The musical scene of 1930s England was a vibrant, edgy, and rapidly darkening world. Benjamin Britten was approaching adulthood; Stravinsky came visiting the capital; but the heady freedom of the jazz age was threatened by the growing clouds of war. William Walton’s energetic Symphony no. 1 is brimming with a potent mix of driving, jazzy energy, borderline atonality and a nod (or a thumbing of the nose?) at contemporary British Nationalism.
Wednesday 7 November, 10.15–12.15 Jeremy Sams Presenter
Kurt Weill: Der Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) 31 August 1928, Berlin
John Gay’s 1728 satirical ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera inspired a collaboration two centuries later between ardent anti-capitalists Weill and Brecht. The result was The Threepenny Opera, a sardonic updating of the original show. Its straightforward narrative, cabaret-like tunes, all underpinned by the familiar sound of a German dance band belie the darkly disturbing themes, thuggish overtones and earthily visceral characterisations. This was entertainment for the people, not the elite.
Wednesday 14 November, 10–15–12.15 Katy Hamilton Presenter
Charles Ives Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass., 1840–60, 28 November 1938, Cos Cob, Connecticut
Aaron Copland Quiet City, 29 January 1941, New York
What does America sound like? In these two contrasting works, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland present views of town and country – from the writers Thoreau and Emerson to the isolation of city living and the search for the American dream. Their premiere performances fell within just a few years, on the eve of the Second World War: a meeting of generations as Ives looked back to the words and popular music of the nineteenth century, and Copland mused on the opportunities and isolation of the twentieth.
Wednesday 21 November, 10.15–12.15 Karl Lutchmayer Presenter
Witold Lutoslawski: Paganini Variations 1941, Warsaw
Amidst the destruction and roundups of Warsaw under the German occupation, Poles were forbidden from taking part in cultural events. Only café concerts remained, where, as a piano duo, Lutoslawski and Panufnik went far beyond the expected popular music to play their own, frequently modernised, transcriptions of music from Bach to Ravel. Of the over 200 works they performed, only the arresting Paganini Variations survives. Far from the tradition of such a title, it was a veritable call to arms for the continuation of the intellectual life of the city.
Wednesday 6 February, 10.15–12.15 Karl Lutchmayer Presenter
Pierre Boulez and Les Flèches 8 December 1944, Paris
Although appointed as a teacher of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire (under the Vichy government who had dismissed Bloch under the Statut des Juifs), Olivier Messiaen was a magnet to a wide range of young avant-garde musicians who gathered for his analysis seminars conducted in a private house in Paris. Centred as much on composition as analysis, the classes later became legendary, changing the face of European composition through attendees such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Wednesday 13 February, 10.15–12.15 Karl Lutchmayer Presenter
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen 25 January 1946, Zurich
Completing Karl’s series of lectures of events based around music and war, this session looks at Strauss’ complex relationship with the Nazi regime. Culminating in Metamorphosen, the lush, post-Romantic work for strings written in the last months of the war, we trace the composer’s disgust for the ideology, but impotence in the face of self-interest. How should we understand the difference between a musician’s actions and his works?
Wednesday 27 February, 10.15–12.15 Katy Hamilton Presenter
John Adams: Nixon in China 22 October 1987, Houston
In what was to become the first of a string of operas based on contemporary events, Minimalist composer John Adams tells the story of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. This eclectic score features references to everything from Gershwin and Wagner to Philip Glass and Johann Strauss – with Nixon’s own words even set in a way to capture his recognisable speech patterns. A little over a decade after Nixon’s political demise and the Watergate Scandal, Nixon in China brings the 1970s vividly to life, as American and Chinese leaders alike are forced to ask: ‘How much of what we did was good?’
Wednesday 6 March, 10.15–12.15 Stephen Johnson Presenter
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8. 1960, Leningrad
Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet is one of the very few twentieth-century chamber works to achieve widespread popularity, yet its language can be challenging, and its tone is heartbreakingly elegiac. What is it about this profoundly troubled piece that speaks to so many? And why is its message not ultimately bleak? Stephen Johnson looks at the music in detail, and offers some possible answers.
Wednesday 13 March, 10.15–12.15 Jeremy Sams Presenter
Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story 26 September 1957, New York
In his 2007 book ‘The Rest is Noise’, Alex Ross describes West Side Story as a ‘beautifully engineered piece of pop theatre… a sophisticated essay in twentieth-century style’. Bernstein was a prodigiously gifted composer and charismatic conductor who worked in a range of styles. The dazzling success of West Side Story possibly detracted from his more ‘serious’ works, a fact that haunted the composer throughout his life.
Wednesday 20 March, 10.15–12.15 Katy Hamilton and Karl Lutchmayer Presenters
Today: Why music?
After educating, inspiring and entertaining us throughout this season, Katy Hamilton and Karl Lutchmayer are themselves in the spotlight. In this session they reveal the origins of their own tastes in music since 1900 – their likes and dislikes, blind spots and passions. True to Music Talks tradition, the course concludes with a drinks reception.