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What is Classical Music?

The term “classical music” has been applied to a range of music from different cultures, and gradually came to mean “authentic” or “principal.” In Western European music, it is distinguished from “popular” music, although history has shown that popular and classical forms were once closely woven together and to some extent, still are. Classical music has also developed its own conventional history, which unfolds over a series of periods including the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Enlightenment or Classical (with a capital “C”), and the Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary eras, each of which evolved characteristic styles and forms. Whichever way we approach them, each of these periods also reveals its own particular beauty. This series of compilations invites the listener to savour salient examples of works penned by composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras and gleaned from Analekta’s impressive roster of performers.

Jewels of the 20th Century

The 20th century was for music, as with other arts, a time of rather revolutionary aesthetic change. But not all composers felt that wiping the slate clean of the past was a good idea; many instead took alternative routes, exploring both the music of other countries and the rich traditions of their native lands to forge deeply personal and exceptionally beautiful musical languages. Jewels of the 20th Century offers listeners a taste of some of these composers: three Frenchmen, three Russians, a Spaniard, a Czech, two North Americans and one South American.

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French composers from around the turn of the 20th century are often grouped together under the term “impressionists.” The word was first used by an art critic in an attempt to ridicule an 1874 Paris exhibition by a group of painters who were questioning academic conventions of the day. The critic took the expression from the title of one of the paintings, Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise. The artists later adopted the term as an emblem. Despite the diversity of their art, they had the common and somewhat paradoxical goal of depicting through fixed images the nebulous, fluctuating and volatile aspects of nature (water, clouds, the day’s different lights). At a technical level, they rejected the claim to truth of precise drawings and pure forms; instead, they were interested in optically mixing spots of colour to create forms that the viewer’s eye could only properly resolve by stepping back from the painting.

Ten years later, Claude Debussy was reproached for essentially the musical equivalent. At the end of his studies, a member of the jury had this to say about the works he had submitted: “Monsieur Debussy sins through neither platitude nor banality. Quite on the contrary, he shows a pronounced tendency, too pronounced even, to seek out the strange. We recognize in him a feeling for musical colour, whose exaggeration causes him to forget the importance of precision in drawing and form. It would be highly desirable that he be wary of this vague “impressionism,” which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art.”

It is ironically for these very reasons that Debussy, Ravel and Satie are today considered among the most original “poets” or “painters” in the history of music, and the three works presented here among the quintessence of their art.

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The Russian school was long divided between its fascination with the German ideal of “pure music,” represented by Brahms and his emulator Tchaikovsky, and its desire to find an original voice by drawing upon sources of national folklore, in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov and “The Five.” At the dawn of the 20th century, many viewed Aleksandr Glazunov (1865–1936) as their logical successor, the man who resolved the conflict by fusing the best of both worlds. As illustrated by his beautiful “Chant du Ménestrel” (Minstrel’s Song), Glazunov combined an innate sense of stylish melody with a consummate mastery of form, polyphonic texture and instrumental colour. A first-rate teacher, he was the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory for over 20 years (1905–1928) and strongly influenced the next two generations of Russian composers, represented here respectively by Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975).

Shortly after 1910, just as he was turning twenty, Prokofiev, a child prodigy of the piano, began to amaze audiences as a composer as well, with works of great rhythmical and harmonic intensity, such as his first violin concerto. Shostakovich continued down this path, leaving upon his death in 1975 an immense and diverse oeuvre dominated by two major cycles of 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Spanish popular music enjoyed a surprising period of vogue among both French and Russian composers, many of whom wrote “rhapsodies,” “serenades,” or “hours” which they qualified as “Spanish.” A generation later, Spanish composers themselves would take up this meeting of the classical European aesthetic and their own traditional music. Alongside the dominant figure of Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo (1901–1999) would earn distinction by composing for flamenco’s favourite instrument, the guitar. With his Concierto de Aranjuez (1940), Rodrigo gained both a reputation and entrance into the world’s great concert halls.

Of Czech origin, Bohuslav Martinù (1890–1959) first worked in France, composing imaginative and picturesque orchestral works such as La bagarre, influenced by his teacher Roussel and his friends in “Les Six.” When World War II broke out, he emigrated to the United States, where he was hailed as the new Dvorák, his illustrious compatriot who had conquered America with his New World Symphony 50 years earlier. In the U.S., Martinù received a number of commissions from American orchestras, including five of his six symphonies, before returning to Europe at the end of the war. Throughout his career, however, he wrote many concertos and chamber works for diverse combinations with an inexhaustible energy, as shown by his Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano.

If Ravel, Martinù and other composers, such as those of “Les Six,” came to jazz and ragtime from a classical background, George Gershwin (1898–1937) in a sense took the opposite path. Growing up in New York City’s slums, he was exposed to the intoxicating rhythms of America’s poor neighbourhoods before discovering European music through his contact with Ravel, among others. It did not take him long to assimilate the refinements of French impressionism, but he breathed a new energy into it with jazz. His Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Concerto in F (1925) made him the first American composer to achieve an international stature comparable to the great European names of the day.

The Canadian André Mathieu (1929–1948) was compared to Mozart from his very early youth, both locally and internationally. Like Mozart, he was the son of a composer, and his musical education and early career was overseen by his father. He composed his first piece at the age of four, and the New York Times mentioned that “even Mozart, the greatest musical prodigy of all time, only began composing at the age of five, and his first works were much simpler in nature than those of the young Canadian.” Like Mozart, he toured as a child prodigy: at the age of seven, he had played in Paris at Pleyel and Gaveau halls; he was ten when he gave his Carnegie Hall debut. Rachmaninov declared Mathieu “a genius, more so than I am.” He studied composition in Paris and New York and composed over two hundred works, only one quarter of which have been found today.

Finally, like the works of Mathieu, those of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1889–1959) deserve much wider popularity and dissemination. What Gershwin did by fusing classical music with jazz, Villa-Lobos undertook with the ethnic music of his native Brazil, which the European pubic received with much enthusiasm during his numerous trips to the old world between the two wars. His Chôros for solo guitar, presented here, is but a tiny flower when compared to the great tropical rainforest of his lush oeuvre, but it is a seductive microcosm of this little-known giant’s work.

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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About

Angèle Dubeau
AN 2 9297 – Sas Agapo
AN 2 9297 – Sas Agapo
AN 2 9297 – Sas Agapo

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