1960 Classical Music, part 2

In the previous article about classical music in 1960 we reviewed composers who were still writing works in the tradition of late Romantic or Impressionism. Other composers were covering new territories that put to question that exactly is classical music, or even what is music. We transition to classical music of the modern kind, with a number of notable composers who broke new ground in 20th century music. The first is a composer who in 1960 started to receive international acclaim.

Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki was born in Poland, 1933. After graduating from the Academy of Music in Kraków in 1958, he took a teaching job at the school and started to compose music influenced by Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky. He said this about that period in his career: “I was young, angry, I wanted to build my own world, forget about polyphony and harmony for many years, and I was trying to write my music. This was a time of rebellion, a time of discovery… not only me but everybody at that time, young people, especially in Europe. So we wanted to start from the beginning.”

Krzysztof Penderecki

In 1959 Penderecki got noticed with his composition Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, a work of high emotional impact achieved by the effect of tone clusters, with each of 52 musicians playing a different note. In the winter of 1959/60 he visited Italy, where he wrote a composition that was commissioned by musicologist and President of the International Society for Contemporary Music Heinrich Strobel. The work was set to premiere at the prestigious Donaueschingen Music Days, the oldest running festival for contemporary classical music.

Penderecki titled the composition Anaklasis, a term that has two meanings. One is the refraction of light or sound, the other is the substitution of a syllable with another to break up the rhythm of a poem. He scored it for 42 strings, celesta, harp, piano, and a large percussion section including xylorimba, congas, wooden-drums, vibraphone, bongos, bells, cymbals, glockenspiel, tom-toms, triangle, gong, tam-tam, and timpani to be played by six percussionists.

Krzysztof Penderecki

One innovative aspect in Penderecki’s scores is the incorporation of new musical notation for playing methods that produce new sounds. He spoke about that in an interview with Ry Robinson for The Choral Journal in 1983: “I had to do it when writing pieces like Anaklasis and Threnody. Otherwise I couldn’t write them because they employed new techniques; playing behind the bridge, playing on the bridge, a special kind of wide Vibrato, notations of clusters, the highest possible pitch, the lowest possible pitch; I had to invent signs for all these new sounds.”

Penderecki also used new methods of marking tempo changes in his score: “Because of the frequent tempo changes from bar to bar, you would have to put in each bar the metronome marking which is very complicated. You could never do it really, so what I have done is very easy: three lines indicate the three different metronome markings and another line indicates tempo change, or accelerando, or ritardando. This works very well.”

The composition makes for quite an intriguing listen, with new sounds generated from familiar instruments by dropping a pencil on strings or playing the strings with drum brushes.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Another leading innovator of new sounds and concepts in music was Karlheinz Stockhausen, who in 1960 premiered Kontakte, one of his key works. The composition is made of two parts played in parallel. The first is a tape recording of electronic sounds projected over four groups of loudspeakers surrounding the listener. The second is called Kontakte for electronic sounds, piano and percussion. These are performed live by two instrumentalists and a sound projector. Stockhausen described the origin of the composition: “I began by working at the Cologne Radio, with three percussionists who performed three variations of the music on tape, but the result wasn’t very convincing. Then I wrote out all the details of a score for pianist and percussionist that became the second version. The work was created in May 1960 and I felt it would be better if it weren’t heard only from loudspeakers but also from two musicians with whom I’d worked for several years – David Tudor on piano and Christoph Caskel on percussion.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen

If you are expecting classical music in the traditional sense of the term, seek elsewhere. Stockhausen is experimenting with sound, its projection in space and the quality of its timber.  He talked about what he was looking for: “Six categories of instrumental sounds are employed: metal sound, metal noise, skin sound, skin noise, wood sound, wood noise. The piano either connects or splits up these categories, or it gives signals in the ensemble playing.” And what about the electronic sounds? “The electronic sound categories create relationships between the instrumental categories, provide sound transformations, and sound mutations to completely new sound events. They fuse with them and alienate themselves into previously unknown sound spaces.” Confused? Watch the performance below to experience that unique musical event.

Kontakte, for electronic sounds, piano and percussion performed by Benjamin Kobler, piano and Dirk Rothbrust, percussion:

One of the main practitioners of Musique Concrète, Stockhausen explained how this composition is associated with the genre: “At the time I wasn’t basing myself on any tradition. You can’t change the timbres of a piano, but for Kontakte I manufactured the sounds and naturally, I used those that pleased me most. Still, there is a certain resemblance in Kontakte to familiar percussive timbres. From the start I aimed at synthesizing abstract and concrete sounds. Abstract sounds sound like nothing we know of, whereas concrete sounds remind us of metal, wood, strings, and skin. Kontakte is therefore a synthesis of abstract and concrete.”

Stockhausen was meticulous in his notation of the score and the way the music was presented. Special instructions were given to the performers regarding their movements on stage, as if this was a theatrical performance. Stockhausen: “I’ve always paid particular attention to movement: how to come onstage, how to leave, how to place a group of instrumentalists, and so on. The movements of the pianist and percussionist, who go to center-stage then back to their instruments, are all written in. I think that when we attend a musical performance the visual aspect is as important as what we hear, it is art too and that aspect must also be composed.”

Kontakte premiered on May 10 of 1960 at a festival concert for the International Society for Contemporary Music in Cologne. Some critics had the foresight to realize how far this type of music might go in the future. Others were less complimentary to the point of insult. Stockhausen remembers: “There were more people who didn’t like it. Moreover, they were most unpleasant to me about it. For example, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the extremely influential composer and president of the German section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, passed by me on leaving the hall and said, ‘Scheißen Stücke!’ – ‘A piece of shit!’ – I was really hurt.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen in the WDR studio for electronic music around 1960

Stockhausen studied under the next composer in this review, Olivier Messiaen. This is what he said about the French composer: “I went to Paris in 1952 because I was deeply touched by his Trois petits liturgies which I had heard as a student in Cologne. Later I heard at Darmstadt his Quatre Études de rythme for piano. There was an atmosphere in Messiaen which struck me as being new and yet very lyrical, very poetic.”

Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen

In 1960 Messiaen was occupied with nature sounds and their relationship to orchestral music. His notebook entry taken during a vacation in rural France in the summer of 1959 reads: “Two choughs, with red feet and little grey and red horizontally-striped wings, hover and twist uneasily. Their movements, and the sudden noises of falling rock, contrast with the awesome silence and stillness.” He transcribed the sounds as music notes, and the idea came into his head to incorporate birdsong and sounds of waterfall and wild water into his music.

His next composition saw the fulfillment of that idea. On another commission from German musicologist Heinrich Ströbel, he started to write an orchestral composition to be premiered in 1960 at the Donaueschingen Festival with conductor Hans Rosbaud. In addition to the large array of woodwind, brass and strings sections, the orchestral work included a wealth of tuned percussion including marimba and a fully chromatic set of twenty-five tubular bells. Birdsongs make an appearance in the composition in a fashion that Messiaen said was “submitted to all kinds of manipulation in the manner of composers of electronic music and musique concrete.” Messiaen called his composition Chronochromie, its literal translation means “color of time.” Messiaen added that from a poetic point of view, “it is a sun-drenched protest against twelve-tone music.”

Olivier Messiaen with Pierre Boulez

Footnotes in the score explain the connection between nature and the sounds produced by the orchestra, for example: “The sound of water turning is given mainly to the violas and cellos. The bassoons, bass clarinet, tuba and pizzicato on the double bass should be heard only intermittently. The trills are merely vapor and confusion.”

Messiaen told an interviewer who asked on the morning of the composition’s first performance in France in 1961 if parts of the work were improvised: “Six months of research, two years of orchestration: please let us not speak of chance or improvisation.” One critic wrote after the performance that “Nature is present to humanize the intellectual workings, and the sounds of the natural world color the arbitrary divisions of time. This explains the title of the work, split into seven sequences that reproduce, in enlarged form, the traditional triad of Greek poetry.” However the same critic also observed that the minutely-detailed organization sounded a matter of chance and “All those birdsongs, lovingly transcribed and scrupulously varied, gave the impression that we were trapped in a mad aviary.”

Here is Epode, part 6 in the 7-part Chronochromie for Large Orchestra, performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez:

Stockhausen and Messiaen were both finding new ways to notate music to instruct performers of new methods to generate sounds from their instruments. Another composer of modern classical and avant-garde music tried to provide a level of improvisation to the performer while still using notation as a guideline.

John Cage

In 1960 John Cage composed the whimsical yet serious work Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Talking about the composition, he said that “It sounds like ancient Chinese music with Korean influence. Each sound is magnificent, but the means of producing them are hilarious.”

John Cage and a Toy Piano

Cage has been experimenting with indeterminate music scores in the past. His 1958 work “Concert for piano and orchestra” gives the performers freedom in selecting the exact instrumentation and the order in which they play various sections from the score. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos he was flexible with the number of toy pianos utilized, and the instructions are given on eight transparent sheets that can be overlaid in any order, providing a guideline to notes and various noises. The choice of noise making devices is up to the performer. One musician noted that he used a ping pong ball in a glass bowl, a pile of wood, a whisk, a candy wrapper, empty and half-full beer bottles, tin cans, a wind-up toy car, eyeglass cases, and bamboo wind chimes.

In March of 1960 Cage wrote a letter to his friend Peter Yates in which he described an early performance of the piece: “My most recent piece pleases me. David [Tudor] performed it at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It is for amplified toy pianos called Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Can use any number (in this occasion five were used, each amplified). The sound is majestic not only from the keys but from the wooden structures, the rods plucked and brushed and the instruments dragged across wood, squeaking legs, etc.”

John Cage 1964

Compositions like this and La Monte Young’s ‘Compositions 1960’ raised the question over what is classical music and can these works be considered ‘proper’ compositions? In his book ‘Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond’, Michael Nyman pays attention to one of the most gratifying aspects in Cage’s music: “One would be grateful to Cage simply for seeing his present function as a composer not as a dictator’s, but as one that liberates the full play of the musician’s imagination in performance.”

Here is one performance of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos:

Igor Stravinsky

We end this review with one of the masters of 20th century music who toward the end of his career found inspiration in the music of younger composers he inspired a generation past. In the 1950s Igor Stravinsky renewed his interest in the twelve-tone system developed by Arnold Schoenberg and the concept of serialism practiced by composers associated with the Darmstadt School. He said about these influences: “Of course, it requires greater effort to learn from one’s juniors. But when you are seventy-five and your generation has overlapped with four younger ones, it behooves you not to decide in advance ‘how far composers can go’, but to try to discover whatever new thing it is makes the new generation new.” Smart man.

Igor Stravinsky 1968

Stravinsky composed the work “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” on commission received in 1958 by Swiss industrialist Karl Weber for his pianist wife Margrit Weber. For the sum of $15,000 the Webers asked for 15-20 minutes of music. Stravinsky wrote a score for piano and a very small chamber orchestra, lasting less than 10 minutes. The Webers raised some objections and after receiving a letter addressed by them, Stravinsky gave way and as he wrote in a letter back, “added one or two minutes of music.”

Igor Stravinsky and Margrit Weber

The composition saw its premiere at a Stravinsky Festival in New York’s Town Hall on January 10, 1960 with the composer himself conducting. The program notes included this introduction by Stravinsky: “I, in fact, discovered new serial combinations in the Movements for Piano and Orchestra (and I also discovered along the way that I was becoming a composer not less, but more serial). The Movements are, of all that I have composed, the most advanced music from the point of view of construction. Every aspect of the composition was guided by the serial shapes: sixes, quadrilaterals, triangles, etc. The fifth movement, for example (which cost me a gigantic effort I rewrote it twice), uses a construction of twelve verticals.”

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