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New Ears for New Music

Translated by Kenneth Chalmers

Constantin Floros

20th-century music is characterized by a bewildering multitude of trends and movements. Often several movements co-exist in contradiction to each other, in a reflection of the century’s intellectual currents and social and political changes, and the reactions they prompted. In this book, renowned musicologist and author Constantin Floros provides a survey of the different styles and tendencies in new music, presenting the most important composers from Schoenberg to Rihm in a series of fluent and readable essays that will appeal to connoisseurs and non-specialists alike. For Floros, music and biography are inseparable, and here he puts music in the context of the social and psychological background of its time.
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Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder

Extract

Arnold Schoenberg’s monumental Gurrelieder, composed at the dawn of the 20th century, occupies a prominent position in the history of new music. It is one of the composer’s most substantial and significant works, and in many ways it stands as the magnum opus of his first creative period, defined by his use of extended tonality. Schoenberg himself attached particular importance to it for his compositional development. In a letter of 19 August 1912 to Emil Hertzka, director of Universal Edition, he referred to it as “the key to my entire development. It shows sides of me that I no longer show, or if I do, on another basis. It explains how everything later had to come, and that is hugely important for my work: that the man and his development can be traced from this point on”.1

The premiere in Vienna on 23 February 1913 (given in the Großer Saal of the Musikverein under Franz Schreker) was an unexpected and overwhelming success. For once, the normally indifferent press joined in the general chorus of praise. Webern enthused over the “roaring, unprecedented” sound of the “magnificent work”, and counted himself fortunate to have at last experienced the recognition bestowed on his revered teacher. To this day, Gurrelieder remains Schoenberg’s most successful work.

There are a number of elements to take into account in any consideration of the reasons for this quite exceptional success. After Wagner, many composers understood music as a medium for conveying ideological...

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