Timeline

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Timeline is a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition. Hosted by VPR Classical's James Stewart.

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Timeline is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

    

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The art of writing down melodies, preserving sound in time, was not something that was first invented just 1,000 years ago. Humans have made music for most of our history, let's explore some of the earliest examples of musical notation. The first comes to us from a culture that’s nearly 3,400 years old.

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Music has always been created with a specific venue in mind. The composer may not know who will be in the audience or how it will be received but they know it has to be played on an instrument or sound system in a place. Throughout all of history, whether it was a church, a ballroom, a dance hall, an opera house or a dive bar, music was written to fill that location.

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In the 20th century no medium affected culture more than film. The music written to accompany the images, story and dialogue has become a huge part of the movie-going experience. In many cases it’s impossible to separate the musical theme from the film itself; the two become one in our minds.

Timeline: Minimalism

Apr 3, 2017
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The music of the early 20th century was marked by increasing complexity and abstraction. Serialism and the chance practices of John Cage and his followers created an aesthetic that stood opposed to the Romanticism of the century before. In the '60s and '70s a counter-reaction began to emerge as a new group of young composers sought to free themselves from the strict rules of atonalism and serialism and embrace the simplicity of minimalism.

Every morning, for more than 75 years, American composer Elliott Carter would awaken and go to his studio to write music. Carter and his wife, Helen Frost-Jones, lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, since 1945. He was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, composing over 40 works after the age of 90. Carter’s music encompasses many of the influences and styles that shaped the last 100 years of music.

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Musical labels are useful. The title of a genre or style comes in handy in the record store, on the radio or for streaming services. But these labels can also be problematic and divisive.

James Stewart

In 1952, on a summer day in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor held an outdoor recital of contemporary piano music. During this concert he premiered a new work by composer John Cage. For this performance, Tudor sat at the piano with the lid closed, keys covered for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, split into 3 movements. The results of this performance are still controversial to this day.

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In the second half of the 20th century, technology evolved at an ever-increasing pace. The ability to capture a performance and manipulate recorded sound allowed musicians, artists and composers a freedom that they had never experienced before. It all started with the advent and adoption of magnetic tape.

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As a composer, Aaron Copland desired to be as American in his music as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian. He was always interested in expressing his Inscape, the true emotions happening within him. His writings, music and instruction helped bring the rigor of the European tradition to American music and influenced a generation of composers.

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His life embodied the American dream. Starting from nothing, he used his talents and musical intuition to build a fortune and an international reputation. George Gershwin’s music touched a diverse array of audiences and forms, from popular song to concerti to opera. In his short life he helped shape the future of American music.

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The modern American musical is usually associated with the “triple threat”, singing, dancing and acting. It is also the culmination of costume and set design utilizing resources and technology that would make Wagner jealous. The line that connects operas to musicals is a complicated one, influenced by shifting cultural tastes, commercial enterprise and a wide ocean.

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Aaron Copland, Jean Franciax, Elliot Carter, Philipp Glass and Quincy Jones; what do all of these musicians have in common? They were all students of Nadia Boulanger. Nadia was a composer, conductor and teacher. For seven decades, out of her family’s flat in Paris, she taught some of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams spent 60 years in the public eye as a composer, conductor, professor and writer. His work set off a renaissance of English music in the 20th century.

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Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich saw himself a Soviet man first and a composer second. He felt that it was his duty to compose music for his countrymen that reflected the heart of the Soviet ideal. He left behind 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets that stand as some of the most influential works of the 20th century.

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As World War II began to rage across Europe and the Pacific, communication technology had spread to most of the world. Radio and recording allowed a unified soundtrack of the conflict shared across continents and oceans. Both sides of the war began to practice the art of propaganda in an effort to inspire their people or demoralize their enemies. Music played an important role in this effort to control the hearts of the populace as each country strove to find their musical voice during the war.

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When he heard harmony, he saw color. Olivier Messiaen was not just a visionary composer; he was an organist, an ornithologist and a professor of world-wide acclaim. He was influenced by Ancient Greek theory, Hindu and Japanese culture, his own Roman Catholic faith and the songs of his feathered friends. His music stands as a pillar of the avant-garde in the 20th century.

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Today, music is everywhere. Invisible signals fly through the air carrying every possible genre and style that a person could ever want. We can access them from our homes, cars and phones enjoying content from around the world. In the 19th century this type of technology was just a dream in the minds of scientists and inventors, but the 20th century saw an explosion of communication and the rise of a device we call the radio.

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German composer, Paul Hindemith was a central figure in music and music theory in the 20th century, especially in the period between the wars. His music, teaching methods and theoretical treatises influenced a generation of composers.

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In previous centuries there were prevailing styles and forms of music. The Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras have their own set of conventions that composers followed. But the 20th century saw fragmentation as composers reacted and counter-reacted to the artistic expressions around them. Neoclassism is an example of such a reaction.

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Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is an excellent example of the Russian composer’s style; modernist harmonic expression with accessible melodies and familiar forms. His life though, was far from a fairytale and chronicles the volatile changes in Russia and the world in the first half of the 20th century.

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