Hugh Wolff, New England Conservatory's Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, has constructed a program of music written over the space of a few years in the mid-1890s, in the wake of Richard Wagner's death, for his November 7 concert with the NEC Philharmonia. Wolff has written these notes to describe an era when questions of Wagner's influence on the future of music cast a long shadow on the horizon for young composers.
After Wagner, What?
Music at the Turn of the 20th Century
Like Beethoven before him, Wagner’s influence on his contemporaries was profound. Young composers found it particularly difficult to emerge from under the shadow of the master. His death in 1883 created a void. What would the future of music be?
This evening we perform works by four composers, each of whom could lay claim to charting that future. The four were between the ages of 18 and 28 when Wagner died; the works on tonight’s program were composed between 1892 and 1896. Each composer struggled to come to terms with Wagner’s music, and each emerged with his own style. As you will hear, the four composers represented radically different trajectories for music at the turn of the 20th century.
The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) was Claude Debussy’s breakout piece. With it he abandoned his youthful enthusiasm for Wagner and laid the foundation for the next thirty years of French music: transparent textures, intricate orchestration, and harmony free from traditional moorings—altered chords floating freely in space, without the logical functionality of German music. The famous quasi-chromatic opening flute solo sets the sleepy and sensual scene. The music rises on slow waves to an ecstatic climax in D-flat Major, then gradually subsides.
Like Debussy, the young Jean Sibelius admired Wagner but over time came to think of his music as overblown. Sibelius was interested in the latest musical developments in Central Europe, but living and working on the periphery he chose a path that focused on Finnish culture. En Saga (1892), which means “fairy tale,” illustrates the hallmarks of his style: dark textures, large-scale repetitive harmonic and melodic patterns (precursors of the compressed ostinatos of Stravinsky and Bartók two decades later), modal harmonies, overlapping and dovetailed phrases in which one section of the orchestra emerges as another subsides, and a propulsive sense of rhythm.
Leoš Janáček was the oldest of the four composers. He wrote the brief overture Jealousy (1894) for his opera Jenůfa, but ultimately set it aside as a concert work. Like Sibelius, Janáček was a national composer, keenly interested in establishing a Czech style. He experimented with “speech melody” based on the tones and cadence of the Czech language. This led to a musical language that was terse, rhythmic, direct and natural, in contrast to Wagner’s slow-moving, monumental style. As in Sibelius’s music, Janáček’s harmonies often move in blocks, and obsessive rhythmic patterns define the structure.
That a composer would be moved to write a grand symphonic tone poem based on a philosophical book is striking. But the radical ideas of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) captivated the young intelligentsia of late 19th-century Germany. His influence on this group was profound—it was joked that at any lively gathering of educated men and women in Germany in the 1890s, Nietzsche’s name would be mentioned within thirty minutes.
It is not difficult to see why he appealed to rebellious and ambitious youth. He was deeply disappointed in European culture, which he felt was characterized by fear, hypocrisy and indifference, and he bemoaned the power of external forces—government, religion, morality and custom—on his fellow citizens. He believed these forces stifled innate human strengths: the ability to reason, take risks, and chart one’s own destiny. Nietzsche’s ideal was a human free of constraints, striving for self-improvement, throwing off what he called the heavy and restraining “Spirit of Gravity,” banishing the gnawing voice of self-doubt. He thought that through the “will to power,” man could become an “Übermensch” (Superman).
In his book Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85), Nietzsche uses the character of the prophet Zarathustra as his spokesman. Zarathustra speaks in lyric and pithy narratives, at times whimsical or obscure, to describe the world’s woeful condition and outline solutions. Each short narrative chapter ends with the words “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus spake Zarathustra).
Richard Strauss used eight of these chapter titles as subtitles to his 1896 tone poem of the same name. A fervent Wagnerian, he applied Wagner’s leitmotif technique to the central ideas of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Strauss labeled three leitmotifs in his sketches: the opening rising trumpet call, which he called “Natur” (Nature), the soaring rising arpeggio “Sehnsucht” (Longing), and the stark descending tritone followed by a chromatic figure “Ekel” (Disgust). These provide a roadmap for the piece. The rising figures are Zarathustra’s calls to throw off the old and risk the new, the descending tritone a wail of failure and disappointment. There is a parallel in the harmonic structure: C Major the key of striving, and B Minor the key of disappointment.
Gradually, the former overcomes the latter and, after an ecstatic dance featuring the solo violin (Nietzsche believed music and dance could lead to a more exalted existence), the soaring arpeggio “longing” dominates a C Major apotheosis. But the music takes a surprising turn. Nietzsche concluded that everything is ephemeral, that the past and the future are infinite and as such, must contain each other. In his universe, past and future are ultimately one and the same, and time is a circle of recurrence. We will live it all, soaring and falling, over and over again.
So Strauss adds a striking and ambiguous coda. The woodwinds and solo violin soar into the highest, thinnest air of B Major, while the opening trumpet call reappears still in C, but now earthbound in the cellos and basses. The roles have been reversed: the trumpet’s call to action and the key of C now sound like a question, and B, the key of disappointment, has become the key of the transcendence. The past has become future; the future has become past. It is an utterly brilliant stroke that expresses in music the extraordinary complexity of Nietzsche’s prose.