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Zoltan Kodaly, Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky.Three foreign-born composers whose output ranges from unobtrusively important to riot inducing works.They encompass music’s three principles: education, exploration, experimentation.
Deemed “Hungary’s greatest composer and music pedagogue” (Jeter) Zoltan Kodaly, was born December 16, 1882.As a child, Kodaly taught himself piano, violin, cello, and voice.Later, he pursued Composition/Education degrees at Budapest’s Academy of Music and, in 1905, collaborated with friend, Bela Bartok, to preserve folk songs, collecting roughly 100,000 in his lifetime.
Kodaly’s compositional reputation is one of moderation and consistency.His works are harmonically smooth, minimally contrapuntal, and, as Bartok described, “…the perfect embodiment of…Hungarian spirit” (www.bbc.co.uk)The orchestral suite from opera Hary Janos (the story of an imaginative soldier with no regard for reality) remains Kodaly’s most popular work.His Sonata for solo Cello is similarly regarded as “one of the great virtuoso instrumental pieces of the 20th century”
Kodaly primarily influenced education. Returning to Budapest’s Academy of Music as a professor, he committed himself to creating a musically literate society.He implemented daily music classes at primary school level, and composed choral exercises for children.Kodaly’s three-pronged approach—1) aural, 2) written, 3) read—taught children to sing in tune, improvise, and sight-sing impeccably.The method combined rhythm symbols, syllables, and hand signals.These hand positions provided singers with visual cues of pitches and tonal relationships.Kodaly also devised “solfege”—a way of simplifying music for beginners.Kodaly’s innovative methods became Hungary’s state policy after World War 2, eventually spreading worldwide.Today, Hungary’s Zoltan Kodaly Grammar School still pursues music literacy by providing children an outlet for intensive study (Jeter).
On December 22, 1883—several hundred miles from Hungary—French-born, Edgar Varese, welcomed life and a lifelong love affair with music.Percussion and woodwinds fascinated him, even during childhood.By age 11, he had composed an opera and imagined, one day, of transmuting the Zambesi River’s “turbulent movement into sound.” (www.bbc.co.uk)Varese’s father harbored hopes for his son to become an engineer, hopes which bred a violent father-son relationship.After a final fall-out with his father, Varese relocated to Paris to study with Charles Wilder.His most fruitful years of composition would occur in New York City, between 1920-1934.
Exploration was vital to Varese’s legacy. While traces of Stravinksy and Debussy are audible in Ameriques (his American debut composition for large orchestra), Varese attempted to go even farther afield.His music introduced “new fashions of attack…” (Ministere des Affaires) along with “slabs of monumental sound…juxtaposed [with] scraps of melody” (www.
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Varese’s Hyperprism caused riotous reaction at its 1923 New York premiere.Scored for flute, clarinet, brass, percussion, and siren, Varese blended flavors of urban music with science and modern-life realities.Critics were venomous; listeners, shocked “they were being expected to listen to sounds of the street inside the concert hall” (www.bbc.co.uk)Ionisation (1931), written for percussion orchestra, was the first European composition to make pitched sounds obsolete.Even the piano part has instructions to play with elbows and fists.1935-49 marked Varese’s darkest years.Plagued by thoughts of suicide, he managed to complete only one piece—Density 21.5—commissioned by flutist friend, Georges Barere, to inaugurate his platinum flute.The solo uses extended techniques and complex rhythms so gratuitously, it was deemed unplayable during Varese’s lifetime.Today, it remains standard professional flutist repertoire.
Fortunately, Varese’s “blue period” saw its end by 1954, when invention of the tape recorder made possible a music Varese longed to create: electronic.Deserts for winds, pitched percussion, and tape, is a strong representation of Varese’s subtle orchestration and “eerie beauty of sonorities” (Stryker).Varese’s mission to discover new worlds and create pieces dependent on rhythm and texture resulted in “firecely dissonant [music], rhythmically complex polyphonies…forms in continuous evolution” (Sadie)Simply put, Varese’s revolutionary music “can still shock the hell out of an audience” (Stryker).
Igor Stravinsky, remains the century’s most shocking and versatile composer.Born in Russia, 1882, Stravinsky’s childhood was musically wealthy.Son of a famous opera singer, Stravinsky studied piano as well as harmony/counterpoint.His parents sent him to St. Petersburg University to obtain a Criminal Law/Legal Philosophy degree.At the University, Stravinsky befriended Rimsky-Korsakov’s son, whose father developed a special interest for Stravinsky’s compositions and tutored him, discouraging him from formal conservatory training.
The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s most notable contribution, was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes.Rite is the story of an ancient tribe’s sacrifice of an adolescent virgin whom, in order to save the Earth, must dance herself to death.The violent music is intensely rhythmic, almost disorienting with its syncopation and accents.During Rite’s May 28, 1913 evening premiere at Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the prelude’s opening measures “evoked derisive laughter” from the audience (Harrington).Composer, Camille Saint-Saens stormed out immediately, upset at Stravinsky’s abuse of the bassoon.Fights erupted between audience members.Stravinsky fled to the wings where choreographer, Nijinsky shouted counts to the dancers, so enraged that Stravinsky, literally, had to hold his shirt to prevent his attacking the irreverent crowd.
Though Rite’s controversy remains unparalleled, Stravinsky’s other compositions were equally unique.He was unafraid to invent new sounds; neither was he timid about suiting already-established styles to his tastes.An affinity for ragtime and jazz is apparent in Ragtime for 11 Instruments and Ebony Concerto.Rations of wartime pointed Stravinsky to small, staged chamber works like L’Histoire du Soldat and Les Noces.Baroque and Classical traditions tinge opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex and Pulcinella.Ballets Rite and Petroushka are flavored with Russian folksong (Hanning 481-491).
Each composition is full of “verismo...lean counterpoint...bright orchestral colors...alert rhythms” (Hanning481).Of these, most important is rhythm.While other composers tested the limitations of tonality, Stravinsky paved the way for POLYrhythm.Philip Glass wrote of Stravinsky:
...all seemed to be in awe of Stravinsky...There is not a composer who lived during his time or is alive today who was not touched, and… transformed, by his work.