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Five Pieces of Music that Helped Article Music’s Development

The (known) historical record of music is chalk full of compositions, composers, performances, premieres, controversies, and events. Many are incredibly mundane and all-together unremarkable, others are important because of the movements they ignited, and some are canonized because of their role in changing the course of both musical development and mankind! Some of the earliest known musical compositions [“Hurrian Hymn No. 6” etched in Ancient cuneiform onto a Sumerian, clay tablet nearly 4,000 years ago / the Babylonian wedding song called “Ashir Shirim” nearly 2,521-years-old] set the stage for all future composers to explore just what what actually possible through the vehicle of sound. Further, early systems of music-theory created as early as 500 BC and some early versions of musical notation like those found in the present-day Middle East from around 1,200-1,450 BC show us that our interest in creating practical guides and usable approaches for music composition and performance is not an entirely new topic of study. In fact, it’s actually one of the oldest topics of study to date! In 6th century European universities, music was among the four topics included in the quadrivium [kwad-ri-vi-um], one section of a comprehensive, two-part liberal arts education for all students.

This goes to show you how important music was and is to our development as human beings! Eventually, music progressed to being written down using what is called “standard notation” as opposed to only being heard aurally, with rules regarding the fundamental creation of music, systems of tuning and temperament, compositional techniques, and all kinds of theories on its effects following suite. All of these new developments in music eventually led to the emergence of recognizable musical genres (think Romanticism, Baroque, Impressionism), and with that emerged the beginning of the seven (general) eras of classical music we all know and love!

Flash forward to today and music audiences of all kinds now have access to a wide variety of classical music to choose from. Perhaps you're a fan of Ancient musical styles (Symphoniaci, Ancient Rome, 5-8th c.), Renaissance polyphony (ex. O solutaris hostia by Caterina Assandra, 17th c.), or Baroque floridness (ex. Concerto in D-Major by Johann Friedrich Fasch, 18th c.). Maybe you have a taste for the First Viennese School (ex. String Quartet No. 14 by L. v. Beethoven, 19th c.), modernist explorations in chromatic harmonies (ex. Die Göttin im Putzzimmer by Richard Strauss, 20th c.), contemporary polystylism (ex. Reflections on the theme B-A-C-H by Sofia Gubaidulina, 21st c.), or even post-everything electro-experimentalism (ex. Crossing by York Höller, 2012-13). Whatever your preferences may be, the sheer amount of choices out there to be found and explored is enough to make your head explode. With every passing day, month, and year more and more composers are born and find themselves presented with new possibilities of how to push the limits of music, expanding the playing field or even emancipating themselves from the field entirely. But to really understand how music ended up being so multifaceted and individualist in complexion, where composers of every kind have the freedom to create, play, and mix the micro- and macro- elements of sounds and their formations, it’s helpful to go back into music’s historical development and spotlight some of the compositions that helped push the hand of (musical) evolution forward!

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Made available only through 14-year-old Mozart’s aural transcription after only two visits to the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, located in Vatican City, 17th century composer Gregorio Allegri’s acapella, two-choir falsobordone, entitled Miserere, with words supplied from Psalm 51, has taken the musical world by storm. The almost 13 minute work is built from a repetitive, antiphonal structure where each choir takes turns singing, interjected by Gregorian-style plainchant monody. Listen closely to the angelic nature of the treble harmonies, the low bass resonance, and the synergetic middle voices, all which effortlessly saturate each other and form a breathtaking effect of truly divine proportion. If it wasn’t for Mozart’s exceptional talent at oral notation, the world may have never heard this piece of music as it was only supposed to be heard from within the chapel walls. In fact, it was strictly prohibited to use any of the compositional techniques heard in this piece, and if caught composers were subject to jailtime or worse, excommunication from the Catholic Church itself.

Listen to this amazing version recorded in the fall of 2018 by London-based, choral ensemble Tenebrae!

Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of musical literature ever written, considered by musicians and Musicologists alike as his most important work, and a permanent influence on composers ever since its creation, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a prime example of the human psyche personified through music. At the time of its creation, not only was Beethoven on the tail-end of losing his hearing, but in the first-half of the 19th century German was reeling after the effects of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The rise of nationalism was juxtaposed against intense political suppression of any and all opposition. Thus, each one of Beethoven’s four movements deals with a various aspect of his worldview (Weltanschauung), concluding with the magnificent and intensely courageous “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s final embodiment of his wish for global unity and empathetic dignity for all mankind, irregardless of political distinctions. However, it was Beethoven’s spotlighting and powerful usage of the choir which would make this work compositionally impactful, as it showed that a chorus was not merely background sound, but an equally important player in large-scale symphonic forms.

Take a listen to this 1968 version by the The Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Using the unique instrument called the Clavier à lumières (French for ‘piano of lights’) to visually represent his internal, synesthetic abilities to match sounds to colors and scent-producing effects, the harmonically adventurous, and esoterically saturated tone-poem entitled Prometheus: Poem of Fire is a sonic portrayal of the Scriabin’s philosophical beliefs on his desire to help emancipate humankind from detrimental multiplicity into divine oneness. This work was part of a four-part project which was to be capped by his [unfinished] final work, Mysterium. Constructed as one movement which continuously oscillates in texture and tonality until the very declamatory end, the piece challenged held assumptions on the purpose of music and set the stage for compositional experimentation onwards, especially through Scrabin’s usage of the “Chord of Pleroma,” an ambiguously “smoky” hexichord made up of stacked fourth intervals. However, it was Scriabin’s strategy of graphically personifying mankind’s ascension from the mental ignorance which obfuscated our god-like potential to the universal awakening of what unlimited consciousness can create through intricately curated, yet autonomous flows of unchained sound combinations that would inevitably cement the legacy of Scriabin forever.

Check out this version, recorded in 2013 by The Tokyo NHK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Inspired by Buddhism and Zen philosophy on mindfulness, emptiness, and awareness of the unfettered now, John Cage’s controversial (un)composition entitled 4’33”, based on the average length of what he called "canned music,” or generic, background soundtracks commonly heard in office buildings and elevators, forces audience members into witnessing the variety the present moment has to offer. The composition is composed of three movements of different lengths of silence, although the time is filled with naturally-produced, aleatoric sounds which create the “music” of the piece. The reception of 4’33” was heavily split, many chiding it for being postmodernist garbage and cheating its audience out of real music, while others saw its true intention. Silence has never existed and will never begin to exist so long as sounds continue to be made. It is the “framing” of sounds that we usually respond to, so instead we should learn to begin noticing the organic sounds themselves. Although the original “Woodstock” score is lost, the “Kremen manuscript” is the closest to the original. This piece of “music” pushed back against the consumerist appropriation of music, and became the post-modernist calling-card for the return to unconditional awareness of life, art, time, and the world itself. Even now, this piece challenges us to “listen” to life, and how our held assumptions of what should and should not happen change our perceptions of now.

The most popular recording on YouTube, Pianist William Marx’s 2010 recording of 4’ 33” is startlingly alive.

Causing international backlash after its US premiere at The Brooklyn Academy of Music due to the alleged anti-Semitic undertones and brazen dramatization of the real-life scenario the work is based on and inspired by terrorist activity, contemporary composer John Adam’s opera entitled The Death of Klinghoffer follows the harrowing story of the 1985 hijacking of the MS Achille Lauro. It also marginally alludes to the [ongoing] Arab-Israeli conflict, and the incredibly violent tensions between the two nation-states. The opera’s three-Act plot tracks the hijackers take-over of the passenger liner, the tenuous developments that ensue, and the eventual death of 69-year-old Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer and the passenger’s eventual liberation from the hijackers. Utilizing minimalist aesthetics, combined with a Bachian oratorio-style of oscillating arias, choruses, and recitative, within a broader Affektenlehre form, the opera reads less as a typical long-form compositional work, and more of a "dramatic meditation” comprised of emotional vignettes. Whether one loves or hates the work, John Adam’s second opera was the instigator for a contemporary brand of opera, defining what sociopolitically relevant, and polystylistic opera could actually look like in practice for future generations of composers.

Here is London Symphony Orchestra’s “movie” version of Adam’s opera, recorded in 2013 by Penny Woolcock.

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As you can see, there is a lot to say about the different faces of music and the stylistic representations of this flexible art form available through history. I hope you found these pieces interesting, and remember: These are only five of countless pieces that shaped the development of music, classical and beyond! So try investigating more about music’s extended history by finding your own favorite pieces of music and looking who they learned from, listened to, and had feelings about. You will be surprised what kinds of interesting things you’ll learn when you dig a little deeper into who your favorite composers were personally inspired by and what kinds of people your favorite composers inspired as well!

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