Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture should have been the ideal way to launch the 2015 BBC Proms. In the festival’s 120th year, one would expect that the first concert would begin with a bang. While the actual fireworks came after Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, the musical fireworks were saved for the end.
On 26th December, 1926, Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphonic Society gave the première of Tapiola, a tone poem depicting the forest spirit of the Kalevala. No-one knew that Tapiola would turn out to be the composer’s last major work; although small-scale compositions and revisions intermittently appeared, Sibelius’ oeuvre ends with an ellipsis rather than a triumphant conclusion.
What do Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle have in common? Besides their status as modernist masterworks, all 3 were completed in 1911. This year saw countless leaps forward in a number of fields, but many composers’ responses were far from optimistic.
The pessimism which underpins Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 can be attributed to the sense of foreboding in the years preceding World War I. It can also be tied to the phenomenon which historians would later refer to as the long nineteenth century. Encompassing the years 1789-1914, this idea placed even more weight upon the idea of progress than usual at the turn of he century. The tritone which underpins the symphony’s tonal structure may be seen as a metaphor for this anxiety. This interval divides the octave exactly into two, preventing any tonal resolution through suspension in a state of stasis.
The overlap between late romanticism and a younger generation of avant-garde composers helps to explain the vastly different responses with regards to musical modernism. Although Ravel’s L’heure espagnole revels in the heady mix of influences found in cosmopolitan Paris, Sibelius’s statement is more introspective and altogether less reassuring. The symphony opens with an elegy and closes in A minor: extroverted and optimistic endings were no longer appropriate in this age.
The younger generation is well represented by Igor Stravinsky. After shooting to fame with The Firebird the year before, Petrushka saw Stravinsky challenge the bounds of harmony. This is evident in the bitonal chord which characterises the title character of this ballet, combining the chords of C and F sharp (another tritonal relationship) to shocking effect.
Perhaps most significant is the alarming development in technology in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1911 alone, Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole, there was a boom in the aviation industry and the first motion picture studio opened in Hollywood. Composers were forced to adapt to this constantly evolving backdrop, but the statement of the 30-year silence at the end of Jean Sibelius’ life speaks volumes.
The mixture of elation and panic at the progress of the early years of the twentieth century explains the variety of responses evident in the works of modernism produced in 1911. One thing which they all have in common is the desire not to be left behind by an ever-changing world.