Social milieu of creation

Our sixteenth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and last week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week four of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

Choose a piece of classical music that you know well. Research the background but focus not on the composer but on the social milieu in which was created. How might you use the results of this research to develop students’ understanding of the music?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Every piece of music is a reaction to that which is taking place at the time of creation, and a reaction to that which has come before. This can clearly be seen at every historic juncture of Western Art Music. If our pupils are to fully connect with the music we teach them, if they’re to understand the mechanics of the music and the thought processes of the composer, then they must seek to know – or be encouraged to know – the social milieu in which the music was created. Often the imparting and disseminating of this vital information is overlooked due to its absence from the focus of current assessment requirements. However, as I often say, that which isn’t assessed in schools is often more important than that which is. For me, the vital background information of society at the time of a piece’s creation is one such example.

I could have chosen almost any piece of ‘well-known’ music from any historical period; however, I have chosen Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy. While Debussy bemoaned his classification as an impressionist composer, he was widely recognised as such. Impressionist composers wanted to freely compose music that reflected the world around them, rather than music in the forms dictated to their predecessors by the societies in which they lived. Debussy lived in a period of relative stability, in-between two periods of great instability – the French Revolution and the First World War. This period was known as the Belle Epoque. It was a period characterised by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, technological, scientific, and cultural innovations. During this time, Paris hosted three world-famous exhibitions that filled the city and its inhabitants with a welcomed assault of the senses, which greatly influenced many artists of the time. While many other countries and cities in Europe were restrictive, or becoming more so in many ways, Paris remained a bastion of relative freedom and expression. Debussy, and his music, benefited from this.

Indicative of culture in Paris at the time, Debussy made his own rules. In an article about Clair De Lune, Associate Professor Stephanie McCallum from the University of Sydney writes – “When asked what rule he followed, he scandalised his harmony teachers by answering: “Mon plaisir” (My pleasure)”. This quote, and the musical realisation of it, is so pertinent to the music of the time and the understanding of what is communicated by listening to it and studying it in depth. I could write a lot more on the effect this philosophy, and the broader themes of Belle Epoque, had on Clair De Lune, however I’ll stick to the overarching theme. Debussy led the transition from Romanticism to Modernism, and it’s this notion of following ‘my pleasure’ that led to the invention of the many styles of music that defined the twentieth century. Many teachers, when teaching Debussy, tend to focus on the paintings or poetry that are often the focus of his works. This doesn’t complete the picture, and we can’t fully understand and learn all that we can from a piece of music without the full picture.

My valuing of understanding the circumstances in which music is composed has been a common theme throughout my blogs. As I’ve said before – music isn’t created in a vacuum. We can’t begin to fully understand the mechanics of a piece of music if we don’t understand the environment in which the mechanics came to be. When we take a moment to learn about the environment, we create a better holistic aesthetic learning experience. And, who doesn’t want an experience like that.

David House @House_dg

The task to research the background of a piece is an absorbing one, and one which has so many fascinating questions: which composer, which piece, how is it possible to understand the mindset of musicians in another era and with a completely different set of social and cultural norms. In fact this answer will only be a temporary chart of work in progress. I have chosen Beethoven, partly because of the celebrations of his 250th birthday, partly because of his music being so ground-breaking, and partly because I have been teaching the ‘Development of the Symphony’ for A-level and my Y13 group were always asking challenging questions during lessons. One of the symphonies which I have used in my teaching is Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 in C Op.21 – first performance 1800, and that is where my research is aimed.

Beethoven continues the growing tradition of writing symphonies, with Mozart and Haydn already putting the genre in the public eye. He chose C major following on from several in that key by Haydn, including No.97 from his ‘London’ symphonies and, of course, Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony 36 and also Symphony 41 in C ‘Jupiter’. As with other Beethoven works he was clearly looking to surpass music from his predecessors, and in particular was looking to turn final movements into a satisfying culmination of a musical argument which spanned the entire work. He had already tried to compose a symphony between 1787-97 but abandoned the attempt. In looking for a solution to the ‘finale’ problem he made the final movement more akin to an opening in stature by reworking the theme of his abandoned symphony’s opening movement. Then he composed the other movements. The premier, at Vienna’s Burgtheater, had seen Haydn’s Creation premiered there just a year earlier. The programme for Beethoven’s symphony was long: a Mozart symphony / extracts from Haydn’s Creation / Beethoven himself improvising at the piano / a piano concerto / his Septet Op.20 – all were played before the 1st symphony which took its “top of the bill” position as the final piece. Already some interesting ways into developing understanding stand out: awareness of previous works and cultural expectations. Beethoven’s audience would have known much of the music of Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries, this would have enabled them to put the piece into context and also helps to explain their understanding of the musical, rhetorical and cultural expectations of contemporary audiences. Having banged on to my sixth formers about the slow introduction to this symphony being rather shocking: opening chord is a dominant 7th, the first four bars indicate three potential keys none of which is C major, first string chord is pizzicato, woodwind play a key role and this being picked up as the symphony progresses; a common retort from the group has been “but would the audience have appreciated this as shocking?”. By the research for this blog – looking at all accounts of concert programmes, and contemporary reports then, “Yes”.

However, the idea of how contemporary audiences received pieces will be explored further as I intend to read Mark Evan Bonds’ Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. What does all this mean for a different approach to teaching? Well I would aim to engineer the circumstance that students do more additional listening than I might otherwise have expected – probably with much more focus and in a prescribed way – in order to put them much more in the picture of how this music would have appeared in the Vienna Burgtheater in 1800. Ideally replicate the concert itself – but persuading a teenager to set aside 3 hours at one stretch in order to listen to pieces back-to-back is perhaps quite a big ask! Not to mention becoming familiar with Enlightenment philosophy and aristocratic society [although by 1800 concerts were ‘public’ affairs, that is still rather the way we refer to ‘public’ schools – not an entitlement for everyone].

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I currently do this with the set works that I teach at both GCSE and A Level. I think that pupils really appreciate knowing about what was happening at the time when the music was composed and how this may have influenced the composer. I do think however that we need to be very careful about giving meaning to some music as a purely social construct. It is very hard to know what the composer was thinking when they wrote the music, unless they kept a diary or wrote about the process and what in their socio-historical background may have influenced them. I may have been that Bach wrote the said cadenza for Brandenburg 5 to show off his keyboard prowess as one of the great organ and harpsichord players of the day. Evidence is needed by both teacher and pupil to ensure that any assumptions and conclusions that are made about the social context of a work are justified and not just a ‘hunch’. The cultural perspective of a piece of music can help pupils to gain a deeper understanding of the work and of other works of the period but, as spruce rightly says, this needs to go hand in hand with musical analysis as well to build up a complete picture.

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicEd

I feel allowing for room in researching the cultural context of a piece of music is key in helping pupils remember musical aspects. I tend to find the areas which can be explained using context are usually the parts of the music the pupils remember most.

When discussing aspects such as a symphony, explaining that a section of the music is traditionally different to others, tend to stick with the pupils. I find this evident when analyzing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with my IB students, if I can put some context into our analysis, it usually helps them stick. They are very good at analyzing and discussing the harmonic devices used in relation to how Rachmaninoff ‘borrows’ these elements from other musical genres. They can also identify each variation based on the context and the mood of the piece. The Paganini theme has also stuck not because it is memorable, but we discussed how the theme is used along with other pieces of music. This is also evident in Dies Irae theme. These context help the pupils with recalling aspects. I normally teach the ‘musical’ aspect and then use these as a trigger for elements of music from their analysis.

Kayleigh Griffiths @MrsGriffsMusic

One of the things I love the most about music is that every piece has a story behind it. I enjoy being presented with new music because I want to know its background, its context, why it was composed, what inspired the composer, what it tells us about them and their environment. I think knowing this gives a wonderful level of depth to music that not only enables us to appreciate a composer’s intentions, but also to educate ourselves about their culture and society. The Romantic Era for example, saw the addition of the valve on brass instruments and the expansion of the orchestra. This led to a change in how composers expressed themselves, allowing them to create denser textures and darker emotions and sharp contrasts in dynamics and pitch. The time period in which a piece was written can give us a lot of clues when learning about a composition and understanding this is extremely useful when developing a student’s understanding.

Coming from a brass band background, I encounter a wide range of pieces. Some that are original compositions, inspired by a historical event, location, person or even a spectrum of different colours, some that are arrangements of another piece or simply a transcription of a classical composition. One such piece that I know well is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, which was arranged for brass band by Frank Wright in 1956 and I had the pleasure of playing in 2012 with my own band (the orchestral version was arranged in 1924). Ralph Vaughan-Williams rejected the German-dominated style of the 19th century and much of his music used influences from the Baroque Era and English folk songs. Examples of his work and that of Gustav Holst provide us with a host of examples of quaint, simplistic but descriptive ‘English’ music in a musical world dominated by the dramatic influence of German Romanticism. English Folk Suite typifies the compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams in its quintessential English style, and tells us a lot about culture from the lyrics of the folk songs the music is based on. 

In the classroom, I would approach this piece from the perspective of the type of ensemble it was written for and use it to demonstrate the versatility of classical and modern music and how it can be transcribed successfully for another type of ensemble. This reflection would lead nicely onto an arrangement or composition task which would further support understanding. Paying close attention to the instrumentation of a composition can often make or break an original work – get this wrong and end up with uneven and sometimes unpleasant sounding music. Write parts in the wrong pitch for the wrong instrument and the musical nuances don’t translate to the audience thus losing the overall effect. In order to gain a well grounded understanding about sonority does rely on having an insight into the context on the piece and the time it was written in. 

When transcribing or arranging for a different ensemble from the original, simply copying and pasting the parts isn’t enough (and I highly doubt that Frank Wright had Sibelius in 1956…) the instrumentation must make sense. Obviously putting the jaunty high pitched melody from Seventeen Come Sunday onto a bass instrument wouldn’t work, but consideration must be made for the tone and colour suited to such a melody. Originally played by the woodwind section, this particular melody is played by the cornets in the brass band arrangement – but what about a full orchestra? What instruments would play it then? Would it still be retained by the woodwind section or would the strings be permitted to join in? Maybe written subtly in order to provide colour? Later in the first movement, we switch to a sprightly 6/8 section with a lighter jig-like melody juxtaposed against a strident and rigid 2/4 melody. Again, the deliberation regarding instrumentation for these styles is important – how can you make the stronger motif stand out without making it overpowering? Say you wanted to change the style completely and make it sound like a jazz composition? Or Vivaldi inspired string quartet? How would that affect the instrumentation or the way you use it? Having an understanding of these styles and the context or social environment surrounding them is a great way of informing a student’s work to make it as idiomatic as possible. 

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

‘With few exceptions the critics praised [the fantasie-lyrique] L’Enfant et les sortileges (1925) more warmly than they had any work of his since Le tombeau de Couperin’ and Richard Langham Smith agrees calling it his best work. Colette’s text for L’Enfant et les sortileges explores the child’s ‘transformation [from] a protagonist from one state to another’; from méchant to sage (naughty to good), and with it gaining an awareness and sensitivity to others (the animals). Such a transformation is also explored in ‘Placet futile’ from Trois poémes de Stephane Mallarme (1913; for voice and chamber ensemble). The transformation happens after the child’s refusal to complete his ‘lessons’ leads to his mother’s scolding remarks. What follows is a huge outburst of destruction, where numerous objects in his room suffer by his hand: his cat, caged squirrel, wallpaper, kettle, grandfather clock and chairs. These all come to life in turn and show the child the consequences of his actions in a wide spectrum of pastiche and parody ranging from the 18th century to jazz. Split in two parts, the second part deals with the child’s transformation and is not a series of numbers as is the first part. We know the child has repented, with his calling of ‘Maman’. Colette was enthusiastic at the prospect of Ravel setting her text; the composer of Histoires naturelles was a master of orchestration and evocation, and his portrayal of animals matched the heightened interest Colette had for them herself.

Ravel’s operas were not filling any void in the genre, and his contemporaries were producing work as equally varied as the numbers within L’Enfant. Debussy’s quasi-Wagner masterpiece was the backdrop to Ravel’s works. Audiences around the time were seeing Satie’s Parade and had to wait for an opera-bouffe (a fantasy in the same thread as that of L’Enfant), Poulenc’s Les mamelles de tiresias that was not premiered until 1944. The humour of the three operas binds them in their purpose, and is considered among the wittiest ever composed. It is interesting to note all three were composed in later life of the respective composers, yet are concerned with humour and youth.

Ravel himself conducted ‘many imaginative excursions into the past’, beginning early on with the Menuet Anitique 1895 and leading to Le tombeau de Couperin 1914 – 17. Generally Ravel relies on evoking an ‘imagined’ past through the use of bare fifths and octaves, but at all times these are coloured by his unique compositional style involving seconds, sevenths and modality: He was ‘viewing his classical subject from a 20th century vantage point’. 18th century France was the inspiration for Daphnis et chloe (1909 – 12), and similarly looking to 18th Madagascan poetry for Chanson Madecasses (1926). The Piano Concerto in G (1929 – 31) is a fine example of a fusion, or even ‘juxtaposition’ of the past and present: Mozart and Saint-Saens are clashed in a similar manner to Ravel’s bitonality (in later works) with Jazz elements. The outer movements of the concerto show jazz tendencies, while they are both contrasted with the ‘classical’ inclinations of the slow movement.

Though this reference to past styles is an important stylistic characteristic of Ravel’s music, it is not indigenous to it; we find his contemporaries exploring such a heritage. From the turn of the century most French composers, looking for an escape from the ‘Wagnerian’ impasse, undertook a rediscovery of pre-Romantic styles. Debussy played homage to such a past with works such as Pour le piano, and Poulenc was later to cultivate a musical language owing much to a less recent past. A fundamental connection to the past is the maintaining of classical forms and titles.

Pastiche and parody are elements that are central to the concepts of Ravel’s only completed operas, but it becomes increasingly apparent that a greater amount of Ravel’s oeuvre is occupied with references to other styles, forms and cultures. A reference to his own work is not uncommon. Burkholder reminds us though, that ‘given the increasing emphasis on originality in art music it is remarkable how frequently twentieth century composers incorporated existing music’. To paraphrase Robert P. Morgan, there is little difficulty to saying that ‘among [Ravel’s] most remarkable features is [his] ability to accommodate elements from many distinct subcultures that frequently cut across traditional geographic and aesthetic boundaries’ in a style that is undeniably linked with tradition while remaining unique. It is his ability to combine and juxtapose that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. It is important to note however, of all the issues Ravel was concerned with artistically, ‘exoticism embraces them all and in one form or another pervades his entire output’.

This is fin-de-siècle Paris. A hive of artistic and cultural activity that enables the synergy of the old and new, and the synergy of East and West. We also see the development of new approaches to psychology, and conflict that brings society to its knees. Ravel’s seemingly child-like opera raises important questions that the music enables us to discuss. L’Enfant provides the ideal vehicle to demonstrate how exciting Paris was during the early 20th century and how composers were able to combine musical styles with ease, colliding seemingly different musical languages in the same works. 

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