Stuff I Love – 3: Music From The 1910s

24 Nov

Wait… come back. Seriously. Come back. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Bleeurgh… Classical Music.” Or words to that effect.

Either that or, “I hope to God this isn’t going to be about Al Jolson.”

But, you see, that’s where you wrong. First, because technically the term “Classical Music” only applies to orchestral music from the 18th to early 19th Century, but also…

Hey! Come back here this instant!

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah. What I was saying was that while the music I’m talking about is orchestral, and while you will hear much of it on BBC Radio 3 and (shudders) Classic FM, this is also some of the most exciting and innovative music ever written.

Pictured: The opposite of “exciting and innovative”.

I’m not an expert, I have no formal education in music, so I’m not about to start waffling on about arpeggios and minor sixths (I have no idea what either of those things are), but I can tell you why I think this music is great and why you might love it too. So here, without further ado, is a very short selection of fantastic music from the 1910s…

Fantasia on a Theme byThomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1910)

Regular listeners to Desert Island Discs will have heard this one on a near weekly basis (most recently chosen by the lovely Mark Gatiss), and yes… if I was stuck on the eponymous desert island this is one of the tracks I would choose.

Vaughan Williams (the handsome chappy pictured at the top) spent much of his career visiting and drawing inspiration from traditional English music. Folk songs, choral pieces, he ransacked them all. Here, he takes the melody from Thomas Tallis’s 16th Century hymn Why Fum’th In Fight (and no… before you ask, I have no fucking idea what a “fum’th” is) and stretches it out into an emotional epic; a piece of music which, when I heard it for the first time, left me utterly devastated. You can listen to it right here.

What I find most impressive is the way Vaughan Williams makes a string section sound like so many other things: A choir, a church organ, he squeezes multiple effects out of the orchestra without once resorting to bombast. And if you’re not holding your breath during what I can only describe as an orchestral multiple orgasm, you have no soul.

I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life, but this remains the single most beautiful piece I have ever heard, and am ever likely to hear.

Mars, from The Planets by Gustav Holst (1916)

Remember what I was saying about Vaughan Williams and the absence of bombast? Yeah, well Gustav Holst takes your “absence of bombast”, scrunches it up into a ball, sets fire to it, eats it, and then farts the ashes back into your face.

“In your face, bitches. In. Your. Face.”

While there are many pieces in Holst’s Planets suite that display his great dexterity and subtlety, Mars ain’t one of them. This is music with great big clanging metal balls, music with the gloves off. Mars is the freshwater well composers of music for war films and sci-fi movies have drawn from since there was such a thing as war films and sci-fi movies. Without Mars there’s no Star Wars. Without Mars there’s no Aliens

Picture this, but with the music of Herb Alpert.

Though, incredibly, Mars was written before the First World War, the sheer scale and terror of it is absolutely in tune with the horrors to come in Europe’s trenches; the nightmare of a war in which, for the first time, bombs would rain down on civilian targets from above; in which mounted cavalry faced rolling metal monsters mounted with machine guns and cannons; in which ordinary front-line soldiers were confronted with the cruelties of chemical warfare.

If you’re an aspiring writer and you’re trying to write something exciting, fuck rock music, dance music or hip hop. This is where the real adrenalin-pumping action is.

Le sacre du printempts (The Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky (1913)

It’s May 29th, 1913, and you’re at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for a night of ballet.

“Wonderful,” you think. “I love a bit of ballet. We saw The Nutcracker last Christmas and it was simply delightful.”

Then this happens.

That clip is from the BBC’s brilliant film Riot At The Rite, which depicts the production and premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Springand the near riot it inspired.

That’s right. In 1913, while gentlemen footballers with handlebar moustaches kicked balls around before polite crowds of well-wishers, people were rioting at the ballet.

Pictured: The “Covent Garden Barmy Army”, following a controversial production of ‘Swan Lake’.

Nobody had seen or heard anything like it before. Stravinsky’s music was frenetic, discordant and disturbing; Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography – representing a “primitive” fertility rite – was violently aggressive.

The Nutcracker this was not.

Now, you may think the audience overreacted a little. After all, you’ve heard music like that in countless films. Hell… Bernard Herrmann and John Williams built entire careers writing music like that. But remember… This was 1913. There was no such thing as “film soundtracks” back then. Or at least if there were they were played on upright pianos in the actual cinema itself.

Like Holst, Stravinsky’s music is the reason film music sounds the way it does. Once the initial, avant-garde shock wore off, audiences began to appreciate the sheer power of it, and it has lost none of its power in the intervening 99 years.

So there you have it, folks. Three composers, three amazing pieces of music. And you don’t have to fork out a fortune at the Albert Hall or the Royal Opera House to listen to any of this stuff. Thanks to stations like Radio 3 or (eurgh) Classic FM, or sites like Youtube, or streaming services like Spotify you can listen to some of the all-time great recordings for nothing.

The world of Classical Music (opera, concerts, ballets) can often seem elitist, or something “Posh People do”, but the music itself is anything but. You don’t need a university degree to know that the Tallis Fantasia is beautiful, that Mars kicks ass, or that The Rite of Spring is a balls-to-the-wall blockbuster. The music does all that for you.

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