Fjordman: A History of European Music, part 5
By Fjordman 18 July 2009
Finland was a part of the Russian Empire from 1809 and the Napoleonic Wars to independence during the revolutions in 1917, but it had been a part of the Kingdom of Sweden for centuries before this. Composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was born to a family from the Swedish-speaking minority.
He became a committed patriot and learned the Finnish language, abandoned his law studies at Helsinki and devoted himself entirely to music. He was especially fascinated with Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. From 1897 to the end of his life he was supported by the Finnish government as a national artist. His major tone poem Finlandia was written in 1899, but because of its nationalistic-sounding name it had to be renamed so as to avoid Russian censorship. Sibelius was original in his treatment of form and reworked the sonata form in novel ways, some of which were anticipated in the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. He drew inspiration in his work from the Nordic landscape, as did the prominent Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
The Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862-1918) exercised enormous influence on contemporary composers. He started with piano lessons as a child and began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, first piano and then composition. In the 1890s he lived in the “Bohemian” Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, where artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others drew inspiration at the turn of the twentieth century.
He is often grouped with fellow French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and his work overlapped in time and sometimes in thought with that of Impressionist and Symbolist painters and writers. His major works include Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and La Mer (The Sea, 1905). He also planned to make an opera inspired by the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by the American poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but this project was never completed.
Debussy admired some of Wagner’s works, especially Tristan and his last work, Parsifal from 1882, but he drew from the French tradition a preference for restraint. He initially made a living as a music critic, but by the early 1900s he was well established as a leading modern composer. According to A History of Western Music:
The changes that Debussy introduced in harmonic and orchestral usage made him one of the seminal forces in the history of music. The composers who at one time or another came under his influence include nearly every distinguished composer of the early and middle twentieth century, from Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez in France to Puccini, Janá?ek, Strauss, Scriabin, Ives, Falla, Bartók, Stravinsky, Berg, and others from national traditions, as well as American jazz and popular musicians.
A strong Russian tradition had begun with nineteenth century composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergey Prokofiev, and continued into the twentieth century with individuals like Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Next to literature, the Russian contributions to European high culture were particularly strong in ballet. Dance was prominent in pagan religious rituals and largely ignored in Christian medieval times, but secular dance as an art form resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance. Norman Davies writes:
From Italy, the baletto was exported in the time of Catherine de’ Medici to the French court, where, under Louis XIV, it became a major art form. Lully’s Triomphe l’Amour (1681) fixed the long-lasting genre of opera ballet. The modern theory and practice of ballet were largely developed in mid-eighteenth-century Paris, especially by the royal ballet master Jean Georges Noverre (1727-1810)….
Russia first imported French and Italian ballet under Peter the Great, but in the nineteenth century moved rapidly from imitation to creative excellence. Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake (1876), Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892) laid the foundations for Russia’s supremacy. In the last years of peace, the Ballets Russes launched by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) enjoyed a series of unsurpassed triumphs.
The choreography of Fokine, the dancing of Nizinski and Karsavina, and, above all, the scores of Stravinsky, brought ballet to its zenith with The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). After the Revolutions of 1917, the Ballets Russes stayed abroad, whilst the Soviet Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets combined stunning technical mastery with rigid artistic conservatism.
The Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky was arguably the most important composer of his time and had an enormous influence on later composers. He was born near St. Petersburg to a well-to-do musical family. He began piano lessons at the age of nine and studied music theory in his teens. After hearing some of his early compositions, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) commissioned Stravinsky to compose for his Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet), which reigned in Paris from 1909 to 1929.
Stravinsky then wrote the ballets that made him famous and are still among his most popular works: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The Firebird was based on Russian folk tales. He collaborated on them with the Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokin (1880-1942), founder of the modern ballet style, and the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), born in Kiev, Ukraine, the son of a Polish dancer.
Igor Stravinsky moved to Paris in 1911 and to Switzerland in 1914. Six years later, after becoming stranded in the West because of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to France. During his exile from Russia, in the 1920s he turned to Neoclassicism, i.e. to reviving the styles and forms of the pre-Romantic music from the eighteenth century, then called Classic. This period included several symphonies and lasted until the opera The Rake's Progress premiered in 1951.
When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, he moved to the United States and settled in the Los Angeles region. He died in New York City in 1971. A religious tone could be found already in his cantata Symphony of Psalms (1930), and several of his late works are religious. He experimented throughout his life, and “Stravinsky’s impact on other composers was in league with that of Wagner and Debussy.”
The German Richard Strauss (1864-1949), born in Munich to a musical father, was a celebrated conductor in addition to being a composer, and held positions in the opera houses of Munich, Weimar, Berlin and Vienna. He made a composition in 1897 based on the novel Don Quixote by Cervantes. By the early 1900s he turned his attention to operas, some of which were very successful. One of his works was the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) from 1896, a musical commentary to a prose-poem by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche of the same name. Nietzsche proclaimed that Christian ethics should be replaced by the ideal of an Übermensch (English: overman) who is above good and evil. Nietzsche expanded on his ideas about leaving traditional Judeo-Christian morality behind in his book Beyond Good and Evil, published in 1886.
While Enlightenment philosophers viewed human beings as rational, some intellectuals, among them Sigmund Freud, the Austrian Jewish founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, developed a very different understanding of the human mind. In their view, human behavior is basically irrational, a constant battle between the rational consciousness and the irrational subconscious, which is driven by sexual, aggressive and pleasure-seeking desires.
With its focus on the alleged dangers of repressed sexual desires, some opponents as well as enthusiasts saw Freudian ideology as implying an uninhibited sex life as necessary for mental health. Freud and his followers arguably undermined the view of man as a rational being. A climate of alienation and pessimism could be detected in the literature as well. This was especially evident in the works of Franz Kafka (1883-1924). T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in his famous poem The Waste Land (1922) depicted a world of growing desolation, although he grew slightly more optimistic later in his life.
The turn of the twentieth century was generally an age of great optimism in Europe and the Western world as a whole, then at the height of its dynamism and combined global influence through the colonial empires of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and especially France and Britain. This was a time of rapid change in technology, society and the arts. One visual symbol of this progress was the electrification of industry, businesses and homes which brought light to the world, literally and metaphorically. Global communications and trade expanded greatly along with improved means of transportation: Internal combustion engines gradually replaced steam engines in factories, ships, trains and automobiles, and airplanes were introduced. However, certain intellectual undercurrents and a growing rejection of traditional culture indicated that there might be some dark clouds in the horizon.
Apart from Latin America, where Spanish and Portuguese rule had ended generations ago, the early twentieth century represented the peak of Western European colonial rule of much of the planet, with the French and the huge British Empire in the lead. Already at this point there were critical voices among Europeans themselves, inspired by real abuses such as those committed under Belgian King Leopold’s rule in the Congo in West Africa. The short novel Heart of Darkness from 1902 by the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has long been considered a masterpiece of empathy and a testimony to the abuses of imperialism. Conrad learned English as an adult and retained a strong Polish accent in spoken English, but he gained an almost complete mastery of the English language in writing.
Non-conformist thinking in the arts mirrored changes in the world of physics, with relativity and quantum mechanics. Artists no longer placed a high value on traditional concepts of beauty or on pleasing the viewer, but valued originality above all else. “Success was measured not by wide popular appeal but by the esteem of intellectuals and fellow artists.”
Modern painting grew out of a revolt against French Impressionism and painters such as Monet and Renoir. This gave rise to Expressionism, with its emphasis on inner, intense emotions and imagination rather than external impressions. The Dutchman Vincent van Gogh demonstrated this sentiment with his painting The Starry Night from 1889. Paul Gauguin was another prominent figure.
Many painters became increasingly separated from ordinary visual reality in their works. Developments in music ran parallel to developments in painting, as composers were attracted by the emotional intensity of Expressionism. Some of them turned their backs on long-established conventions, just like abstract painters did, and arranged sounds without creating recognizable harmonies. This led to the growth of atonal music, with Alban Berg and others. Audiences at the time generally resisted modern atonal music.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was the leading Austro-German composer of symphonies after Brahms and Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), yet he made his living primarily as a conductor. He was born into a Jewish family in what was then the Austrian Empire but is today the Czech Republic. He received engagements at Hamburg, Ljubljana in present-day Slovenia, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and eventually New York City. Mahler won acceptance as a great conductor, though not always as a composer, in his own lifetime. His background brought him a complex identity as an outsider, similar to Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Czech Jew famous for the novels The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), both published posthumously. Kafka’s novels are filled with troubled individuals in a dark, confusing and threatening world.
The Austrian and later American composer Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg (1874-1951) was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, known for his atonal and twelve-tone music. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he was born in Vienna and moved to Berlin in 1901, where Richard Strauss got him a job teaching composition. He later returned to Vienna and taught privately. Schoenberg studied the works of earlier composers, among them Brahms. He had the support of fellow Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, but his music met stormy receptions, especially after he adopted atonality in 1908. In the 1920s he formulated his influential twelve-tone method, which he used in most of his later works. After the Nazis came to power he moved to the United States. He died in Los Angeles, California.
A complex and dangerous mix of nationalistic tensions and great power rivalries combined with various alliances and misguided military policies led to the disaster known as the First World War (1914-18), otherwise called World War I (WWI) or simply The Great War. Millions of young men rotted in the trenches and died in the mud because of a seemingly meaningless war. The bloodshed brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires, and independence to many of Europe’s smaller nations, especially in the east. Many European economies were wrecked, and the USA emerged as a world power and a leading player in Old World affairs. This was accompanied by growing American cultural influence abroad and the spread of musical styles such as jazz, blues and finally rock.
As author David Landes puts it,
The twentieth century divides neatly at two points: 1914 and 1945. The first date marked the start of the so-called Great War – one of the most absurd conflicts in human history. These four years of combat left 10 million dead and many more maimed and stunted. They also took a prosperous and improving Europe and left it prostrate. The tragedy lay in the stupidity of kings, politicians, and generals who sought and misfought the conflict, and in the gullible vanity of people who thought war was a party – a kaleidoscope of handsome uniforms, masculine courage, feminine admiration, dress parades, and the lightheartedness of immortal youth.
World War I caused great suffering and killed much of the optimism which had existed in Europe previously. An influenza pandemic (the Spanish Flu) in 1918 that killed some twenty million additional people seemed to prove that modern life was not always benign. The horrors of trench warfare shocked those who witnessed it. The rejection of modern industry in favor of the heroic fighting of a pre-firearms society is evident in the writings of the Englishman J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the massively popular fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and a WWI veteran. Tolkien was a personal friend of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), a leading Christian apologist and fantasy author known for The Chronicles of Narnia series.
Cultural changes were reflected in architecture, too. The “modernism” of early twentieth century architecture still stands out, with its constant experimentation and habitual rejection of old ways. There was much emphasis on functionalism, where buildings had to be functional more than decorative and where architects had to think like engineers and machine builders. According to A History of Western Society:
Franco-Swiss genius Le Corbusier (1887-1965) insisted that ‘a house is a machine for living in.’ The United States, with its rapid urban growth and lack of rigid building traditions, pioneered in the new architecture. In the 1890s, the Chicago school of architects, led by Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), used cheap steel, reinforced concrete, and electric elevators to build skyscrapers and office buildings lacking almost any exterior ornamentation.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Sullivan’s student Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) built a series of radically new and truly modern houses featuring low lines, open interiors, and mass-produced building materials. Europeans were inspired by these and other American examples of functional construction, like the massive, unadorned grain elevators of the [US] Midwest.
In Europe architectural leadership centered in German-speaking countries until Hitler took power in 1933. In 1911 twenty-eight-year-old Walter Gropius (1883-1969) broke sharply with the past in his design of the Fagus shoe factory at Alfeld, Germany – a clean, light, elegant building of glass and iron. After the First World War, Gropius merged the schools of fine and applied arts at Weimar into a single, interdisciplinary school, the Bauhaus,...[which] attracted enthusiastic students from all over the world.
The Hungarian composer, pianist and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was arguably the most important Hungarian musical figure since Franz Liszt. He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a small town in what is today Romania. His parents were amateur musicians, and he studied composition in Budapest rather than in the Imperial capital of Vienna. Among his influences were Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Béla Bartók created an individual modernist idiom by synthesizing elements of peasant music with the German and French Classical tradition. He collected and published nearly two thousand Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Croatian, Serbian and Bulgarian song and dance tunes, using the new technology of audio recording.
New technologies revolutionized music, in recording as well as in reproduction and distribution. Due to the technologies of sound recording, photography and film we have a much fuller picture of the history of the twentieth century than of any previous age. The sheer amount and variation of music from this century can seem overwhelming. According to A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition, by Donald J. Grout, Peter J. Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca, “The advent of recording technology had the most significant impact on musical culture of any innovation since the printing press. It completely revolutionized the way we experience and share music as listeners, performers, or composers.”
The American inventor Thomas Edison made his first sound recording in 1877, using a tinfoil cylinder phonograph, but he intended it merely to be a dictation machine for offices. Edison soon replaced his fragile tinfoil cylinders with wax cylinders. In 1887 the German-born inventor Emile Berliner patented his Gramophone, a more practical system that recorded on a flat disc instead of a cylinder. His records were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made. Berliner’s system was the ancestor of all other analog disc records in popular use throughout the twentieth century.
Record players became available in the 1890s. Musical performances by specific artists could now be preserved and admired forever. Recordings combined with new mass media, above all radio and TV, and spawned an unparalleled growth in the size of the audience for all kinds of music. In the 1920s, new methods of recording and reproducing sound using electricity – including electric microphones and loudspeakers – allowed a great increase in the quality and frequency range of recordings, making the medium even more attractive to both developers and buyers of music. This coincided with the growth of commercial radio broadcasts.
The British American inventor David E. Hughes (1831-1900) invented the loose-contact carbon microphone, vital to telephony, broadcasting and sound recording. Charles Wheatstone in 1827 was the first to use the word “microphone,” and Hughes in 1878 revived the term in connection with his discovery. The Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a key figure behind the creation of the first practical telephones in the 1870s, experimented with early loudspeakers for his device. The German inventor Werner von Siemens patented an improved loudspeaker in 1877. The English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) received a patent for another loudspeaker in 1898, and two General Electric researchers in the USA, Chester Rice and Edward Washburn Kellogg, patented the modern, moving coil loudspeaker in 1925.
The evolution of diverse musical styles and popular or pop music was facilitated by these new technologies, by commercial radio broadcasts and above all by the growth of television during the second half of the twentieth century. Film music was a new genre, first used to the “silent” movies of stars such as Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), a funny little Englishman working in Hollywood, the USA, and later for sound movies. The 1920s were a great age for German films, too. Radio quickly became a popular and influential mass medium. Despite economic setbacks during the Great Depression following the stock market crash in New York in 1929, falling prices and continuing improvements stimulated a growing market for recorded music. However, the Depression helped the National Socialists (Nazis) gain power in Germany.
In 1948, Columbia Records in the USA introduced the long-playing record, or LP, 33? rpm vinyl gramophone records developed by the Hungarian-born engineer Peter Goldmark (1906-1977) and others. These quickly became popular as they allowed much longer recordings than existing alternatives. The leading American entertainer Walt Disney’s (1901-1966) animated film Fantasia in 1940 became the first major film released in stereophonic sound. The 1950s saw high-fidelity and stereophonic records and the debut of a new recording technology: magnetic tapes.
The telephone engineer Valdemar Poulsen from Denmark (1869-1942) patented his telegraphone in 1898, the first practical apparatus for magnetic sound recording and reproduction. The engineer Fritz Pfleumer (1881-1945) in Germany invented magnetic tape for recording sound in 1928. The Dutch electronics company Phillips introduced cassette tapes in 1963, which quickly became popular worldwide and unlike LPs were re-recordable.
However, “The new media of mass culture were potentially dangerous instruments of political manipulation.” That radio, television and motion pictures could be great tools of propaganda was demonstrated by directors Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union and Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany.
The totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism both desired strict state control of the arts. The Nazis forbade the performance of all kinds of “decadent” or “Jewish” art and established a Reich Music Chamber under the notorious Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), to which all German musicians had to belong. Many artists, scientists and intellectuals fled the country at this time, among them the German writer Thomas Mann (1875-1955), author of the novella Death in Venice.
The Madrid-born Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) in 1929 wrote The Revolt of the Masses, where he traced the birth of what he viewed as a “mass-man” society, dominated by masses of mediocre and indistinguishable individuals. “A prolific writer, Ortega was the head of the most productive school of thinkers Spain had known for more than three centuries.” The fear that Western egalitarian societies could disintegrate into a large mass of indistinguishable individuals had already been aired by the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). De Tocqueville is most famous for his book Democracy in America (1835), published after his travels in the United States.
The Diary of a Young Girl by the German Jewish girl Anne Frank (1929-1945), who lived most of her life near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, chronicles her life from June 1942 until August 1944. She was one of the approximately six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s program of systematic state-sponsored extermination of undesirables, especially Jews and Gypsies. Anne Frank’s diary is a touching testimony of an innocent child’s meeting with an unspeakable evil and has been translated into many languages, making her one of the most famous victims of this genocide against European Jewry.
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945, inspired his countrymen during WWII with his speeches, including the famous quotation “… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Churchill was an orator, historian and artist in addition to being a noted statesman. For decades, he largely made his living as a prolific writer of books and essays for newspapers and magazines and received the Nobel Prize in Literature after the war, a rare distinction for a major politician. His six-volume memoir The Second World War is a very influential history of WWII, although it must be kept in mind that it was written by one of the leading players in the war itself, not by an objective historian.
Much of Europe lay in ruins after the massive destruction caused by WWII, and many countries received American financial aid afterwards. The United Nations (UN) was founded after the war, in the hope that it could secure a new age of global peace. However, the Soviet Union under Communist dictator Joseph Stalin occupied much of the eastern half of Europe at the end of the war, and soon imposed its repressive Communist system on these countries.
Europe was thus split in two large blocs separated by an ideological and physical boundary which Sir Winston Churchill dubbed the “Iron Curtain.” A Cold War rivalry ensued between the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and the Western bloc led by the other superpower, the United States, through the military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created as an attempt to contain the expansion of Communism.
The Cold War lasted from shortly after 1945 until the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the physical symbol of the division of Germany and of Europe, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. There were many minor and some medium-sized armed conflicts around the world during this period, among them the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1954-75), but a major, direct and in all likelihood disastrous nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was avoided, although the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 came close to triggering such an event. The post-war period was also a time of decolonization among former Western European colonies in Asia and Africa, most of which was completed by the 1970s.
The Communist system of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations was based on the writings of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, but above all on the texts and analyses by Karl Marx, especially the The Communist Manifesto from 1848, written by Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Das Kapital (Capital in English) by Karl Marx, first published in 1867.
In response to the repression of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Englishman George Orwell (1903-1950) published the satirical novel Animal Farm in 1945 and what many people consider to be the ultimate work of anti-Utopian or dystopian literature with his Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply 1984, from 1949. This novel describes a totalitarian state where the dictator Big Brother through his Thought Police crushes the individual and his desires. The regime relies heavily on government surveillance and state-sponsored propaganda through falsifying historical records and constantly rewriting history books. Orwell’s highly influential book introduced many terms such as “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “Newspeak,” the new language constructed by the totalitarian state to replace the old language, into common usage.
Another writer from Britain, the historian Robert Conquest (born 1917), in 1968 published The Great Terror, an account of Stalin's purges of the 1930s. Conquest criticized left-leaning Western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) for “blindness” with respect to the repressive nature of the Communist regimes and accused them of being apologists for Stalin and his murders. The book The Captive Mind from 1953 by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) tried to explain the collaboration of and fascination with totalitarian regimes among many leading intellectuals.
Another text which exposed Communist crimes was The Gulag Archipelago by the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), a three-volume book written between 1958 and 1968 and published in the West in 1973. It circulated as an underground publication within the Soviet Union itself. The book, which was based on the author’s personal experiences as a prisoner in the Gulag, the system of forced labor camps which ruined the lives of millions of alleged dissidents, dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994.
Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931) became the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. His attempts of reform during the second half of the 1980s contributed to the end of the Cold War, although US President and leading anti-Communist Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) should receive a significant part of the credit as well. He challenged the Soviets and engaged them after 1980 in a military buildup that their failed economy simply couldn’t keep up with. Reagan, who became known as the “Great Communicator,” began his career in filmmaking and television before he was elected president, a testimony to the power of TV and the visual mass media.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 turned out to be relatively peaceful, with the partial exception of Romania. The Czech playwright, essayist and dissident Václav Havel (born 1936) demonstrated how the lies, hypocrisy and apathy of Communist societies poisoned all human relations. In the post-Communist period he became a political leader as the last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-93) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) after its peaceful separation from Slovakia.
Some Europeans had the misfortune to gain first-hand experience with both twentieth century systems of totalitarianism. The Hungarian Jewish author Imre Kertész, born in Budapest in 1929, at 14 was deported to Auschwitz, the leading Nazi concentration and extermination camp, but became one of the few Holocaust survivors. His semiautobiographical novel Fateless from 1975 later won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to Kertész,
Auschwitz is the ultimate embodiment of a radically new event in European history: totalitarian dictatorship. Europe's 20th-century totalitarianisms [Fascism and Communism] created a completely new type of human being. They forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator. Even surviving involved collaboration, compromises you had to make if you wanted to bring a bigger piece of bread home to your family. This choice has deformed millions of Europeans.
In the Soviet Union, the government controlled the arts along with every other realm of life. They were seen as ways to indoctrinate the people and teach them to venerate their leaders. Amazingly, a few composers managed to create meaningful music under these difficult conditions. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) spent his entire career within the Soviet system. All of his works were created in a heavily politicized context, which has generated a search for double meanings in his music. There was no room for dissidence under Stalin, and little even after him. Shostakovich’s music shows the influence of several other composers, including Beethoven, Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. The ambivalence of his works reflects the accommodations he had to make to survive in a repressive environment, but his undeniable talent has earned him devoted listeners throughout the world.
Continental Europeans could still produce stars such as the French singer and actress Édith Piaf (1915-1963) or the German-born singer and actress Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). However, in sharp contrast to earlier periods, during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the English-speaking world dominated popular music. The rise of English as the language of business and diplomacy was facilitated by Britain’s leading economic, military and technological position in the nineteenth century and by the equally dominant position of the USA in the twentieth century.
Britain and its offspring still contributed to this trend, but the United States through the influence of Hollywood movies and later American television shows and series became the leader. American popular culture added another dimension to the increasingly unique role of the English language as a near-global lingua franca.
American music styles such as rock and roll, or rock, blended black and white popular music. Among its great American stars was Elvis Presley (1935-1977) in the 1950s and 60s. Presley died a sad figure in 1977, but his great voice and music remained popular after his death, as did a sometimes unhealthy personality cult. Aided by rapid modern communications, rock was soon listened to throughout the world, a development the American rock musician Chuck Berry (born 1926) summed up with his 1956 hit Roll Over Beethoven. This trend was closely related to the Western “youth rebellion” and the rise of youth culture and teenagers as a major consumer group and target audience for commercial products. Electric versions of traditional musical instruments were created, and the electric guitar in particular became popular.
The most popular stars of the 1960s were The Beatles, four young men from Liverpool, England, with singer-songwriters John Lennon (1940-1980) and Paul McCartney (born 1942) in the lead. They brought the art of creating catchy pop and rock melodies to a new height. During the later 1960s they became entangled with and championed many radical ideologies and also the use of narcotics, which became very widespread from the late 1960s onwards. Much of the popular music of the period was easily accessible and perhaps easily forgotten, although some of the leading artists, among them the American singer-songwriter and poet Bob Dylan (born 1941), could display more lasting melodic and lyrical qualities.
The African American artist, dancer and songwriter Michael Jackson (1958-2009) was a star in the music business from he was a child. His 1982 album Thriller became the best-selling album of all time. With the highly influential video for his song Thriller he made the genre of “music videos,” short films to illustrate a piece of music, generally popular. However, from the 1990s onwards, Jackson’s personal life was mired by scandals, with repeated though unproven accusations of child sexual abuse. His increasingly bizarre personal life, extreme spending habits and seeming addiction to plastic surgery made him a symbol of some of the most decadent and self-destructive sides of Western popular culture and celebrity cultus.
During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rock gave way to far more aggressive forms of music such as hard rock and heavy metal. On the surface, these styles were radically different from that of Elvis Presley, not to mention European Classical music. However, occasionally you could find surprising elements of continuity, with some hard rock vocalists trained as opera singers or taking inspiration from Bach or Mozart. These new forms of music contributed to an incredible variety of increasingly global musical styles. Even Gregorian chant was occasionally mixed in with modern pop music. This admittedly constitutes a small niche compared to other musical traditions, but possibly a permanent niche which preserves European medieval music in its own right, not just for its later historical importance.
This age will above all be remembered for the technological changes it introduced, from the spread of communications satellites and the advent of mobile phones to the Internet. Portable transistor radios became a major consumer item from the 1960s on. The Walkman, the audio cassette player brand developed by Nobutoshi Kihara (born 1926) for the leading Japanese electronics company Sony in the 1970s, changed people’s listening habits: It allowed them to carry their own choice of music with them and spawned a range of related electronic devices at the turn of the twenty-first century. By the 1980s, electronic computers were made available for home use, as were digital synthesizers. Electronic keyboards combined with personal computers made synthesized music accessible to musicians everywhere.
The digital revolution affected music greatly, not just in how we record, reproduce and distribute it, but in how we create it, too. In the early 1980s, Phillips and Sony unveiled the Compact Disc, or CD. CDs soon replaced older recording technologies such as vinyl records (LPs) or cassette tapes and were gradually complemented by similar formats for movies and digital cameras. The first commercially available CD was made in 1980 and contained a recording of Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989). Soon technology was developed which made it possible to download music or even entire movies of full length from the Internet onto your Personal Computer, PC, or to various portable electronic devices.
This accelerated a trend that had begun at the turn of the twentieth century with the invention of the first vinyl records. With the introduction of recorded music, people no longer had to go to a concert hall to hear great music. They could listen to it in their private homes, or even while sitting on a bus or train. Listening to music became a solitary pursuit rather than a communal one, although public concerts and live music have remained very popular as well. Thousands of digital radio stations are now available on the Internet, and various Internet websites have begun to offer digital recordings of music or films, legally or illegally, for private consumers to download at home. This has created great challenges for the music- and movie-making industries and changed the way we interact with music in profound ways.
The world today is radically different from what it was in the days of Haydn and Mozart, and the kind of music played by Mozart is no longer the dominant one in Europe. There are those who lament this, but we should remember that thanks to modern technology, the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven can be enjoyed by far more people than ever listened to it during these composers’ lifetime, and sometimes far beyond the Western world itself. Western music has absorbed elements from other musical cultures and traditions whereas East Asians have produced some of the leading performers of European Classical music.
Personally, I see no reason why music should remain exactly the same in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth. Nevertheless, European Classical music does represent one of the highest peaks of global musical achievement. While Europeans should always remain open to other impulses, it would be a shame not to maintain this tradition, too, as a vibrant and dynamic one.