Week 1

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Introduction and course structure

  • Tuesday 9-10am: Lecture.
  • Monday 11am-1pm: Seminar/workshop.  Please come along prepared for the session, making sure you have completed any reading and/or watching and listening in advance.  Your final marks will tend to reflect your engagement with the course.  During weeks 4 and 8 we will have practical workshops during which you will receive practical advice and feedback regarding your work.

Course resources:


  • What do you know, what have you done and what do you like, musically?
  • Who am I and what do I do (and what difference does this make)?  Composer’s ‘projects’.
  • When I am available to you?
  • The weekly guide and what we’ll end up doing: Music in Context – we will be putting music in context – in different musical, musicological, historical, philosophical and artistic contexts.  These contexts very much reflect the interests of the composers and musicians we’ll be looking at.
  • Assignments
  • Life Scientific episode discussing geological time; compare to cultural, artistic and fashion-based time


Modernism and its Origins


Wagner, Debussy and Romanticism

Debussy famously described Wagner’s music as “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn”. In this session, we examine how Debussy developed the Romantic tradition to forge a new musical language: by turning to early music and oriental music, and by drawing inspiration from the Symbolist (http://www.radford.edu/~rbarris/art428/Chapter 2 Symbolism.html) writers.

Students gain an understanding of how Debussy (and previously Wagner) undermines traditional functional harmony through use of diatonic and symmetrical modes, by parallel harmonic motion and by avoidance of the perfect cadence. We also notice how more complex forms of tonality – which become such a feature of Stravinsky’s music – just start to become apparent in Debussy’s late works.

The Story of the Ballet Russe (view from 25:00 or so for information about L’apres-midi d’un Faune): http://bobnational.net/record/19950. (Incidentally, info about Nijinsky’s notation for this here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.200156330.0/?sp=1

Romanticism, Nationalism and Modernism

How does romanticism differ from classicism?

From Sophie’s World:

“…one of the features of Romanticism was this yearning for nature and nature’s mysteries. And as I said, it was not the kind of thing that arises in rural areas. You may recall Rousseau, who initiated the slogan ‘back to nature.’ The Romantics gave this slogan popular currency. Romanticism represents not least a reaction to the Enlightenment’s mechanistic universe. It was said that Romanticism implied a renaissance of the old cosmic consciousness.”



“It has been said that Romanticism was Europe’s last common approach to life. It started in Germany, arising as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s unequivocal emphasis on reason. After Kant and his cool intellectualism, it was as if German youth heaved a sigh of relief.”

“What did they replace it with?”

“The new catchwords were ‘feeling,’ ‘imagination,’‘experience,’ and ‘yearning.’ Some of the Enlightenment thinkers had drawn attention to the importance of feeling—not least Rousseau—but at that time it was a criticism of the bias toward reason. What had been an undercurrent now became the mainstream of German culture.”

“So Kant’s popularity didn’t last very long?”

“Well, it did and it didn’t. Many of the Romantics saw themselves as Kant’s successors, since Kant had established that there was a limit to what we can know of ‘das Ding an sich.’ On the other hand, he had underlined the importance of the ego’s contribution to knowledge, or cognition. The individual was now completely free to interpret life in his own way. The Romantics exploited this in an almost unrestrained ‘ego-worship,’ which led to the exaltation of artistic genius.”

“Were there a lot of these geniuses?”

“Beethoven was one. His music expresses his own feelings and yearnings. Beethoven was in a sense a ‘free’ artist—unlike the Baroque masters such as Bach and Handel, who composed their works to the glory of God, mostly in strict musical forms.”

“I only know the Moonlight Sonata and the Fifth Symphony.”

“But you know how romantic the Moonlight Sonata is, and you can hear how dramatically Beethoven expresses himself in the Fifth Symphony.”

“You said the Renaissance humanists were individualists too.”

“Yes. There were many similarities between the Renaissance and Romanticism. A typical one was the importance of art to human cognition. Kant made a considerable contribution here as well. In his aesthetics he investigated what happens when we are overwhelmed by beauty—in a work of art, for instance. When we abandon ourselves to a work of art with no other intention than the aesthetic experience itself, we are brought closer to an experience of ‘das Ding an sich.’ “

“So the artist can provide something philosophers can’t express?”
“That was the view of the Romantics. According to Kant, the artist plays freely on his faculty of cognition. The German poet Schiller developed Kant’s thought further. He wrote that the activity of the artist is like playing, and man is only free when he plays, because then he makes up his own rules. The Romantics believed that only art could bring us closer to ‘the inexpressible.’ Some went as far as to compare the artist to God.”

“Because Romanticism involved new orientations in so many areas, it has been usual to distinguish between two forms of Romanticism. There is what we call Universal Romanticism, referring to the Romantics who were preoccupied with nature, world soul, and artistic genius. This form of Romanticism flourished first, especially around 1800, in Germany, in the town of Jena.”

“And the other?”

“The other is the so-called National Romanticism, which became popular a little later, especially in the town of Heidelberg. The National Romantics were mainly interested in the history of ‘the people,’ the language of ‘the people,’ and the culture of ‘the people’ in general. And ‘the people’ were seen as an organism unfolding its innate potentiality—exactly like nature and history.”

“Tell me where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

“What united these two aspects of Romanticism was first and foremost the key word ‘organism.’ The Romantics considered both a plant and a nation to be a living organism. A poetic work was also a living organism. Language was an organism. The entire physical world, even, was considered one organism. There is therefore no sharp dividing line between National Romanticism and Universal Romanticism. The world spirit was just as much present in the people and in popular culture as in nature and art.”


Listening and Watching


Also note the gamelan influence here: Debussy Images 2/1 – Cloches à travers les feuilles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YVtXU5PJ7Q

and compare with an authentic version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZZTfu4jWcI



 Preparatory Reading

  • Salzman, E., 2001. Twentieth Century Music 20-26 (this book will be useful for you throughout the course);
  • Trezise, S. ed., 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy27-33, 143-151,157-160, 188-191;
  • Dawes, F.,1969. Debussy Piano Music London: BBC


Indicative Seminar Activities and Questions to Consider

Prepare a short (5-10 minute) talk for presentation and discussion on one of the following questions or issues:


Follow-Up Work


Erik Satie

Many people are deceived by the extreme surface simplicity of Satie’s music which they mistake for ‘poverty’; but as Cocteau has observed: ‘There are certain works of art whose whole importance lies in their depth; the size of their orifice is of small account.’ But in the ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, which Satie’s ‘still, small voice’ first made itself heard, the public’s ears were tuned to strains of a very different kind, and European music seemed definitely to be heading in a direction totally opposed to the one to which this music of Satie’s seemed timidly to be pointing. In the welter of over‐luscious, over‐complex sonorities which the late nineteenth century so assiduously cultivated, what place could be found for anything quite so tenuous and transparent as those modest Gymnopédies whose limpid cadences evoke visions of barefooted dancers silhouetted on a Grecian urn?

Rollo Myers, Erik Satie, 36.

Compare and contrast these versions.  Also consider Satie’s Vexations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lDFSuh3qPI) and Furniture Music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CU2mDkZoYsc).  Here’s an interesting radio play about Erik Satie on Box of Broadcasts: http://bobnational.net/record/371604


Box of Broadcasts playlist for Music in Context: http://bobnational.net/youraccount/index/collectionID/158923


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