The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview
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Styles and languages around the turn of the

The title of this chapter implies not only a concern with musical style and musical language, but also that a distinction may be drawn between the two. In the paragraphs that follow I shall take this distinction to be roughly equivalent to the point at which the style of a musical passage, work or repertory can be said to be more than simply a matter of how a composer's musical mannerisms, habits or inclinations are identifiable as an emergent property of the music he or she produces. At this point, 'style' as an attribute of a passage, piece or repertory becomes something that can be manipulated along with the musical elements that express that style. Such manipulation allows musical language to be deployed as a means to a variety of ends: to express emotion, for example, or to articulate a drama, or to engage in cultural politics.

All of this presupposes that differences of style are actually recognisable as such across the field of contemporaneous musical composition, and indeed by the middle of the nineteenth century this had clearly been the case for some time. What is more, one of the century's most notable attempts to deploy musical language for culture-political ends dates from this time, with the declaration of the New German School. But the most remarkable flowering of this kind of project was to come a little later, in and around the two decades that straddle the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A music-lover of catholic tastes who had the time and resources to travel around Europe and North America taking in premières during this period could have heard the first performances of works as diverse as Don Juan (1889), Pagliacci (1892), the Variations on America (1892), En Saga (1893), the Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (1894), the 'Resurrection' Symphony (1895), Verklärte Nacht (1902), Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), Jenufa (1904), Salome (1905), the Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and The Firebird (1910) to name a mere dozen.1 It is this remarkable florescence of styles and languages, of which the above list illustrates merely the tip of an iceberg, that will be the main focus of this chapter.

The impact of the New German School, and in particular of Wagner's music

The dates given in parentheses are those of first performance.


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