We meet spring with some of the most passionate music ever written.
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With his extreme chromatism, endless lines, rich harmonies and colourful orchestration, Richard Wagner (1813−1883) challenged many of the norms for how music could and should sound. The most critical was Wagner’s testing of the boundaries of tonality. Wagner pushed the boundaries as far as he possibly could without destroying the most important bedrock of 19th century music − namely tonality.
No opera excerpt demonstrates Wagner’s modern musical language better than the prelude to Tristan and Isolde. His main idea was to prolong the tension and increase the expressivity by delaying the disintegration of the disonnances and the tension in the chords. Tristan and Isolde is, after all, about unfulfilled love, and Wagner emphasises the narrative by ensuring that also the harmonies remain unresolved throughout the long opera − until Isolde discovers Tristan dead, and dies of love herself just as the final tension chord in the opera finally resolves itself in a brilliant B Major chord. Only in death is Isolde fulfilled in her endless love for Tristan.
The type of Modernism Wagner paved the way for had just started to get a hold on European music life when Igor Stravinsky (1882−1971) abruptly entered the international scene at the beginning of the 20th century. He made a particular impression with the scandalous ballet The Rite of Spring, and riots were close to breaking out during its world premiere in Paris in 1913. A heathen plot, disturbingly attired dancers and sensational modern music were enough to incense stiff Parisians. The scandal has with time turned to sensation − and sensation to deep respect and recognition.Most would agree today that the collaboration between Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev’s company the Ballet Russes, led by Vaslav Nijinsky, resulted in one of the 20th century’s most spectacular compositions as well as its greatest masterpieces.
The Rite of Spring opens with a melancholy melody played by the solo bassoon, pressed up into such a high register that the instrument is almost unrecognisable. Countering voices and new sounds arise, and the earth is adored with an incomparably complex and colourful choir of melodic lines and hues. But the raw powers are still waiting to be unleashed. The brutal dance of the young girls preparing the human sacrifice is characterised by a hammering of tight, bitonal chords in the strings and violent jolts from the woodwinds. Stravinsky’s music, with its multiple melodic lines, rhythmical layers and simultaneous multiple keys, represents at the same time the complexity of man and his primal power. Folkloristic elements are present, but these are completely transformed in the powerful, suggestive, smouldering expression.
When the Oslo Philharmonic was established in 1919, Wagner was hugely popular in Oslo. Excerpts from his operas occurred often on the orchestra’s programmes every season in the 1920’s, and the prelude to Tristan and Isolde was one of the most popular. The prelude was performed twice in the orchestra’s first season and twenty times in the orchestra’s first decade.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Igor Stravinsky; Photo: Richard Avedon)Read more
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