In the New York Times today there is an article about Jules Massenet's opera “Thaïs” opening on Monday. Peter G. Davis, the author of the article, starts by saying, this new production "will rekindle arguments over Massenet’s artistic worth and whether he has anything useful to say to contemporary audiences."
Search of YouTube for Massenet's Meditation, which is from this opera, and you'll find dozens of violinists who have recorded this piece. I'm not talking CD or vinyl, which may be been recorded years ago and just re-released, but YouTube videos which means the artists are current (last 3 years). Listening to the "Meditation" (again) and I wonder why there was every a question, I wonder how Massenet ever fell out of popularity.
The above article talks about the journey of "Thais" as an opera, falling out of favor and the slow journey back. In part the fall was perhaps due to Massenet's own life and controversy, and in part to the fall of romantic music out of favor by those who yearned for some thing new. The journey back is aided by the revisit of the story, which is rather odd for opera, because opera prior to the 20th century didn't need a decent story to survive, but rather demanded more of the music.
So, I decided to listen to a recording of the opera. Dynamic released a recording of the Venice Opera performing the work in 2004. Even without the visuals (although it is also available on DVD) or the libretto, the music is wonderful, soaring, elegant, emotional and extremely moving. Perhaps this is just because I'm a romantic at heart. Maybe those who feel his music is outdated are those who feel romanticism is the cause for the grief of two world wars and therefore turned to more analytical styles of music - feel Massenet has no place in a modern world (looking to avoid emotion).
Well, all things are cyclical. As the Classical (nationalist) composers gave way to Romantic (universal) composers in the last of the 1800's, so are the serialist/modernist composers giving way to post-modern music. And eventually, we will give way to the next generation who take what we've done and build on it or abandon it, but either way change it toward their tastes.
Thinking about older composers of the classical vein I turn to Vivaldi, who many feel is either overly slushy or overly repetitive - writing one concerto 300 times. Listening to a program on the BBC, Vivaldi's Women (compliments of iPlayer) I marveled at the beauty of his "Gloria", which is (IMHO) one of the most beautiful religious pieces ever written, and then at the technical demand in some of Vivaldi's violin cadenza's. What struck me most was how very classical the music was and yet, held much of the technique of modern violin concerto cadenza's - rapid fluid note movement, double (triple and quadruple) stops, large interval leaps and movement of the hand positions requiring precision by the performer. Perhaps, Paganini's or Schoenberg's music are more technically demanding, but they are not more elegant.
This brought me to think about Stravinsky, a 20th century composer, post Romantic and yet he composed in many different music styles. His "Le sacre du printemps" (1911) (Rite of Spring) is seen as one of his early amazing works. It is! and yet, what about it is so amazing? The music is bi-tonal, with chords built using the keys of both E and E-flat, but there was nothing necessarily new about that in 1910. Charles Ives had been writing polytonal music for nearly 15 years. Mozart wrote "Ein musikalischer Spass" in 1787 which is bi-tonal, so, while it was not common, it wasn't new. What is really amazing about the "Le sacre du printemps" is the rhythm - driving and primal. There are elements of harmonic language which is unlike other music of the era, and that is what influenced composers like Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók and Aaron Copland who all site "Le sacre du printemps" as influential in their composing.
Listening to Milhaud's "Overture Mediterraneenne for Orchestra, Op. 330" (1953) by the Louisville Orchestra it's easy to hear the influence of Stravinsky. Yet listen to "Kentuckiana" on the same album and you'd think you were listening to Copland's "Appalachian Spring" written 10 years prior - they are that similar in style. Copland's music is less obviously influenced by Stravinsky in terms of bi-tonality, but his intricate poly-rhythms are definitely influenced by Stravinsky. Bartók's style is the most unique of the three Stravinsky influenced composers and yet Bartók's early works are the most like Stravinsky's. His "The Miraculous Mandarin Sz. 73, Op. 19" (1918) has much more the influence of the driving rhythm of Stravinsky, although the tonality is similar too. It is, like "Le sacre du printemps", a ballet, so rhythm is important.
Where is all this talk of Massenet, Vivaldi and Stravinsky going? In really great music, music lifts the soul (or for you non-religious - stirs the heart), there is an element of elegance, and one of passion. Stravinsky's music is elegant and very passionate. The subtleties he uses to accomplish what he does are so sublime, you have to dig deep into the score to understand them. It isn't just bi-tonality or rhythm, but the subtle shift in these elements that makes his music work. Vivaldi's music seems effortless, as if there was no other way to play it, every note feels as if that was the only note that could possibly have come next. Massenet's music, albeit the least known in our modern world, is just as elegant. His melodies soar or ache depending on the need of the moment. Many of his melodies are familiar to us even if we don't know they are his. The beauty of them goes beyond just being part of an opera and becomes something external - because we have so internalized it.
I have heard very few modern pieces that strive for this elegance, the beauty of melody and subtlety of harmony that makes the music more than just a piece we hear in concert, but something that lives inside of us after we have left the concert hall. It is this that makes the music great. With my own violin concerto I hope to achieve some of this elegance, a melody, a harmony, a rhythm that lives outside the performance and inside the listener.