Music Composition Assignments for 11.17.2017
We discussed the Romantic Period in class. This period started around 1800 and continued into the early 1900’s, and it followed on the heels of significant historical revolutions, namely the American and French revolutions. In a similar manner, music is said to have “revolted” during this era against the ideals and beliefs of the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment (circa 1700-1800) had placed enormous emphasis on human reason, making it the supreme justification of all other aspects of life (i.e. morality is to be practiced because it is reasonable, not because it is inherently right). Enlightenment thinking also teemed with skepticism of formerly unquestioned authorities and beliefs, namely the divine rite of kings to rule (“I’m king because God made me king so do what I say!”) and the teachings of the Church. Enlightenment thinking demanded proofs of all things, even the nature of reality itself. Perhaps the most famous example of this was René Descartes “proof” that he himself existed at all: “I think therefore I am.” (This proof, incidentally, is now understood to be deeply flawed. How does he even know he is an individual? What does he mean by “I”? Try as he might, man does not live by reason alone.)
The Romantic Period, then, contrasts itself by rejecting the previous era’s need for logic, order, and harmony in exchange for the imaginative, the personal, the subjective, and the spontaneous. One no longer had to justify artistic choices by use of reason and objectivity. “So what if that’s not the way things really are?” queries the stereotypical Romantic composer, “this is how I feel!” Similar trends can be seen in the visual arts during this time, where formerly picturesque and orderly paintings of landscapes during the Enlightenment were replaced by more turbulent depictions of storms, battles, tragic deaths, and other such dramatic events.
Music during this period saw a marked change in the makeup of its audience. Though the private hall of a wealthy patron was still perhaps considered the ideal setting, music concerts became more widely attended by the general public and less tied to aristocratic patronage. Interestingly, the musicians who played to these more diverse audiences became composed of fewer and fewer amateurs. Romantic music introduced larger amounts of compositional complexity and required finer shades of dynamics and general musicianship, leaving only the highly skilled able to render the works with the passionate detail they often demanded. Additionally, the study of music and its many facets (music history, music theory, etc.) became a more codified and widely taught discipline among universities during this period.
As previously discussed, one central direction of music composition is that of tension and release. The Romantic Period saw an increase in dissonant and chromatic methods to achieve more and more heightened instances of these two fundamental musical moods. In particular, we focused on the use of chromatic mediant modulations. Instead of being simple pivot chords (chords that are the same in both keys) like those of previous musical eras, these chromatic pivot chords (often referred as “pivot tones” since the whole chord is not actually found in both keys) involve a certain level of dissonance that was previously unorthodox. Here’s the video we watched in class concerning these modulations. https://www.youtube.com/
By the end of the period, we saw Richard Wagner push the level of dissonance so far that many credit his infamous “Tristan chord” with destroying tonality and making way for the highly atonal and experimental music of the 20th century. Here’s a cool and helpful video explaining more about the Tristan chord: https://www.youtube.
We listened to a few examples in class, but this is a period full of really excellent, big name composers, so do some exploring on your own! You’ll thank yourself later. Here’s some of the ones we listened to, with a few we didn’t have time for:
Verdi’s Requiem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2: https://www.youtube.com/
Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique: https://www.
Ralph Vaughn William’s The Lark Ascending: https://www.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9: https://www.youtube.com/
And don’t worry, you don’t need to listen to the full hour of those longer pieces. These are just here for you to explore!
Assignment: Write a piece that expresses a specific emotion and features at least one modulation to another key by using a chromatic mediant (or submediant!) chord. Remember, it usually helps to use a dominant chord in the new key shortly after your chromatic mediant chord to help establish the new key.
My musical happy moment is this totally amazing mandolin player named Chris Thile playing a Bach sonata: https://www.youtube.