E-Concert Report: 20th Century Music


Music has always been a sensitive mirror of major social processes, attitudes, and trends. So was the case in the twentieth century, when the tendency to the scientific perception of the world, employment of technology, and progressing mechanization of life characterized contemporary society. At the same time, composers did not lose connection with the specific national features of their motherlands, as well as explored achievements of the distant past. Those three spheres of composers’ interest — intellectualism, national identification, and historicism — are the focus of works considered in the present report. Correspondingly, the aforementioned trends are explored in Piano Concerto #3 by Sergei Prokofiev (performed by Martha Argerich as soloist), symphonic poem “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert Karajan), and scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (conducted by Jeffrey Thomas).

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Piano Concerto #3 by Sergei Prokofiev

Intellectualism and sharp sarcastic humor define the works of Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953). In addition to his composer’s talent, he was an outstanding piano performer, noted for his innovative playing techniques. Taking an interest in the genre of the piano concerto, Prokofiev experimented with it and produced several samples of concertos all possessing individual distinguishable features. His Piano Concerto #3 (1921) is said to be a compilation of earlier drafts and ideas and appears to stay in the traditional limits, keeping to the three-movement design (Lee 283). The exceptional popularity of this Concerto among others is explained to a certain extent by conventional harmonies and keyboard patterns (Lee 283). Typical for Prokofiev’s works, the Third Concerto reflects an eternal struggle between the lyrical and the sarcastic spheres, with the former represented by the orchestra and the latter rendered in the piano part.

The first movement, Andante–Allegro, is opened by the sound of solo clarinet that plays a melancholic melody, with strings joining in the lyrical mood. A sudden acceleration of tempo and ascending passages prepare the appearance of the piano which jumps in with an active theme resolutely moving on large intervals and demonstrating technical virtuosity. After an engaging interchange between the soloist piano and the orchestra, the piano launches a new march-like theme in resolute chords. The orchestra does not give in and presents another sharp rhythmic theme. The piano enters the dialogue again, after which the opening clarinet melody is played once again, now by the whole orchestra. Responding to this, the soloist performs a lengthy meditative fragment, varying the theme. And again, the atmosphere of active resolution returns with the repetition of the second theme. Following it is a breathtaking virtuosic fragment that involves one of Prokofiev’s favorite inventions: alternatively playing with the right hand on the black keys and the left hand on the white keys (Lee 284).

Prokofiev’s art of drawing a musical veil over the initial theme reveals itself in the second movement of the Concerto, Thema con Variazioni. The graceful dance-like melody is initially played by the woodwinds and further entrusted to various instruments and groups of the orchestra that develop it in a series of variations. This movement is characterized by obvious tempo contrasts, with the theme and first and fourth variations keeping in the lyrical mood and moderate tempo, while the second, third, and fifth variations proceeding in much faster motion and representing the sphere of the sarcastic. The theme is often concealed either in lyrical figurations or in virtuosic passages of the piano that astounds with the level of performance complexity. The struggle between the lyric and the sarcastic continues throughout the final Allegro ma nontroppo movement, which starts with a march-like theme played by bassoon. Here the pianist exposes the virtuosic capacities to the fullest, performing passages that span the whole keyboard, swift ascending gammas, etc. The orchestra attempts to counteract this almost sportive technical rush by introducing lengthy lyrical melodies in which the piano seems to engage, but not for long. In his last sarcastic grin, Prokofiev deploys a surprise ending: the pianist breaks through with passages of stirring virtuosity and the orchestra cannot but follow this provocative outburst.

Symphonic poem “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi

National tendencies in twentieth-century music are, inter alia, distinctly expressed in the works of Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. An author of an impressive number of symphonic works, Respighi took great pride in the national heritage and dedicated a whole series of symphonic poems to the Italian capital city. Among them, “The Pines of Rome” are singled out by their clear impressionistic orientation: the century-old trees are not the main object of depiction but a symbol of events related to them and an impulse to recall visions of those events (Kinscella 418). Each of the four movements has a separate name and explanation, which help the listener uses as a hint for imagining the related events and feelings. The poem is opened by “The Pines of Villa Borghese”: woodwinds play high-pitched thrills and passages that are called to depict the noisy scene of children playing under the trees. In their games, the children include war imitation, and this is reflected in the sound of brass winds that play a melody of a march.

Following the scene of life is a picture of “The Pines near a Catacomb”. Respighi returns the audience to the times of early Christianity when followers were bound to practice their religion secretly. As if from the depth of the catacombs comes a severe melody of the Gregorian chorale, accompanied by the dismal sound of muted strings (Kinscella 418). Night falls over the city, and in “The Pines of the Janiculum” Respighi depicts all the tremulous sensation of the night. A peaceful melody gently played by clarinet is carried on by the orchestra and developed to a vibrating admiration. As it ceases, a nightingale starts to sing. Respighi decided to employ a tape recording of the real song since he considered any composer’s effort too farfetched to match the spontaneity of nature (Kinscella 418). This romantic scene is followed by “The Pines of the Appian Way”, a scene of the heroic past. Respighi employs the orchestra to depict the measured tread of the approaching Roman army: an impressive crescendo, employing rhythmical strikes of timpani and fanfares, strikes the listeners with its grandeur reminding of the bygone Roman glory.

Scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

A bright example of historicism in music is observed in Carl Orff’s scenic cantata Carmina Burana. As a source of inspiration Orff chose a collection of medieval Goliardic poems glorifying the earthly joys of gluttony, gambling, and lust (Hristov). The cantata opens with an impressive hymn “O Fortuna”, which holds the audience in awe by its enormous sound created by an imposing ensemble of large orchestra and choir. There is something archaic in the music: perhaps, this impression is rendered by lack of big melodic development and usage of musical minimalism or even primitivism. As a means of expression, Orff employs measured rhythm and compact monodical melody performed in unison by the whole orchestra and choir. This unity of performers in one rhythmical articulation creates the atmosphere of powerful dominance of the mass over the individual and of mob strength over isolated personal considerations.

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Works Cited

Hristov, Nathalie. “Orff: Carmina Burana.” operatoday.com. 2005. Web.

Kinscella, Hazel Gertrude. Music and Romance. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. Print.

Lee, Douglas A. Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra. New York, NY: Routlege, 2002. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'E-Concert Report: 20th Century Music'. 6 May.

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