Closers and Disruptors – Reflections on Music History

by Gregory Kuperstein

Posted Jan. 28, 2019

Just the last week, the BSO performed the “London”Symphony No. 104 by Haydn under the exuberant direction of Markus Stenz. While playing this exciting, happy piece, it occurred to me that this 1795 work felt like Haydn’s true “Farewell” Symphony. Not just because it was indeed his very last one. This symphony was the perfect farewell to the 18th century itself, to the peaceful time before revolutions, French and American both; to the orderly time of exaggerated courtesy, white wigs and aristocratic privilege, when the chance of birth, whether you were born a prince or a pauper, would’ve determined your station in life.

Then I asked myself: If this symphony had concluded one era, what music would I choose which epitomized the beginning and the end of the successive centuries?

As to the new, 19th c., the answer was obvious: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, written in 1804. Originally, Beethoven dedicated it to Napoleon, the breaker of all social barriers for himself and his generals, a self-made man if there ever was one. From an artillery officer to the Emperor of the French – some upward mobility.

I was unable to choose a single piece of music to sum up the Belle Epoch, time at the end of the 19th c. / beginning of the 20th c. Two works were in competition: 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr., and 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Yes, there was Mahler… But did his music represent the spirit of the Belle Epoch? I don’t think so. Mahler’s turbulent music resonates more with the sensibilities of the 20th c. So, it was either Strauss or Strauss.

The work that marked the beginning of the 20th c. in music was obvious, too: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, no question. It was premiered in 1913, just two years after Der Rosenkavalier. What a contrast…

As to the end of the 20th c., I was stumped, again. Pure classical music? Nothing stands out. Maybe a musical? Yes, Hairspray, 2003 musical by Marc Shaiman, based on our own Baltimorean John Waters’ movie of the same name. One of the last or maybe the last of the great 20th c. musicals whose tunes you could still be humming after the end of the show.

These are my selections. What are yours?             ©G.Kuperstein2019


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