Slimming Down the Classics Like overeating at Thanksgiving, composers can overindulge on music. Commentator Miles Hoffman discusses the reaction some composers had to the "musical bloat" of the Bruckner and Mahler years. The result was a leaner musical waistline.
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Slimming Down the Classics

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Slimming Down the Classics

Slimming Down the Classics

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Okay, folks. Still feeling a bit full? Here's the tune to go with that bloated feeling.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony No. 8")

MONTAGNE: It's Gustav Mahler - sure puts to music the notion of overindulgence, which is where we begin this year's post Thanksgiving chat with music commentator Miles Hoffman.

And, Miles, I'm reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.

MILES HOFFMAN: Well, and in fact, I think what would be fun to talk about today is the reaction to overindulgence. The musical dieting that came after this rich musical feast of enormous works in the late - in the early 20th century.

MONTAGNE: Well, before we get to the cure, just tell us a bit more about this music that we're listening to and what it meant in its time.

HOFFMAN: This is the "Symphony No. 8" by Gustav Mahler, also known as the "Symphony of a Thousand." And in fact, at the original performance in 1912, there were 1,028 performers.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony No. 8")

HOFFMAN: A lot of people did say it was overindulgent, and the composers reacted. What this all led to, in a sense, was a movement that later was called neoclassicism, a kind of a going back to older forms, smaller forces, just cutting back, in general.

MONTAGNE: Then, who is the leader of this cutting back, as you put it?

HOFFMAN: Igor Stravinsky was undoubtedly the most important composer in this general movement. And let's listen to a little bit of one of Stravinsky's enormous works from before his style was to change. If we listen to the end of "Firebird"...

(Soundbite of music, "Firebird")

HOFFMAN: ...and then compare that to a later Stravinsky work, I think you'll hear the contrast.

(Soundbite of music, "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto")

HOFFMAN: This is from a piece that Stravinsky wrote - it's actually much later, it's from the '30s, but that's okay. It's called the "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto," and it's really like an old concerto grosso, almost, from the Baroque period.

(Soundbite of music, "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto")

MONTAGNE: Very delicate especially by comparison.

HOFFMAN: Well, that's right. Yeah. I mean, it's not just that these pieces were smaller; here was an entirely different aesthetic. We think of lush versus lean; self-indulgent versus restrained. And one thing I should point out here, Renee, is that what influenced these musical styles was not simply a musical trend or a reaction to what had come before. What we have to remember is that, along the way, there was this little thing called World War I. And there's no way, in some ways, to just be as earnest as you were before. So from warm, evocative music, we get this point of view of reserve, of irony, of even bitterness.

MONTAGNE: Play us a work from another composer that illustrates what, basically, you've just being saying but illustrates the reaction to, say, the big Mahler piece that we heard in the beginning of this conversation.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think the Stravinsky is a nice example. But the Stravinsky is also in a language that's very familiar to us - a musical language that's very familiar. And his harmonies in that little excerpt we just heard really wouldn't have surprised Mozart. Arnold Schoenberg, on the other hand, reacted to, in some ways, to his own style - his own earlier big style - in the style of the German romantics with an entirely new musical language.

(Soundbite of music, "Suite for Piano")

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, what year is the Schoenberg piece from? Because I'm thinking that when it would have been first played, it would have been very hard on the ears of people hearing it?

HOFFMAN: Well, it was from the early '20s - between 1921 and 1923 - and it did not have great success, for the most part and, in fact, Renee, really still doesn't. Schoenberg's music, his atonal compositions have never proved terribly popular or successful with the musical public.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, we know - I mean, they're famous now, but how influential were composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky when they were coming up with this new sort of slimmed down music?

HOFFMAN: Very influential, and they were influential all over the world. One of the hotbeds of this new aesthetic was Paris, and there was a group of composers called Les Six - the six. What they wrote, I suppose you might call it - especially since we're thinking about food after Thanksgiving, Renee. You could call it a nouvelle cuisine compared to the old rich, creamy sauces of earlier music. And if we listen to one of the six, the music of Francis Poulenc, we can hear this idea taken into wittiness, but wittiness combined with really great charm and beauty.

(Soundbite of music, "Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon")

MONTAGNE: You feel like a little circus-y(ph) feeling here; the swing.

HOFFMAN: Oh, it's funny you should say circus because these composers wanted specifically to include the influence of circus music, of popular music, of music that's made by machines, so that's a great point.

(Soundbite of music, "Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon")

MONTAGNE: Miles, how long did this what you might call the reaction to bloat last? I mean, was there then a reaction to that? Did a new generation of composers sort of, in effect, really say stop with the diet?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think, what's happened is that we're now in an omnivorous period, Renee. You know, these philosophical and aesthetic battles seemed terrible important at the time, and in some ways, naturally, they are, historically. But from a great distance, we don't really care about them anymore. All we care is that there's a lot of great music that these folks write. And I think, now, people write simply - and have been writing - whatever they want. If they want to write big, overheated pieces, they do. If they want to write little minimalist dry, witty, ironic pieces, they do that. That is where we find ourselves now.

MONTAGNE: Miles, thank you.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And since we started this conversation a little bit stuffed, let's stick with something lighter, at least...


MONTAGNE: ...than the Mahler that we started with.

HOFFMAN: So not the "Symphony of a Thousand," but we'll go back to our Poulenc "Trio" to say goodbye today, Renee.

(Soundbite of music, "Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon")

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist with the American Chamber Players. And he's also dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Visit to get the skinny on this piece and all of our classical cuisine, and a happy day after to you.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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