A New Kind of Classification

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Randall Conway
Prof. Northrop
Writing for the Humanities
20 November 2018
A New Kind of Classification
It wouldn’t be an unfair statement to say that the world is full of narratives and classifications people often accept. Sometimes they are accepted in the zeitgeist, others face contention when they are strongly held. One constant, however, seems to the emergence of an iconoclast that disrupts these narratives. The stories told about times and movements leads to classifying the characters in the story one way or the other. This is the case with composers such as Sibelius and Stravinsky. The former is considered as breaking with expectations of what music should be while the latter is considered a conservative. Once the narrative is corrected, the a more complete understanding of their respective place in music history can be appreciated.
Consider the narrative of Modern Music in the context of classical music. It is widely accepted that this era saw a wide range of new styles. It is the era of Stravinsky who came into his own after Le Sacre du Printempts. The tone colors, harmonies, and wild rhythms seemed out of this world on one hand and reminiscent of a pagan prehistory on the other. It not only transcended the time, but it seemed to rebuke the traditions that preceded it.
This starkly contrasts with a set of seemingly recalcitrant composers. Thought his career began a decade earlier, Jean Sibelius is seen as failing to adopt to the times; he is thought of as a conservative. Tom Service explains, “His music was a rallying call for conservative critics and composers, one of the few bulwarks against the rise of the serialists and the neo-classicists.” In other words, Sibelius was seen as antiquated; from a time long past. After all, his music was decidedly tonal. Unlike the totally new chords found in Stravinsky, any particular harmony penned by Sibelius can be found in music written 50 years past. In addition, he is seen as a highly nationalistic composer, another fact that harkens back to the mid-19th century. Sibelius was not only seen as the greatest Finnish composer, but his music embodied they Finnish nationalism that was forming at the time.
Though this may be true, one must still ask if Sibelius isn’t modern. He is often classified as conservative, nationalistic, and romantic; a post romantic composer indicative of many other contemporaneous Scandinavian composers. He is not alone in this. One can look at other composers working in Scandinavia who have been given the same classification. This is the case with the work of Hugo Alfven, who, “informed his essentially Romantic style with a regard for the history and folk culture of his homeland.” (Allmusic.com)
Both of these composers wrote music reminiscent of the Romantic era. For example, Sibelius’ first symphony is over 40 min long. It sounds like a work of music highly influences by the most famous composers of the day, especially Brahms. The symphony is split into four movements, the emotional variety, though expansive, fits into tried and true sonata form (ABA format), and one certainly feels the weight of the 19th century bearing down on the composer. However, Sibelius changed a great deal over his career, thought he composed little after 1926. In his final published symphony, Sibelius, “condensces the entire symphonic experience into a single, 20 minute movement.” (Tom Service) In this work, gone is the weight of tradition. There are no breaks between the movements, if the listener even wants to distinguish the different parts. The melodies cannot be placed into any time period. This leads to a question: does adherence to keys and forms such as the symphony exclude a composer from the classification of Modern?
This leads to a larger question: can we truly classify music? Composers such as Sibelius are seen as old fashioned because of the narratives consumers of music and information about music buy into. The story of Stravinsky shattering the ceiling on what music could be and bringing about a new era was created to emphasize the revolutionary nature of their music. Perhaps Stravinsky owes much more to composers whose music he consumed. It is a well-known fact that he conceived Le Sacre du Printemts while listening to folk music in the east of Russia and even stole melodies from earlier composers.
This is equally true about the narrative about Sibelius. The same narrative that calls Stravinsky modern denies the same to Sibelius. The latter’s music is simply new in a different way. Inherent in the belief in musical progression is an unstated premise that there is only one way to progress; that music progresses on a linear line rather than on multiple lines and planes that diverge and take different directions.
What these amounts to is the fact that classifications should be conceived only insofar they are useful; their value is defined by their utility. Classifications allow people to communicate complicated ideas. We use them as referents like a short hand that allows us to capture a diverse set of things. If they aid in understanding the world, they should be employed. However, what is gained in ease of communication is lost in exactness. It becomes difficult to capture modernity of two disparate composers like Sibelius and Stravinsky when we conceptualize modernity. Concepts cannot capture differences or contradictions easily.
If Sibelius’ music morphed into something quite different, new, and defined music in radically new ways, it should receive a different classification from his earlier conservative period. After all, the periods of Stravinsky’s career is split between early, neo-classical, and atonal. Perhaps the classification of Sibelius should be revised to more clearly represent his later period.
Works Cited
Service, Tom. “The Silence of Sibelius.’” The Guardian, 20 Sep 2007
Morrison, Chris. “Hugo Alfven.’” Allmusic.com.