April 29th 2015
The Beauty of Atonal Music
Stravinsky’s music is disconcerting and disagreeable. No doubt it wanted to resemble the barbarous choreography (Kelly, 2013, p.407). – Adolphe Boschot
Last week, the Juilliard Orchestra performed four pieces of music during their concert: Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Igor Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Pierre Boulez's Originel from "...explosante-fixe..", and also his Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna. My first impression with these songs was not one of easy acceptance -- each of them left me feeling unpleasant and on edge. Their tones varied yet a naturalistic, primitive feeling pervaded their structures, atonal and tonal harmonies, instrumentations, and the rhythms.
In the Prelude to the Afternoon Faun, the overall structure resembles the traditional movement structure of ABA. In the ten-minute long movement, Debussy starts out with a chromatic flute solo with the orchestra slowly chipping in but the orchestra never steals the thunder of the solo instrument performing the theme melody.
Up until the five-minute mark, I hear the subtly building counter-melodies played by the string instruments such as violins and violas. However, these short harmonious diatonic passages are quickly replaced by the chromatic theme music again. There is a gradual crescendo in the strings’ influence on the overall piece until the very end when we hear a similar intensity to the opening number. Observably, Debussy occasionally uses tonal music notes as a foil to remind the audience the different touch of the beauty of atonality. The alternations of tonal and atonal music play with the audience’s expectations of traditional song structure by taking familiar themes but presenting them in an unfamiliar way. Ironically, the “ABA” is a traditional tonal music form and Debussy seems to use this popular form deliberately to simultaneously acknowledge and push beyond the constraints of the traditions. It is worth to mention that the returning A is modified, slightly different with the original one, also somewhat of a traditional choice.
Debussy uses mainly wind instruments at the beginning, flutes, oboes, bassoons, and clarinets with several harp glissandos as the background. The string orchestra only plays the cameo role in A section of the music but shines in B section when the whole orchestra is playing in high volume. The woodwind instruments seem to carry the weight of the story with their wash of sounds, and the solo flute performance in particular conveys the laid-back personality of the faun, the orchestral strings adding an undeniable melancholy to this fantastic creature. The harp glissandos and the repressed horn perfectly create tranquility in this warm afternoon; a keeper of the grove lackadaisically rests with her dryad sisters with manes of leaves draping down her back. She is the protector of this green land with her powers over nature and the animals, never craving more except her sacred forest under the moonlight. The woodwind instruments can mimic the sound of nature and trigger similarly elemental imagery; the chromatic tones break the triad symphony in traditional western music and broaden the possibilities of different atonal sounds. And, just as I am about to be carried away by Debussy, Stravinsky brings me back by his Symphonies of Wind Instruments in the concert.
Stravinsky composed the Symphonies of Wind Instruments after his friend Debussy died in 1918 (Symphonies, 2014). Unlike Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun I do not find any traditional structures in this ten-minute music piece. Without the apparent formality, the music may seem asymmetric and anxiety-inducing, but what Stravinsky loses in comfort and familiarity, he gains in freedom and flexibility. The diverging properties of the music -- rhythm,…