Ok. So this piece is goofy sounding. But the same instruments and the same symphony orchestra that first performed it might have played Mahler the next night. So what’s modern about it exactly?As the Yankette’s very cultivated readers well know, World War I is the event that delineates the 19th from the 20th century. Before the Somme: empires, confidence, letters, sonatas, and cavalry charges. Since the Somme: multi-nationals, irony, tweets, jazz, and Hiroshima.
Of course art never offers a starkly clear break: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, the year of the New York’s famous Armory art show. And George M. Cohan’s urged America to join the War with his stirring backward-looking Over There in 1917.
But I think concert-goers who heard Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Symphony number 9 in 1910 would have been surprised to hear, a few short years later, Darius Milhaut’s remarkable The Bull (or Ox) on the Roof.
To my ears this piece represents as much does Stravinsky the sound of the reassessment of Western cultural tradition. Sure, more austere Schoenberg reinvented the tonal system on which all Western music since Bach depended. But the many false starts, sudden stops, and scales leading nowhere is no less “modern.” This piece sounds to me what surrealism and even some of Dada looks like.
In addition, just as the 20th century gave rise to a one-world, global culture, here is piece written by a French composer drawing on Brazilian tunes, commissioned for a movie by Charlie Chaplin, a Brit making a name for himself in California. A world-wide web of artistic creation.
A sidebar: Dave Brubeck, one of the masters of mid-century jazz, the sound track of the “American Century,” learned composition from none other than Darius Milhaut. Imagine the jazz Brubeck might have conjured up after a year of study with Gustav Mahler. [Editor’s note: Good God, must I?] The mind boggles. [Editor’s note – again: That’s one way to put it.]
And what better condition of mind bring to this oddly compelling and strikingly modern piece.