Dubbed ‘The War to End All Wars’, the First World War proved anything but. Nonetheless, when, on 11 November 1918, Allied and German personnel gathered in a railway carriage in Compiègne, France, to sign the Armistice and end the four-year conflict, it was as if a firm line was being drawn through the timeline of history.
A new era had begun, with misty-eyed romanticism replaced by hard-edged realism and, right across the globe, old values and social orders ripped to shreds. Artistically, too, the world was looking in new directions – premiered in October 1919, Elgar’s ultra-Romantic Cello Concerto seemed to mourn not only times and friends past, but indeed the composer’s own musical world.
But to what degree has music from the last century reflected the course of history? Over the next 10 pages we take 20 works that, in one way or another, define their time and place, from symphonies written in the shadow of Stalinism to big-screen soundtracks and modern-day reflections on issues such as the nuclear threat and global pollution. Welcome to our 100-year history lesson, presented through the medium of music.
The Times: With the aftermath of World War I behind it and the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression yet to happen for another five years, 1920s America was full of optimism. The economy boomed with the advance of technology, Americans sought the good life and people flocked to the big cities – New York, Chicago, San Francisco – in their droves. This was the era of The Great Gatsby and, seemingly, nothing could derail it.
The Music: Music in the US would reflect these good times, although jazz had, in fact, done so since before the end of the First World War. Now it was promising to give classical music an injection of energy and invention. There were those who objected to jazz’s suave invasion, including the composer Varèse, who claimed that, far from being ‘America’, jazz was ‘a negro product, exploited by the Jews’.
But the very point of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was that it was written by a Jewish composer and did make use of music of black origin. Rhapsody in Blue, premiered in New York in February 1924 by the composer alongside Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra (controversially made up entirely of white players) immediately threw open the question of exactly what American music was.
From the opening clarinet trill and upward slide (improvised in rehearsal and subsequently kept) to its overt jazz harmonies and rhythms, Gershwin’s music proved once and for all that American ‘art’ music and jazz could mix to staggering effect. Classical music would never be the same again. The audience reaction was extraordinary: Stokowski, Rachmaninov and Kreisler were there and declared themselves fans. As did, later, Ravel, Prokofiev, Schoenberg and one Alban Berg…
Berg: Wozzeck (1925)
The Times: Things were less happy across the Atlantic. The League of Nations had given Germany a hammering post-World War I and, as a result, the country was starting to witness the rise of extremism – Hitler’s jail sentence for the 1924 Munich Putsch would only keep him in check for five years. In Berlin, a new breed of expressionist culture rose up, encouraged by relaxed censorship laws: literature, painting, music and theatre all grimaced at a country with an uncertain future.
The Music: At first hearing, Berg’s Wozzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck and eight years in the composing, is uncompromisingly modern in its 12-tone serialism and raw, unfiltered themes of murder, adultery and brutality. Yet much of it is expressionist in its swirling emotions and affectionate homage to music’s bygone eras, with fugues, inventions, passacaglias and variations.
Berg’s music always seems to teeter one way and then another – from its Sprechstimme (a vocal style somewhere between speech and song) and violent harmonies to its grotesque Straussian interludes and hints of grimy Brechtian cabaret. Wozzeck is a miracle of operatic story-telling, cinematic in its flow, startling in its use of music to bring compassion to bear on its fatally flawed characters. No small wonder the Nazis later rejected Berg’s great masterpiece as ‘decadent’.
Orff: Carmina Burana (1937)
The Times: By the end of 1936, the self-confidence of the Nazi regime in Germany had reached an ominous level. Less than two years after Hitler had been proclaimed Führer, his forces had re-entered the Rhineland, in violation of the post-World War I treaties.
That same year saw membership of the Hitler Youth movement made compulsory for boys and, as Goebbels ramped up the propaganda machine, the Berlin Summer Olympics hijacked as a massive global PR stunt. Other countries looked on nervously but failed to act.
The Music: ‘The kind of clear, stormy, and yet always disciplined music that our time requires,’ was how the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, described Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Yes, the medieval texts that provided the words of this large-scale secular cantata had moments of bawdiness that caused consternation at the work’s Frankfurt premiere in June 1937 – degeneracy of any sort was frowned upon – but it soon went on to enjoy massive popularity within the Third Reich, gaining an almost symbolic status.
Orff was a canny operator in potentially dangerous times, ensuring that he stayed in favour with the Nazi hierarchy by accepting politically expedient commissions and trying to get his Schulwerk music education system formally adopted by Hitler Youth. High-level contacts will have helped the success of Carmina Burana, but so did the very nature of the music itself – powerful, direct and tuneful, and an unrestrained celebration of the joys of youth, it ticked all the right boxes.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (1937)
The Times: When Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik, was assassinated in December 1934, Stalin seized the moment. Instigating a ‘Great Purge’, the Soviet leader brought unmitigated and unprecedented terror as he sought to consolidate his power, ruthlessly wiping out anyone who might offer even the threat of dissent.
Politicians were the priority target, but no section of society was left untouched. As countless thousands were arrested, then executed, imprisoned or sent into forced labour, the atmosphere of fear and suspicion was all-pervasive.
The Music: When Stalin showed up at a performance of Shostakovich’s avant-garde Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in January 1936, the last thing the 29-year-old composer wanted to see was the dictator heading out in disgust before the end. Worse was to follow when Pravda, the state newspaper, then dismissed the opera as ‘chaos instead of music’, warning ominously that things ‘might end very badly’ for its creator. How to react to this potentially life-threatening situation? Shostakovich was brave, but no mug.
Rapidly shelving his equally dissonant Fourth Symphony, he instead composed a Fifth that would be more agreeable to the powers-that-be – when a journalist later suggested that he might want to add the subtitle of ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to just criticism’, Shostakovich didn’t object.
Don’t take the Fifth at face value, however. For all its pleasingly tonal triumphalism, the symphony is also distinguished by a deeply sardonic second-movement waltz, while the following Largo presents the bleakest of outlooks. The ambiguity of Shostakovich’s work surely can’t have gone un-noticed by the Soviet censors, but in this instance they let it pass.
The Times: In assassinating the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in 1938, the Polish-Jewish refugee Herschel Grynszpan gave the Nazis the justification they wanted to launch their attacks on Jews throughout Germany. ‘Kristallnacht’ was the first major attack on the Jewish population, with Jewish homes, schools, shops and synagogues destroyed across Germany and Austria over the course of a night. The Nazi persecution of Jews would continue to escalate, its full horror becoming evident only after the Second World War.
The Music: Tippett, a determined pacifist and conscientious objector, wrote the oratorio A Child of our Time as an alarmed reaction to vom Rath’s assassination and the Nazis’ consequent treatment of Jews. ‘The work began to come together with the sounds of the shot itself – prophetic of the imminent gunfire of the war,’ wrote the composer, ‘and the shattering of glass in the Kristallnacht.’
It was a work that not only reflected its own historical moment – Tippett began composing it in the late-1930s – but, at its premiere in 1941, also launched its previously relatively unknown composer into public consciousness. Mixing the Baroque traditions of oratorio with the use of negro spirituals was particularly revolutionary and a powerful symbol of Tippett’s steadfast commitment to universal emancipation.
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (1941)
The Times: As Hitler embarked on his relentless drive across Europe, millions of Allied soldiers and airmen were taken prisoner by the Nazis. Soviet troops were treated worse than most, with over three million dying in German custody as a result of mass executions and deliberate starvation.
The Music: Called up for military service not long after the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was captured by the German army soon after and transferred to Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. It was here that he wrote Quatuor pour la fin du temps, first performed in the camp by his fellow prisoners in the depths of winter. ‘We were 30,000 prisoners,’ wrote Messiaen in his account of the work’s premiere. ‘The most diverse classes of society were mingled. Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.’
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Inspired by verses from the Book of Revelation, the quartet takes its title from the Angel of the Apocalypse, who declared that there would be no more time. The piece symbolises the end of orderly progressive time, which is shown literally through the music itself, with its constant disturbance of regular meter. It’s music written in apocalyptic times, looking to
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (1948)
The Times: The Second World War had changed the world beyond recognition. In its aftermath, the depth of the trauma and destruction was clearer than ever. Even while peace treaties were being signed, reparations decreed, borders redrawn and war criminals convicted, there was still the impossible task of comprehending the sheer scale of loss and the unprecedented level of barbarity. Millions had died, cities had been obliterated. The full horror of human depravity had been revealed.
The Music: In 1945, Strauss penned a harrowing public lament for the destruction of the world as he knew it. His raw grief at ‘the most terrible period of human history’, as he described the Second World War in his diary, flows through every note of the string masterpiece that is Metamorphosen. Three years later, this horror had turned into something quite different. In Strauss's Four Last Songs, published and premiered posthumously, the elderly Strauss seems to face mortality calmly – and accept it peacefully.
This profoundly moving collection for soprano and orchestra includes three Hermann Hesse poems, Frühling, September and Beim Schlafengehen, and one by Eichendorff. Although it was Strauss’s publisher who brought the songs together and placed Im Abendrot last, it seems it could be no other way. Strauss sets the poem as a beautiful sunset on life and love, a glorious opening blaze of gold fading away to colours of muted beauty. ‘Soon it will be time to sleep,’ the singer tells us. ‘How weary we are of wandering; is this perhaps death?’
Cage: 4'33" (1952)
The Times: The US was booming in the early 1950s, with its economy and population both thriving. This was an era of consumerism and capitalism, a time to forget recent catastrophic history and to build a prosperous future. Conservatism and uniformity were strong societal forces, but an undercurrent that embraced new ideas and alternative philosophies was finding its voice too. Either way, the world had been given a second chance.
The Music: John Cage was playing around with the idea of a ‘silent’ piece back in the 1920s, but he felt the time needed to be right for audiences to accept it as anything other than a gimmick. That moment proved for him to be in 1952, but not everyone at the premiere of John Cage's 4'33" felt similarly. Even two years later, The New York Times wrote it off as ‘hollow, sham, pretentious Greenwich Village exhibitionism’.
Ironically, it wasn’t pure conceptualism that had spurred Cage on. It was Muzak. The piped-in music had become inescapable aural wallpaper for American workers, and Cage wanted to offer an alternative. His deepening interest in Zen Buddhism also informed the three-movement piece. Forget the composer, forget the conventional wisdom that music conveys emotions. Instead Cage wanted his listeners to pay attention to the everyday sounds around them, from their own breathing to the rain outside. To Western ears, the idea was radical.
Krzysztof Penderecki:Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
The Times: The 1950s had seen the rise of atomic energy, and a commitment to producing weapons of mass destruction by the US, Russia and the UK, followed in the early ’60s by the likes of France and China. Nuclear armament by some of the world’s key nations provoked fear of accidental fallout and World War III. Tension was never higher than in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day stand-off between the US and the USSR that saw Soviet missiles installed on Cuba, just 90 miles from the US coastline.
The Music: Penderecki’s intense work is a masterpiece of atonal writing for large string orchestra. The high registers, glissandi and tremulous chord clusters make for an aural assault that also manages to be surprisingly affecting. Originally titled 8'37" (its length), the composer was convinced to dedicate it to those who died when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It’s as if it were felt we needed a salient reminder of the unmitigated horror of nuclear warfare, at a time when it was a very real possibility.
The soundworld is one of pain and fear, brought about by the horrific screams, cries and warning sirens of the strings. A prime example of sonorism – a style in which traditional instruments are used to create unconventional sounds – it inspired composers including Górecki and Ligeti, plus many a film director.
Delia Derbyshire: Theme from Doctor Who (1963)
The Times: This was truly a period of triumph and tragedy, as the space race ignited the imaginations of millions across the planet but shared headlines with social unrest in the US, the Cold War and an escalating conflict in Vietnam. 1963 saw Valentina Tereshkova become the first woman in space and the violent assassination of US President John F Kennedy. Both events were witnessed on television, a rapidly developing medium and, increasingly, the average home’s window on a troubled world.
The Music: Though written by Australian composer Ron Grainer, it was Delia Derbyshire’s out-of-this-world arrangement of his music that made TV audiences sit up and take notice, then hide behind the sofa. Doctor Who, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi television series, was first broadcast on 23 November 1963 – the day after Kennedy was shot. Working out of the BBC’s ‘Radiophonic Workshop’, originally devoted to creating radio sound effects, Derbyshire created what became a groundbreaking piece of electronic music before the age of the keyboard synthesizer.
She achieved it by crafting an intricate patchwork of sounds, including white noise, oscillations and a single plucked string, that were put on tape and sped up, slowed down or played backwards before being layered into a final mix. Despite her contribution, Derbyshire was not given a co-composing credit for the theme tune or any royalties, despite Ron Grainer’s belief that she should get at least half.
You can read more about composers of some of our most popular television programmes here
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975)
The Times: After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the US eyed the popular leftist ideology sweeping across South America with quiet alarm, and consecutive administrations backed military coups in several countries from 1964-73. The deposition (and resulting death) of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 was perhaps the most shocking. Many lives were lost and a people’s democracy stolen.
The Music: American pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski (b1938) was, until the 1970s, known for his penchant for the avant-garde. This decade, however, saw him shift to a more tonal style, and music that had some popular and political influences. His response to the events in Chile is a solo piano epic built of 36 variations based on the Chilean protest song ‘¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’
It also features other musical quotations that allude to historic leftist struggles, such as Bandiera Rossa, the anthem of the Italian labour movement and Bertold Brecht/Hanns Eisler’s popular hit of the Great Depression, Solidarity Song. Commissioned, premiered and originally recorded by Ursula Oppens, the piece requires an unusually physical performance, including moments of whistling and lid-slamming.
John Williams: Star Wars (1977)
The Times: The 1970s in America were marked by the Watergate scandal and the final years of the Vietnam War; across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the escalation of IRA terrorism following the notorious ‘Bloody Sunday’ events of 1972, industrial unrest and the three-day week brought misery to much of Britain. In this decade of cynicism and pessimism, moments of escapism and light relief were badly needed. And where better to find that than in front of the big screen?
The Music: The posters for Star Wars, a fairly low-budget science fiction story, came with a promise: ‘It’ll make you feel like a kid again…’ This welcome dose of fantasy was anchored by John Williams’s score, which was somehow familiar in its make-up and narrative function. What the composer devised was a musical accompaniment that was in contrast to the alien worlds and technology we were seeing on screen and utilising the forces of a full symphony orchestra (the LSO).
Williams crafted an operatic work full of character themes and motifs that – like George Lucas’s story – harkened back to a bygone age of cinematic storytelling not heard since Hollywood’s Golden Age. The following year the music, which won Williams an Oscar, made its first appearance in the concert hall, where it has been at home ever since, bringing new audiences to orchestral music.
You can read our reviews of the latest John Williams reviews
Steve Reich: Desert Music (1983)
The Times: ‘The day the world almost died’ was how the Daily Mail described 26 September 1983. Relations between the US and the USSR were already at an all-time low but that evening, a faulty Soviet early warning system, mistaking clouds for intercontinental ballistic missiles, almost plunged the two superpowers into nuclear war.
President Reagan, meanwhile, referred to Russia as the ‘Evil Empire’, although East and West were both developing ways to obliterate one another with increasing might and efficiency. A frightening time.
The Music: With Desert Music, Steve Reich proved that classical music still had powerful things to say about the state of the world and, in particular, the threat of nuclear war. He found inspiration in fragments of three poems by the Puerto Rican poet William Carlos Williams: The Orchestra, Theocritus: Idyl I, and Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.
Although Reich doesn’t set words from Williams’s own Desert Music, he uses the title as a reference to the contrast of deserts as places of beauty and their use as nuclear weapons test sites. From the start, the music is ominous, its waves of sound crashing back and forth; in other movements, instruments weave over huge blocks of sound as the choir hypnotically repeats snatches of poetry over and over. And at the centre lies the dire warning: ‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realise his wishes. Now that he can realise them, he must either change them or perish.’
You can read our reviews of the latest Steve Reich recordings here
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy (1987)
The Times: The mid-1980s was the era of the affordable home computer – in the UK, the ZX Spectrum and Acorn’s BBC Micro led the way, opening up the world of programming to a new generation. But way ahead of the curve were video games consoles (dominated first by Atari, then Nintendo), offering hours of colourful fun from barrel-chucking gorillas to Italian-American plumbers. The games revolution had begun, its effect now felt in almost every area of popular culture today.
The Music: The first instalment of the adventure good-versus-evil game Final Fantasy was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987 – little did its Japanese authors realise what they had unleashed. While its staggering graphics and ambitious gameplay have won the Final Fantasy series of 15 volumes millions of fans worldwide (Final Fantasy XV was released in 2016), its soundtrack has gained iconic status and become a symbol for the ever-growing and evolving role of music in computer games. It all started here, you could say.
Final Fantasy I’s original opening music, by Nobuo Uematsu, is an arpeggiated sequence of computer bleeps, but over the years Final Fantasy’s music, which often incorporates that rippling theme, has become more and more technically accomplished with the advances in chip technology. Today, as with many of today’s most ambitious video games (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of the Colossus to name but three), its soundtracks demand huge symphony orchestras and choirs and are as hotly anticipated – and respected – as the games themselves.
Arvo Pärt: Berlin Mass (1990)
The Times: On the evening of 9 November 1989, East German guards on the border with West Berlin accepted the inevitable: outnumbered by the enormous crowd that had gathered, they opened the checkpoints and let people through. Thus began the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most potent symbol dividing the communist countries of Eastern Europe from the democratic West.
Initially sparked by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), a wave of revolutions saw old orders fall and closed borders open. Within a couple of years, the Soviet Union itself was no more.
The Music: Arvo Pärt saw the events of November 1989 unfold at close quarters, as he was by then a resident of West Berlin. The Estonian composer had, however, spent the majority of his life in the Soviet Union, where his early dissonant style – not least his 1960 orchestral piece Nekrolog – had brought him into regular conflict with the authorities. By the late 1980s, Pärt was a very different composer, the avant-garde extremes of his youth replaced by a plainchant-inspired simplicity and the ‘tintinnabuli’ (bell-like) style that was distinctively his own.
You hear this style throughout Pärt’s Berlin Mass, which was premiered at the city’s St Hedwig’s Cathedral in May 1990. Presumably, he had begun working on the commission before he had any inkling that the events of late-1989 would unfold as they did, but the music tells the joy of a composer expressing faith in a way that had been outlawed during his Soviet years. Of particular interest is the work’s ‘Credo’. Those in the audience familiar with Pärt’s music will have doubtless spotted that the music here is much the same as his 1977 work Summa – but this time with the key changed from minor to major.
George Walker: Lilacs (1996)
The Times: Even as the dawn of the 21st century loomed, racial equality in the US seemed as distant a vision as ever. In the mid-1990s, unemployment rates for African Americans were almost twice that faced by white people, and their average income lagged behind by almost a third as well. Race riots plunged Los Angeles into chaos in May 1992, while the Million Man March in 1995 saw African Americans gathering en masse in Washington to protest. Here and there, however, there were also little signs of progress…
The Music: In 1996, the 74-year-old George Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the first black composer in the award’s 53-year history to do so. African-American composers had previously played their part in the US classical music scene – not least when Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor was the toast of Chicago in 1933 – but formal recognition plus regular commissions and performances of their music were still proving hard to come by.
The piece that secured Walker his award was Lilacs, a haunting four-movement work for voice and orchestra that had been premiered by soprano Faye Robinson and the Boston Symphony in February of that year. Walker set Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, written in 1865 to lament the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, just months after the president had ended slavery by overseeing the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.
Kaija Saariaho: L’Amour de loin (2000)
The Times: From the boardroom to the ballot box, women continue to be under-represented. When George W Bush was voted US President in the November 2000 election, he became the 43rd man to hold the post, compared to no women at all. At the same point in history, major democratic powers such as Germany and France had yet to elect their first female leader, and the UK had just one woman prime minister to its name. Though traditionally liberal in outlook, the arts world proved little better when it came to offering equal opportunities.
The Music: Despite Kaija Saariaho’s hesitance for many years to write an opera, when L’Amour de loin was premiered in Salzburg in August 2000 it was met with significant critical acclaim, providing a springboard for the Finnish composer’s other works to be performed more widely. Combining electronic sounds and video projections with the traditions of opera proved how the form had progressed over the century, with multimedia art forms making their way onto traditional stages.
In a breakthrough moment for a female composer, Saariaho’s epic tale of unrequited love was an instant success with audiences. And yet, still the battle for recognition was not entirely won – it would not be until 2016 that the New York Met chose L’Amour de loin to be the second ever opera by a woman it had staged in its history. The first, Lili Boulanger’s Der Wald, had been performed over a century before, in 1903.
John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
The Times: The world looked on aghast on 11 September 2001, as film footage showed passenger planes flying into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington. As US President George Bush calculated his response, the consequences would be myriad: troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to dismantle al-Qaeda, hate crimes and Islamophobia spiked across the world and the political landscape changed forever.
The Music: The New York Philharmonic approached John Adams in the wake of 9/11 with what must have seemed like an immensely intimidating commission: to write a direct response to the tragedy. He chose not to write it as a requiem or memorial because of the restrictions of the conventions, instead choosing to refer to it as ‘a “memory space” – a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions’. The work for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and pre-recorded tape is an intensely emotive piece, with sounds of the city heard among readings of the names of the victims, text taken from missing-persons signs around the area and a shimmering orchestral sound. It went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anna Nicole (2011)
The Times: What’s real and what’s fake? At no other time in history have these notions been so confused. We live in an era in which anyone can become a celebrity: Big Brother came to our TV screens in 2000, Facebook to our computers in 2004. Fame has become a goal in itself, fuelled by a media and public hungry for 24-hour news and clickbait. Social media can create connections and communities, but can also add crippling pressures to our lives.
The Music: Celebrity culture burst into Covent Garden in 2011, when Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera portraying the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith was premiered. The British composer had perhaps chosen an unexpected subject for his third opera, but the rollercoaster life of a small-town waitress turned reality star proved ideal for the stage. There was a natural arc to the drama: Anna Nicole first made her name as a Playboy model, becoming a focus for prurient public interest when at 26 she married an 89-year-old billionaire. Abuse was flung at her, and after J Howard Marshall died, a series of legal battles were unleashed over his fortune.
In 2002, her fame stoked by the media, Anna Nicole became the star of her own reality TV series, The Anna Nicole Show. But her dreams of wealth and fame turned to tragedy when, in 2007, addicted to prescription painkillers and in pain after botched plastic surgery, she died of a drugs overdose. Turnage’s punchy score, blending classical, jazz and blues, encapsulated the brash glamour of Anna Nicole’s world but also the sadness at its heart. The piece was almost universally acclaimed as a hit.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (2013)
The Times: The roots of environmentalism stretch back to the Industrial Revolution, when man and machine began to have a significant impact on nature, but it was in the second half of the 20th century that the green movement really gathered pace. Scientists found evidence of global warming, and climate change is one of the biggest threats facing us today. With carbon dioxide emissions at a record high, the ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising.
The Music: ‘You feel the depth of the waves and the spray of the sea,’ said John Luther Adams of Become Ocean. The powerful 40-minute orchestral piece, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, immerses the listener in an ocean of sound – we metaphorically ‘become ocean’. Although Adams says he never sets out to write political art, it’s hard not to see this vast musical seascape as a potent vision of one possible future for our planet. Before he turned to composing full-time, the American was an environmental activist, spending two decades working in Alaska.
The lapping waves of the sea near his northerly home found their way into Become Ocean, a score that expertly captures both the expansive horizons of the ocean and its surface shimmers. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered Become Ocean, which follows the smaller-scale Become River (2010), and earlier this year gave the first performance of the final part of Adams’s trilogy, Become Desert.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.