The capital-M ‘Modernist’ composers defined their time by trying to define a new relationship to time itself. Modernism, futurism, innovation, ’make it new’, the immediacy of abstraction, the swiftness of the avant-garde, the swiftness of shock (for the bourgeoisie)… whatever one makes of these musical developments, one can hardly deny that they were somehow about time — especially the time called now.
This left a second category of musician in the early modern period: the musician whose music is harder to place in the progressive history of modernism. In fact, their music, on hearing alone, is harder to associate with a date at all. Biographical data may largely coincide, but style, perspective, and historical identity vary wildly. Here is a sample of some widely-known composers bridging the 19th and 20th centuries:
Leoš Janácek (1854-1928)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
— > Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
–> Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
-=-=> Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
-=-=> Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
-=-=> Charles Ives (1874-1954)
-=-=> Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
-=-=> Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
-=-=> *** Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) ***
-=-=-=> Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
-=-=-=> Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
-=-=-=> Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)
-=-=-=> Anton Webern (1883-1945)
-=-=-=> Alban Berg (1885-1935)
-=-=-=-=> Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)
The lives of Manuel de Falla and Arnold Schoenberg roughly coincide; Elgar and Debussy overlap; and Janá?ek comes before the whole lot of them. So whose music is newer? The answer, clearly, is yes.
There are two ways to be present. One is to be here; the other is to be now. It is hard to be both. For Manuel de Falla, the matter of place comes out ahead.
Amidst all the abstractions and impressions of Modernism, it is easy to forget that the turn of the century was (with catastrophic consequence) a time of intense and powerful nationalism. Debussy sought a French music. Sibelius sought Finnish identity. Vaughan Williams looked to Thomas Tallis. Charles Ives mined Americana. And Falla, for all that he may be labeled an ‘impressionist’, sought and represented Spain. His Canciones tour the styles of the Iberian peninsula, with a theme of love as a common thread. His is music of history and memory rather than of history and progress. This is no musical handicap. Rather than leaving an impression of newness, it leaves an impression of old things having come to fruition, for now, in concert, for the people who listen. And he knew as well that he himself was a passing variation on an old melody.
In all honesty, I think that in popular song, the spirit is more important than the letter. The essential features of these songs are rhythm, tonality, and melodic intervals. The people themselves prove this by their infinite variations on the purely melodic lines of the songs.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the old songs are also the new songs, despite our efforts, or perhaps because of them.