This century Part 1: Modern is relative

Some thoughts that I thought at a very recent concert, the details of which will be shared in part 2 next week


What is modern? What is ‘a long time ago’? What is ‘old’?
I got to thinking about similar questions a while back in preparation to see Chopin’s piano concertos performed here in Taipei by the sickeningly talented Ingolf Wunder. The first of those two (well, number one, albeit the second to be written) was completed almost 200 years ago. Almost two whole centuries!
That was kind of mind blowing to me, because… I think of Chopin as one of the first wholly Romantic composers (but even his first piano sonata, one of his least-performed or recorded works, is still quite ‘classical’ in nature), and the Romantic era stretched all the way up into the 20th century, with some serious modification and reinvention along the way. Most of the music I would choose to listen to leisurely would fall squarely within the 100 years between 1820 and 1920 (and those two decades of the twentieth century would only include a small handful of composers: Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Scriabin, Ravel, and perhaps a few others), so to me, it’s kind of right in the sweet spot.
In contrast to that, some of the early symphonies of Haydn or Mozart (not to mention Bach suites or concertos) seem positively ancient…
But I have recently begun to contrast my timeline of musical styles and tastes to against the timeline of another of my interests in recent years: science. All the science. Chemistry, physics, geology,
biology, everything. I’m no pro, and if there’s any math involved, I assuredly cannot do it, but I love reading about it. This was all kicked off by a book that came to be one of my favorites ever, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I can’t go into it now, but it is not only educational, but humorous, fascinating, exciting, informative, and just all around solidly captivating, more so than almost any other book I’ve ever read. I’ve read it (well, listened to it) perhaps close to 100 times (no exaggeration), and some tracks more than 250 times (over the past… eight or nine years).
In any case, what was astonishing to me was comparing ‘modern’ science and technology against modern music.
Newton’s Principia was published in 1687… that’s a freakishly long time ago, and his scientific theories, laws, and ideas were solid until Einstein came around with his theories of relativity and new ideas on gravity that updated it all, but that wasn’t for another two centuries (and then some). Newton’s discoveries and calculations and insight were shockingly ahead of their time. Also, many people don’t realize how far science had come in the early years of the twentieth century. People don’t seem to realize, for example, that something like quantum theory, which to many still seems like such a foreign, novel, and obscurely radical scientific concept, has been around for over 100 years. Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his quantum theory in 1918, was born two years before Gustav Mahler!
Does it not seem a bit shocking that someone won a Nobel Prize for quantum theory before the television had even been able to transmit moving silhouette images? We had quantum theory before we had TV (as we know it; the first patent for kind of the grandfather of TV was granted in 1884). Planck’s discovery (or at least theory) of the energy of waves consisting of ‘quanta’ was in 1900, almost a decade before the Model T rolled onto the scene.
Those are just a few of the things that fascinate me about when and where (or whether) certain things or people coexisted. Your average person may not think of the first decade or two of the twentieth century as ‘advanced’ or ‘contemporary’ without cars or TVs, much less computers with WiFi and Facebook and smartphones and all the rest, but we had quantum mechanics! We had quantum mechanics and Schoenberg and Bartok and Ravel and Stravinsky and Varese, for crying out loud!
It’s all relative, I guess. I think of much music of the twentieth century as exceedingly modern and new and earth shattering and ground-breaking and “it’ll take me some time to warm up to that,” while the lives of people then were a far cry from the way we live technologically today, not to mention advances in medicine, transportation, and all the rest. I just find it odd that you can pick a date in time like 1915 or something, and think that the car was just becoming a hit, Prokofiev had started writing his first ballets, and Scriabin died.
It’s a strange thought that9 music from 1920 is incredibly new, one of Einstein’s greatest theories had its debut, but daily life to many would still seem antiquated. It’s all relative.

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