It’s 1969 and Don Draper and his crew are closing in on the end of a decade – and the end of a series. The last year of the ‘60s was filled with newspaper headlines ranging from Richard Nixon’s swearing in as our 37th president to the Stonewall riots to Chappaquiddick to the moon landing. In classical music, traditional barriers between genres were coming down and avant-garde composers continued to expand boundaries.
In honor of “Mad Men’s” last hurrah, let’s raise a high ball to Don Draper et al (appropriately, in the middle of the day at work) and take a look at what was making headlines in the world of classical music in 1969.
“Classical and Pop Music Merge”
When Wendy Carlos, a musical prodigy from the age of six, released “Switched-On Bach,” it was generally derided by the classical musical establishment for its lightweight take on the works of J.S. Bach. But, Carlos, a talented musician and a Moog synthesizer pioneer, struck gold – literally. Her album was one of the first classical records to go gold, selling more than 500,000 copies and winning three Grammys in 1969, including Classical Album of the Year. Carlos would go on to release more synthesized classical music and score several Stanley Kubrick films, including A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.
“Merger Mania Strikes Again!”
Today, when Lang Lang performs with Metallica on the Grammys, it raises a few eyebrows, but back in 1969 when Deep Purple teamed up with the Royal Philharmonic to perform the Concerto for Group and Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall in London, it sent shockwaves through both classical and hard rock communities. The concert marked the first full-scale collaboration between a rock band and an orchestra. Inconceivably, after one more concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1970, the score, composed by Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord was lost, and the piece was not performed again until 1999 when Dutch composer Marco de Goeij created a new score by listening to the original recording and watching a video of the 1969 concert.
“Dmitri Shostakovich Completes His Symphony No. 14”
This bleak work, a response to Modest Mussorgsky's “ Songs and Dances of Death,” which Shostakovich had orchestrated in 1962, was intended by the composer to cast a realistic, less positive spin on mortality as it had been portrayed in music. Ironically, during one of its 1969 pre-premieres in Leningrad, Pavel Apostolov, one of the composer's harshest critics, suffered a heart attack or stroke. Some considered the work too pessimistic, but Shostakovich was quite impressed with himself, writing to a friend: “Everything that I have written until now over these long years has been a preparation for this work.”
“John Cage Is Still Going Strong”
By 1969, John Cage was firmly established as the most recognized contemporary composer. He created his “Variations” series during the bulk of the decade, which were “happenings,” performance art executed according to a score. The last year of the decade saw Cage release two works: “Cheap Imitation,” a piece for solo piano based on Erik Satie's symphonic drama “Socrate” and “HPSCHD,” a composition for harpsichord and computer-created sounds, which premiered on May 16, 1969, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The elaborate, multimedia concert involved seven harpsichord players, whose instruments were amplified and recorded using more than 50 tape players. Accompanying the music were more than 6,400 slides and 40 movies projected onto screens including one 340-foot long and circular. Groovy, indeed.
“Rebellion in Germany!”
German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was constantly making headlines during the decade – and until his death in 2007 – for both his musical brilliance and the outrageousness of his compositions. (This is a guy who, in 1971, claimed he was from the planet Sirius, not Earth.) None of his pieces created more scandal than the Nov. 15, 1969 premiere – and only performance – of “Fresco,” part of his Musik für die Beethovenhalle project. The work called for four orchestral groups playing in four different locations in Bonn auditorium, with audience members wandering from room to room. But musicians rebelled during rehearsals at directions such as “glissandos no faster than one octave per minute” as well as the four- to five-hour length of the concert. The musicians appealed to their union, which insisted they had to perform. The night of the performance someone placed a placard in a warm-up room reading: “We are playing, otherwise we would be fired!” And then things got ugly. Some musicians began playing Rhinish folk songs; others simply packed up and left. Audience members began taunting the players and someone posted another sign that said, “Stockhausen Zoo. Please do not feed the animals!” When someone cut the lights on the musicians’ stands, those who remained were forced to continue in the dark. Everyone just left after 260 minutes. After the show, Stockhausen commented: “The performance of ‘Fresco’ was completely wrecked by the orchestra, whose players made a lot of crazy nonsense, got drunk during their breaks, and finally handed over their instruments to members of the audience. The whole thing ended up like a primitive student happening, whose actors were no longer really ‘with it.’” Ah, the ‘60s...