The nineteenth century was a period of towering accomplishment for humanity. The belief that human beings could improve their circumstances through rational action was proven actionable on a mass scale. The arts, sciences and industry all flourished as a result, creating rich, cosmopolitan lives for large populations. Leaving backwardness and superstition on the farms they left behind, the concentrated populations of large cities and the wealth they generated created a new cosmopolitan appetite for culture. This added even more momentum to western art’s steady movement away from the religious and toward the secular, as artists became completely free of patrons, with some becoming celebrities and quite wealthy in the process.
In addition to continuing the progress made during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century produced its own historic movement, this time away from the rigidity of classical forms and expectations. Artists began to question and often dispense with tradition, producing wildly expressive art, and setting the groundwork for modernism.
Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major (1903) stands at an inflection point in the history of music. Unlike some of Ravel’s later chamber works, the instrumentation of the piece - a string quartet - is unmistakably traditional, as is its rhythm. The sound of the piece is however clearly on the precipice of something new. Full of rich, four part harmonies and moments of wild dissonance, this piece would probably sound completely alien to a seventeenth century audience. Apparently it wasn’t a hit with twentieth century audiences either - the piece was considered a flop by both critics and Ravel’s teacher, composer Gabriel Fauré. Despite a cold initial reception, the piece is now widely celebrated and loved. In fact, the second movement accompanies the introduction of the cast of characters in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”.