Twentieth Century period (music)

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In Western classical music, the twentieth century was a time of massive change and upheaval. In a large sense this mirrored the political turmoil in the first half of the century, as well as the explosion of mass-media and intercultural communication by the century's end. If the composers in the Classic period had established a common musical language based on tonality, and each composer of the Romantic period had extended this language to his own personal expressive ends, the twentieth century saw the complete dissolution of this common language, to be replaced with various attempts at new ones.

The twentieth century also saw the end of Austro-German dominance over musical composition. While various nationalist schools in Russia, Northern Europe, and Eastern Europe had begun to emerge in the late Romantic period, in the twentieth century compositional activity became wholly decentralized: England produced a whole generation of great composers for the first time in three centuries, France became a hotbed of innovation again, America finally found its compositional voice, excellent composers from Mexico and South America appeared on the scene, and in the second half of the century Japan entered in full force. None of these schools were shut off from the others, as composers moved ever more freely between musical centers, and cross-pollination became the rule.

The emergent popular music industry also created fresh energy and fresh dilemmas in concert music. On the one hand, popular music and especially jazz were a tremendous influence on several composers, and several jazz musicians were likewise influenced by concert music. On the other hand, newly composed music began to lose its privileged place in cultural life; the "Classical music" institutions - symphony orchestras, conservatories, and classical record labels - became ever more conservative in taste, preferring established works from the musical canon to new and untested ones, many of which were becoming more and more difficult for the listener. These institutions themselves increasingly had to compete with the burgeoning popular culture in the form of films and television.

Central Europe before WWI

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Austrian Empire was in its last years. Vienna, its capital, was nearing the end of a golden age. The assassination of emperor Franz Joseph I's wife Elizabeth (a much beloved figure) in 1898 by an anarchist was one early sign of the political unrest which would finally bring down the empire and plunge all of Europe into war. This sense of unease was felt in both the Expressionist art and the music written in the early part of the century. The so-called "Second Viennese School," headed by composer and painter Arnold Schönberg, began at the turn of the century writing hyper-Romantic music which expanded the expressive and harmonic language of Brahms and Richard Wagner. By 1908, however, Schönberg had abandoned tonality altogether, which he considered the next logical step in the progression of musical evolution (a step he referred to as "The Emancipation of the Dissonance.")[1]

Schönberg's disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern soon followed suit, and the three together composed a body of work before the war which reflected the disturbing images of Expressionist painting: relatively brief, tortured works characterized by unrelenting dissonance and a refusal to allow the musical tension to resolve.

Also a factor in central Europe was the weight of a century-long tradition of rapid musical evolution begun with Beethoven. Long seen as perhaps the most revolutionary figure in music, composers throughout the 19th century in German-speaking Europe had worked under his shadow, feeling the need to push musical evolution ever further. Thus, Schönberg always believed that his dissolution of tonality was directly in the line of the German musical tradition.[2]

After the First World War, which had decimated the Empire, the composers of the Second Viennese School focused on constructing a new system to replace tonality, as they found that writing in a free atonal style severely limited the ability to organize a longer work.[3] The result of this search for a new system was called serialism, or 12-tone composition.


In turn-of-the-century France, Claude Debussy was redefining the profile of French music, with a style that transferred the ideals of Impressionist painting into sound. His opera Pelléas and Mélisande was first performed in 1902, and sparked a wave of Debussy-mania in the capital. The gossamer textures and combination of high sensuality and restrained emotional content of this opera defined the nation's musical identity which would hold throughout the century. Debussy's piano and orchestral works also changed pre-conceived notions about musical texture, especially with regards to harmony and counterpoint, and also showed the influence of Javanese and East Asian music, both of which the composer had heard at Paris's Universal Exhibition of 1889.[4]

Parisians also showed an early interest in American jazz, whose black performers were welcomed in the city as heroes while still being discriminated against in their hometowns. While Debussy late in life showed curiosity in the new style, Maurice Ravel integrated jazz into his music in a much more personal way. Russian émigré composer Igor Stravinsky also took an interest in the jagged rhythms of jazz and ragtime, and merged them into his highly unique style. His ballet Rite of Spring (French Le Sacre du Printemps) was first performed in Paris in 1913, sparking an infamous riot due partly to the music's completely unorthodox rhythms, orchestration, and approach to tonality (and also having something to do with the paganistic brutality of the ballet's plot).[5]

Beginning in the 1920s, Paris also became an important center for American expatriate composers, just as it was for literary figures. Many of these studied with one of Paris's most influential musical figures: the pianist, composer, and teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Music in Russia after 1917

The communist revolution of 1917 reaped predictable results in the compositional world. Before this time, all of the prominent Russian composers—Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Alexander Scriabin—had come from privileged backgrounds, and those who were still living in 1917 needed to emigrate to western Europe and America. The new generation of composers who graduated after the revolution, of whom Dmitri Shostakovich showed the most promise, shared the new regime's early optimism about Communism's potential, and also eagerly utilized the musical innovations occurring elsewhere in Europe. Things quckly turned ugly, however, as Joseph Stalin's "Terror" of the mid-1930s began to affect artists and intellectuals. Shostakovich's music was condemned in 1936 in a famous article in Pravda, unsigned but possibly written under the orders of Stalin himself, who had just attended a performance of the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The effect on the country's most internationally acclaimed composer was devastating, and ensured that he would never be able to compose freely without the threat of death or imprisonment if his works had gone too far.[6]

The resulting musical atmosphere throughout the Soviet regime was embodied in the aesthetic of Socialist Realism, in which the music must be easily accessible by the common man, and must always follow an ideological program of darkness giving way to optimism (a symbol of the evils of capitalism giving way to a brighter socialist future). In other words, overtly pessimistic, dissonant, or complex music would never be accepted for performance by the regime's musical committee, and thus the composer would not be paid or be threatened with imprisonment.[7] It is perhaps stunning that any music of value was written under these creatively-stifling conditions, but Shostakovich and Prokofiev (who for unknown reasons opted to return to the U.S.S.R. in 1935, at the height of Stalinist repression) wrote some of the most vital and enduring music composed anywhere in the twentieth century.[8]

Béla Bartók

In 1908, the Hungarian pianist and composer Béla Bartók, along with fellow Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, made his first journeys into Eastern European villages to notate folk music. It was a revelation for the 27-year-old Bartók, who had already achieved fame as a virtuoso pianist and composer of light salon music. Inspired by the radically-different rhythms, intervals, and harmonies of this music he developed a new, modern language. Aside from his own works, among which the Music for Strings, Celeste, and Percussion and the Concerto for Orchestra have cemented their place in the repertoire, Bartók served as an inspiration for composers in other parts of the world to study their own folk musics, through which they could find their compositional language. Composers as diverse as the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, the Greek Iannis Xenakis, the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the Mexican Carlos Chavez relied heavily on folk sources.

As it turns out, Bartók was also an early practitioner of what later became the academic discipline of Ethnomusicology, or the study of folk music from around the world.[9] Though his music is less often played outside of Hungary than Bartók's, Kodály was also famous for his contributions to music education, whose innovations include the hand signals for notes of the scale taught to most American children in public school music classes.[10]

Neoclassicism Between the World Wars

After the senseless carnage of WWI, the world attempted to make sense of it all, and composers found their own answers. Astoundingly, in virtually all national compositional traditions there was a wide-ranging reaction against Romanticism, a return to order which has been called Neoclassicism.

Because the movement was so broad, its defining musical characteristics are also accordingly not easy to pinpoint exactly. Often cited as the leader of neoclassicism, Igor Stravinsky turned away from the huge orchestrations and lush textures of his famous prewar ballets, and began writing in spare Bach-like counterpoint, though with biting dissonances and a jagged rhythmic profile marked by jazzy syncopations and constantly-shifting time signatures. These qualities are epitomized in his Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924), which has been described as "the ghosts of Scott Joplin, J.S. Bach, and Carl Czerny passed through a meat grinder."[11]

Another element of neoclassicism was the so-called Gebrauchsmusik tradition begun by German composer Paul Hindemith. The term translates roughly as "music for use," and entails pieces written with a specific purpose in mind, whether for educational use or for a group of amateurs to play purely for pleasure. This was a sharp change from the Romantic view of music, which emphasized the ineffability of the musical work, its mystery and reaching for heavenly truth. Hindemith's musical style also emphasized counterpoint, though he later was to codify a new system of tonality based on relative distance rather than the circle of fifths.[12]

In general, a spirit of neoclassicism, its sense of proportion, emotional distance, and a craftsmanlike-view of the composer, swept every corner of musical thought.

England Reawakens

The United Kingdom, which had a flourishing national compositional school in the 17th century, laid relatively dormant on this front for over 200 years. The late 19th century had shown signs of life, with the work of Edward Elgar and the highly popular operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it was not until the explosion of activity between the first and second world wars that England put itself back on the map. In 1914, Gustav Holst published his signature work, The Planets. The coming decade saw the emergence of several noteworthy composers, including Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, and William Walton. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who before the outbreak of World War I had already seen the performances of his first two symphonies, became the country's leading figure in this time. His compositional style, informed by the various folk music traditions of England, became defined by his penchant for pleasing melodies evoking the pastoral and bucolic, especially heard in his famous work for violin and orchestra The Lark Ascending (1920) and in Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934). However, this was not all to Vaughan Williams' music, as his Fourth Symphony (1931–34) contains highly dissonant and even violent music which seemed to foreshadow the coming Blitz.

Also emergent before the second world war was the young Benjamin Britten. A friend of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and a man of catholic tastes whose compositional style was equally eclectic, Britten created a broad output of high-quality music, with the most notable being his operas Peter Grimes (1945) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) and his magnum opus A War Requiem (1961).

America Finds a Voice

Between the world wars, numerous American composers were being educated in Paris. The most prominent among them, Aaron Copland, returned to the United States in 1925 and came under the influence of artist Arthur Steiglitz, who believed that American art should reflect the "ideas of American democracy."[13] Emboldened by this philosophy, Copland began producing some of his most popular and distinctive works, Appalachian Spring, Billy The Kid, Lincoln Portrait, and Fanfare for the Common Man. This output led not only to his fame as a composer, but defined the sound of a uniquely American concert music, an example which composers such as Virgil Thompson, Ferde Grofé, and Leonard Bernstein were soon to follow.

From a different direction, jazz pianist and Tin Pan Alley songwriter George Gershwin also emerged as a serious composer during these years. The son of Russian immigrants and lacking a thorough musical education, Gershwin wrote his first major work, Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra, in 1925 with the assistance of Grofé, who orchestrated it. After a short and unsuccessful attempt to study with Boulanger in Paris,[14] Gershwin returned to America and wrote some of his other signature works, namely the opera Porgy and Bess and the Piano Concerto in F.

Prominent composers of this era include:


Robert Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music.
Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music.


  1. Jim Samson, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920, 1970.
  2. Arnold Schönberg, "Composition with Twelve Tones," 1948.
  3. Ibid.
  4. "Claude Debussy" in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
  5. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, 1989.
  6. Eliabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, 1995
  7. Kiril Tomoff: Creative Union. The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939–1953, 2006
  8. Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich, 1988
  9. Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethonomusicology, 1983.
  11. Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky, 1982.
  12. Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America, 1991.
  13. Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland, 1999
  14. Edward Jablonski, Gershwin: A Biography, 1987.