20th Century? Classical Music?

This section is all about definitions and how I've presented the information. If you don't care, skip 4 paragraphs to the next heading.

Well, OK, if it's 20th Century, by no stretch of the imagination can it be considered classical. It's a total misnomer, but an accepted one. More on this in a jiffy. But first, why would anyone artifically categorise music by arbitrary dates? I certainly don't intend to cover specifically the music composed from January 1st, 1901 to December 31st, 2000 (and I certainly won't get into the when does the millenium end? controversy). But the music of the past hundred-or-so years, much of which is sometimes termed contemporary music (but we can't keep saying that forever) has gone through some very interesting developments, and this close up we cannot be expected to distinguish the overriding characteristics and lump the whole period as "modern" or "structural", or whatever aspect future experts will discern. I'm no musicologist, but what follows is a very brief look at music following the romantic period.

All that aside, "classical music" properly refers to a very specific period and genre of composition. What most of the world calls "classical music" should, by rights, be called "composer music". Music composed in the 1990s, and based on controversial technique, cannot be held to be "classical", even if the term were not already in use. The distinction normally made is between popular music, where the composition is frequently less (or plain not) interesting, and the piece is often identified with a specific performer or performance, and "art", "composed", or "composer" music, which should (or could) be remembered, appreciated and performed anywhere, anytime, even centuries later. The distinction is fuzzy at best, especially with the bidirectional influences during the 20th century (where does jazz fit in, or the more elaborate rock pieces?), and perhaps "composer music" sounds like an implied slur on the other kind, but let's just assume we know it when we hear it, and get on with the show.

I've tried to follow some chronological order, which is easiest. It makes it seem as if it's all one long story. Aside from talking about the music itself, this is what I'm trying to do: describe how the last century's music evolved, and how it fit in with (or reflected) the tumultuous events of recent history. Obviously, it doesn't work that way, as artistic style has its own pace and periods, so some remarks skip ahead, or backwards. I've made comments on individual composers, to anchor it all to real bits of music, but I don't pretend to have given a complete image of each: that's what individual writeups are for. Nor have I mentioned each and very composer, in every period or style he composed in: it's "one composer -- one mention", by and large. The best way to read this node, therefore, is to follow through the links to individual composers, at least occasionally, which should fill in the finer detail of the very coarse brushstrokes I've put down.

A disclaimer, of sorts:

As mentioned, my musicology is basically what little I read, and of course what I feel, think, and make up when I listen to music. A node like this would probably be a daunting undertaking even for someone who knows their stuff. On the other hand, it should be a good starter for anyone who wants to read (and listen) more about the topic, and I've tried to intersperse enough meaningful links to also serve as a sort-of-metanode. The writeup is also rife with my own thoughts and evaluations, but I think it's clear where I've done that. I've tried to node what I know, with a little extra help from good musicology/history sources, so I may well have missed out on many things I've never heard, or which I've forgotten. Feel free to correct me on factual errors, suggest additions, or add your own observations and subjective experiences. I'll be going through this again, occasionally, to flesh out the thinner bits.


Turn of the century: A fresh start

pre-1900 through 1910s

At the end of the 19th century, the most prominent style of music was the romantic style, for which the century's Romantic Period is named. Music was made to tell a story, or to embody scientific, philosophic, mystical, or political (chiefly nationalist) ideals. Wagnerian opera did all of this, and more, and was among the most expressive of Romantic music. Musicians rose to an important place in cultured society, as art was more widely understood to be a vocation. As a result, they could sometimes get by without constant patronage or hack work. Scientific and technological advances made good, cheap instruments more widely available and standardised, and a renewed humanist, sometimes political interest in local or exotic anthropology, et cetera, led to the introduction of themes and techniques from various folk songs and such.

The 20th century, more than any other, has seen scientific/technological and other advancement supremely valued. From the early 1900s, flight, automobiles, and instant communications, were revolutionising Western culture. Without a doubt, many composers at the start of the century were eager to create the new music to match the new world forming (a sentiment echoed in much of the modernist movement). Claude Debussy famously remarked that "the century of the airplane ought to have its own music." Avant garde artists actively sought to tear down every convention of art, eventually getting round to Western music, which had been carefully honed to (near-)perfection (of its own sort, of course) during the Common Practice Period.

Towards the end of the 19th century, and practically up to the First World War, Impressionists, such as Frenchmen Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, took the expressive powers of music to new heights, following the impetus of Impressionist painters to describe in music the subjective impressions brought about by light, motion, colour, events, and texture. They loosened the conventions of earlier music, and allowed mood, tone, rhythm, and varying orchestration to describe their very subjective experiences. This was in deliberate contrast to the thematic evolution with which Romantics sought to describe (often in minute detail) an exact event, or story, or situation. Impressionist music followed in the footsteps of Impressionist painting, and afforded several opportunities for cooperation with Impressionist (or Symbolist)writers and poets.

Jean Sibelius, in Finland, composed austere, rather grim symphonic music, much of it based on Finnish mythology. Before the First World War his music was an anti-Russian stronghold for fellow Finns, and Finlandia made him a leading natinal figure. He broke with Romantic tradition in his way, though still using music to tell a story; a double story, in fact, that of the Finn nationalists, and that of the legends he chose for inspiration. His (much later) masterpiece "tone poem" Tapiola -- in fact as much a symphony as any of his others -- is a distilled sample. It uses multiple (simultaneous) tempi and beats, but is defintely not generous with colourful melody and tone.

In Russia, nationalistic music was being defined (for the first time, at least by native Russians) by The Mighty Five (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). In fact, they leaned clearly towards Romanticism, relying on folk music and religious inspiration, but they were all for the creation of a brand-new Russian (not European-derivative) music.

After 1900, it seemed to many thinkers and artists that everything goes. (For the flowering Imperialist West this was an easy assumption to make, but that's another story altogether.) Experimentation was the order of the day. Arnold Schoenberg, with his students and followers Anton Webern and Alban Berg, developed dodecaphonic music, placing rigid formalism and structuralism seemingly (but only seemingly) above the expressive power of music. The so-called Second Viennese School (basically just Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) brought atonal music to the fore of modern composition. They discarded tonality and much of the accepted notions of melodic evolution. Nonetheless, Berg's is some of the most moving music of the century.

Other notable composers of this period, mostly so-called "musical nationalists" include Edvard Grieg, Gustav Holst, Leos Janacek, John Phillip Sousa, Edward Elgar, Giacomo Puccini, Max Reger, and perhaps the last great Romantic (and still active for another half century), Richard Strauss. Though many of these continued to compose in the 20s and 30s, they were, on the whole, deeply rooted in the turn of the century's style and cultural context.


Between the Wars: Turmoil -- political and musical

1910s through 1930s

The First World War slowed down much of this creative effort, but by and large it did not stop it. If anything, the modernist craze was forced on by the aftermath, and the (illusive) perception of an emerging rational New World Order, supposedly led by the League of Nations, and heralding the dawn of an age of peace and creative prosperity. Also, European world control was on the wane, and American power (Russian too) was on the march. Incidentally (or not) jazz was an emerging musical style, and Russian composers were gaining world-wide recognition.

Igor Stravinsky (a thoroughly Russian composer, who nonetheless became a very French and later American icon) infused jazz influences in his myriad compositions, hailed as wild and uncontrolled, to the point of causing a riot at the Paris premiere of the Firebird ballet. Stravinsky himself revelled in this unfettered so-called "barbarism", unleashing his Petrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring), perhaps single-handedly creating modern ballet. Though building on Impressionist composers such as his older friend Debussy, Stravinsky rejected (rather than elaborated) much of the accepted practice and forms of music. Exaggerated, unconventional rhythm, and an original, rather light touch on orchestration were refined and developed in such works as Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Symphony of Psalms (mixing choral and instrumental music, in his words, "on an equal footing"), and the Violin Concerto in D. Though named for various classical forms (the Symphony, the Concerto), and treating "standard" subject-matter (e.g. Psalms), these pieces deliberately break with tradition by changing the accepted structure, instrumentation, and form. Hinting at the familiar, safe, forms can only be a declaration of deliberate change. Nonethless, much of this work was later classified neoclassical, along with other prominent composers such as Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, and Carl Orff. (Orff, by the way, shared Stravinsky's fascination with the primitive power of beat and vocal expression, as witnessed by his phenomenal Carmina Burana, so whatever "classical" trappings he may be reproducing, he is aiming for the same untamed, pagan sensations Stravinsky sought out).

Atonal and serial music also gained popularity (at least, with the cognoscenti), and by the thirties, composers such as Pavel Haas and his teacher Leos Janacek were leading the "other front" of modern music, doing away altogether with the received notion of melody. (Although the distinction was never so clearcut; even Stravinsky toyed later with dodecaphonic work, and other serialist concepts, and post-WWII Pierre Boulez seems to unite Stravinskyesque jazz-feel with highly abstract total serialization of every aspect of the composition.)

As the world braced for World War, again, music was being not only recorded on a massive scale, but distributed and enjoyed through the new electronic media. Communications were changing the way people thought about music, and music for the masses became a viable option. This is very different from folk music, in that what one man composed, or performed, became available to listeners the world over. This, along with the prevailing abundance of reasonably-priced musical instruments and the increasing stature (and leisure) of the middle class, meant that musical entertainment could truly become an industry. This led, inexorably, I believe, to the separation of popular music and so-called classical music (or composer music) as we know it today. But that's a whole other subject, and deserves its own writeup. In any case, the influences ran (and still run) both ways, and the grey areas have provided many truely great composers with an opportunity to earn some good money (say, in the film music area), which "classical music" alone doesn't do quite as easily. On the other hand, music which is not "popular", is apparently "unpopular music", a problem intensified by the deliberate complexity and relative unapproachability of much modern music.

The approaching conflict was well felt in many aspects of cultural life, and music was not passed over. Perhaps it's easy to imagine, with the benefit of hindsight, but it seems that 1930s European music is very often suffused with foreboding and the dangerous, unresolved tension. This was nothing, however, compared to the horrors of the Second World War, and the Holocaust.

Also of particular interest among the inter-war composers were George Gershwin (who successfully fused "composer" and "popular" music), Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Zoltan Kodaly.


Second World War, Totalitarianism: A breaking point

1930s through 1950s

War is always a great influence on creative endeavours. Its destructive nature disrupts most of the work, and the aftermath may well inspire new modes of expression (this was certainly the case with Benjamin Britten). But the unique 20th century notion of totalitarianism took this to extreme. Nazi ideology banned so called "degenerate" art and music (Entartete Kunst, Entartete Musik), made suspect by any jazzy (hence, supposedly, African, or at best American), Jewish, leftist, or unconservative "tendencies". Calling on the previous generation's more "Aryan" culture, Richard Wagner and the great Romantics -- grand mediums for nationalist ideals -- were highlighted (or hijacked, possibly) as the musical norm. Art, as other forms of expression too, was heavily censored, and liable to suppression for any number of reasons.

It didn't stop there. Their music restricted or banned, many composers and musicians fled the Nazi-occupied parts of Europe. With representatives of all major arts and sciences, they made up the great "mind leak", shifting the balance of "cultural weight" out of Germany (then Europe), and towards the Untied States. But many could not, or would not, leave. For many, it was not just their work which was cut short. Composers and musicians such as Czechs Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa were among the millions put to death at the Nazi extermination camps.

A brave few defied Nazi "art critique": Bela Bartok, demanded that his works be listed with those of fellow-composers on the forbidden "degenerate music" list. Bartok lived unhappily under fascist rule in Hungary, having enjoyed studying ethnic diversity (especially musical) throughout pre-WWI Austro-Hungary. His string quartets are by turns agitated and mournful, to my mind crying out against Europe's descent into darkness. Tellingly, his brief work after emigrating to the US almost immediately picked up a more cheerful, optimistic tone.

Totalitarianism was on the march elsewhere, too. Soviet ideology was very nearly as strict on matters musical (and on very much else). In the 30s and 40s, especially, Composers had to toe the line, or disguise their work, or emigrate (which many did, in a parallel "mind leak"). Dmitri Shostakovich, for instance, son of a good Bolshevik revolutionary family, and eventually considered practically a war hero for his patriotic wartime music and after performing in besieged Stalingrad, was simultaneously displayed as the USSR's great composer, and harshly criticised for his unorthodox work. Formalism and ever more complex structure were deemed elitist, un-Communist (and often un-Russian). His musical response was to conceal political commentary in his often humorous departures from "heavy" structure, or in the juxtaposition of actual events and musical subject-matter. The Eleventh Symphony, named "The Year 1905" for the year of the ruthlessly put-down Russian Peasants' Revolt, and The Execution of Stepan Razin, composed shortly thereafter and treating similar material, were at once patriotic, revolutionary pieces the Party had to approve of, and bitterly accusing criticisms of the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and of the way outspoken individuals were targeted and penalised. Possibly this was not just a ruse, but a true expression of feeling on both sides of the metaphor.

Olivier Messiaen (who continued to compose and adapt techniques until quite recently), Paul Hindemith (almost reactionary in his neoclassicist style), Samuel Barber, and semi-popular Kurt Weill were also active around this period and later.


After the War, the Information Age, Dawn of the Millenium: Endless possibilities

1960s through 2000

Anything this close up is hard to appreciate properly. Perhaps the most important trends and achievements will only stand out in a few decades.

The 1960s and 1970s saw, on the one hand, a world restored to order, and, on the other hand, a Cold War maintained by the fear of all-out nuclear war. They saw peace elevated to an overriding ideal, and they saw vicious and bloody wars continue to break out. Popular culture, and popular music within it, pushed "classical" culture almost to obscurity. Composers of the 20th century's second half are practically unknown to the vast majority of their contemporaries (even the "educated" middle class); many more truly Classical composers are recognised, at least by name. The "music industry" became a vast money-making machine, iconifying and idolising performers, not necessarily the creator behind them (no doubt an effect of their more obvious presence on recordings, radio, and especially TV). But that, once more, is material for another writeup altogether.

The great competition for attention, for recognition, amid the almost limitless flow of information and entertainment, has led artists to deliberately seek out whatever new forms of expression they can find, either eliminating past concepts (as Pierre Boulez's and John Cage's deliberately undefined voices or sections, to be improvised by the performers, or Arvo Part's masterful use of dissonance) or reconstructing classical forms in the manner of post-modern artists, utilising all the listeners' expectations and assumptions. One powerful idiom has been minimalism, the limitation of expression to one aspect of the music, be it rhythm, or a chosen chord, or a strict abstract pitch sequence. Global "world culture" (sometimes accused as being a front for American culture, perhaps not without some basis) emerged gradually, freeing (or depriving) composers of their local identity, and enabling the free and instant sharing of their ideas. Electronically generated and sampled music, "computer-composed" music, and music for new instruments, have all been heralded as "the new music", but have yet to prove themselves.

Where will composer music go in the 21st century? I don't know, but I certainly intend to keep my ears open...

Some more acclaimed composers of the late 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, Henryk Gorecki, Alfred Schnittke, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Mikis Theodorakis.


Some web resources:

20th century music and composers

  • http://www.dieu-soleil.net/ihistory.html
  • http://members.aol.com/sabbeth/music.html
  • http://www.emory.edu/MUSIC/ARNOLD/20thComposers.html
  • http://www.classical.net/music/rep/lists/20th.html
  • http://www.artandculture.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/ACLive.woa/wa/movement?id=591
  • http://www.essentialsofmusic.com/eras/20thcon.html
  • http://www.hearts-ease.org/cgi-bin/index_c.cgi
  • http://www.mala.bc.ca/~mcneil/m7a.htm

Individual composers mentioned extensively (especially those lacking detailed E2 nodes)

  • http://emuseum.mnsu.edu/cultural/music/russia.shtml (early 20th century Russian music)
  • http://www.auburn.edu/~barbed2/MM/Russia/TheMightyFive.html (the Mighty Five Russians...)
  • http://members.ozemail.com.au/~caveman/Stravinsky/works_page.htm (Stravinsky)
  • http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/bartok.html (Bartok)
  • http://www.its.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/ (Britten)
  • http://www.siue.edu/~aho/musov/dmitri.html (Shostakovich)
  • http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/sibelius.html (Sibelius)
  • http://inkpot.com/classical/sibtapiola.html (Sibelius)

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