An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Classical Music

ComposerDo you have tickets for Wozzeck? Were you a little frightened when you heard a singer rehearsing the strange singing/speaking vocal sounds of Pierrot Lunaire? Are you interested in learning about music of high emotion and understated, whispered beauty?

For centuries, composers and artists have sought new forms of expression, breaking old rules and conventions in their search for new dynamic heights. Baroque composers like Bach sought beauty in technical counterpoint, creating complex harmony with canon and fugue.  Classical composers, Mozart most famous among them, largely abandoned the old stuffy fugues for heavier emphasis on melody and tonal harmony. Tchaikovsky and his Romantic-era contemporaries loosened the strings of traditional harmony, freely using dissonant (clashing, “wrong” sounding) and non-key notes to increase dramatic tension and to represent the increasingly violent and turbulent world in which they lived.

Classical-Music-WallpaperAt the turn of the twentieth century, composers, feeling that no more could be done within the bounds of traditional tonality and keys, began to experiment with atonal music- music with no key and no tonal center. These pieces in their time were highly expressive, striking, and bizarre. Audiences were accustomed to the safe and centered music of years before, and this new artistic and musical trend would have seemed strange and unfamiliar.

After this break from tonality, Arnold Schoenberg famously developed an influential new system of composing- his twelve-tone technique, later dubbed serialism. In his system, all twelve notes of the western musical scale were used equally, in a pre-decided order. A series of the twelve notes in a random or arbitrary order made up a tone row. In the music, the composer wrote the notes in the order of the row, no note could be repeated or reused until the cycle repeated. Tone rows could also be reversed or started in different positions- but the strict order of the row still applied.

The music of this system is very complex and difficult for performers and audiences alike.Orchestra Pitches and rhythms often sound like they have been written randomly or carelessly, but quite the opposite is true. Twelve-tone pieces are constructed as meticulously and carefully as any Beethoven symphony. When listening to a piece by Schoenberg, Webern, or Berg, the audience must shift their expectations and ideas of what music is and how music should sound. Only by releasing the old opinions and definitions can audiences and performers appreciate this music, and that was exactly the goal of these pioneering composers.

Another major branch of twentieth-century classical music was a return to older forms with a fresh treatment. This new look on the old style is called Neoclassicism. Composers like Stravinsky wrote symphonies, ballets, and operas modeled after Baroque, Classical, and Romantic forms, but did so with twentieth-century musical vocabulary. They used atonality, complex rhythms, and shocking subject matter liberally to distinguish their modern work from that of the older masters.

Neoclassical music is commonly thought to be the most approachable twentieth-century classical music, but audiences must still be ready for anything. Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring famously provoked a riot in the theater on the night of its 1913 premiere. The Paris audience simply could not handle the strange, startling, atonal music with the pagan dancing and costuming of the dancers.

The variety of twentieth-century classical music is endless. Composers like John Cage wrote experimental chance music based upon random arrangements of pitches and rhythms chosen by the composer or the performer. Charles Ives and others explored ploytonality, most famously in Ives’ Variations on America, in which the orchestra plays the melody of America in two different keys- at the same time. The introduction of electronic sound technology sparked an electronic music movement that is still going strong today. Later twentieth-century and many contemporary composers explored musical minimalism, using simple musical phrases or statements repeated over and over with slight variations, additions, and deletions. Learning to appreciate this age of outer-limits expression can be endlessly challenging and endlessly rewarding.

Checkout  Symphony of Psalms (1930) by Igor Stravinsky in the below video.


Recommended listening:

Early atonality- Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912) by Arnold Schoenberg

Twelve-Tone Serialism- String Trio, Op. 20 (1927) by Anton Webern

Neoclassicism- Symphony of Psalms (1930) by Igor Stravinsky

Chance Music- Music of Changes (1951) by John Cage

Minimalism- String Quartet No. 5 (1991) by Philip Glass

To book in for classical music lessons in singing, piano, or guitar, call Jumbonote Music School on 0450 144 399.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>