The music of the twentieth century is the most difficult to summarise stylistically, since the end of the Romantic era saw musical style head off in a number of different directions. Accordingly, this post will summarise the most important styles of the century, and further posts will look at individual styles in more detail.
The turn of the century saw music very much up a stylistic cul-de-sac in the eyes of many composers. The Romantic harmonic style had become extremely chromatic, with the boundaries of tonality pushed as far as they would go without music actually becoming non-tonal. Many composers of the twentieth century continued to compose extremely successfully in styles which could be described as tonal. Notable examples are Mahler, who made an important contribution to the orchestral song cycle and the symphony (e.g. the first movement of his Symphony No. 9) ,Puccini, who was Verdi’s successor in Italian opera (e.g. Turandot ), Rachmaninov (e.g. Piano Concerto No. 2), Richard Strauss and, to an extent, Shostakovich (e.g. Symphony No. 10).
Mention should also be made of composers whose style cannot be easily pigeonholed since they had a style (or a variety of styles) all of their own: the influential English composer Britten (who made particularly important contributions to opera such as his masterpiece Peter Grimes) and the Russian composer Stravinsky are examples. Part of Stravinsky’s twentieth-century masterpiece Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) is discussed below.
While some composers were happy to look to the past for their stylistic influences, many rejected the past as irrelevant to what they wanted to do. The twentieth century was the age of the ‘-ism’, and subsequent pages deal with major stylistic movements of the time –impressionism , serialism , Neo– Classicism and minimalism to name but a few. It was also the age of fusion – the mix of two or more styles often brought about by the improved travel or communication of the time – so that composers were, for example, influenced by jazz or world music. The slow movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata and Stravinsky’s Ragtime are examples of music influenced by jazz. Copland’s Rodeo and Billy the Kid (both ballets) used folk tunes from native Americans. Other composers have been influenced by Indonesian gamelan and bhangra music.
Historically it is easy to find a multitude of reasons for this mix of styles. Technology advanced in the twentieth century faster than ever before in a number of ways. Transportation evolved from the invention of the car and the first flights at the beginning of the century to space exploration in the 1960s and high-speed air travel. The dissemination of music became global as the century progressed, first in the form of gramophone records and the radio, then television, and, by the end of the century, instant global access to most music via the Internet and satellite television. Communication also advanced from early telephones to instant global communication. This ‘shrinking’ world allowed composers to be heard by millions more people than had ever been possible before.
The globalisation of our planet in the twentieth century also had darker implications; two world wars and the development of nuclear weaponry made the world perhaps a more dangerous, volatile place than it had ever been before. Many societies experienced dictatorship, revolution and genocide. However the power of the human spirit frequently rose above oppression, and artists found that they had much to offer to help strengthen their listeners’ resolve in dark times.
Music in the twentieth century became a far greater part of popular culture and society than it had been before, and for the first time ‘popular’ forms of music, which had always existed, overtook ‘art’ music. The rise of jazz, country, rock and pop music in the twentieth century was very much a result of the advances in technology and the rise of capitalism, and these forms of music became big business in first-world countries around the globe.
By the end of the century, ‘classical’ music (as art music has become known) was viewed in society more as part of our heritage than part of our contemporary culture, and ‘classical’ composers of the twenty-first century now struggle to keep apace with the commercial music industry. The ‘gap’ between art music and commercial music was made wider still in the 1950s and 1960s by experimentation and complexity in the music of some composers, to the extent that some would term it ‘inaccessible’. However, more recently, the music of the minimalists and ‘tonal’ composers such as Gorecki and Tavener, have helped to bring classical music back to a more mainstream audience.
While western music has become the main ‘musical language’ the world over, better communication has allowed the music of hitherto lesser-known cultures to become part of the mainstream. Consequently, music from a variety of cultures has become familiar to western ears in recent times and has frequently been combined with western styles.
What to listen for
The Rite of Spring (The Augurs of Spring)
Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes had so far commissioned three ballets from Stravinsky (this, completed in 1913, was the third), called The Rite of Spring the twentieth century’s Ninth Symphony’, in an allusion to Beethoven’s masterpiece of nearly one hundred years before. The spontaneity, bitonality, unconventional rhythms and irregular balance of The Rite of Spring has established it as one of the artistic landmarks of its time.
The Rite of Spring is divided into two major sections, called ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ (track 1) and ‘The Sacrifice’ (track 2). Stravinsky himself said: ‘I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the God of spring.’
The primitivism this scenario suggests is clearly portrayed in the music, where rhythms of great intensity betray the instinctive nature of the dancing. At the first performance of the ballet there was a commotion which has been well documented, but which was probably caused more by the choreography of Nijinsky than by the music, since a subsequent concert performance of the score was well received.
General points about The Rite of Spring:
The work does not appear to have any one theme running through it. Instead, it is built around a large number of continuously oscillating fragments of folk-like melodies, woven together and often juxtaposed. Each section has its own melodic ideas, and very rarely do these ideas appear outside their own sections.
The harmony of this work is all tonally centred and often uses bitonality. There is much chromaticism and thick, chordal clashes.
This is very much the driving force of the work, and the most memorable aspect of it. Rhythmically displaced accents and ostinati are frequent, and the work has a rhythmic vitality and primitive savagery about it, with the whole orchestra often used in a percussive way. In some sections, such as the introduction, however, rhythmic detail and pulse is lost in the seamless polyphonic flow of melodies. When homophonic textures do appear they are very exciting.
Again, Stravinsky is innovatory in his use of the huge orchestra, creating at one moment intense volume and at another, intricate textures. Unusual instruments like the alto flute, bass trumpet and piccolo clarinet feature prominently, and the percussion section plays a big part. Stravinsky’s string writing is inspired, using harmonics, col legno and other percussive instructions and great amounts of divided playing in the strings. Many themes are shared by instruments, and again in his combinations of instruments Stravinsky is innovatory.
We will look in more detail at ‘The Augurs of Spring’ – a section which occurs just after the introduction at 3:37.
After the almost chaotic polyphonic weaving of themes in the introduction, this is a wonderfully rhythmic and homophonic section, mainly in 2/4 time, with much use made of bitonality and syncopation. Just before the section starts, at 03:14, there is an ostinato on pizzicato strings which uses the interval of a fourth and creates tension.
Suddenly, the string section clatter in (3:37) with a bitonal chord (a very famous one!), accentuated in unexpected places by eight horns. The ostinato briefly returns at 03:46 along with dovetailing bitonal bassoons. Then, at 3:56, a chromatic theme enters, split between trumpet, oboe and pizzicato violins. A second (and very tonal) theme, on bassoons and contra-bassoon, is interspersed with the repeating bitonal string chords at 4:24 and builds up with use of trombones. After a dramatic pause (4:55), the ostinato returns, now decorated, at 05:04.
A lyrical, folk-like melody comes in on French horn (5:21) over the continuation of this ostinato and further trills. A flute answers the horn. There is more sharing of melody between oboe and trumpet, and layers begin to build up with the two themes superimposed (5:51).
At this point the tension begins to increase and the off-beat rhythm returns. The ostinato, now upside down, can still be heard (6:13) and syncopated chords played by the entire brass section punctuate three times before the next section begins at 06:57.