20th century classical music

20th century classical music, the classical music of the 20th century, was extremely diverse, beginning with the late Romantic style of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the Neoclassicism of middle-period Igor Stravinsky, and ranging to such distant sound-worlds as the complete serialism of Pierre Boulez, the simple triadic harmonies of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer, the microtonal music adopted by Harry Partch, Alois Hába and others, the aleatoric music of John Cage, the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke.

Perhaps the most salient common thread during this time period of classical music was the wider use of dissonance in composing music. Because of this, the 20th century is sometimes called the "Dissonant Period" of classical music, which followed the common practice period, which emphasized consonance until about 1900.

Among the most prominent composers of the 20th century were Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Charles Ives, Edward Elgar, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland, Carl Nielsen, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski. Classical music also had an intense cross fertilization with jazz, with several composers being able to work in both genres, including George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. An important feature of 20th century concert music is the existence of the splitting of the audience into traditional and avant-garde, with many figures prominent in one world considered minor or unacceptable in the other. Composers such as Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse, Milton Babbitt, and Luciano Berio have devoted followings within the avant-garde, but are often attacked outside of it. As time has passed, however, it is increasingly accepted, though by no means universally so, that the boundaries are more porous than the many polemics would lead one to believe: many of the techniques pioneered by the above composers show up in popular music by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, Nirvana, Enigma, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre and in film scores that draw mass audiences.

It should be kept in mind that this article presents an overview of 20th century classical music and many of the composers listed under the following trends and movements may not identify exclusively as such and may be considered as participating in different movements. For instance, at different times during his career, Igor Stravinsky may be considered a romantic, modernist, neoclassicist, and a serialist.

The 20th century was also an age where recording and broadcast changed the economics and social relationships inherent in music. An individual in the 19th century made most music themselves, or attended performances. An individual in the industrialized world had access to radio, television, phonograph and later digital music such as the CD.

Romantic style

Particularly in the early part of the century, many composers wrote music which was an extension of 19th century Romantic music. Harmony, though sometimes complex, was tonal, and traditional instrumental groupings such as the orchestra and string quartet remained the most usual. Traditional forms such as the symphony and concerto remained in use. (See Romantic Music)

Many prominent composers — among them Dmitri Kabalevsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Maurice Ravel, and Benjamin Britten — made significant advances in style and technique while still employinga melodic, harmonic, structural and textural language which was related to that of the 19th century and quite accessible to the average listener.

Music along these lines was written throughout the 20th century, and continues to be written today. Some other twentieth-century composers of works in a more-or-less-traditional idiom include:

  • Samuel Barber
  • Leonard Bernstein
  • Aaron Copland
  • John Corigliano
  • George Gershwin
  • Henryk Górecki
  • Percy Grainger
  • Howard Hanson
  • Roy Harris
  • Alan Hovhaness
  • Gustav Holst
  • Aram Khachaturian
  • Colin McPhee
  • Carl Nielsen
  • Giacomo Puccini
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff
  • Ned Rorem
  • Jean Sibelius
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams

Minimalist composers such as Philip Glass can also be said to evoke some sense of nineteenth-century melodic and harmonic language, but depart radically in structure and texture, harmony, ideas, development, counterpoint and rhythm.

Many other 20th century composers took more experimental routes.


Modernism is the name given to a series of movements (See Modernism) arising out of the idea that the 20th century presented a new basis for society and activity, and therefore art should adopt this new basis, however construed, as the fundamental of aesthetics. Modernism took the progressive spirit of the late 19th century, its love of rigor and of technical advancement, and unhinged it from the norms and forms of late 19th century art. To take one example, architect Frank Lloyd Wright did his drafting work with tools, not because he could not draw freehand, but because "the machine was the coming thing, therefore I wanted to make beauty with the machine". Various movements in 20th century music, including neo-classicism, serialism, experimentalism, conceptualism can be traced to this idea.

The Second Viennese School, atonality and serialism

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most significant figures in 20th century music. His early works are in a late Romantic style, influenced by Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, but he later abandoned a tonal framework altogether, instead writing freely atonal music — he is often reckoned to have been the first composer to have done so. In time, he developed the twelve-tone technique of composition, intended to be a replacement for traditional tonal pitch organisation. His pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg also developed and furthered the use of the twelve-tone system and were notable for their use of the technique in their own right. They together are known, colloquially, as the Schoenberg "trinity" or the Second Viennese School. This name was created to imply that this "New Music" would have the same effect as the "First Viennese School" of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Schoenberg's music and that of his followers was very controversial in its day, and remains so to some degree now. Many listeners found, and still find, his music hard to follow, lacking a sense of definite melody. Nonetheless, works such as Pierrot Lunaire continue to be performed, studied and listened to, while many of the contemporary works which were considered more acceptable have been forgotten. A larger measure of the reason for this is that the style he pioneered was very influential, even among composers who continued to compose tonal music. Many composers have since written music which does not rely on traditional tonality.

The twelve-tone technique itself was later adapted by other composers to control aspects of music other than the pitch of the notes, such as dynamics and methods of attack, creating completely serialised music. Milton Babbitt created his time point system, where the distance in time between attack points for the notes is serialized also, while some composers serialized aspects such as register or dynamics. The "pointillistic" style of Webern — in which individual sounds are carefully placed within the piece such that each has importance — was very influential in the years following World War II among composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. After years of unpopularity, the twelve tone technique became the norm in Europe during the 50's and 60's, but then experienced a backlash as generations of younger and older composers returned to writing tonal music, either in a neoclassical, romantic, or minimalist vein. Stravinsky, who studied as a young man with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, became a modernist, then a neoclassicist, and ultimately became a serialist upon Schoenberg's death.

Free dissonance and experimentalism

In the early part of the 20th century modernist composers such as George Antheil and others produced music that was shocking to audiences of the time for its disregard or flaunting of musical conventions. Charles Ives quoted popular music, often had multiple or bitonal layers of music, extreme dissonance, and seemingly unplayable rhythmic complexity. Henry Cowell performed his solo piano pieces by strumming or plucking the inside of the piano, knocking on the outside, or depressing tone clusters with his arms or boards. Edgard Varèse wrote highly dissonant pieces that utilized unusual sonorities and futuristic, scientific sounding names; he also dreamed of producing music electronically. Charles Seeger enunciated the concept of dissonant counterpoint, a technique used by Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and others. Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev fled the riot that greeted The Rite of Spring and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography. Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith explored bitonality. Amadeo Roldán brought music written specifically for percussion ensemble into the classical tradition; he was soon followed by Varèse and then others. Kurt Weill wrote the popular Threepenny Opera entirely in the popular idiom of German cabarets. Modernist composers being the avant-garde, they often wrote atonally, sometimes explored twelve tone technique, used liberal amounts of dissonance, quoted or imitated popular music, or somehow provoked their audience.


Neo-classicism, in music, means the movement in the 20th century to return to a revived "common practice" harmony, mixed with greater dissonance and rhythm, as the basic point of departure for music. Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Vangelis Papathanasiou and Béla Bartók are usually listed as the most important composers in this mode, but also the prolific Darius Milhaud and his contemporary Francis Poulenc.

Neo-classicism was born at the same time as the general return to rational models in the arts in response to World War I. Smaller, more spare, more orderly was conceived of as the response to the overwrought emotionalism which many felt had herded people into the trenches. Since economics also favored smaller ensembles, the search for doing "more with less" took on a practical imperative as well. Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat is thought of as a seminal "neo-classical piece", as are his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and his "Symphonies of Wind Instruments", as well as his Symphony in C. Stravinsky's neo-classicism culminated with his opera Rake's Progress, with the book done by the well known modernist poet, W. H. Auden.

Stravinsky's rival for a time in neo-classicism was the German Paul Hindemith, who mixed spiky dissonance, polyphony and free ranging chromaticism into a style which was "useful". He produced both chamber works and orchestral works in this style, perhaps most famously "Mathis der Maler". His chamber output includes his Sonata for French Horn, an expressionistic work filled with dark detail and internal connections.

Neo-classicism found a welcome audience in America, the school of Nadia Boulanger promulgated ideas about music based on their understanding of Stravinsky's music. Students of theirs include neo-classicists Elliott Carter (in his early years), Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Ástor Piazzolla and Virgil Thomson.

Neo-classicism's most audible traits are melodies which use the tritone as a stable interval, and coloristically add dissonant notes to ostinato and block harmonies, along with the free mixture of polyrhythms. Neo-classicism won greater audience acceptance more quickly, and was taken to heart by those opposed to atonality as the true "modern" music. Neo-classicism also embraced the use of folk musics to give greater rhythmic and harmonic variety. Modernists such as the Hungarians Béla Bartók and Romantically inclined Zoltán Kodály and the Czech Leoš JanáÄÂek collected and studied their native folk musics which then influenced their compositions.

In 1990s the world was introduced to a new wonder of neo-classicism - Vangelis Papathanasiou. A former New Age composer wrote over 30 compositions, cilminating with such wonderful pieces as Foros Timis Ston Greco , 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Mythodea ( 2001 ). The symphonic opera of Mythodea was written in 1993. The 2001 version of Mythodea was recorded and played on-stage by: Vangelis on synthesizers and keyboards, the London Metropolitan Orchestra, sopranos Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman, two harpists, the chorus of the Greek National Opera, and the Seistron and Typana percussion ensembles (concert only). The concert was held in Athens, Greece on June 28, 2001, and the record was officially released on October 23, 2001, to coincide with the NASA 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft entering the orbit of planet Mars.

Post-modernist music

Post-modernism's birth

Post-modernism can be said to be a response to modernism which asserts that the products of human activity — particularly manufactured or created by artifice — are the central subject for art itself, and that the purpose of art is to focus people's attention on objects for contemplation, as composer-critic Steve Hicken explained it. This strain of modernism looks backward to the dada school of art exemplified by Duchamp, and to the collage of "concrete" music, as well as experiments with electronic music by Edgard Varèse and others. However, post-modernism asserted that this was the primary mode of human existence, an individual aswim in a sea of the products of people.

John Cage is a prominent figure in 20th century music whose influence steadily grew during his lifetime, and who is regarded by many as the founder of post-modernist music. Cage questioned the very definition of music in his pieces, and stressed a philosophy that all sounds are essentially music. Cage in the "silent" 4'33" presents the listener with his idea that the unintentional sounds are just as musically valid as the sounds originating from an instrument. Cage also notably used aleatoric music, and "found sounds" in order to create an interesting and different type of music. His music not only rested on his argument that there was no "music" or "noise" only "sound", and that combinations of found sound were musical events as well - but on the importance of focusing of attention and "framing" as essential to art. (See Post-Modernism)

Cage, though, has been seen by some to be too avant-garde in his approach; for this reason, many find his music unappealing. Interestingly, the seeming opposite of Cage's indeterminism is the overdetermined music of the serialists, which both schools have noted produce similar sounding pieces, yet many serialists, such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen have used aleatoric processes. Michael Nyman argues in Experimental Music that minimalism was a reaction to and made possible by both serialism and indeterminism. (See also experimental music)

Post-modernism reached music and painting at very similar moments, on one hand, the spareness, purity, love of mechanism, abstraction and the grid which are very modernist traits were preserved, as was the emphasis on personalizing style and experimentalism. However, post-modernism rejected the hermeneutic stance - the need to be "in" on the joke as it were - of modernism. Instead post-modernism took the popular and pared down as its aesthetic guide. One of the first movements to overtly break with the modernist took inspiration from Cage's work, and its emphasis on layering sounds: Minimalism.


Many composers in the later 20th century began to explore what is now called minimalism. The most specific definition of minimalism refers to the dominance of process in music — where fragments are layered on top of each other, often looped, to produce the entirety of the sonic canvas. Early examples include Terry Riley's In C and Steve Reich's Drumming. Riley is seen by some as the "father" of minimalist music with In C, a work comprised of melodic cells that each performer in an ensemble plays through at their own rate. The minimalist wave of composers — Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young to name the most prominent — wanted music to be "accessible" to ordinary listeners, and wanted to express concrete specific questions of dramatic and music form, not hidden in layers of technique, but very overtly. One key difference between minimalism and previous music is the use of different cells being "out of phase" or determined by the performers; contrast this with the opening of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner which, despite its use of triadic cells, has each part controlled by the same impulse and moving at the same speed.

Minimalist music is often contentious amongst traditional listeners. Its critics find it to be overly repetitive and empty while proponents argue that the static elements that are often prevalent draw more interest to small changes. Minimalism has, however, inspired and influenced many composers not usually labeled "minimalist" such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. Composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki, whose Symphony No. 3 was the highest selling classical album of the 1990s, have found great success with what has been called "Holy Minimalism" in their deeply felt religious works.

The next wave of composers working in this tradition are not called "Minimalist" by some, but are by others. These include opera composer John Adams and his student Aaron Jay Kernis. The expansion of minimalism from process music, to music which relies on texture to hold together the movement of the music has created a wider diversity of compositions and composers.

Electronic music

Technological advances in the 20th century enabled composers to use electronic means of producing sound. The first electronic instrument was invented in Russia in 1919 by Leon Theremin, and was called the theremin. Some composers simply incorporated electronic instruments into relatively conventional pieces. Olivier Messiaen, for example, used the ondes martenot in a number of works.

Other composers abandoned conventional instruments and used magnetic tape to create music, recording sounds and then manipulating them in some way. Pierre Schaeffer was the pioneer of such music, termed Musique concrète. Some figures, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, used purely electronic means to create their work. In the United States of America, Milton Babbitt used the RCA Mark II Synthesizer to create music. Sometimes such electronic music was combined with more conventional instruments, Stockhausen's Hymnen, Edgard Varèse's Déserts, and Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms offer a few examples (although Déserts is sometimes performed today without the tape part).

Oskar Sala, created the non-musical soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds, using the trautonium electronic instrument he helped develop. Morton Subotnick provided the electronic music for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Some well known electronic works generally regarded as in the classical tradition include "Film Music" by Vladimir Ussachevsky, A Rainbow in Curved Air and Shri Camel by Terry Riley, "Silver Apples", "The Wild Bull", and "Return" by Morton Subotnick, Sonic Seasonings and Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos, "Light Over Water" by John Adams, Aqua by Edgar Froese, and Poème électronique by Edgar Varèse.

Iannis Xenakis is another modern composer who used computers and electronic instruments, including one he invented, in many compositions. Some of his electronic works are gentle ambient pieces and some are savage sonic violence. Composers such as Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor created and performed live electronic music, often designing their own electronics or using tape. A number of institutions sprung up in the 20th century specialising in electronic music, with IRCAM in Paris perhaps the best known.

The influences of minimalists such as Steve Reich (in particular 'Drumming') are clear in much of the work of DJ Spooky showing a perfect example of the crossover between 20th century classical, and electronic music such as trip-hop and even trance and drum n bass.

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