Characteristics of 20th Century Music: An Introduction

Characteristics of 20th Century Music
Characteristics of 20th Century Music

One of the most important developments in 20th Century classical music was the effective dissolving of tonality. The entire system of keys that had dominated the musical landscape since the late Renaissance was by many composers, ultimately dismissed in favor of what would become known as ‘serialism’.

In the early part of the 20th Century, Austrian born composer Arnold Schoenberg found that he had reached a harmonic impasse, and he needed a solution. Tonality was no longer able to provide Schoenberg with the musical possibilities that it used to. The extreme Chromaticism in the music of Richard Wagner, for example, made the concept of tonality and tonal centers in music virtually void. Schoenberg took the next step and invented his own system of musical organization that gave each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale equality. This immediately dissolved the tonal system, and with it came a sound-world that pushed music into an increasingly dissonant existence.

Characteristics of 20th Century Music

Serialism produced a revolution in musical history that has not been paralleled since. In many ways, it reflected the troubled times that Western Europe was facing with the advent of the First World War and then in 1939 the start of the Second World War. Music became increasingly angular, harsh, and difficult to hear, and even though the music of the late Romantic composers continued in the work of Elgar, Finzi, Britten, Howells, and Sibelius to name but a few, the path that 20th Century music was now following was radically different.

The orchestra as a medium for the outpourings of 20th Century composers continued to be a highly popular one. In terms of size of the orchestral forces, they closely resemble that of the late 19th Century with the regular inclusion of alto or tenor saxophone(s), an immensely diverse collection of percussion that often included instruments from across the world. What continued the development of the orchestra during the 20th Century is how it used. The technical demands made by many composers on orchestra musicians became as extreme as new principles on many of the compositions were being conceived. Extended playing techniques became commonplace in order to further expand the sonic possibilities and to create more adventurous soundscapes ever.

As the 20th Century progressed, the introduction of electronics into the orchestral setting. This could include the use of pre-recorded tape, synthesizers, or amplification and sound manipulation or processing. This result, in many cases, was too far removed from what 20th Century audiences were comfortable with listening to. This kind of avant-garde music passed into the realms of purely academic music out of the reach of most who did not have a Ph.D. in music. In some ways, this was because not only had the tonal system vanished in these compositions, but the familiar and expected timbres that would traditionally come from an orchestra were also altered to a point, in some cases, of being unrecognizable.

The complexities of many 20th Century compositions included more sophisticated levels of rhythmic invention ever. ‘Polyrhythms’ (many rhythms) were a feature of some 20th Century compositions that generated such densely woven textures as to render the option to follow a melody or harmonic progression impossible. While Stravinsky makes highly effective use of polyrhythms in his ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’, that is still texturally comprehensible. Composers who followed him like Morton Feldman, Michael Finissy, Eliot Carter, and Brian Ferneyhough derived what came to be known as the ‘New Complexity’.

Many of the compositions that came from these composers are incredibly challenging to understand, although fascinating to see in a notated score. Music also began to include completely new systems of tuning, where the division of the octave into 12 equal parts was superseded by ‘microtonal’ options regularly, including quarter-tones and sixth-tones. To an ear used to listening to the work of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, or Bruckner, this sound-world posed a significant number of questions.

Complexity and experimental music were not the only avenues that composers of the 20th Century explored. In the USA, for example, the rise of the ‘minimalist’ school of composition quickly took hold of many emerging composers as well as audiences. In a nutshell, the concept of minimalism was the polar opposite of the composers’ aspirations of the new complexity. Minimalism takes its inspiration from Bali and Java’s music, also many cases the sound of the Gamelan. It uses the idea of layering ostinati to generate a musical piece.

These repeating patterns can be both rhythmic and melodic, with their harmonic focus still with its feet in the tonal spectrum. The minimalists employ a wide variety of rhythmic devices to maintain interest in their compositions, including one of the most common, ‘phasing’. In essence, this device displaces a musical phrase by a short interval, putting it either behind or in front of any sounding material. It is a kind of ‘Doppler effect’.

A considerable number of minimalist works explore similar sonorities through entirely new combinations of instruments and voices. This, in turn, gives this type of music a unique sound.

Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming Music’ (1970/71), is an excellent example of this and inspired following the composers to visit Ghana.

‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ is a further excellent example of the use of a homogenous ensemble and many of the smart compositional techniques that this composer uses so well. From the work of many minimalist composers, including John Adams has come to a redefinition of what music can be and how it could be listened to and performed. Some composers like Michael Nyman have made a successful career in the world of film. Such as the accessibility of numerous compositions from this school of thought.

Other composers delved further into indigenous music from their homeland. Bartok and Vaughn-Williams were two composers who spent significant time exploring and recording what can broadly be considered to be folk tunes from their respective countries. Shostakovich included Russian songs in his symphonic works satirically and at enormous risk to himself and his family during the reign of Stalin. The French composer Olivier Messiaen turned to bird song for inspiration and his own scheme of harmonic and melodic creation that embodied his deep spirituality. There is an enormous and abundant quantity of 20th Century music to explore with something for everyone to discover and enjoy.


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