The Burial of Gustav Mahler (1911) by the famed composer, Arnold Schoenberg.
To preface the following chapters, it becomes difficult to generalize a single 100 year span with shared characteristics. We also know more about the 20th century than any previous century, for obvious reasons. What happened, in part, was that composers finally were aware of each other and their place in history; the simple fact that the world was already becoming a smaller place meant that they could step back, make note of the swings of the pendulum of musical style, and take part in its velocities with more meta-composition than ever before. The music world hadn't really ever dwelled on the past before; Bach was rediscovered by Mendellsohn, and the rise of scholarship and education gave a new source of inspiration for performers and composers alike. For instance, Stravinsky's admiration for Gesualdo, a renaissance madrigal composer. The 20th century brought a historical perspective with everything it did, and that colors much of what was created.
This awareness had fascinating results. Some purposefully saw things as ORB, and called themselves (or were called) neo-classicists.
Others, went the other way and embraced SEE, dubbing themselves Expressionists.
There were many original thinkers doing neither of course, but you can point to the neo-classicist Stravinsky and the expressionist Schoenberg as two major influences that guided musical thought in the 20th century. Schoenberg likened it to a cliff; you couldn't find a middle ground - romanticism led you to the precipice, and you either turned and went back (neo-classicism), or you jumped off. (expressionism) Both movements had schools in the other art disciplines as well, including a budding art form - cinema.
In this final unit, you will be surprised at the sudden departures composers made in sound. New textures, more complex structures, new virtuosity, improvisation, broader tonal palettes, the list goes on and on. But it was a more gradual transition than you might think, and these three musical examples from romantic composers Mahler, Liszt, and Wagner offer some clues into how these ideas came about. In the continuity of pan-European music, successive generations of composers had been perplexing each other and audiences all along. As you have seen this semester, harmony, melody, and rhythm have transformed during the interim as various influences exerted their force. Innovations in harmony alone, starting with polyphony and proceeding through a tempered scale, enharmonic equivalents, chromatic modulation, polytonality, atonality, dodecaphony, serialism, minimalism, etc. were all dramatic departures that alienated many, yet couldn't exist without their predecessors. As you listen to these pieces, you may feel that composers in the 20th century made a jarring leap to reach the sounds they did. But the romanticists led them there.
20 minutes into Mahler's unfinished Symphony No. 10 in F-Sharp Minor, he writes 9-note chords which surely provided a beacon of possibilities to those who followed him:
Another great example, if you remember classical music's first 'rock star' - the music of Franz Liszt arrived at very different destinations as he developed. An example of this motivic and harmonic development can be heard in his 1881 composition, Nuages Gris:
Probably the most well-known example of the dissolution of functional harmony, Wagner's Tristan Chord, in Tristan und Isolde, is a landmark moment in the unshackling of tonality:
Discussed in Chapter 10, Debussy and the impressionists were important bridges to the 20th century as well. Be sure to revist the ideas discussed in that chapter.
Other factors? We know more about this century than any other. In fact, more information is available than one has the ability to learn in a single lifetime. During the century, education and living conditions improved dramatically, permitting more citizens to pursue musical interests.
Technology began to advance at an exponential level to the point that it seems to have lasted longer than a usual century! Most of us who were making music during it couldn't even agree on what it should be called- whether 'Experimental', 'Modern', 'Contemporary' etc. Notice the vague title we have given this unit, a total retreat from anything descriptive.
Fin de siécle Europe was steeped in nationalism. Just before revealing his 12-tone technique to the world, Schoenberg told a friend that his musical discovery would ensure the supremacy of German music for the next one hundred years. While artists could be obsessive about their own creations to the point of mania, and this seems individualistic, they also tended to identify with the predominant thinking of their locale, called zeitgeist. On the surface, a rivalry between Parisian neo-classicists and Viennese expressionists seems to define the early 20th century as we will see in Chapter 12. The world was a much bigger place than it is today, and composers saw themselves as a continuation of the tradition of their locale. Their ideas were shared with those in their immediate vicinity, and any conflicting modes of thought arrived late and were filtered through imperfect communication media. The many 'isms' we will cover in this unit are a direct product of this habitat. Finally, it will help you to know a little history surrounding the time a 20th century work was composed it's pretty easy to see how musical impressionism relates to impressionist art, how futurists were influenced by an increasingly industrial society, and how the horrors of war resulted in dadaism.
The advent and slow development of recording changed our relationship with music throughout the 20th century. As the century progressed, the act of documentation, the recording, preservation and playback of music became a more and more important part of music. Many of the ways it had an effect are easy to see. It opened new revenue streams; it disseminated a composition far and wide; soon almost any location could have music; it could be combined with more art forms, such as cinema. A composer could hear the works of a colleague from another country without traveling there. The compositions themselves changed, as less repetition was required. Repeating a section of music, as Mozart would have, didn't seem necessary to a composer who lived in a world where the listener could repeat his piece at will. The ability to spin a record countless times in the comfort of one's own home may have encouraged increasingly complex pieces, and may have spurred composers to seek their own voice.
The idea takes precedence
For the first time we have purely conceptual works: and with them the new requirement that an artist be willing and able to discuss these concepts. Also like artists, composers are free to change their mind, for the first time in history. They go through periods, like a visual artist such as Picasso did. Stravinsky, for instance, at the end of his life adopted 12-tone procedures, and other composers, such as John Cage, seem to move on to new ideas as soon as a single piece of music is completed.
At the end of this course, regardless of how you feel about the many new sounds you have heard, trust in the fact that someone alive today is composing music that will challenge and interest you. The composers in our text reside firmly in the canon of western music, yet many others active at present aren't mentioned for various reasons. Perhaps it would be a good idea to provide a current list you can 'follow'. A few living composers whose music may stand the test of time are Pierre Boulez, Gyrgy Kurtg, Zhou Long, Kaija Saariaho, Louis Andriessen, Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough, and John Adams.