20th Century Classical Music

20th Century Classical Music

—20th Century Music is Western “classical music” or “art music” written and/or performed since 1900.  This era of art music did not have a dominant style or sound and composers created highly diverse kinds of music.  Rather than have a single stylistic trend in music, there were movements (or “isms”) and ideas explored that rose and fell throughout the century and stretched and/or broke through old boundaries of music.  Composers intentionally pushed the bounds of what was acceptable in Classical/Art Music and questioned the definition of music itself.



Historically, the industrial revolution —World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), capitalism, and globalization changed the way people viewed the world.  —As a result of the societal shifts and the chaos brought about by the world wars, people started seeking new meaning and ways of expressing themselves in their lives.  During the twentieth century there was a widespread break with the traditional rules that governed music:

  • new scales and chord structures were developed; rhythm became much more complex and irregular
  • melody became less important
  • —timbre (the different sound qualities an instrument makes) was explored in depth
  • recording and technology changed the way musicians composed and made a living



Impressionism was an artistic movement that spanned the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  It began with artists trying to capture the changing and moving aspects of light within a scene or a picture rather than a realistic portrayal of the objects in the picture.  The focus was put on the impression of a person, place, thing, or setting rather than person, place, thing, or setting itself.

Claude Monet – “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies”monet-bridge-over-pond

Claude Monet – “Soleil Levant”monet-soleil-levant

Inspired by these artists, composers began to blur the lines of the rules of Art Music by the use of ambiguous or uncertain tonality (hiding the central key of a piece with exotic and new scales and chromaticism), experimenting with timbre (the unique tones of instruments) through innovative orchestration (which instrument groups play and when), and through evocative titles to pieces.  This was all in an effort to evoke a sense of “color” from the music.  Like impressionist artists, composers tried to arouse moods and emotions rather than telling a clear story.


One of the most recognizable pieces of impressionistic music is “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (Prelude to the afternoon of a faun) by Claude Debussy.  Debussy was a French composer who became one of the most influential composers of the late 19th century and the early 20th century.  His use of nontraditional scales and tonalities helped to pave the way for later 20th century composers.  “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” is based on a poem by the French author Stéphane Mallarmé which describes the experiences of a faun who has just woken up from his afternoon sleep and discusses his encounters with several nymphs during the morning in a dreamlike monologue.  The main melody suggests a mythological dreamlike experience.


“Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” – Claude Debussy

Futurism and Experimentalism

Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence, and objects such as the car, the aeroplane, and the industrial city.  Inspired by this movement, Futurist music composers rejected tradition and started introducing experimental sounds inspired by machinery, putting together unusual rhythms (polyrhythms) and pitch combinations (dissonances), and later experimenting with the use of electronic and recorded sounds in music.


The futurist painter, composer, and builder Luigi Russolo is often regarded as one of the first noise music experimental composers.  Inspired by the everyday noises of machines, Russolo designed and constructed noise-generating devices called intonarumori on which he composed and performed music in 1913-1914.

A later composer who challenged the idea of noise vs. music was Edgard Varese (1883-1965).  Varese was French composer who used many of the techniques of futurism and experimentalism.  His music focused heavily on timbre (the way something sounds) and unique combinations of rhythm.  Like Russolo before him, Varese challenged the idea of “noise” believing that noise was only sounds that individuals didn’t like.  In other words, noise was a matter of opinion.


—Varese was also among the first composers to use electronic sounds in music which led to him being named the “Father of Electronic Music.”  —His piece “Poeme Electronique” was part of a multimedia piece that was featured at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and played inside the Philips Pavilion – a structure built to house a multimedia spectacle that celebrated post World War II technological progress.


Another Varese piece that was inspired by Russolo was “Ionisation.”  This was among the first Western concert hall compositions written for percussion ensemble alone.


Expressionism is part of the modernist movement (changes in culture as part of the industrial revolution) that started in poetry and art and eventually grew to include music.  Expressionist art and music intentionally distorts realistic representation to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.


—Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer and painter associated with expressionism. He and his family fled Europe and immigrated to the United States in 1934 because his music was labeled “degenerate music” by the Nazi Party because of his Jewish Ancestry.


—Schoenberg was both a composer and influential teacher and his works and music theories were some of the most influential in 20th century musical thought.  Schoenberg was the leader of the Second Viennese School which was made of composers pushing the boundaries of music by breaking down tonality and using all the notes available (chromaticism) to evoke meaning and expression.

—Much of Schoenberg’s music is recognized as “atonal” – without a tonal center or key – and he is also known for the development of the 12-tone row.  This is a method where the composer uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale equally while attempting to prevent any single note from becoming emphasized.  Schoenberg’s first piece to fully employ the use of the 12-tone row in all movements of the piece was his “Suite for Piano” which he wrote between 1921-1923.

“Suite for Piano” Schoenberg

—One of Schoenberg’s most famous and still performed vocal and instrumental works is “Pierrot Lunaire” – a melodrama that sets a German translation of French poems about the character Pierrot to music.  A melodrama is a dramatic or literary work in which the plot, which is typically sensational and designed to appeal strongly to the emotions, takes precedence over detailed characterization.  Pierrot was a stock character in Commedia del’Arte (a style of improvised theatre ) – a sad clown who constantly tries to win the affection of Columbine but she always breaks his heart.


The piece is written for solo voice accompanied by flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Schoenberg wrote the vocal part in style known as “Sprechstimme” which translates from German as “spoken voice”.  This was a vocal technique somewhere between speaking and singing in which the singer would slide any held note up or down.  This was used by Schoenberg to further de-emphasize any single note.  In this work, Schoenberg did not indicate a specific voice part for this piece but it is typically performed by a soprano.

Postmodernism (1930w-1980s)

—Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism (changes in attitude during and after the industrial revolution) in which much of Western society moved away from the sense of historic optimism of the modernist movement towards one of skepticism/pessimism.

  • Historic optimism — the belief that the changes and shifts in society lead to the betterment of the all people within that society
  • Pessimism – a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future; a belief that this world is as bad as it could be or that evil will ultimately prevail over good

—Postmodern composers took on some of this attitude of skepticism and pessimism in the music they wrote and much postmodern music challenges the barriers between “high” and “low” styles (ex: pop vs classical music), the importance of structure and unity, and embraced contradiction. This was often achieved in music by the use of bricolage (use of found objects in music), polystylism (using multiple styles and/or techniques within the same piece), and randomness (elements of the music are left to chance).

John Cage 

—John Cage (1912-1992) is considered one of the most influential American composers of the 20th Century who composed both modernist and postmodern music.  Cage is a pioneer of the use of indeterminacy (randomness) in music and the nonstandard use of instruments.

—Indeterminate music is an approach to composition in which some aspects of a musical work are left open to chance or to the interpreter/performer’s free choice.  —“Music of Changes” is one of Cage’s pieces that experimented with the idea of randomness.  In it, Cage uses a modified version of a divination system called “I Ching” which produces random numbers through casting lots that then guide one to parts of a text.

  • Divination – the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means

I Ching Table


—In composing “Music of Changes,” the notes of the piano piece were determined by the roll of the dice which corresponded with determined musical outcomes like pitch, duration, etc.   In this way, the notes of the piece were determined and written down by chance rather than building off of a melodic or rhythmic idea.

—One of Cage’s most famous indeterminate works is “4’33” (read: four minutes and thirty-three seconds) which challenges the very nature of music itself.  What do you think makes the indeterminate “music” of this piece?

Original Score for “4’33”

—Cage contends that the ambient noise and sounds created by the audience and the performer during the “silent” performance is the “music.”  Though it is random, he creates the parameters or structure in which the sounds are created – thus, in his mind, music.

—Cage preparing a piano

Cage is also known for a number of his works that employed the use of a prepared piano.  —His first work using this technique was a piece he wrote for the choreographer Syvilla Fort called “Bacchanale.”  Cage wanted to write a piece for a percussion ensemble but was told that music hall where the dance was to be staged didn’t have enough room to fit such a large group – the only instrument available was a single grand piano.  —After some consideration, Cage said that he realized it was possible “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra … With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.” Cage place various objects in between and around the strings of a piano that created new and different sounds than were originally meant to come out of the piano.

Cage: “Bacchanale” 

—Though he was not the first to alter the sound of a piano by using these techniques, Cage explored this idea in depth in a number of other pieces and has become known for his “prepared piano” works – the most famous of these in the concert work “Sonatas and Interludes”

Cage: “Sonatas and Interludes”

Minimalism –  Late 20th Century Music

Minimalism came about shortly after the death of Schoenberg in 1951 and was developed in New York during the 1960s.  Minimalist music is not melody driven.  Rather, the music often has very simple, repetitive, and rhythmic phrases that gradually come and go throughout the piece to produce subtle changes and/or gradual transformation.


One of the earliest, influential minimal works is Terry Riley’s “In C.”  This piece is written in an unusual way: Riley wrote 53 short melodic ideas to be played over repeated eighth note C’s.  The performers are instructed to repeat each phrase as many times as they want before moving onto the next phrase.  Every performance of “In C” is similar in that the listener hears the gradual changes in each instrument throughout the piece but every performance is also different due to the choices afforded to the performers.


Terry Riley: “In C”

The composer Steven Reich took part in Riley’s first performance of “In C” and was greatly influenced by Riley’s style in this minimal piece.  Reich began to write music focusing on the “process of change” in which the listener became aware of slow gradual changes during the performance.


One famous piece that employs this idea is “Clapping Music” in which one rhythmic idea is played 156 times divided between to parts.  Clap 1 is constant while Clap 2 moves the pattern one eighth note forward after a set amount of time.  This gradually creates slow but distinct changes in the piece.  This technique is called phase shifting.

Another famous piece by Reich using the same technique of phase shifting is the piece “Come Out” which was written at the request of Truman Nelson, a civil rights activist.  This piece features the recorded voice of David Hamm (part of a group known as the “Harlem Six” who were on trial for a murder during the Harlem Riots of 1964) being manipulated slowly.  The voice is heard speaking in unison at first, but quickly shifts out of sync to create the effect of “phase shifting.” Eventually, the two voices split into four continuous loops creating a very unique and moving piece.

Reich also used phase shifting in the groundbreaking piano piece “Piano Phase.”  It was his first attempt at using these techniques for instruments for live performance.

Inspired by a performance of Reich’s Piano Phase, the composer Phillip Glass (b. 1937) began to move his compositions towards a more minimal approach.  Glass never liked the term “minimalism” though.  He preferred to call himself a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”

Much of his early minimalist work was based on extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of the texture of the music.  Glass wanted the listener/audience to take a slow journey through his music using repetitive melodies and rhythmic patterns.  His pieces  “Music in Similar Motion” and “Music in Contrary Motion” are excellent examples of these repetitive techniques.

Glass: “Music in Similar Motion”

Glass: Music in Contrary Motion

Glass now identifies himself as a “classicist,” pointing out that he is trained in classical composing. Glass has founded a namesake musical group, the Philip Glass Ensemble, with which he still performs on keyboards. He has written 24 operas, musical theatre works, ten symphonies, eleven concertos, solo works, chamber music including seven string quartets and instrumental sonatas, and a number of film scores. Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards.