Masculine Geek and Classical Music, Part 6: Periods and Key Figures. The 20th Century (1910-2000)

We now come to the final period in this cursory history.  If you thought that the 19th century was interesting (not to mention innovative), buckle your seatbelts.

I mentioned in my last post that the 19th century faced some important trends that upended the older structures and forms not only of society, but also the arts.  Part of this was a reaction against an increasing rationalization of one’s understanding of nature, where faith in the Christian God (at least for Europe) was no longer a given, and a slow dis-enchantment was taking place.  Artists, in particular, strove to capture what was going on at the time, and so focused their efforts on capturing things like the sublime and other things that  couldn’t be rationalized.  Part of this state of affairs also was because of the Industrial Revolution, which both put into action what Enlightenment science and philosophy discovered in the previous decades, and reordered society to the level of the factory floor and the large nation-state (though not the bureaucratic welfare state, which was to come much later).  The nation-state, in turn, helped to birth nationalist movements, which then led artists to pay much closer attention to the folk ways and traditional, non-formal music of their respective ethnic enclaves.  The folk ways had been there for a long, long time, but now artists tapped into those sources to supplement their bursts of creativity, and what they wrote took on more innovative forms.

As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, the Enlightenment project, as well as the Romantic, still carried itself on that momentum.  But, as those of us who have studied history know quite well, things took some interesting turns, some for the better and some for the worse.  Which then leads me to the main trends happening in the 20th century as far as music goes.

Increasing urbanization.  As more and more people left the rural areas to seek a better life in the urban areas, cosmopolitanism emerged as a significant trend.  Of course, this cosmopolitan outlook was confined to the middle and upper classes, those with the education, the resources, and the artistic sensibilities to note and appreciate new cultural forms.  Some of this was already under way in the late 19th century, and reflected in the music of the time (e.g., Erik Satie).  Going into the 20th century, certain centers, such as Paris and Weimar Germany (especially Berlin), concentrated, and consolidated, these new artistic forms.  Which then leads into . . .

The flowering of the avant-garde.  What was originally a French military term referring to small forces scouting ahead of the main force (think pathfinders), avant-garde came to mean artistic movements that sought to effect social change, but this is more aligned to what was happening at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.  Avant-garde today generally refers to groups of intellectuals, writers, and artists, including architects, who voice ideas and experiment with artistic approaches that challenge current cultural values. If 19th century music is about innovation in terms of forms and the expansion of existing forms, 20th century music radically expands such experimentation and, at times, turns the existing forms on their heads.  Not all composers could be classified as avant-garde, but many of them couldn’t escape from what was happening during their lifetimes.

Jazz comes on the scene.  Ragtime was popular at the turn of the century, with Scott Joplin being the main composer here.  However, ragtime gave way to jazz, which then became more popular throughout the 1920s and 30s.  Especially in pre-WW II Germany and the Soviet Union, jazz was “scandalous” and “decadent”, and actively prohibited – but that didn’t stop many composers coming from classical training from tapping into that source for creative inspiration.  Many composers of the time either wrote specific jazz- pieces or used jazz themes to help break free of the classical strictures.

World War I.  It goes without saying that WW I did more to upend existing social orders than did the 19th century revolutions, due in no small part to the sheer size of the combatant nation-states, the technologies used to prosecute that war, and the disastrous aftermath.  Authors such as Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) documented that aftermath quite well.  Some composers had fought in WW I and came back irreparably affected (e.g., Alban Berg), so much so that one can see it in their music.

The Russian Revolution.  In 1848, many smaller revolutions swept across Europe, but Russia remained largely unaffected.  However, with the rise of Vladimir Lenin, due to the increasing frustration and animosity building against the Romanovs, the final spark lit the powder keg and then the whole thing was on fire.  Once the embers cooled, a new, communist and collectivized state took to the stage, and then set about to usher in a new way of understanding man, society and man’s place in that society.  “Socialist realism” now was the artistic order of the day.

World War II.  In some respects, WW II finished what WW I started, though was much more comprehensive (remember, there were both the European and Pacific theaters) and much more destructive.  However, one could say that, as far as music was concerned, the movements that happened in the wake of WW I made more of an impact than those during and shortly after WW II.  WW II provided yet more fodder for certain composers, notably the Russians.  Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, for example, each had their “war” symphonies and sonatas.

The rise of new media.  Films, radio, and recordings, especially, emerged in the early part of the 20th century.  Among the intelligentsia, it took some time for them to adopt them as serious art forms.  But, once they did, then it was off to the races to use such media for further creativity.  One can see this in composers who used prior recordings as part of their compositions (think early sampling techniques).

Okay, prep material out of the way, let’s get cracking . . .

Richard Strauss.  A Bavarian, Strauss’s music is often described as a successor to Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, two giants from the 19th century, and both exponents of German Romanticism.  Late-stage German Romanticism emphasized the tension between the daily world and the irrational and supernatural projections of creative genius.  For music, one sees pioneering subltties of orchestration and advanced harmonic style.  Strauss composed widely and primarily made his living as a conductor, but is best-known for his symphonies, tone poems (one of the hallmarks of program music, which tells a story), and operas, many of which are in the standard repertoire.  Strauss’s later music exhibits elements of modernism and toying around with harmonic forms.

Gutav Holst.  Born in England of Scandiavian stock, Holst’s was first influenced by Wagner and Strauss, but then the English folk music revival of the early 20th century helped to contribute to his own style, which is considerably economical, getting to the point.  His works were fairly popular early on, but it wasn’t until the publication of The Planets that his fame styrocketed.  Despite this, Holst was a shy and retiring man, preferring instead to be left alone to compose and to teach, which also contributed to his air of austerity.

Carl Orff.  Born in Germany, though Orff did compose several other orchestral and choral works, he’s best known for his secular cantata Carmina Burana, which is a setting of late medieval Latin- and early German-language poems, some of a comic and bawdy nature.

Bela Bartok.  This first Hungarian of this group, and one of two of the most important of Hungarian composers (the other is Franz Liszt), Bartok’s music is in the same vein as Schoenberg’s later music – dissonant and atonal.  (In particular, his piano music is often percussive.)  However, Bartok’s reputation also rests on his being a pioneer of comparative musicology, later to be known as ethnomusicology, because of his intense, systematic study of the Hungarian folk music of his day.

Arnold Schoenberg.  An Austrian and member of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg is one of the giants of early 20th century music.  He began his career in the same vein as Strauss, extending the German Romantic movement.  Later on, he then ventured into atonality and what he called the “twelve-tone system.”  Schoenberg is the first modern composer to embrace ways of developing motifs without resorting to the dominance of a centralized melodic idea.  This makes his music difficult to listen to, especially for those that aren’t accustomed to the more traditional forms from the Classical and Romantic period.  An unfortunate consequence of this was the Nazis labelling his music as “degenerate.”

Alban Berg.  Another Austrian, and member of the Second Viennese School, Alban Berg was a relative late bloomer in music, starting formal studies at 15 years old.  He is said to have brought more “human values” to the twelve-tone system, his works seen as more “emotional” than Schoenberg’s.  Critically, he is seen as having preserved the Viennese tradition in his music.  Deeply affected by WW I, and later by the rise of the Nazi party, Berg’s later music, especially in his operas Wozzeck and Lulu, reflect the horrors of a world unmoored and adrift.

Anton Webern.  An Austrian and the third of the core members of the Second Viennese School, Webern’s music was among the most radical of its milieu, both in its concision and in its rigorous and resolute apprehension of twelve-tone technique, begun by Schoenberg’s.  His music is typified by very spartan textures, in which every note can be clearly heard, have carefully chosen timbres, often resulting in very detailed instructions to the performers and use of extended instrumental technique.  Like Berg’s, Webern’s output is small compared to other 20th century composers, and ranges over a handful of musical forms, including piano, chamber, and orchestral music. Tragically, Webern died in late 1945 in the American-occupied zone in Vienna at the end of WW II.  Stepping outside shortly before a curfew to enjoy a few puffs on a cigar, an American soldier shot and killed Webern.

Igor Stravinsky.  Another innovator and highly influential composers of the 20th century, Stravinsky was born in Russia and, early on, came under the influence of his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, along with Tchaikovsky, was a prime exponent of the 19th century Russian romantic school.  However, Stravinsky soon turned his attention to the west, beginning his working relationship with Sergei Dhiagliev, a Russian impresario active in Paris and putting on ballets.  Stravinsky began spending more time in the west, first in France and then in Switzerland, then back to France.  In 1939, on the eve of WW II, Stravinsky moved permanently to the United States, where he spent he rest of his life.  Stravinsky’s music is grouped into three periods: a Russian, a neo-classical, and a serial.  His best-known works fall into the latter, serialist period, which is in much same vein as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music.

George Gershwin.  Brooklyn-born, Gershwin successfully wrote for both classical and popular audiences.  In his mid-teens, Gershwin left school and began working in New York City’s storied Tin Pan Alley (a row of sheet-music music publishers) as a “song-plugger,” which is someone who works in a music store to promote new sheet music.  Later, Gershwin moved to Paris, intending to study with Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel, who both turned him down as they were afraid that rigorous classical training would dilute his strong jazz-influence style.  Nevertheless, Gershwin, upon returning to the United States, continued composing and tried his hand at opera.  Then, he moved to Los Angeles and writing doing film scores, before dying early at age 38.

Representative works:

Charles Ives.  A Connecticut Yankee, son of a bandleader and from a family prominent family engaged in social causes, to include the abolition of slavery, Ives’s music fits squarely in a modernist vein with all of its experimentation, atonality, serialism, etc.  However, Ives was not a professional musician or composer and made his living, instead, by working as an actuary, and later as an executive, in insurance.  With a business partner, he established his own insurance firm and made many innovations in what eventually became the field of estate-planning.  Ives’s music was largely forgotten and unperformed during is day, but his reputation as an innovator in American music, later on, gained more prominence.

Samuel Barber.  Born near Philadelphia, Barber displayed musical talent at an early age, and was a triple prodigy in voice, piano, and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music.  He is best known for his piano music, orchestral music, and some vocal music.  At the time of his death, at age 70, nearly all of his music had been recorded.

Aaron Copland.  Brooklyn-born, Copland, along with Gershwin (also born and active in the New York City area), are two of the most cited American composers of the early 20th century.  Whereas Gershwin concentrated more on jazz and Tin Pan Alley songwriting, Copland followed the standard route of typical classical fare with his early piano music and art-songs, then moving into symphonies.  However, Copland is best known for his orchestral, programmatic suites that incorporate indigenous American folk and folk-type music (e.g., cowboy songs), and display wide, sweeping scope to reflect the American frontier and focus on the common man.

Representative works:

Dmitri Shostakovich.  Perhaps the most important Russian of late 20th century music, Shostakovich spent nearly all of his life in Russia and, as it was to become later, the Soviet Union.  Engaged with many musical styles and prolific in the forms in which he wrote, Shostakovich developed a hybrid voice, combining a variety of different musical techniques into his works. His music is characterized by sharp contrasts, elements of the grotesque, and ambivalent tonality.  He was also heavily influenced by the neo-classical style pioneered by Igor Stravinsky, and (especially in his symphonies) by the late Romanticism of Gustav Mahler.  Of special importance is Shostakovich’s relations with the Soviet state, particularly Joseph Stalin, with which he had an often-strained relationship, sometimes fearing for his life and his career in the wake of strong disapproval from the Soviet government.

Sergei Prokofiev.  The second major Russian of the group, Prokofiev’s music is a staple of the concert repertoire.  Musically gifted from an early age, he began his career as a maverick and iconoclastic composer-pianist, performing many of his own compositions while touring.  His music from the time is dazzlingly virtuosic and dissonant, which characterizes much of his piano music, and a marked departure from Rachmaninoff, who worked much more closely with the Romantic idiom.  Prokofiev wrote in many forms, including opera, but, despite the dissonant quality of the music, doesn’t stray into the grotesque like Shostakovich’s does.  Forced to leave Russia because of the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev eventually returned there in the late 1930s, after living and working in the United States and Paris.

Aram Khachaturian.  Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, of Armenian descent, Khachaturian was one of the leading Soviet composers.  what made Khachaturian unique among Soviet composers is the blending of national Armenian vocal and instrumental intonations with contemporary orchestral techniques.  Khachaturian’s music is characterized by an active rhythmic development, which reaches either a mere repetition of the basic formula (ostinato) or a game of emphasis within this formula.

Francis Poulenc.  The only son of a prosperous pharmaceutical manufacturer in Paris, Poulenc was largely self-taught in music.  He was an accomplished pianist and wrote in many forms, including opera, and his style directly or indirectly was inspired by the purely melodic associations of the human voice, making his music somewhat unique among 20th century composers.

György Ligeti.  Born in Transylvania of Hungarian descent, Ligeti’s music belongs to the avant-garde, and he took a liking to the twelve-tone system.  Fleeing first to Vienna after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Ligeti then took up long-term residence in Germany, where he taught in Hamburg until his retirement.  His music gradually became more popular after the director Stanley Kubrick featured it in three of his films.

Krzysztof Penderecki.  Another avant-gardist whose music was featured in Stanley Kubrick films, Pendercki’s music ranges over several forms.

Leonard Bernstein.  Born in Massachusetts to a businessman, Bernstein’s reputation was threefold.  First, he was the first American-born and trained conductor to achieve worldwide claim.  For many years, he was chief conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Bernstein’s conducting was characterized by extremes of emotion with the rhythmic pulse of the music conveyed visually through his balletic podium manner. Musicians often reported that his manner in rehearsal was the same as in concert. As he got older his performances tended to be overlaid to a greater extent with a personal expressiveness which often divided critical opinion.  His second claim to fame was as a composer.  Bernstein was an eclectic composer whose music fused elements of jazz, Jewish music, theatre music and the work of earlier composers like Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and George Gershwin. Some of his works, especially his score for West Side Story, a very popular musical, helped bridge the gap between classical and popular music.  Last, Bernstein was a well-known author and teacher, bringing classical music to the wider public, and especially for his series, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Philip Glass.  One of the best-known American composers of the late 20th century, who is still active.  Glass’s music is sometimes mistakenly labeled as “minimalist” because he sticks to simpler melodies, and constant and repetitive rhythms.  He has been a prolific composer, writing much for piano and orchestra, as well as several operas and film music, three of which have been nominated for Academy Awards.

Representative works:

John Adams.  A “minimalist” in the same vein as Philip Glass, Adams’s music possesses the qualities of innovation, concision, and a steady pulse that defines and controls the music.  Writing in many forms, Adams is best-known for his several operas, a few of which are based on definitive historical events and figures from the 20th century.

Representative works:

And, with that, we come to a close for the 20th century.  Mind you, there are several other composers that I could cover, but this article is far too long as it is, and I’m saving those for another time.

“Classical music” is still with us, and there are many composers around the world that are still writing, still mixing, still composing, and there are musicians still performing.  With YouTube and other online streaming services, you can find what you want, when you want, and learn what you want.  So, get out there and start listening!

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