Early 20th Century Western Art Music.











Early 20th Century Western Art Music.


Western art Music of the early 20th Century developed as a reaction to the music produced by western composers of the century before, the 19th Century, in the era that was known as the romantic period (to be explored in a later post), and music which was known as “romantic period music”. A separate bridging stream also emerged out of the period that bridged together the Modern Period of music (20th Century to the present day) and the romantic period (19th Century, ie 1800s). That style of music developed out of France, called “Impressionism” (Think Monet in art).

Early 20th Century musical artists were renowned for exploring abstraction in music for the first time in history, liberating “dissonance” into western music. Dissonance can be described as ” a lack of harmony among musical notes” or “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.” Dissonance was generally avoided prior to this in the history of classical music, as it disrupted the idea of the “functionality of harmony”, which is the musical direction/journey of different notes that are played together in order to create “nice”
sounding music.

In short, the 20th Century singled the beggining of music which was allowed to “not sound nice”, but to be free, literally, just as it sounds. This was also coupled with an explosive interest in African/Tribal rhythmic discoveries, that made music “Syncopated” (Ie the accent, or strong beat, is placed in a unusual position, causing the listener to want to dance/move in order to rebalance the rhythmic pulse, a lot of rock and roll and jazz developed from this idea.), and the new classical music also sought influences from the parallel developments in jazz and pop music. Composers became interested in using corresponding ideas in the arts in their music, such as dadaism and Picasso’s cubism. And other composers invented new systems of harmony for western music that would allow the creation of “musical anarchy”.

One of the new 20th Century innovations was the use of irregular rhythms, as a back drop for music, whereas music prior was group neatly into groups of three or four:

(beats) 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4,

The new composers decided to use irregular groupings:

1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7, 1 2 3, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, 1 2 3, etc.

And to use different clashing rhythmic scales superimposed on top of each other, in order to create intense rhythmic density…

(line 1) 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
(line 2) 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 etc…
(also a feature of minimalist music)

Developments also included new freer large scale structures in music, so that music wasn’t always tied to a particular pattern or development:

Eg “Rondo Form” ( from the Classical period)

section A, section B, section A, section C, section A, section D, section A, section B
eg. Music of the 20th Century was allowed an independent form if desired.

And including new concepts of “tonality”. All western music prior was written in a denominated key, the Key of “C” for example, or “G major” or “F# (sharp) minor” which sounded “nice” and like the music was always “at home” and never “abstract” or “lost”. But composers of the 20th Century saw this convention as limiting their potential to write new and exiting musics, and some innovated the system of tonality, others invented entirely new a-tonal systems (ie not based in a “key”), and others abandoned the concept of “tonality” entirely, being more interested in the sounds themselves.
One of the earliest innovations of tonality of the 20th Century is the concept of poly-tonality, or writing a piece of music in 2 or more keys at once, rejecting the previous long held idea of a piece of music always being centered in one particular key, confronting the ear with two different keys at the same time.

Stravinsky was a ground-breaking russian composer of the early 20th Century, credited with the moves towards Rhythmic complexity and tribalism, polytonal music and developments in music, and an original cubist philosophy in music where small musical sections are “cut up rhythmically” and “thrown around the musical palette in a cubist collage”.
When his russian-tribal ballet “the rite of spring” premiered in Paris in 1913, it was considered such a scandal and illicited uncivilized responses from the audience members, one of them who took to beating on the head of the audience member infront of him “like a set of bongos”. It was soon after hailed as one of the greatest orchestral achievements in the history of western music.

(Rite of spring, various clips and interpretations)

Stravinsky wrote many other ground breaking ballets, such as a soliders tale, petroushka etc.

Petroushka, “Danse Russe”

Another Russian Composer, Shostakovich, took on different “national” elements as his music was composed under the soviet-communist regieme where new music was prohibited and “censored” by the national authority if it did not fit within “socialist ideals”.


Symphony No.5 in D minor

And was part of the phenomenon of “nationalism” that occured in the 19th and 20th Centuries (including Australia as well, though the development of the Australian school was a good 50 years behind other western nations!) and is part of the “russian school”.

now we take a look at an American Ballet that uses features of poly-tonality and new rhythmic ideas as well, but with a distinctively “American” focus as opposed to a “russian focus”.


APPALACHIAN SPRING (premiere, 1944)
“the story told is a spring celebration of the American pioneers of the 1800s after building a new pennsylvania farmhouse”.

Other American Art Music of the same period sought influences in America’s other great musical tradition; jazz/blues.


Porgy and Bess tells the story of “Porgy” a black disabled beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer.

This was written in the 1930s, and is also respresentative of problems of imperial and neo-colonialism of culture, but nethertheless is a true american classic.

Another classic is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
(This version performed by famous virtuoso jazz pianist Herbie Hancock)

We should also note with serious aplomb America’s first well known African-American composer to have a Symphony performed by a large scale Orchestra in the united states, with the premier of his Symphony “Afro-American Symphony” premiered in 1931.


Afro-American Symphony

Another Extremely important figure in the development of early 20th Century music is BELA BARTOK, who is also representative of the Hungarian nationalist school, and was a preliminary influence for other eastern european composers that were to follow in his footsteps such as Gyorgy Ligeti and Witold Lutoslawski. His music evinced the begginings of a genuine modernity in music, with complex abstract forms and harmonies, and the begginings of new and original sounds for the orchestra.


“Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste” (premier 1936) -included original new sounds for the orchestra not heard before with the “eery, heavenly” sounding celeste.
This work is an absolute masterpiece of form, style and texture, which you need to understand the rigours of western classical music deeply in order to understand it completely, but you should try listening to the whole work regardless.

Bartok’s 20th Century Opera “BlueBeard’s Castle”

Now we go to the radical composers from Vienna of the 20th Century who decided to abandon the concept of tonality all together in favour of new “note systems” which incite “musical anarchy”, by removing the concept of hierarchy from tonality altogether. Hierarchy is the priveliging of certain musical notes above others in order to create “balance” and to give the music a “centre” so that the music sounds “at home”. Removing this heirarchy makes all notes as equally important as one another, thereby removing the concept of a musical centre entirely. Special systems arose out of this new idea, the “12 tone system” whereby all 12 notes of the western scale must be played one after the other in music before returning to a note already played. This creates musical “anarchy”.
The father is this revolution is Arnold Schoenberg, who first experimented with this techniques as early as the 1920s, and he also had two important disciples who continued this study further, Anton Webern and Alan Berg.


“Pierrot Lunaire” no1. (premiere 1912)

no8. “Nacht” (Night)

“Piano Concerto” (12 tone music)

ALBAN BERG often used the 12 tone system devised by his teacher Schoenberg, but mixed it with a post-romantic style of his own.


Opera “Wozzeck” (act 1, scene 1, premier 1925)

(act 3, Scene 4)

(act 3, scene 5)

ANTON WEBERN, the other of the “serialist, 12 tone composers”, perfected the art of serialism entirely with strict, crystalline forms, involving different instruments playing at extreme ends (ie high/low sounds) of their instruments.


Symphony Op.21(1928)

String Quartet (Op.28, 1938)

A composer of the early 20th Century who falls into a category entirely his own is American Harry Partch, who spent his formative years living in semi-poverty and travelling the American railways across the country before developing his own unique musical philosophy which was based on entirely new instruments he created hmself, each with special tuning systems that were independent of the western tradition, making them sound more “eastern” or “out of tune”, though it would be far more accurate to say that they were “differently tuned” since the mathematical ratios to create the sounds themselves were “pure”… a topic which is far to complex to detail here and will have to wait for a different post on the musicology of tuning systems.


Delusions of the fury p1.

pt 2.




Music Studio, part 1

Music Studio, part 2

BBC documentary on Harry Partch

(follow the links for the rest)


Impressionism is a bridging musical culture that joins the romantic (19th Century) and Modern (20th Century) musical periods together, exising from the late 1800s through to close to the end of the first half of the 20th Century. The well known father of this musical culture is Claude Debussy, who mixed sound colours like an impressionist painter by using long sustained notes and non-functional “parallel harmonies”, which was lossely based around tonality but not quite of tonality. Some famous exmples of his are:


Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Sails (for piano)

Some Notable examples of 20th Century post impressionism (following Debussy’s innovations are)


Trois Movements Perpetuels


Quartet for the end of time. (Written while Messiaen was kept as a prisoner in a Nazi prison)



This has been a comprehensive discussion of Western Art Music of the earlier half of the twentieth Century, and we see in the latter half of the 20th Century (under 4 separate posts detailing each school separately) the emergence of three distinct new directions in western music: The Open/Closed Chance school championed by Cage and Boulez/Lutoslawski, the minimalist school championed by Philip Glass/Terry Riley/Steve Reich and later John Adams, and the elctronic/Musique Concrete school championed by Pierre Henry, Paul Lansky, Trevor Wishart, and even Stockenhausn. The later half of the 20th Century, also saw for the first time the emergence of an independent Australian nationalist art music school, in line with the developments across Europe and North America in the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century.

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