Hi again. In this installment, I’ll be talking about the early 20th Century. This is where lines definitely start to blur, and various ideologies start to clash all over the place. During this period, some composers were still hanging on to the Romantic traditions, while others were all out abandoning them for new worlds of sound. For the purpose of this article, I have divided it into two distinct “period” – the post-Romantics and the early modernists, even though I’m roughly talking about the same time period, being about 1900-1950 (although most of this stuff happened from about 1900-1935 or so). Are you confused yet?
Around 1900, the Romantic legacy still had its grip on the world, and it had hardly been challenged yet, with the exception of the impressionist movement in France. There were two composers that seemed to be straddling both centuries, and one that was probably the ultimate culmination of the Romantic ideal. This was Gustav Mahler.
Mahler was known during his lifetime, primarily as a conductor and not a composer. He spent his time during the year conducting various orchestras around the world, and only composed during the summer when he would retreat to the country with his family to write. Mahler was perhaps the last Romantic composer, embodying every ideal of that period to the extreme – in his personal life as well as his music. His symphonies are monuments of compositional mastery. They require extremely large forces – usually a huge orchestra, with full chorus, and solo singers. Also, they are extremely long. Mahler had one foot in the 19th century, and one in the 20th, but he leaned back more than forward.
Another composer that had one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th, but leaned forward was Richard Strauss. Strauss, although still entrenched in 19th century Romantic tonal harmony, pushed the limits of this tonality as far as it could go without breaking. He also developed unusual orchestrational techniques that anticipated what was to come.
These two represented the last of the true Romantic tradition. Another composer, who started off in his youth writing music in this vein was Arnold Schoenberg – and he did push tonality until he broke it – which caused him to re-evaluate music and come up with a whole new way of writing music.
RECOMMENDED COMPOSERS: Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Early Schoenberg
THE EARLY MODERNISTS
The early 20th century was spearheaded, basically by two composers, that influenced composers for almost the rest of the century. These two were Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.
Arnold Schoenberg grew dissatisfied with the constraints of tonality, and sought to develop a system of composition where no importance was given to a certain pitch – a system where all 12 tones were given equal importance. He coined the term “pan-tonality”, and hated the term “atonality”. He first started experimenting with using specific sets of pitches, tat he would use in inversion, retrograde and so on. This led him to the 12-tone method of composition, where one composes a “12-tone row” – which is a sequence of all 12 pitches in the chromatic scale, which are not repeated until all 12 have been heard. For example, E F# G A G# C# F G C E-flat B-flat D would be a 12-tone row. You could then take this row, and use it backwards, inverted, backwards inverted, etc. Schoenberg was a teacher as well, and he passed this knowledge onto his students. His early students included Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, who both pushed this new style of composition to new heights. The new style became to be known as “expressionism”, taking its name from the art movement (Schoenberg was also an accomplished expressionist painter). Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became to be known as the “Second Viennese School”, the first referring to the early Viennese romantics such as Mozart, Beethoven, etc. These composers had a HUGE effect on 20th century music. 12-tone music was pretty much all that was being written in institutions through the 1960’s.
In 1913 in Paris France – a new ballet was being premiered by a relatively unknown Russian composer by the name of Stravinsky. The ballet was “Le Sacre Du Printemps” – The Rite of Spring. The opening motive of the piece features a bassoon, playing very high in its register – higher than had ever been written for that instrument. It was supposed to sound painful – representing birth – but was immediately laughed at. A little later as the piece was being performed – the music was drowned out by hissing and booing from the crowd – and then a riot ensued. Stravinsky had to escape through a back stage door. Since then, The Rite has become, probably the most influential piece of the 20th century. Stravinsky went through three major compositional periods in his lifetime. First was his “Primitivistic” period, characterized by works such as the Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring. Next, was his “Neo-Classical” period, which he sought a return to tonality and classical forms – a rebellion against Schoenberg and his pupils. Works from this period include the Violin Concerto, Symphony of Psalms, and the Rake’s Progress. After the death of Schoenberg in the early 1950’s, Stravinsky moved into 12-tone composition. Works from this period include Oedipus Rex, Agon, and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas.
RECOMMENDED COMPOSERS: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky
LOOK FOR PART IV – COMIN YO WAY SOON!