Chs. 19-22: 20th Century Art Music

Ch. 19: Music and Modernism-Introduction to 20th Century Art Music
Ch. 20: The Twentieth Century: Early Modernism
Ch. 21: Alternatives to Modernism (Twentieth Century Traditionalism)
Ch. 22: The Late 20th Century (skipping this chapter)

Ch. 19: Music and Modernism-Introduction to 20th Century Art Music

Music in the 20th century becomes extremely diversified, and includes a great variety of art and popular styles of music

In art music, no one style predominates, thus we don’t have a single name for this period like we do in earlier periods such as “Romantic” or “Classical” or “Baroque.”

Some important styles of 20th Century Art Music include:


What brought about such a wide variety of styles?

Keywords: technology and scholarship

Scholarship: the study of older types of European art music (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque), folk music, American jazz, and non-Western music

Technology: access to the sounds of many of the types of music mentioned above through recordings , radio, and better transportation

Composers of Western art music became familiar with the sounds of many diverse styles of music thanks to scholarship and technology and began incorporating these styles into their music

Other key ideas

Key ideas: breaking with tradition and individualism

Composers began making radical experiments with melody, harmony, and rhythm, sometimes breaking with tradition so sharply that the public rejected their music

The tendency in the 1800s to have one’s own unique style of writing music is further intensified in the 1900s to the point where every composer’s music sounded radically different and even each piece of music by a particular composer might sound radically different

Rejection of traditional harmony

Many composers of 20th century art music rejected the traditional rules of harmony, which is found in European art music prior to about 1900, and is still found in jazz and popular music of today; in other words Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, The Beatles, and Britany Spears all follow the the traditional rules of Western harmony in their music for the most part

The traditional rules of harmony included organizing music around a central pitch called the tonic, the tendency of the dominant triad (built on the 5th tone of the scale) to move to the tonic triad (built on the 1st tone of the scale), the resolution of dissonance to consonance, the use of major and minor scales, etc.

Composers came up with all sorts of new, radical, experimental ways of organizing tones in their music, including much freer use of dissonant tone combinations

Some of these new, experimental techniques included writing music in more than one key at the same time (called “polytonality”) or completely rejecting the idea of a central pitch (“atonality”)

Ex. 1  This is the song America played in two keys at the same time.  We call this "polytonality."  It gives the music a somewhat harsh, dissonant sound.

Click on music to play

As a result of these new, radical approaches, composers of Western art music lost much of their middle class audiences

United States as a musical center

Major problems in Europe, such as two world wars and the rise of fascism and communism, caused many people to flee to the United States for safety

Those who fled included many famous musicians; as a result the United States has become an important musical center in the 20th century

American universities have become an important patron of the arts in the 20th century, replacing the courts and church of earlier times

American jazz and popular music has had a strong influence on the rest of the world


The first important musical style of the 20th century,  called “Impressionism,” began as a new style in music in France during the 1890s, but actually first started as a new style in the visual arts (specifically painting) during the 1870s in France

The two most important French Impressionist composers were Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The music of Debussy and Ravel is still admired and enjoyed by many today

Impressionism in the visual arts

Impressionism in painting began in the 1870s when French painters began breaking with traditional style

Several French painters, including Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir exhibited their works in Paris in 1874

One of the works by Monet was entitled Impression: Sunrise

An art critic who didn’t like these artists new, experimental approach called the show “the exhibition of the impressionists” and the label “impressionist” stuck

Why didn’t art critics like this new type of art at first?

Art critics of the day didn’t like the fact that these “Impressionist” artists avoided the fine lines and clear details of traditional art

Instead, “Impressionist” artists try to create a colorful,  dream-like, misty atmosphere by using formless collections of tiny colored patches which only become recognizable as something when you step back and take in the entire painting as a whole

Today, Impressionist art is widely admired and enjoyed and it often depicts the joys of life and the beauty of nature (often water is involved)

Ch. 20: The Twentieth Century: Early Modernism

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Claude Debussy was a French composer who liked French Impressionist art;  in the 1890s he decided he wanted to do something similar in music

Debussy’s music seems to have the same shimmering colors and dream-like, misty atmospheres, and fluidity (something not quite solid) as Impressionist art

How did Debussy make his music sound this way?

No strong beat or meter, making the music sound like it is floating

Uses softer dynamics for the most part

Frequent and subtle changes in tone colors; he rarely uses the full orchestra, instead he frequently shifts between instruments, often using soloists accompanied by the strings making the music seem like it is changing colors

Melodies are often brief and fragmentary

Avoids the clear, traditional forms, such as sonata form

Breaks the traditional rules of harmony

How does Debussy break the traditional rules of harmony?

Does not always resolve dissonance to consonance in the traditional manner

Uses many chords with four and five tones instead of the traditional triad

Ex. 2.  This is an example of a series of five tone chords (called 9th chords) in parallel motion, which Debussy often used in his harmonies.

Click on music to play

Avoids the traditional dominant to tonic chord progression

Uses scales that do not have a strong central pitch (tonic) such as the church modes which he learned by studying Gregorian chant, the pentatonic scale which he learned from studying Asian music, and the whole tone scale, which he developed

Summary of Debussy’s music

Debussy breaks the traditional rules of music to make his music seem less clear and more colorful and “dream-like.”

Like Beethoven and Wagner, Debussy’s music had a strong influence on later composers

Debussy wrote music for orchestra and like Chopin, wrote a large number of piano miniatures

Debussy’s first important piece for orchestra in the new Impressionist style was a tone poem (piece for orchestra that tries to tell a story) called Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

What will we hear as an example of Debussy?

Debussy, "Clouds" from Trois Nocturnes.  This is an example of French impressionism and also an example of a symphonic poem, a single movement work for orchestra that tries to tell a story or describe an event, scene, or some idea. In this case, Debussy has in mind clouds floating through the sky. 

Other important 20th century composers we will study

From Ch. 20

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).  Stravinsky was a Russian composer, and is considered to be one of the most important composers of the 20th century.  Stravinsky’s first important piece was the ballet The Firebird (1910). The Firebird is mainly written in a traditional Russian romantic/nationalist style.  He then wrote another ballet, Petrushka (1911), which was somewhat more experimental and breaking with tradition.  His third ballet, The Rite of Spring (1913), was so experimental and broke with tradition so sharply that it caused a riot to break out in the audience when it was first performed in Paris, France in 1913. The Rite of Spring is usually thought of as an example of a 20th century style called primitivism.  Primitivism is art or music that tries to evoke the power of primitive/preliterate cultures.  In the case of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky had in mind a spring fertility ritual in ancient, pagan Russia in which a young girl dances herself to death in front of a circle of tribal elders.  They are sacrificing her to the god of spring.  Stravinsky makes the music sound strange, primitive, harsh, and hypnotic through the use of extremely dissonant harmonies; very heavy, percussive, repetitious rhythms; accents in odd places in the music; and fragmentary, repetitious melodies.  Stravinsky uses an enormous orchestra of well over one hundred members for this piece.  After about 1920, Stravinsky began writing music in neoclassical style.

Ch. 21: Alternatives to Modernism (Twentieth Century Traditionalism)

 Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  The other important French impressionist composer was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  Ravel’s style tended to be somewhat more traditional than Debussy’s in terms of melody, harmony, form, and rhythm.  Ravel’s music often tends to have a more clearly felt beat, clearer melodic lines with classically balanced phrase structure, and more traditional harmonies with clearer tonal centers.  Like Debussy, Ravel was a master of subtle changes in tone colors and also often used church modes rather than major or minor scales.  Ravel was fascinated with the music of Spain, and some of his pieces have a Spanish flavor.  Some of his most famous pieces include Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess-1899), Bolero (1928), Alborada del Gracioso (1905), Rhapsodie espagnole (1908), Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), and the ballet Daphnis et Chloe (1909-1912).  Ravel wrote music for orchestra, as well as music for solo piano.

William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still is sometimes referred to as the “Dean of African-American composers.” He wrote over 150 compositions including symphonies, operas, tone poems, art songs, and ballets.   He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.  Still was influenced by Debussy’s Impressionism and the ideals of nationalism, and the influence of the African-American folk song and spirituals is clearly evident in his work.  Symphony No. 2 (“Song of a New Race”-1937), 1st movement and 4th movement.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland is the most famous American composer of the 20th century.  In the 1930s, he wrote music that was very experimental and dissonant, but then he became concerned that art music was becoming too difficult for most people to understand, so he began writing music in a more traditional style while still using some modern techniques of writing harmonies.  He wrote a series of ballets in this more traditional style on American subjects (thus these ballets are considered to be examples of 20th century American nationalism) including Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944).  Your book gives you one famous example of Copland’s music, a section from the ballet Appalachian Spring entitled “Simple Gifts.”  For this section of the ballet, Copland borrows the well-known Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” (Shakers are a Christian sect who lived in the eastern United States during the late 1700s and 1800s).  He uses the melody for a theme and variations format.  The ballet is supposed to tell the story of a pioneer family living in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania in the early 1800s.