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5 SHOM – Twentieth Century

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Dates 1900-present

 Sample Tracks

Debussy (1862-1918) Prelude á L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faune (opening)
Schoenberg (1874-1951) Ewartung (IV. Szene: Das Mondlicht…nein, dort…)
Webern (1883-1945) Quartet Op. 22 (I. Sehr mäßig, opening)
Bartok (1881-1945) String Quartet No. 4, fifth movement
Prokoviev (1891-1953) Symphony No. 1 (opening of first movement)
Reich (1936 – ) New York Counterpoint (from near the beginning)


Historical hooks  


  • 1905 – Einstein publishes paper on special relativity
  • 1908 – Model T Ford first produced
  • 1914 – Beginning of World War I
  • 1919 – Treaty of Versailles ends WWI
  • 1917 – Czar deposed in Russian Revolution
  • 1928 – Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin
  • 1939 – Beginning of World War II
  • 1945 – First atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima
    – WWII ends with surrender of Germany and Japan
  • 1947 – India achieves independence
  • 1959 – Invention of microchip
  • 1969 – Arpanet (precursor to internet) developed
    – First man on the moon
  • 1987 – Gorbachev announces Perestroika in USSR
  • 1989 – Fall of Berlin Wall end Cold War division of Europe

Piano, Rogers and Franchini’s Pompidou Centre in Paris (1971)

Music in the Twentieth Century

  • Composers in the early twentieth century questioned not only traditional forms and structures but the fundamentals of their musical language. Tonal harmony and regular meter were particularly challenged with many composers abandoning both.
  • The twentieth century saw a succession of overlapping schools and styles of music that broke new ground, often led by influential pioneers. The various ‘isms’ of 20th century music include impressionism, expressionism, neo-classicism, serialism, nationalism, aleatoricism and minimalism.


Pablo Picasso Three Women (1908)

  • Many composers, however, took on board ideas from the more radical movements and integrated them into personal styles that showed more continuity with traditional music (e.g. Nielsen, Britten, Shostakovich, Janacek)
  • Some composers in the twentieth century have been influenced by jazz (e.g. Stravinsky, Ravel) and other popular music (e.g. Schnittke, Martland, Turnage)

Late Romanticism

  • Romanticism continued through the first decade of the 20th century: the calm before the storm of the First World War.
  • The rich, expressive style of Wagner culminated in the symphonic works of Mahler, Richard Strauss and Elgar, the operatic works of Puccini and the lush Russian style of Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
  • Music is typified by heavy chromaticism, rhythmic freedom and innovative approaches to orchestration with careful and sparing selection of instrumental timbres.

Genre Examples:

  • Mahler (1860-1911) Eighth Symphony ‘Symphony of a thousand’
  • Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Three Symphonic Dances


In the late 19th century, a group of French artists including Monet and Pissarro developed a style of painting which set out to capture the mood or ‘impression’ of a scene rather than giving an exact, detailed illustration.


The French composer Debussy similarly developed a style of composing which gave a hazy, ambiguous effect.

  • Chromatic melodies and chords to create a blurred image
  • Added-note chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), often in parallel movement
  • Complex rhythms and syncopations to blur the sense of metre
  • Delicate timbres and textures with instruments often playing in extreme registers and employing unusual techniques (tremolo, muting)
  • Use of non-diatonic scales including modes and whole-tone scale

Genre Examples:

  • Debussy (1862-1918) Prelude á L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faune (NAM)
  • Ravel (1875-1937) La Valse

Atonality and Serialism

The Austrian composer Schoenberg developed an increasingly chromatic style during the early 20th century which led to pieces that were completely atonal (‘without key’) such as the music-drama Ewartung (1909). The music is highly dramatic and unstable, and can be linked to the ‘expressionist’ movement in painting.

  • Extreme dissonance  and lack of  resolution
  • Pieces are often quite short in length
  • Vocal pieces use a distorted, melodramatic form of singing called sprechgesang (speechsong)
  • The lack of tonic-dominant ‘signposts’ created a problem in organizing music and Schoenberg gradually developed a system called serialism whereby all 12 semitones are of equal importance


Genre Examples:

  • Schoenberg (1874-1951)
  • Ewartung Webern (1883-1945) Quartet Op. 22 (NAM)


In a period that saw two World Wars, it is not surprising that some composers aimed to protect and promote the culture and heritage of their homeland.

  • Sibelius (Finland) created music which in many ways reflected the wide, open but sometimes bleak landscape of his homeland through broad orchestral sweeps and economical use of motifs.
  • Elgar and Walton (England) seemed to capture the proud, confident yet reserved nature of the English in the early 1900s.
  • Bartók (Hungary) went further by collecting and notating folk songs of his homeland; he then adapted elements of the music into his own unique style, incorporating flexible rhythms, modal and pentatonic scales and ostinato patterns.

 Genre examples:

  • Sibelius (1865-1957) Finlandia
  • Bartok (1881-1945) String Quartet No. 2

Minimalism and Chance Music

Minimalism is a musical style based on the repetition of short motifs or cells. It literally takes a ‘minimal’ approach, stripping the music back to a hypnotically repeating, but gradually evolving form. Minimalist pieces use short motifs which are constantly repeated, but gradually change – this can be achieved through phasing (gradually going out of time) or by adding/taking away/changing notes. The interest in minimalist music comes from the creative and inventive ways in which composers make the music gradually change and evolve, often using technology


Many C20 composers became interested in introducing an element of chance into their music – the most radical pioneer in this regard was John Cage, who questioned the whole nature of music and its performance with his famous silent piece 4’33’’.

Genre examples

  • Reich (1936 – ) New York Counterpoint
  • Riley (1935 – ) In C
  • Cage (1912-1992) Music of Changes
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