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At the beginning of the 20th century, composers were facing a challenge. Throughout the Romantic period, everything had gotten bigger. Harmony grew more expansive and complicated. Melodies grew more sweeping and expressive. To many, it seemed like music couldn’t go any further. (After all, once Mahler debuts a “Symphony of a Thousand”, how much bigger can an orchestra get?)

So composers began looking all over for inspiration. Some of the more common sources were:

Science and math

Some composers created mathematical systems to help them create music that would expand our conception of harmony while still maintaining a sense of order and structure.The earliest composers in this trend grew out of the late Romantic era, and their music often shares the dramatic grandeur and broad emotional gestures of that period. These early Expressionists, like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, eventually created the serialist compositional techniques that would influence later composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, and Milton Babbit.

National music traditions

The late Romantic period had seen a rise of nationalism in music, with composers outside the German, French, and Italian traditions discovering their national musical identities for the first time. In the 20th century, folk music continued to provide a sense of cultural identity for composers, but it also offered composers outside this cultural heritage hints on how to escape the “rules” of 19th-century German harmony:

  • In France, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel drew on French poetry and the “exoticism” of East Asian music they heard at World Fairs.
  • In Russia, Serge Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich built on the traditions established by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and others.
  • Béla Bartók used his research into the folk music of his people to create a truly personal musical style that was unmistakably Hungarian.
  • Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Walton borrowed from their native English folk music heritage in writing their music.
  • In the United States, composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein sought to create a unique American sound, while African American composers like William Dawson, William Grant Still, and Florence Price drew on the rich heritage of Black music to create their own unique sound worlds.

The past

For some composers, it seemed that if music had gone too far and pushed too many limits, the answer lay in returning to ideas that came prior to the Romantic era. Composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and others created works that became known as Neoclassical. Often, this music would infuse Baroque and Classical forms and gestures with the more expanded harmonies and melodic contours that had evolved since those periods.

Perhaps more than any prior period, the 20th century has brought diverse and varied voices into the concert hall.

Discover the music of the 20th century with our playlist!


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