ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Contemporary Era

1900 A.D. to present

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Now that the 20th century is behind us, it will be interesting to see how our perceptions of the music of the last 100 years will change. Perhaps future music historians will no longer lump all of the last 100 years together. The term “20th-century music” to many connotes something avant-garde, highly dissonant or atonal, giving expression to feelings of angst and anxiety; yet the first decade of the 1900s saw the premieres of such Romantic-sounding masterworks as Puccini’s Tosca and Madama Butterfly, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Sibelius’s Second Symphony, Lehár’s The Merry Widow, Mahler’s eighth and ninth symphonies and Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Of course more “progressive”-sounding works were also appearing during that same time: Debussy’s La mer, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, Janáček’s Jenůfa and Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. A crack was starting to appear in the façade of classical music, and the division between traditional and more innovative compositional styles was becoming more apparent. The first few years after 1910 saw the premieres of such sugary operettas as Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta and Sweethearts as well as Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, Massenet’s Don Quichotte, R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. In marked contrast were such audience-challenging works as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which actually triggered riots at its 1913 premiere in Paris and was dubbed by Debussy “a beautiful nightmare.”

Listen to Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps, Part I Adoration of the Earth

This same fragmenting process was happening throughout the realm of music, as sub-categories began to fracture further. A new current was blowing through the relatively new realm of popular music: Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published in 1911, and by 1917 the first recordings of a new music called jazz were sweeping the United States. (It was the great American composer George Gershwin who would be the first to wed jazz with symphonic music.) It was as if the great flow of the Western art music tradition was fragmenting into numerous branches, like a mighty river before it flows into the sea. It was a process that would occur with greater and greater frequency as the century progressed.

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