ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Contemporary Era

Listen to Stravinsky: L’Histoire du Soldat, Tango-Waltz-Ragtime

Paris, along with Vienna, reigned as one of the great intellectual capitals of Europe. Stravinsky had moved there to work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and became influential on other composers there. Today people tend to think of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as exponents of an “Impressionist” school of composition, but that so-called movement consisted primarily of those two composers, who in reality were part of a larger French Neoclassical movement that also included Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Outside of France, Neoclassicism found a representative in Germany in the person of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).

Listen to Ravel: La Valse

The discovery and celebration of folk-music, especially in Eastern European countries, led to a new flowering of “nationalistic” schools of composition such as had started to develop during the 19th century. The Hungarians Béla Bartók 1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Czech Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) were greatly influenced by the indigenous sounds of their native lands.

Russia remained a separate stream, perhaps because of the restraints posed by a Communist government that not only supported but also controlled artistic output. The result was that more radical musical developments were curtailed for the most part, creating great difficulty for composers but resulting in a musical style audiences still find more accessible than much of the non-Russian music of the period. As a result, works by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) are heard more frequently on concert programs today than music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Listen to Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Dance of the Knights

Other nationalistic styles emerged from the pens of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) in Finland, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Benjamin Britten (1913-76) in England, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) in Italy and Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) in Spain. Noteworthy Americans include the iconoclastic insurance salesman Charles Ives (1874-1954), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Aaron Copland (1900-90), Roy Harris (1898-1979), Howard Hanson (1896-1981), Samuel Barber (1910-81), Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) and William Schuman (1910-92).

Listen to Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Yet while all these great musical minds contributed to the repertoire, a fundamental shift had taken place in the relationship of composers and listeners. Audiences that in a previous century had not only supported but demanded a constant stream of new works, now seemed to retreat to the safety of the “established repertoire,” and new compositions were usually programmed only with more traditional masterworks to lure the audiences in. Around 1970 New York Times music critic Harold Schoneberg declared that 12-tone music was dead, never having successfully breached the ramparts of the standard repertoire.

Music, however, does not move by group decree or official rules of some academy; it seems to grow and advance as a series of exceptional works by exceptional composers, and a variety of new styles emerged in the second half of the last century. The dense sound clusters making up the microtonal music of Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) and György Ligeti (b. 1923) attracted a mass audience after they were successfully integrated into the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Listen to Ligeti: Atmospheres

Minimalism, a continuous repetition of small modules of sound that change and evolve only very gradually, became a hallmark of John Adams (b. 1947) and Philip Glass (b. 1937), while a more traditional-sounding Neo-Romanticism distinguishes the works of John Corigliano (b. 1938) and Henryk-Mikolaj Górecki (b. 1933).

Listen to Adams: I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Countless composers have been working in every form imaginable, including electronic music, aleatoric music (or “chance” music, in which random variables such as throwing dice are used to determine what is played), musique concrete (or “found” music, incorporating noises and sounds from everyday life) and other genres that defy categorization. Where will the 21st century take us? What will last, and what will disappear without a ripple? The answers to these questions may come from historians yet unborn, but we must not leave everything to the “test of time.” As a member of the music-listening public, don’t abdicate your right to make up your own mind. Just keep it open.





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BACK



PRE-BAROQUE
pre-1600s


BAROQUE
1600-1750


CLASSICAL
1750-1825


ROMANTIC
1825-1900


CONTEMPORARY
1900-present