WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC HISTORY
by Marlon Feld
The following is an outline
of the history of Western classical music. Although "Western" and "classical"
are inexact terms, they do name a reasonably coherent musical tradition
that stretches from the Dark Ages to the present day. The descriptive
texts will not delve deeply into matters of musical meaning or technique;
the purpose of the outline is to give you a basic working familiarity
with different periods and styles.
Medieval History (Plainchant
Western classical music history is traditionally understood as beginning
with plainchant (also called "Gregorian" chant), the vocal religious practice
of the Roman Catholic Church. Plainchant was transmitted by memory until
the early 9th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne arranged
for it to be notated, and for standardized plainchant books to be distributed
to churches and monasteries across Europe. Limited in pitch range and
monophonic (i.e., composed of a single melody with no accompaniment),
plainchant was sung largely by monks, nuns, and clerics rather than by
professional singers. Plainchant was sung in the Divine Offices, eight
daily prayer services using Old Testament texts, and in the Mass, a midmorning
celebration of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Alleluia reproduced
here was a chant of jubilation ("Alleluia" = "Hallelujah"), sung as part
of the Mass.
LISTEN: Plainchant: Alleluia
pascha nostrum (before 800) [Text]
The earliest major repertory of Western secular (non-religious) music
which has come down to us is that of the troubadors and trouveres, French
poet-musicians of the Middle Ages who set their own poems to music. The
majority of the resulting songs were about love, often the fictionalized,
abstracted "courtly love" of a male character for a noblewoman above his
social level. Because troubador songs were notated as simple rows of pitches
without rhythm, the rhythms and instrumental accompaniments of modern
performances are based on conjecture; images of troubadors in medieval
manuscripts have offered hints as to what instruments were played. Bernart
de Ventadorn (c. 1140- c. 1200) was one of the greatest of the troubadors.
His "La douza votz," written in the now-extinct language Provencal, deals
with the singer's rejection by the lady whom he has long served.
LISTEN: Bernart de Ventadorn, "La
douza votz" (The sweet voice) (late 12th c.) [Text]
In the 10th and 11th centuries, composers began setting sacred texts polyphonically
(i.e., with more than one melody at the same time). Leonin (c. 1135- c.
1200) wrote polyphonic settings of the texts sung on the most important
occasions of the Christian year, such as Christmas and Easter. He did
this by greatly slowing down an existing plainchant, and adding to it
a new, more rapidly flowing musical line at a higher pitch. This technique
was called organum; the slowed-down plainchant was called the tenor. Some
sections of Leonin's polyphony were sped up and rhythmicized; later composers
added the words of devotional poems to Leonin's notes. This example uses
the Alleluia pascha nostrum plainchant as its tenor; it was sung
as part of Easter services at the spectacular Gothic cathedral Notre Dame
LISTEN: Leonin, Organum: Alleluia
pascha nostrum (late 12th c.) [Text]
Evidence suggests that the compositions of Perotin (active c. 1200), like
those of Leonin, were sung at Notre Dame of Paris. Many of Perotin's organa
(pl. organum) included two or, as in this example, three active musical
lines above the tenor. Perotin slowed down the tenor to an incredible
degree--in this example, it takes the tenor four minutes to sing the two
words "Viderunt omnes"! Viderunt omnes is a gradual, a joyful text
sung in response to a New Testament reading during Mass It was sung on
LISTEN: Perotin, Organum: Viderunt
omnes (c. 1200) [first 4:00] [Text]
In the 13th century, rhythmic
passages of organum to which words had been added (such as the passage
in the middle of the Leonin organum above) began to be treated as standalone
musical works called motets (literally, "worded"). Soon, three-part motets
appeared, with a different text sung in each voice. (Sometimes the texts
were in different languages!) Composers came to use for tenors secular
French songs as well as passages of plainchant. One such composer was
Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), who was not only a musician of great
renown but also a poet whose stature approached that of Chaucer. The following
motet is based on a secular tenor; each of its three voices sings a different
French love poem.
LISTEN: Machaut, Motet: Trop
plus/Biaute paree/Je ne suis (c. 1350) [Text]
Renaissance History (Dufay through
The tradition of the motet continued into the 15th century. Guillaume
Dufay (c. 1400-1474), the most renowned composer of his time, composed
grand motets for ceremonial occasions in early Renaissance Italy. Nuper
rosarum flores commemorates the dedication of the cathedral Santa
Maria del Fiore in Florence in 1436. Dufay owed his rich sound to harmonic
techniques brought from England by his contemporary John Dunstable.
LISTEN: Dufay, Motet: Nuper
The Renaissance's grandest, most highly valued works of vocal music were
polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. The Ordinary is composed
of five texts--Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (the first
words of the texts)--that were included in every Mass, not only in Masses
that celebrated special occasions. Each text was set as a separate movement.
Often, each movement began with a similar melody, in which case the Mass
was called "cyclic"; when that melody was taken from plainchant or from
a secular song, the Mass was called a "parody Mass" ("parody" meant in
the sense of imitation, but not humorously). The most famous mass of Josquin
des Pres (1440-1521) was that parodying the plainchant beginning with
the text "Pangue lingua." By Josquin's time, the slow-moving tenors of
the Medieval era had been replaced by lower voices that moved as quickly
as the higher voices; the vocal ranges specified for the various singers
were equivalent to our soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
LISTEN: Josquin, Missa Pangue Lingua, Gloria
From about 1530 to 1600, the pre-eminent form of secular vocal music in
Europe was the madrigal. The madrigal typically set a poem in Italian
(later, often in English) with an intense emotional cast. The setting
was usually for four or five voices with no instrumental accompaniment,
although instruments were probably added in performance at times. Jacques
Arcadelt (c. 1500-1568) was a Frenchman, but wrote madrigals in the Italian
city of Florence. The most famous example of his work is Il bianco
e dolce cigno.
LISTEN: Arcadelt, Il
bianco e dolce cigno (The White and Gentle Swan) (1539) [Text]
Toward the end of the 16th century, madrigals became more tortuous harmonically
and more aggressive in their use of musical devices to project the text's
meaning and character. Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) was the most celebrated
"madrigalist" of his day.
Solo e pensoso (Alone and Pensive) (1599) [Text]
The instrumental music of the Renaissance largely fell into two categories:
transcriptions of vocal music, and dance music. Different dance styles
corresponded to different underlying musical rhythms (as with today's
Latin dance music). The German Michael Praetorius (1571?-1621) composed
a large set of dances entitled "Terpsichore," after the Greek Muse of
dance. A group of brief "voltes" is reproduced here; the volte was a dance
from Southwest France in which the woman leapt high in the air ("volte"
= vault). Praetorius gave no indication of what instruments were to be
used--his dances were played by whatever instruments were available. Here,
the Early Music Consort of London switches between four different "consorts"
of instruments, one per volte, before all four consorts play the end of
the fourth volte together. A consort was a set of instruments similar
in design and tone but varied in size and pitch.
LISTEN: Praetorius, Terpsichore,
Baroque History (Peri through
J. S. Bach)
The Baroque era of Western classical music is usually defined as the period
from 1600 to 1750. (These dates are, of course, rough; the Renaissance
dances of Praetorius were written in 1612.) Two stylistic tendencies that
partially define the Baroque were an increased interest in the solo voice
and a rise in the status of instruments and instrumental music.
The first of these tendencies was born in Florence, among a group of musicians
and philosophers called the Florentine Camerata ("camerata" = chamber,
as in a "chamber of commerce"). The members of the Camerata sought to
create a form of stage music comparable in expressive power to ancient
Greek tragedy. They disparaged the polyphonic madrigal, creating instead
a new form--the opera--in which soloists sang against an instrumental
background. The earliest opera that has entirely survived is L'Euridice,
by the Camerata member Jacopo Peri (1561-1633). L'Euridice presents
the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, altered so that Orpheus successfully
retrieves Eurydice from the underworld in a happy ending.
LISTEN: Peri, L'Euridice, "Nel
pur ardor" forward (1601) [Text]
The showpiece of opera came to be the aria, a self-contained, melodious
passage that revealed the mood or attitude of the character singing it.
The arias in a given opera were separated by recitative, a faster-moving,
more speechlike form of singing. Henry Purcell (1659-1695) wrote Dido
and Aeneas to be performed by the students at a girls' school.
LISTEN Purcell, Dido
Recitative and "Dido's Lament" (1689) [Text]
The tradition of religious polyphonic vocal music continued in the Baroque
era. Martin Luther, the author of the Reformation, was also a musician;
in the 16th century, he collected hundreds of tunes to serve as devotional
hymns for his new Protestant Church. In the 18th century, German composers
created cantatas ("cantata"=sung), multi-movement works that elaborated
on Luther's hymns. The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) included
both chorales and aria-like solos. The chorale "Wachet auf" is among Bach's
most famous. Unlike the choral music of the Renaissance, "Wachet auf"
included parts written for instruments.
LISTEN: J. S. Bach, "Wachet
auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (Wake up, the voice calls us!) (1731) [Text]
The oratorio shared the cantata's form on a larger scale. While most (but
not all) German cantatas were religious works written for the church,
oratorios could be written on secular topics and performed in secular
settings. The Messiah, by George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759),
was performed in concert halls, but treated a sacred subject: the life
of Jesus Christ, with devotional passages interspersed. (Some complained
at the time that such a religious work was out of place in the concert
hall.) Here is the chorus "All we like sheep have gone astray"--allegorically
astray from the righteousness of Jesus and the New Testament God.
LISTEN: Handel, Messiah: "All
we like sheep have gone astray" (1741)
In their new focus on instrumental music, Baroque musicians valued no
instrument more highly than the violin. They believed the violin's tone
to have expressive powers akin to those of the voice. Violins were the
melodic leaders of the trio sonata ("sonata"=sounded), which despite its
name made use of four instruments: two violins, a cello (a much lower
string instrument), and a harpsichord (a keyboard instrument within which
strings are plucked). (The cello played the same music as did the harpsichordist's
left hand; thus, there were really only three independent parts, hence
"trio.") The trio sonata consisted of a few short movements, some fast,
some slow. This movement by Domenico Gallo (active 18th c.) is fast, but
not as fast as some.
LISTEN: Gallo, Trio
Sonata #1, first movement (early 18th century)
The concerto called for a larger group of instruments than did the trio
sonata. In the concerto. a soloist or small group of soloists contrasted
with a larger ensemble. (But even the larger ensemble was typically far
smaller and more homogenous than today's symphony orchestra.) Concertos
often alternated between passages showing off the soloist's technical
prowess and passages showing off the weight of the full ensemble. The
most famous of Baroque violin concertos today are those collected in the
Four Seasons of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Reproduced here is
the final movement of "Autumn," a movement representing the hunt.
LISTEN: Vivaldi, Four Seasons, "Autumn,"
last movement (1725)
Keyboard instruments were also vehicles for virtuosic display. The toccata
("toccata"=touched, as in the keys) was a one-movement showcase of intricate
melodic patterns and fast fingering. The name most closely associated
with the toccata is that of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643).
LISTEN: Frescobaldi, Toccata
The fugue combined the virtuosity of the toccata with a more consistent,
structured approach. This approached consisted of the repetition of the
same melody (the "subject") in a number of polyphonic "voices," which
voices then continued, re-introducing the subject at fairly regular intervals.
Pre-eminent among fugues are the 48 in J. S. Bach's collection The
Well-Tempered Clavier. ("Well-tempered" meant tuned well; "clavier"
referred to any instrument with a keyboard, except a pipe organ.)
LISTEN: J. S. Bach, The
Book II, Fugue in E minor (1744)
Classical History (Gluck through
With regard to Western music, the latter half of the 18th Century is often
called the "Classical" period; the music of this period is considered
very different from that of the Baroque period. Yet the transition from
Baroque to Classical was gradual. Three trends of the middle years of
the 18th century were behind this transition.
The first trend was known as Reform Opera. A number of composers reacted
against what they saw as the stilted conventions of Italian Baroque opera.
They wanted to make Italian opera more natural, more directly expressive,
with more focus on the dramatic narrative and less focus on providing
solo singers with passages of elaborate, showy ornamentation. The most
successful of these composers was Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787).
The topics of Reform opera were not new: Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice
retells the Orpheus legend, as did Monteverdi's famous Orfeo 150
years before. In the aria "Che fiero momento," Euridice sings of her trepidation
at being led away by Orpheus from the calm of the underworld.
LISTEN: Gluck, Orfeo
excerpt from Act 3, Scene 1 (1762) [Text]
The second trend was a change in the style of solo keyboard music. Carl
Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), a son of the (now) more famous J.S.
Bach, preferred not the harpsichord but the clavichord and the fortepiano,
instruments that could play louder or softer depending on the force with
which their keys were struck. Bach's keyboard music uses this dynamic
variability to appropriate some of the character of 18th-century Italian
vocal music. Bach's slow movements, such as the one reproduced here, exemplified
the empfindsam ("full of feeling") style, which was believed to
express restrained passion and melancholy.
LISTEN: C.P.E. Bach, Sonata
in B Minor, second movement (c. 1760)
The third trend was the introduction of the symphony, a multi-movement
work for orchestra. Early symphonies, such as those of Giovanni Battista
Sammartini (1701-1775), were modeled on the overtures (introductory instrumental
pieces) of Baroque Italian opera.
LISTEN: Sammartini, Symphony
in G Major, first movement (c. 1750)
Over time, the symphony gained in prestige; longer symphonies were written,
for larger orchestras. (Yet the late 18th-century orchestra still numbered
about 30 players, in contrast to the 70 or more players in modern orchestras.)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 104 symphonies during his long career;
many of these were written for the private orchestra of Prince Nicholas
Esterhazy. The following symphony was written near the end of Haydn's
career, for the popular audience in London.
Symphony No. 100 in G Major, first movement (1794)
Haydn also wrote many examples of the string quartet, another genre born
in the late 18th century. "String quartet" names a certain combination
of instruments--two violins, viola, cello--and also names any work written
for this combination. Unlike the chamber music of the Baroque, the string
quartet lacks a basso continuo. Haydn's string quartets typically included
four movements, of which the last was often buoyant and rapid.
String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2, last movement (1781)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) toured Europe as a child prodigy;
upon reaching adulthood, he settled in Vienna. Although Vienna was in
German-speaking territory, Viennese opera was dominated by Italian style,
as was the opera of much of Europe. The Italian operas that Mozart wrote
in Vienna were in the traditional Italian buffa (comic) style,
yet they went beyond buffa comedy to engage social and moral issues.
Although Don Giovanni is normatively an opera buffa, the
title character is not comedic; Don Juan, as he is most often known to
us, womanizes with a singular ferocity and a disregard for the social
class of his victims. In the following excerpt, the Don's buffa
servant Leporello reads from a book listing the Don's thousands of past
LISTEN: Mozart, Don
excerpt from Act 1 (1787) [Text]
The piano concerto movement reproduced here reflects both Mozart's orchestral
style and his style of writing for the piano, an instrument quickly gaining
in popularity at the expense of the harpsichord. The concerti of the Classical
period were usually for single soloists, as opposed to groups of soloists
as in concerti grossi; the orchestra used was comparable to that
used in the Classical symphony.
LISTEN: Mozart, Piano
Concerto in A Major K. 414, last movement (1782)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) studied with Haydn and other Classical
composers as a young man; he found commercial success in late 18th-century
Vienna, as had Haydn and Mozart. Yet Beethoven was considered a proto-Romantic
by his 19th-century successors. Beethoven's image as a scowling, disheveled
eccentric is largely undeserved, but it is true that Beethoven fought
deafness throughout much of his life, and that some of his music seemed
awkward and violent to those who first heard it. The first movement of
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is built on the sonata-form model, but its
famous opening and its protracted coda (ending) were novel features.
LISTEN: Beethoven, Symphony
No. 5 in C Minor, first movement (1808)
Beethoven composed string quartets throughout his life. Those written
near the end of his life, such as the one reproduced here, grew farther
and farther from the norms of Classical style. Some scholars divide Beethoven's
career, rather artificially, into three periods; the Symphony No. 5 belongs
to the second of these periods, and the String Quartet op. 131 to the
third. (The first period includes works that are considered to be closest
to the Viennese Classical style of Mozart and Haydn.)
LISTEN: Beethoven, String
Quartet op. 131 in C# Minor, first movement (1826)
Much of the music of the 19th century has been called "Romantic" music,
so that Romanticism in Western music is considered the sequel to Classicism.
What is certain is that many early 19th-century composers were influenced
by the literary Romantics, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Poems by
Goethe and other German-speaking authors were set to music, to be performed
by solo singer and piano; these brief settings were known as Lieder
(literally, "songs"; but distinguished from the less weighty Gesangen).
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was renowned for his Lieder. "Kennst
du das Land?" sets a passage from Goethe's epic Wilhelm Meister,
in which a young woman begs her "protector," the title character, to let
her return to her home.
Romantic History (Schumann through
LISTEN: Schumann, "Kennst
du das Land?" (Do you know the place?) (1849) [Text]
The Romantic era was the heyday of the programmatic orchestral work. A
program, in the musical sense, is a narrative that is to be presented,
or at least suggested, by a purely instrumental composition. The French
composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) subtitled his Symphonie fantastique
"Episode in the Life of an Artist"; at the symphony's performance, he
distributed a program that detailed the travails of an artist suffering
unrequited love. (It was an open secret that the artist was a fictionalized
version of Berlioz himself, struck with love for with the actress Harriet
Smithson.) The movement reproduced here, the fourth of five, is meant
to depict the artist's drug-induced vision of being marched to the gallows
to be hung.
LISTEN: Berlioz, Symphonie
(Fantasy Symphony), fourth movement (1830)
The 19th century was also the heyday of the piano "miniature," short in
length yet often emotionally charged. Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) was
born in Poland, but lived in Paris for most of his working life. He composed
solo piano music almost exclusively. Chopin's piano pieces did not carry
poetic titles, as did those of some contemporaries; instead, he assigned
them to different types (etude, ballade, mazurka--the last a Polish dance).
The "Preludes" were not introductory to other musical works, despite their
names; they were standalone pieces that did not fit into Chopin's other
categories. Chopin's 24 preludes are often played as a set.
LISTEN: Chopin, Prelude
in E Minor (1839)
The operas of Giusuppe Verdi (1813-1901) dominated Italian music from
the 1840's through the 1880's. Like many composers of the middle and late
19th century, Verdi was an ardent nationalist, believing that music written
by Italians should exemplify a particularly Italian style. This style
was based on a type of singing called bel canto ("beautifully sung"),
which involved continuous, flowing melodies, emphasis on vowels, and long,
high climaxes at dramatic points. Verdi also made heavy use of onstage
choruses, often creating scenes in which the singing of soloists and of
the chorus overlapped. Verdi's recitative passages were accompanied by
full orchestra, making them more continuous with arias than were 18th-century
recitatives, which were accompanied by harpsichord. In this scene from
La Traviata, the spurned Alfredo accuses his ex-lover Violetta
of infidelity, infidelity Violetta resorted to so as to protect Alfredo's
family name. (It's a long story!)
LISTEN: Verdi, La
(The Woman Led Astray), excerpt from Act II (1853) [Text]
Like Verdi, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) dominated the opera scene of his
country--in Wagner's case, Germany. Also like Verdi, Wagner was a fervid
nationalist; he believed that German opera should be free of Italian and
French influence, to the point of excluding self-contained arias entirely.
In Wagner's ideal German opera, music, poetry, action, staging, and even
set design were perfectly fused in the service of a single dramatic idea,
as expressed through a story from Teutonic legend. (Wagner's term for
the product of such a fusion was Gesamtkunstwerk-- "total art work.")
Wagner intended the orchestra to play as great a role as the sung words
in furthering the operatic narrative. To this end, he assigned the orchestra
Leitmotiven ("leading motives"), brief melodic fragments which
were associated with characters, objects, or ideas presented onstage.
In this scene from Tristan und Isolde, the title characters drink
a magic potion that creates undying (and forbidden) love between them.
In the long passage without any singing, the potion takes effect as the
orchestra presents the "Love-Death" Leitmotiv, which was introduced
in a Prelude before the opera's action began.
LISTEN: Wagner, Tristan
excerpt from Act I, Scene 5 (1859)
In contrast to Wagner, who wrote operas almost exclusively, Johannes Brahms
(1833-1897) wrote no operas at all. Many Germans considered Brahms to
be Beethoven's first worthy successor in the field of instrumental music.
The last movement of Brahms's Symphony No. 3 is reproduced here.
LISTEN: Brahms, Symphony
No. 3, last movement (1883)
As the 19th century ended, composers combined the symphony and the Lied
to form the symphonic Lied, for solo vocalist and orchestra. The
Austrian conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote numerous sets of symphonic
Lieder, as well as nine symphonies (which themselves included symphonic
Lieder as some of their movements). Reproduced here is Mahler's
"St. Antony's Sermon to the Fishes," a setting of a text from the folk-poetry
anthology Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn).
LISTEN: Mahler, "Des
Antoninus von Padua Fischpredigt" (St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes)
Early 20th-C. History (Debussy
Many 20th-century composers turned away from harmonic methods that had
been used in music for the past 150 years. The Frenchman Claude Debussy
(1862-1918) rejected the rules of 19th-century harmony as they were taught
in the Paris Conservatoire, instead infusing his practice with harmonic
techniques from East Asia and Russia. Debussy's association with French
painters of his time has led some people to label him and his music "Impressionist."
Debussy did share with the Impressionist painters a propensity for depicting
nature; the orchestral piece reproduced here, one of three "nocturnes,"
is entitled "Clouds." (Debussy's "nocturnes" are not related to Chopin's
use of the term.) With Debussy, we enter the "Modern" era of Western art
music, an era which presumably continues to the present day.
LISTEN: Debussy, Trois
"Nuages" (Clouds) (1899)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) also wrote music that did not use the harmonic
methods of the 19th century. Stravinsky incorporated the folk music of
his native Russia into his early compositions, while using harmonic techniques
that were radically modern at the time. The subject of Stravinsky's ballet
Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring"), a pagan ritual of
human sacrifice, was meant to recall "primitive" culture. The excerpt
here accompanied one of the ballet's many depictions of ritual dances
preceding a final virgin sacrifice.
LISTEN: Stravinsky, Le
Sacre du Printemps
(The Rite of Spring), "Danse des adolescentes" (Dance of the Adolescent
The American Charles Ives (1874-1954) was yet another composer to react
negatively to the strictures of prior musical practice. Ives blended,
overlaid, and contrasted snippets of music from all walks of American
life: the country church, the dance hall, and the military base. Military
music is most evident in "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut," a musical
representation of the Revolutionary army marching at the winter quarters
of General Israel Putnam. The tunes "Yankee Doodle" and "The British Grenadiers"
are woven into the music, as is John Philip Sousa's march "Semper Fidelis."
LISTEN: Ives, Three
Places in New England,
"Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" (1904)
Bela Bartok (1881-1945) was not only a composer and a pianist, but also
an ethnomusicologist: he used a gramophone to record thousands of folk
tunes in his native Hungary and in surrounding countries. Bartok's music
ranged from explicit settings of these folk tunes to abstract works which
bore a more subtle folk influence. The fourth movement of Bartok's String
Quartet #4 probably falls into the latter category. The movement is set
entirely in pizzicato--the two violins, viola, and cello are plucked
rather than bowed.
LISTEN: Bartok, String Quartet
#4, fourth movement (1928)
The music of the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) grew farther and
farther from 19th-century harmonic models, until he was writing music
that has been called "atonal," meaning that, in a certain technical respect,
no note in it is more central than any other. (Almost no music from Gregorian
times through the 19th century had been atonal.) In the 1920's, Schoenberg
introduced the "twelve-tone system," a new technique for organizing music
without the need for a central note. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire,
setting poems of Albert Giraud, dates from before his twelve-tone period.
The poems transport Pierrot, the stock character of the Italian commedia
del'arte, into alien, psychologically charged situations. Pierrot
Lunaire uses a technique called Sprechstimme ("speech-sound");
it is not quite spoken, not quite sung.
LISTEN: Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, #8 "Die
Nacht" (The Night), #12 "Galgenlied"
(Gallows Song), #13 "Enthauptung"
(Beheading) (1912) [Text]
The best-known work of Alban Berg (1885-1935), a student of Schoenberg,
is the Expressionist opera Wozzeck. Expressionism, associated with
painters and composers in Germany and Austria between the world wars,
took as its subject matter the irrational unconscious, inner conflict,
and alienation from the conventions of society. The title character of
Wozzeck is an impoverished, deranged soldier, who discovers an
affair between his lover Marie and the more impressive Drum Major. In
the scene reproduced here, Wozzeck finds himself in a crowded bar after
having cut Marie's throat; near the end of the scene, the crowd discovers
blood stains on Wozzeck's arm, inspiring him to flee.
LISTEN: Berg, Wozzeck,
Act 3, Scene 3 (1923) [Text]
Like Ives, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) drew on American folk music. Copland's
ballet Rodeo depicts life among cowboys in the Old West. The melody
of the final "Hoe-Down" is borrowed from traditional American fiddling.
LISTEN: Copland, Rodeo,
Late 20th-C. History (Shostakovich
The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was hostile toward "modernist" music,
i.e., music that broke too radically with 19th-century style and harmonic
technique. The Party preferred aggrandizement of itself and of the Russian
people by means of music that was relatively simple and triumphant. Shostakovich's
own tastes ran to the satirical and ironic as often as to the victorious.
Upon the occasion of victory over the Nazis in 1945, the prominent Russian
composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) presented his Symphony No. 9.
Although the harmonic techniques of the symphony were only moderately
removed from 19th-century techniques, Soviet authorities were displeased
at the acid sarcasm they heard beneath the first movement's jubilant surface.
Symphony No. 9 in Eb Major, first movement (1945)
The most prominent French composer of the mid-20th century was Olivier
Messiaen (1908-1992). Messiaen's music was motivated by his personal brand
of Catholic mysticism; the sounds of bird calls and the techniques of
Indian classical music also influenced him. Messiaen wrote the Quatuor
pour la fin du temps while he was imprisoned in a German POW camp
during World War II. The title of the first movement, "Liturgy of Crystal,"
typifies Messiaen's combination of religious themes and vivid imagery.
LISTEN: Messiaen, Quatuor
pour la fin du temps
(Quartet for the End of Time), "Liturgie de cristal" (1941)
Music history has always been characterized by the search for ways to
make new kinds of sound--by constructing new instruments, by finding new
ways of playing old instruments, by finding new ways for performers to
work together. The search for new kinds of sound became particularly intense
in the mid-to-late 20th century. In Atmospheres, written by György
Ligeti (b. 1923), the string instruments combine to form a sound intended
to be different from the sound of earlier string ensemble music.
LISTEN: Ligeti, Atmospheres
The use of early music synthesizers and the physical manipulation of magnetic
tape prefigured today's use of digital sampling by many composers. Karlheinz
Stockhausen (b. 1928) used a traditional song of religious praise as his
raw material in this early example.
LISTEN: Stockhausen, Gesang
der Junglige (Song of the Youths) (1956) [first 4:00]
Atonal music using Schoenberg's twelve-tone system never acquired a large
popular audience, but it has continued to be used throughout the 20th
century. More than anyone else, Milton Babbitt (b. 1916) fueled the stereotype
of the university-supported American composer: a cloistered figure writing
complex, mathematically controlled twelve-tone music for a narrow audience.
Yet Babbitt has often said that the goal of his computations is musical
beauty, not abstract cerebration.
LISTEN: Babbitt, Playing
for Time (1979)
The term "Minimalist" has been applied to late 20th-century musical works
which repeat relatively simple patterns at great length. Steve Reich (b.
1936) is one of the most prominent Minimalists. His Piano Phase
features a piano playing a short pattern of notes repeatedly; at the same
time, a recording of the pianist plays back at a speed slightly slower
than the original, so that the pianist gradually falls "out of phase"
with her own recording. (The work can also be performed by two pianists,
or by two recordings.)
LISTEN: Reich, Piano
Phase (1967) [first 4:00]
Not all late 20th-century American music is atonal, minimalist, or based
on electronic sounds. The Oboe Concerto of John Harbison (b. 1938) is
a more recent composition than any of the works reproduced above, yet
it is considered to be relatively traditional in terms of melody, harmony,
rhythm, and the use of standard acoustic instruments.
LISTEN: Harbison, Oboe
third movement (1991)