The 20th Century was one of the most violent and destructive centuries in modern times and it seems appropriate that the music written in this time reflects this. Music had literally ripped apart at the seams when late romantic composers such as Wagner and Richard Strauss pushed the boundaries of harmony and tonality to breaking points. Eventually pieces were written without a central ‘key’ to organise the harmonies. They became ‘atonal’. How composers put music back together again is the story of this century.

Composers such as SchoenbergWebern and Berg (the Second Viennese School) organised their music using note-rows. These note rows regarded all twelve of the chromatic notes of the scale (the white and black notes of the piano) as of equal importance. This allowed freedom yet imposed a strict structure, preserving the Germanic line of tradition that stretched back to Beethoven and Bach. Neo-classicists such as Stravinsky, Poulenc and Prokofiev took a more modern view. They treated the music of the past, and its organisation through ‘keys’, as a treasure chest that could be dipped into and structured how they liked. Others experimented with the fundamentals of sound itself. John Cage’s 4’33 is a piece of ‘music’ that consists of nothing more than the natural sounds of an audience sitting in silence! Some composers, like Bartok and Ives, looked to their own national folk tunes to help structure their music, while others used Jazz and music from other cultures as their material.  

Most of the old forms continued to be used. Operas and Symphonies were still written, Dimitri Shostakovich wrote 15 of the latter, but new forms were also invented. The arrival of cinema prompted a huge amount of new music. Some was written by established classical composers such as Walton and E W Korngold, some by composers who wrote almost entirely for film. Needles to say, the quality varied considerably! An infinite variety of music existed by the close of the century, but whether ‘serious’ music has survived the turbulent 20th century is a question that can only be answered in the future.    

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