52,943 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

  Founder: Len Mullenger             Editor in Chief: John Quinn               Contact Seen and Heard here  

Some items
to consider

Chopin Edition 17CDs
now available separately
£11 post-free anywhere


100th birthday of Mieczyslaw Weinberg on December 8, 2019.
Renate Eggbrecht has recorded all 3 violin Sonatas

Mozart Brahms
Clarinet Quintets


Recordings of the Month


Jean-Baptiste LEMOYNE

Enescu Ravel Britten

Debussy Images etc.

53 Studies on Chopin Études 1
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)



Che fai tù? - Villanelles

Cyrillus KREEK
The suspended harp of Babel

violin concertos - Ibragimova

Peteris VASKS
Viola concerto - Maxim Rysanov

The Complete Lotte Schöne





Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers  



Mark Morris



A brief introduction to the history of 20th-century music

links to the composer and country entries  


The music of the 20th century has seen more developments, more divergent styles, more ferment and contrasts of idea, than any prior century except perhaps that of the 16th. The disparity between, say, a work of 1905 and a Kagel piece of the 1960s is so vast that it has no parallel in earlier times, not even between the music of Bach and Beethoven, divided by a similar time-period. With such a span to cover, it is invidious to attempt to outline the history of 20th-century music in a brief introduction, for any such attempt will be inadequate. Yet by the same token the attempt is useful if the caution of over-simplification is noted, to try and gain some order and perspective to what can seem, especially to someone unfamiliar with the music of the century, a very confusing picture.

 Musically, the latter half of the 19th century was dominated by the Romanticism of German-speaking Europe, and by two composers, Wagner and Brahms, both of whom had developed the German tradition stemming from Beethoven in their own particular fashions. Other countries had their own veins of Romanticism, notably the Russians, and the Czech (Smetana and Dvořák), but the German tradition dominated the music making of lesser musical countries such as Britain, the U.S.A. or Sweden, whose composers attempted to emulate German models. The other major force of the 19th century, Italian opera, remained a law unto itself, largely unaffecting the course of musical history outside Italy. French composers thrived, many (especially their opera composers, but also such figures as Saint-Saëns) with conspicuous success in their time, but (with the exception of Berlioz) without lasting influence outside their own sphere: there is no French composer in his maturity in the second half of the 19th century of the stature of the major German composers.

 The continuity of the German tradition through the 19th century, from the birth of Romanticism to the brink of its collapse, is striking, and has its parallels in the relative but considerable peace, stability, and continuous economic growth and development of Europe from the Treaty of Vienna (1815) until the outbreak of the First World War. It is not difficult to trace the progression of musical idiom and idea through the 19th century, as each new development, in the areas of both harmony and form, unfurls in a logical and linear flow. Indeed the basic forms of music and the different genres remained essentially unchanged through the century, even if their content evolved: the main exception was the continuous flow of the music-dramas of Wagner.

 Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the continuity of these 19th-century traditions underwent such a huge upheaval, setting the course for all the progressive elements of 20th-century composition throughout the century, that it amounted to a second Renaissance of classical music, even if the after-shock of the Romantic aesthetic, in both form and content, continues to echo to this day.

 By the turn of the century the traditional harmonic system had been stretched to its limits in the search for more extensive modes of expression. In that traditional system (the tonal system) the melodic and harmonic progression follows a predetermined pattern (exemplified in the music of Mozart). It is a fundamental basis of the tonal system that, both on a long-term scale (for example, movements) and in short-term passages, a recognizable key is set up, modified or departed from, and returned to; the expectation of that return is always present, exemplified by the final cadences in any Classical work. This principle of calculated tension and release has its obvious satisfactions, which is why it has remained so popular, and informs popular music to this day. Any notes outside the seven notes of the key concerned are perceived as dissonance, and such dissonance can create colour and effect.


 Gradually through the 19th century the dissonances became more complex, and were increasingly used to reflect more complex ideas; the piling up of tension upon tension, with limited or long-delayed release, entirely suited the late Romantic aesthetic, moving far from the collective `natural' order of the Enlightenment to an appreciation of the power and force of nature and of the individual psyche. This increased use of the extra five notes available in a scale is known as `chromatic', after the Greek word for colour. In a famous turning-point, the opening chord of the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the sense of key is almost completely dissolved; but by the end of the 19th century, however complex the tensions, the traditional key structure still remained the foundation of composition, with any departures eventually returning to provide a sense of resolution. Parallel with these developments, and also in the search for deeper and more varied forms of expression, works became longer and the forces larger, especially in the areas of orchestral and operatic works.

 At the beginning of the 20th century the complexities of the late-Romantic tensions became untenable and collapsed, and the centre of that collapse was located in two cities, Paris and Vienna. The French musical reaction to Romanticism was much more subtle and less dramatic than the Viennese, and has received less attention, but in terms of changing the way musicians and composers think its effects on 20th-century music have been just as far reaching. Its central figure was Debussy: to encapsulate his contribution, he reasserted the ability and the right of music to state affects and effects without recourse to the patterns of tension and release, without the Romantic emphasis of constantly developing internal psychological states. He rewrote the possibilities of motion (and thus of beginnings and endings) in classical music, but in doing so maintained the basis of key (the triadic structure), which is why his contribution is not so obviously dramatic as those who destroyed it. Rather, he simply broke almost every rule in the manual of how such triadic structures were to be organized, reordering progression using juxtapositions that were not supposed to work, but patently did; in this he is rightly compared to the contemporary movement of Impressionism in painting. In addition, he drew on the experience of musics outside the prevailing German classical tradition - earlier French musics, folk scales (pentatonic sales), the music of Bali - a process of profound importance to later 20th-century composers. In other words, he opened up to composers a new palette of freedoms, immediately utilised, in a less revolutionary way, by his younger contemporary Ravel.

 The intellectual and cultural role of Vienna as the focus for new European thought in all fields at the turn of the century is of such importance that it has been stated, without too much exaggeration, that all the principal developments of 20th-century thought can be traced back there, from atomic physics to architecture to psychology. What was happening in Vienna was revolutionary: a rethinking of the nature and place of the individual, drawn from the experience of Romanticism, but in reaction to the failures and inadequacies of the Romantic approach. Psychology and the concept of the subconscious were being developed by Freud; Otto Wagner led the movement for functionalism in architecture; the Vienna Sezession revolutionized painting; and the Jugendstil movement in literature turned into Expressionism. Building on Nietzsche and Darwin, humankind's relationship with God was being completely reappraised, while the new science of sociology was emerging, and the older one of mathematics rewriting the physical basis of the universe. Major thinkers and artists from outside Austria, such as Einstein (who taught at Prague, one of the three great cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Max Weber, or Bertrand Russell, were as well known (in some cases better known) in Vienna as in their home countries. The exodus of so many artists and thinkers following the rise of the Nazis helped disseminate the influence of this Viennese intellectual tradition, notably in the United States. In the political sphere the turmoil of the Vienna of the beginning of the century continues to resonate, not the least in the Balkans. In those terms our current European political history is still a continuation of events set in motion in and around 1914, and this is equally true of musical history.

 Artistic technical developments rarely occur outside a social and cultural context. The tonal discipline of the Classical age of Mozart reflects the preoccupation with Rational social order and grace; the darker and more complex harmonies of Beethoven the changes wrought by Napoleon and French thought; the tone-poems of the later part of the century the increasing Romantic awareness of the darker internal recesses of the soul, that were to emerge in concrete fashion in the work of Freud. The crisis that engulfed composition in the first two decades of the 20th century can be seen in part to be a response to the technical impasse: the tonal system could be stretched no further without destroying the very basis of the system, and forces were already so large as to be unextendable. But it can also be seen as a reflection of the age, and an awareness that the orders of European empires, the social and intellectual structures of elite aristocracies, the patterns of thought that had developed through 19th-century Europe, were no longer viable. It is no coincidence that such a musical crisis occurred in the period of the slaughter and massive social change of World War I, or the Russian Revolution. But the locus of that change at the turn of the century was undoubtedly in Vienna, the centre of a decadent Empire in a state of collapse.

 Musically, the hinge of that crisis was Mahler, who died in 1911. In one sense, he represents, in his huge, psychologically turbulent, religiously and philosophically striving symphonies and song-cycles, the culmination of the Romantic development. But in another, with his use of musical sound-sources that had been considered outside the area of serious music, with his extension of chromaticism into the edge of atonality, and with his reversion to chamber forces within the large-scale orchestration, he heralded what was to come. But it was Schoenberg, together with his pupils Berg and Webern, who wrought the revolution. With Schoenberg leading at the end of the first decade of the century, they first broke down the whole concept of key (and thus of traditional tension and release) in the so-called `atonal' works. Crucial to this change was an appreciation that so-called dissonances were not an adjunct to the consonance of tonality, a departure from the norm, but perfectly worthy musical elements in their own right: in other words, that the tonal system was in itself a construct, sanctified by much usage and the passage of time, and not necessarily given by nature. This is a concept still argued, and still very difficult for many to understand, so steeped are we in that tonal tradition. But the concept of tonality as a natural order is a very Western ethno-centric view: other systems exist perfectly viably elsewhere, such as in some Eastern European folk-music, in the classical rāgs of India, or in most Eastern musics, which is why, once this concept had been established, 20th-century Western composers have found it possible and profitable to learn from those other musics.

 The problem for Schoenberg and his followers was that the traditional structures of music had been inextricably linked to the harmonic system, and the collapse of the latter led to problems with the former. Their return to a primacy of small-scale, often chamber, works was in part a reaction to Romantic inflation, in part a response to the economic stresses of the period, but also a necessity in that the basis of larger structures was not yet available to them. In the 1920s Schoenberg responded to this by inventing the 12-tone system, which organized the ordering, or patterning of the 12 notes of the complete chromatic scale, each carrying equal weight (i.e. without any note acting as a traditional dissonant), and being arranged according to mathematical and strict rules. This system was developed by all three composers in their different fashions during the next two decades, Schoenberg largely (until the end of his life) following his system, Berg developing the more expressive possibilities and the potential interweaving of 12-tone principles and echoes of a tonal base, and Webern creating complex and compressed miniatures. There are still composers (albeit not many) following Schoenberg's system. Webern, however, opened up new possibilities, for he realized the potential for the other parameters of music (dynamics, duration, rhythm) to be systematized in a fashion analogous to the ordering of notes (thus, incidentally, increasing the mathematical content of the construct).

 The potential of Webern's developments were exploited by a whole new generation of younger composers after the Second World War, notably Boulez in France and Stockhausen in Germany, and this strand of modern music has become known as `total serialism', or more commonly simply `serialism'. When these developments were married to ideas from other developments in 20th-century music, they produced the avant-garde period of the 1960s (Messiaen had already, to a large extent, combined the legacy of Debussy and that of Webern in his own very individual fashion). Thus the first of the continuities of 20th-century music can be drawn, from Mahler through to the avant-garde composers of the 1960s. The influence of Berg has perhaps been even greater, for he showed later composers not prepared to be as experimental as the main figures of the avant-garde that some of the controls and organization of the 12-tone system could be fruitfully merged with elements of more traditional harmonic organizations.

 Although Schoenberg's followers continued their developments in the city, the importance of Vienna as an intellectual centre waned after 1918, its empire defeated and dismembered. Its place was taken by the capital of one of the major victors, Paris, which attracted artists, writers, and composers from all over the world in a remarkable ferment of new artistic (rather than more widespread intellectual) ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s, from Cubism to Surrealism, from Joyce to Hemingway. Paris became the focus of alternatives to the Austrian developments in the musical reaction to Romanticism, and of the recasting of serious music to reflect new views of the world and humanity's place in it. An immediate influence was that of jazz, whose new rhythmic and instrumental sounds briefly flared in the works of a number of composers (for example, Milhaud). But the major figure was undoubtedly Stravinsky, whose continuous exploration of new ideas was of enormous influence internationally for four decades between the 1920s and the 1960s. His earlier works (especially the ballet The Rite of Spring, 1911-1913) caused sensation and scandal, though in retrospect they can be seen as a continuation (or culmination) of the late-Romantic Russian tradition. What was new, and of immense influence, was Stravinsky's development of rhythm, from an element largely circumscribed and ordered, into something much more potent and malleable, putting it on an equal footing with the other elements of a musical composition (in parallel with the development and expansion of the percussion section of the orchestra, and of the use of percussion in instrumental works). Stravinsky also used effects that were being (or had recently been) adopted by other composers, but which marked a development from the 19th century: polytonality, in which two or more keys are heard simultaneously, and polyrhythms, in which two or more rhythms are heard simultaneously. However, equally influential was Stravinsky's adoption and development from the 1920s of what has become known as neo-classicism. The basic intent was decidedly anti-Romantic: to return music to an abstract art, divorced from the expression of internal emotional states that had so dominated later Romantic works; in this Stravinsky was influenced by the example of Debussy. He, like others of his generation, looked back to earlier musics for examples of such abstract music-making, and then emulated the smaller forces and some of the grace and style of the Classical and pre-Classical masters. He also emulated their forms, melded with more modern harmonic effects and instrumental colours, and staying within the tonal harmonic tradition if not all the traditional procedures. One of Stravinsky's major contributions within this style was his use of two or more planes of musical event going on at the same time, which fold over each other and replace each other (in Stravinsky's case partly as a substitute for the traditional classical harmonic progression), a concept widely utilized in widely varying musical contexts ever since. Stravinsky was not the first to develop a neo-classical idiom (Prokofiev, among others, had already demonstrated his brilliance in such an arena), but he was the most conspicuous and influential, and many other composers turned to a similar idiom in the 1920s and 1930s (Honegger is a representative example), though their usage encompassed a wide range. Neo-classical works continue to be written. After the Second World War, when Stravinsky was living in America, he eventually turned in an ironic and unexpected development to 12-tone structures and procedures. His influence then waned, and the place of his actual music, rather than his influence on other composers, is much less secure than was once thought, aside from the early ballets. In part this is because neo-classicism is now seen as something of a musical dead-end, more a reflection of the particular cultural and artistic circumstances of the time than of universal profundity, and in part because mid-century musicologists and critics, brought up and educated in more traditional idioms, could much more easily understand (and promote) his music than that of more experimental composers such as Schoenberg and his followers, and thus overestimated his value, if not his influence.

 The 1920s also saw the emergence of new musical ideas in areas other than Vienna or Paris. It seemed to be the new age of machinery and technology, and a vogue emerged for music that reflected the mechanics of machinery. This motoric music, with notable examples in the fervent young Soviet Union (where it was part of the artistic movement of Constructivism) but also by such composers as Honegger, is now often laughed at, but it had considerable influence on the rhythmic palette open to later composers, and motoric rhythmic effects have permeated later 20th-century music. In the same period, there emerged an interest in micro-tones, divisions of the scale into intervals smaller than a semi-tone, usually quarter-tones. This was seen as a potential way out of the chromatic impasse, and its main proponents were led by the Czech Hába, who, with others, had instruments such as pianos specially constructed to include quarter-tones. The drawback to such experiments was the familiarity among audiences and musicians of scales based on the semi-tone. They thus heard quartet-tones as mistuning (rather than dissonance), especially on string instruments. If a tradition of micro-tone music did not emerge, these experiments did lead the way for a general acceptance of intervals of less than a semi-tone in the avant-garde period of the 1950s and 1960s (especially in electronic music) in a less systematized fashion, often for colour or decorative effect; in parallel, the gradual assimilation of folk-musics and Eastern musics, which often divide the scale in a intervals different to those traditional in Western classical music, had a similar effect.

 In Berlin, which itself became a decadent artistic centre in the late 1920s until the Nazis emasculated cultural life, styles arose influenced by Berlin cabaret jazz, and which were associated with a more working-class, less elitist socialist music-making without the vapid rigidity of later Communist styles. The most notable exponent was Weill, especially in the operas written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht; although others had developed stage works on a similar scale (Stravinsky, for one), they showed that a new art-form, small-scale music theatre (as opposed to opera), was viable, and the genre has since continued to develop and expand. Another composer who briefly adopted the idiom of Berlin cabaret jazz was Hindemith, but he also turned to his own style of neo-classicism, looking back to Baroque models and often combining them with the new motoric rhythms. In doing so, he developed a German neo-classicism parallel to the Parisian-based neo-classicism of Stravinsky. With his mastery of traditional harmony, his developments of that tradition, and his teaching and writing powers, Hindemith had widespread influence. In addition, he had a different agenda to that of Stravinsky: producing music that was modern, but which could be played or sung by amateurs, thus attempting to give contemporary music a broader base than specialist audiences. His agenda has been widely emulated. In the field of children's music, two composers in particular have developed systems of teaching music using modern means, Kodály in Hungary and Orff in Germany.

 Meanwhile, other composers were following their own paths, redirecting the Romantic legacy rather than revolutionizing it. One phenomenon initiated in the 19th century that has continued through the 20th has been the development of consciously national styles; Russia (`The Six') and Czechoslovakia (Smetana and Dvořák) are the obvious 19th-century examples. As the cultures of various countries have arrived at a sense of musical self-identity, as opposed to adopting the styles of musically dominating countries, so distinct national styles have arisen to cement that self-identity, and then usually dissolved into a more self-confident internationalism.

 The characteristics of such nationalistic idioms are that generally they have followed the mainstream advanced styles of the period, rather than being expressly experimental, but added some particular original element drawn from that country to create a new style (which may in turn then influence composers in other countries). Thus, just after the turn of the century British composers (such as Vaughan Williams and Holst) and Italian composers (Respighi and Malipiero) turned to earlier glorious periods of their musical histories, in a renaissance of their own musics, drawing on old church musics and indigenous folk-music. Similarly in the same period, and reflecting the widespread interest in folk-music at the start of the century, Bartók in Hungary, Szymanowski in Poland and Enescu in Rumania revitalized their countries' serious music making by absorbing their own folk-musics, in each case with unusual harmonic patterns. The Spanish-speaking countries also discovered nationalistically idiomatic styles drawing on the rich, Moorish-influence heritage of Spanish folk music, Falla leading the way in Spain. In an even more potent development (because it included the influence of non-western musics of indigenous South and Central American cultures) Villa-Lobos in Brazil and Chávez in Mexico developed idioms originating in the Iberian heritage.

 But the major country to transform its classical music from clones of the mainstream European trends to idioms unmistakably its own was the United States, in the 1920s and 1930s. Led by Copland, a number of composers went to France to study with the extraordinary teacher Nadia Boulanger, thus adding a progressive French element to the prevailing German cast of American composition. The new, purely American, elements of the works of these composers were first of all jazz, a revolutionary and especially American idiom, and second a style we now associate with the expanses of the American West, again exemplified by Copland, that had much of its origins in the post-Spanish developments of Mexican music and Chávez, however reluctant Americans have been to acknowledge the fact. At the same time Ives, besides experimenting to an extent almost as extreme as the Viennese, had shown the potency of such indigenous American traditions as hymn musics, though his works were little known until later in the century. These three indigenous strands formed the basis, immediately after the Second World War, for the emergence of the United States as a major force in contemporary composition, with its own developments to offer 20th-century music. Similarly, if to a lesser extent, the composers of Japan have embraced the idioms of Western music since the Second World War, and allied them with elements of their own, very different, musical traditions. The process of developing national styles continues: recently Australia has seen such an emergence, with influences drawn from its special landscape and its aboriginal heritage.

 A completely different form of nationalism has dominated about half the Western world for much of the century. As already noted, Russia had been a seedbed of experimental ideas in all the arts immediately after the Revolution, but with the complete control by Stalin of the U.S.S.R. from the beginning of the 1930s, and the communist control, with varying degrees of Stalinism, of Eastern Europe in the four decades following the end of the Second World War, any participation of those countries in the progressive development of classical music was effectively stamped out. There was a similar situation in those areas dominated by the Nazis before or during the Second World War, when any taint of experimentation beyond the point reached by the late 19th century was ruthlessly expunged. The Communist creed was one of Socialist Realism, art forms that would ostensibly speak to and for the people, without bourgeois elitism. In effect this meant freezing harmony, rhythms and forms in 19th-century idioms, with an emphasis on easily memorable tunes and patriotic and communist themes. This was, of course, the idiom that Stalin and his cultural arbitrators had grown up with; it was also thought to be approachable from the point of view of the general populace. The results were predictable and fairly disastrous: a huge corpus of vacuous music, in which only a very few composers managed to subvert the process and continued to develop in their own constrained fashions, often with compelling expressive effect. The most significant of these is undoubtedly Shostakovich, who in part developed the legacy of Mahler to express, in an extraordinarily powerful fashion, those very angers, tensions, frustrations, and despairs that the system engendered. The relaxation of such controls was gradual and occurred at different times in different countries, in Czechoslovakia (with its own strong musical tradition) in the 1960s, in the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. One result was that the composers of these countries were suddenly exposed to the Western developments of the previous decades that had been denied to them; in almost all cases, they went through a period of discovering Webern, in turn reinvigorating the influence of such ideas in Western composition: the Hungarian Kurtág, who discovered Webern in the late 1950s and whose music came into prominence in the West in the late 1970s, is an example.

 These, then, were the main trends in the development of 20th-century music until the end of the Second World War, besides the continuation of essentially 19th-century Romantic idioms, exemplified in the music of Rachmaninov. While they have all continued in some fashion or another (with the exception of Socialist Realism, now thankfully been consigned to history), a new movement developed in the 1950s and came into full prominence in the 1960s: what has become known as the `avant-garde', an expression now applied in musical circles exclusively to this period of experimentation. This was essentially an international movement, observing few stylistic boundaries apart from the unscalable barrier of the Iron Curtain, though its main centres were in Paris, Germany (especially Cologne) and to a lesser extent in New York. As has already been suggested, it originated in the development of strict organizational and procedural controls, parallel to those of 12-tone techniques, in the areas of music other than harmony - rhythm, dynamics, duration, timbre - with Webern as the original inspiration. In one sense this was just the logical development of the potentials unleashed when Schoenberg and his followers took the step beyond the brink of tonality, but it coincided with a number of other developments. The most important was the invention of the first electronic instruments, which had already seen such pioneers as Varčse, and then of the electronic manipulation of conventional instruments. Initially, electronic music embraced two genres: pure electronically generated sounds, and sounds (whether musical or otherwise) recorded on tape and then manipulated electronically to create a new tape (called musique-concrčte). Either way, this was a complete and absolute divorce from the music of all preceding ages, the earlier part of the 20th century included, as the type of sounds produced had literally never been heard or realized before, and the traditional procedures for organizing music turned out to be inadequate or inappropriate to the new medium; the problems of structure this posed have still not been fully solved. At the same time, instrumentalists and singers were learning to perform excessively complex scores, and developing the range and colours of their instruments far beyond what had ever been imagined possible before World War Two, in the case of instruments often in ways their original designers had never intended. This also opened up a whole new range of effect, colour, and timbre; the combination of electronics and these new `extended techniques' effectively revolutionized the types of sounds available to composers, which had remained relatively stable ever since the invention of the piano. A natural extension of this was the awareness that other things besides traditional instruments, such as household items, could equally well make musical sounds if one was not so hidebound by the notion of a musical `instrument' as to preclude them. Thirdly, a number of composers, often influenced by non-Western thought and led by Cage (the second great American contribution to Western music after jazz), realized that they were not necessarily constrained by the accepted structures of music, but could draw on other, non-musical, structures and patterns for the basis of their music. Most extreme among these was the concept of chance (for example, from the fall of a pack of cards that determines the order of a composition), which reintroduced improvisatory elements into serious music-making: this chance element (which can also be a question of choice on the part of the performer rather than chance) has become known as `aleatory', after the Latin word for dice. More important, this very concept challenged the whole basis of all Western classical music: that compositions were pre-determined by the composer, and thus considered, fixed, and predictable before performance. This indeterminacy was, in a very real sense, the exact obverse of the strict control of all parameters developed from Webern, and because of this, the two could happily coexist (the strict control and determinacy of all aspects of a section of a work that itself appeared or did not appear according to chance principles, for example). Fourthly, and a logical extension of these ideas, the traditional forms and venues of music-making were questioned, so that works were written for completely new forces, and non-auditorium venues. Most important, they started to include major non-musical elements, such as visual effects, film and drama (with the instrumentalists performing), in what has become known as `multi-media' works, a process flirted with in Paris in the 1920s, but not fully developed until the 1960s. One of the results of all these developments was that scores abandoned traditional notation, which could no longer encompass or express the music.

 The conglomeration of these developments made the avant-garde period of the late 1950s and the 1960s the most experimental, the most fertile and the most exciting since the 1920s. From the assured electronic soundscapes of Stockhausen, through the complex constructs of Xenakis, to the ethereal vocal scores of Ligeti, to name but three of the experimentalists, there was a ferment of new idea, in which often each work had to be taken on its own reference points, as the connections with traditional procedures were so tenuous. Yet this explosion of revolutionary idea reached a crisis as great as that of the first decade of the century. First, it had not achieved anything like widespread acceptance with more traditionally minded musicians, let alone audiences; the developments were so fast that it was almost impossible for many people to adjust to the new musical demands made on them. Second, the new sounds and ideas had not yet found new, generally accepted and widely understood systems of containment and organization (a situation parallel to the atonal period of the Viennese experimentalists). The experimentation and new directions largely collapsed, almost overnight, at the beginning of the 1970s, before they had been given a chance to develop those systems.

 All of this, of course, paralleled and reflected the contemporary questioning of established patterns of thought and political and social structure so prevalent in the 1960s, as well as the change in human thinking engendered by the electronic revolution (especially computers) and by the stunning widening of horizons of the trip to the moon. The reaction to avant-garde music exactly paralleled the conservative political and social reaction to the sixties; many composers quite literally returned to the music of prior times, in an movement known as neo-Romanticism, saying very little new, and rarely saying it well. Some composers, of course, had continued to develop their idiom within a more mainstream style, often drawing on the kind of synthesis Berg had initiated, but now informed by the appropriate techniques explored by the experimenters: the Pole Lutosławski, for example, or the American Elliott Carter, who developed a new and influential technique of forward motion that uses overlapping changes of pulse and metre (known as `metric modulation').

 One geographical area where this mainstream has been in continuous development to interesting effect, allied to some avant-garde experimentation, has been the Scandinavian countries. At the beginning of the century they produced two major figures who advanced the development of the symphony, the Dane Nielsen and the Finn Sibelius. They created a different way of looking at the world, with nationalistic elements, often drawn from Northern mythology, and a particular evocation of the Northern landscape and light. The Scandinavian mainstream tradition of their successors is beginning to get the attention it deserves.

 In a very different idiom, electronic music has been undergoing development, with new computer techniques changing the interaction between instruments and electronics, but as yet it is unclear where this is leading, and this development remains on the fringe of audience experience. The main new movement that has emerged from the 1970s and 1980s is essentially a reactionary one: Minimalism, where long, often very long, swathes of ostinati unfurl and transmute, in a markedly tonal harmonic structure. It has proved instantly attractive, produced one populist composer (Philip Glass), but has seemed incapable of enriching ideas, whether musical, social or philosophical, with more than just a surface gloss, though Steve Reich may prove an exception. Minimalism has been a fitting movement for what has emerged as the most regressive and disappointing 20th-century period in Western culture and intellect. Recently, Minimalism has influenced a new development that holds promise, an ethereal, spartan and often polyphonic musical style exemplified by Pärt and more recently by Tavener, both from societies undergoing profound change (Estonia and Britain). However, in both cases the impetus for their meditative contemplations is as much religious as musical. The experience and development of the avant-garde period is a sleeping giant, perhaps waiting for the right genius of a composer to reawaken it.

 Two other important phenomenon of the history of 20th-century music remain to be mentioned. The first is the internationalization of styles: cultural boundaries are increasingly being broken down, and idioms are cross-fertilizing each other in widely differing regions. This process is much more marked, and much more rapid, than in earlier ages. In part it is due to the improvements in transport and the ease of movement around the world, but much more it is caused by the ease of hearing far-away developments almost immediately. Radio started this process, but the emergence of the LP record, and especially of magnetic tape recording, was far more significant, allowing the very swift dissemination and availability of new works: the first significantly international (i.e. non-national) movement - the avant-garde - coincided with these developments and greatly benefited from them.

 The second has been the decline of interest in contemporary music among general audiences, rather than specialists, a decline that seems to have been in proportion to the length of the century. Many reasons have been put forward for this; undoubtedly the difficulty of assimilating new sounds, musical patterns and ideas is one of them, though previous eras almost exclusively listened to new music (Schubert was surprised that anybody still listened to Mozart). This does not mean that modern and contemporary music has been ignored: quite the contrary, the availability of modern music is unparalleled, and to the surprise of many who had predicted otherwise, the emergence of the CD as the main carrier of recordings has seen an unprecedented surge of releases of modern music, with the exception of the period of the avant-garde. In Europe especially the availability of modern music on the radio is considerable. Rather, the problem is that the progressive music of the century has not entered the regular repertoire, or become familiar to a general listening public. Those works that have entered the general consciousness and regular programming have essentially been those with strong after-echoes of the 19th-century tradition: Shostakovich is an obvious example.

 The availability of modern music is not in question: rather it is the dissemination of the newer idioms to a wider public. Some may argue that it is the nature of modern music to be too arcane for a general listener, but that has been the argument ever since Monteverdi's time, and it is simply untrue: children who have not been steeped in traditional music often respond to modern music in a manner inexplicable to their elders, who have to make the transition from traditional ideas to new musical languages. Rather, alongside the echoes of the Classical and Romantic idioms, the thought-patterns, the substance, the foundations of modern music have undergone a profound change. It is that recasting of thought and idea which has not been disseminated to a wider public, for, I would suggest, two main reasons.

 The first is one of education. Most music training is still based on the concept of traditional harmony, often with the deeply ingrained delusion that the traditional Western tonal system is the `natural' basis of all music. A general appreciation of modern music requires a change of paradigm in which traditional tonality is seen - and taught - as but one facet (albeit one that dominated historically for three centuries) of the Western tradition that has since been superseded. Such fundamental changes of thought do not come swiftly; we are perhaps in an analogous situation to that of the Renaissance, where the Scholastic modes of thought continued to be taught as the fundamental basis of human existence long after they had been made redundant by new developments. The obsession of those musicologists who have specialised in new music with increasingly arcane mathematical analysis (an unfortunate by-product of the developments of Schoenberg and Webern) has also hindered the creation of such a new aesthetic. The emotional power, as well as the cerebral construction, of new music needs to be demonstrated (hence this Guide); unfortunately it is easier to explore the minutiae of construction than the emotional power and cultural experience of modern music. A corollary of this has been the role of the critic, the intermediary between modern music and the potential audience. Many critics - especially outside the major musical centres - have understandably found it difficult to make the switch from a mode of thought trained in traditional harmony to new musical languages, and even more difficult to express the experience of a new work in words. The influence of academe has, for some time, made it more fashionable to describe music in factual rather than descriptive terms; modern music needs the kind of advocacy that such word-masters as George Bernard Shaw and the American critic Paul Rosenfeld brought to earlier generations.

 The second reason is more contentious, and more insidious. Western European cultures have traditionally valued the arts beyond their immediate financial rewards as essential to the health of those cultures; North American culture since the Second World War has not. Increasingly, North American thinking has been dominated by financial considerations, and controlled by accountants. Consequently, in the search for large audiences, the culture has aimed at a lower and lower common denominator. In terms of classical music, this has meant an increasing reliance on the standard `classics' that will bring in audiences. New works are increasingly aimed at entertainment as much as challenge; this is one of the reasons the United States has comparatively produced so few composers of stature. A culture that should be at the forefront of disseminating new ideas - including new music - is almost totally incapable of doing so with such cultural attitudes. For much of the century Europe was largely immune from this attitude, and has celebrated her new composers (one only has to think of Stravinsky or Britten; potential German celebration of Schoenberg and Webern was extinguished by the Nazis). Since the 1960s - exactly that period when general audiences might have been begun to assimilate the developments of music in the 1930s and 1950s - American culture has started to dominate internationally, bringing with it a cast of mind that downgrades the culturally experimental in favour of the financially acute, gratification rather than challenge. This has been a slow process, but as American thinking based on the primacy of economic values has begun to permeate Europe, so its cultural attitudes have followed in the wake (as the French fully understand). The process is not yet complete, but such frames of mind are a major, if lateral, factor in the demise of introducing new music to a wider audience, not only in actual performance, but more especially in the attitudes that might make such performances possible. The social woes and problems that such cultural imperialism (for that it what is emerging) brings with it are beyond the scope of this book, but suffice it to say that a culture that does not constantly renew itself with new forms of expression is a culture in crisis.

 For the serious art of any time should address its times, to propel and inform it, and needs the climate in which it is able to do just that. Every culture that wishes to understand the changes in human thought needs to listen to that art if it is to remain viable. There is a very real danger that classical music will be relegated in its contemporary manifestations to the ivory tower, and in the wider world to musics of the past. These cannot speak to those needs, or propel ideas, except in the most general way, and classical music is in danger of becoming media to entertain, rather than to expand our horizons.

 This should be reason enough to explore the music of our times, but quite apart from such more lofty considerations, contemporary music - indeed the `modern' music of our century - has the power to uplift, frustrate, challenge, anger, extend, instruct, enthral and even entertain us. To embrace those effects may take a little courage, and a little perseverance, but it is not too difficult, and to deny those experiences is to deny something of ourselves, and the cogency of the art and times that are our own.




The standard reference work in English on classical music in general is the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (ed. S.Sadie, London, 1980, second edition, 2001). This gigantic publication is beyond the budget of the ordinary music-lover, but is to be found in most major libraries. Its coverage of 20th-century music is comprehensive and on the whole reliable, though some of the composers included here are not to be found in its pages. It is inevitably technical, and in a few cases conveys absolutely no idea of what the music is actually like, but it remains the paramount reference work, recently joined by the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.

The major reference work on living composers is Contemporary Composers (eds. Brian Morton and Pamela Collins, 1992), with extensive lists of works; however some notable composers are missing, and the accompanying surveys of the composers' music are often written by specialists or enthusiasts too close to their subjects for an objective view.

The Dictionary of Twentieth Century Music (ed. J.Vinton, London, 1974) was a comprehensive one-volume reference work that unfortunately did not remain long in print. It is to be found in libraries, but is difficult otherwise to acquire.

The best short paper-back (softcover) reference work on 20th-century music is Paul Griffiths' Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Music (London, 1986), which is especially good at explaining terms and technicalities. Griffiths has also written a number of other useful works on modern music and on individual composers.

Of the very many introductions to 20th-century music, the standard university textbook is Eric Salzman's Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (New Jersey, 1967, revised 1974), better at outlining the means than evoking or conveying the aural results. The Companion to 20th Century Music by Norman Lebrecht (1992) provides highly idiosyncratic quick references to 20th-century composers, and Green's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers by Daniel Mason Greene (1985), equally quirky in its writing style, includes biographies of a large number of 20th-century composers.


links to the composer and country entries


Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical

Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10

Nimbus Podcast

Obtain 10% discount

Special offer 50% off
15CDs £83 incl. postage

Musicweb sells the following labels

Altus 10% off
Atoll 10% off
CRD 10% off
Hallé 10% off
Lyrita 10% off
Nimbus 10% off
Nimbus Alliance
Prima voce 10% off
Red Priest 10% off
Retrospective 10% off
Saydisc 10% off
Sterling 10% off

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing

Sample: See what you will get

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Seen & Heard
Editor Emeritus
   Bill Kenny
MusicWeb Webmaster
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger



Making a Donation to MusicWeb

Writing CD reviews for MWI

About MWI
Who we are, where we have come from and how we do it.

Site Map

How to find a review

How to find articles on MusicWeb
Listed in date order

Review Indexes
   By Label
      Select a label and all reviews are listed in Catalogue order
   By Masterwork
            Links from composer names (eg Sibelius) are to resource pages with links to the review indexes for the individual works as well as other resources.

Themed Review pages

Jazz reviews


      Composer surveys
      Unique to MusicWeb -
a comprehensive listing of all LP and CD recordings of given works
Prepared by Michael Herman

The Collector’s Guide to Gramophone Company Record Labels 1898 - 1925
Howard Friedman

Book Reviews

Complete Books
We have a number of out of print complete books on-line

With Composers, Conductors, Singers, Instumentalists and others
Includes those on the Seen and Heard site


Nostalgia CD reviews

Records Of The Year
Each reviewer is given the opportunity to select the best of the releases

Monthly Best Buys
Recordings of the Month and Bargains of the Month

Arthur Butterworth Writes

An occasional column

Phil Scowcroft's Garlands
British Light Music articles

Classical blogs
A listing of Classical Music Blogs external to MusicWeb International

Reviewers Logs
What they have been listening to for pleasure



Bulletin Board

Give your opinions or seek answers

Past and present

Helpers invited!

How Did I Miss That?

Currently suspended but there are a lot there with sound clips

Composer Resources

British Composers

British Light Music Composers

Other composers

Film Music (Archive)
Film Music on the Web (Closed in December 2006)

Programme Notes
For concert organizers

External sites
British Music Society
The BBC Proms
Orchestra Sites
Recording Companies & Retailers
Online Music
Agents & Marketing
Other links
Web News sites etc

A pot-pourri of articles

MW Listening Room
MW Office

Advice to Windows Vista users  
Site History  
What they say about us
What we say about us!
Where to get help on the Internet
CD orders By Special Request
Graphics archive
Currency Converter
Web Ring
Translation Service

Rules for potential reviewers :-)
Do Not Go Here!
April Fools

Return to Front Page

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.