Timeline: 20th Century Music

Sep 19, 2016

At the dawning of the 20th century the world stood on the edge of immense change. No one could have guessed what the next hundred years would bring. Previous centuries saw most composers following specific aesthetic ideals, but music fractured in the 20th century like never before. In reality, we’re still trying to figure out where music goes from here.

In some ways, the Romanticism of the 19th century never truly ended. It’s ideals of emotional expression, looking towards ancient modes and styles and the promotion of “composer as hero”
 didn’t disappear; it morphed into various forms and shapes.

The Post-Romanticism of Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff pushed the boundaries of the orchestra and virtuosity.

Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel imitated the visual arts through music. They blurred line and color, using usual scales and harmonies gleaned from history and their own imagination.

German composers Schoenberg, Berg and Webern explored Expressionism, another term borrowed from the visual arts. This is primal power and stark emotion, marked by angular lines and bold colors.

Neoclassicism arose later with the music of Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla. This style looked backward to the forms and structures of the Classical era.

And those examples come from just the first half of the century!

From left to right this collage features Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla.
Credit All photos are in the public domain. The collage is by James Stewart.

New musical structures were explored in the 20th century. Schoenberg’s “12 tone row” presented a breakdown of traditional melody, sometimes called "atonalism". Later, "serialism" challenged the rules of rhythm, harmony, dynamics and almost every element of music.

Many consider these movements and developments as alienating to the audience; a departure from the pleasing symphonies of the romantics. However, it’s important to understand the influence of world events on art and music. In one century the world experienced technological advancement like never before. We saw the birth of air-travel, space exploration, broadcast communication and computers.

But, we also saw the trench warfare of World War I, the holocaust of World War II, the development of weapons of mass destruction, the rise of competing social and political systems leading to cold war – and that’s just the tip of the ice berg. The 20th century saw man-kind at its most imaginative and daring, and its most destructive. Our art reflects this dichotomy.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.