Chapter 22: The European Mainstream in the Early Twentieth Century
Prelude. (CHWM 530)
In competing with past composers, living composers sought to secure a place for themselves by offering something new while continuing a tradition.
I. The First Modern Generation (CHWM 530–40, NAWM 156–58)
A number of major composers from nations across Europe combined tradition with innovation and national identity with personal style, as illustrated in this chapter and those to follow.
- Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) blended influences from Wagner, the French tradition, Russian composers, medieval music, and music from Asia and elsewhere to create strikingly individual works that had an impact on almost all later composers.
Biography: Claude Debussy
Debussy began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten. He was influenced by works of Russian composers and by Wagner as well as by new artistic movements in Paris. By 1908, he was France’s leading modern composer, making his living as a music critic and through publications.
Debussy’s music is often called impressionist, but it is closer to symbolism.
- Piano music
Symbolist traits are evident in Debussy’s piano music. Each motive is associated with a particular figuration, harmony, scale, dynamic level, and range, creating a succession of distinct musical images.
Debussy usually maintained a tonal focus but emphasized the pleasure of sound rather than its resolution. Many of Debussy’s piano pieces have evocative titles, often suggesting a visual image.
- Orchestral music
Debussy’s orchestral works require a large ensemble, which he used to offer a variety of tone colors and textures. His best-known orchestral works are Prélude à "L’après-midi d’un faune" (Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun," 1891–1894), Nocturnes (1897–1899), and La Mer (The Sea, 1903–1905).
Nuages from Nocturnes exemplifies the interaction of motive with timbre, scale type, and other elements. Music: NAWM 156
- Songs and stage music
Debussy composed songs to texts by several major French poets, as well as music for dramatic projects, including ballets and one opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1893–1902).
The changes that Debussy introduced in harmony and orchestration and his emphasis on sound itself made him one of the most influential composers in the history of music.
- Maurice Ravel
The music of Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) encompasses a variety of influences while carrying a distinctive stamp.
- Distinctive traits
Unlike Debussy, Ravel often treated colorful harmonies as dissonances needing resolution, and he added sevenths to tonic and subdominant chords.
- Varied influences
Ravel absorbed ideas from older French music, the Classic tradition, the Viennese waltz, Gypsy music, blues, and Spanish idioms to create a diverse set of original works.
- Spain: Manuel de Falla
Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) combined specific national elements with the neoclassical approach popular after World War I to produce music that is both nationalist and more broadly modern.
- England: Ralph Vaughan Williams
After centuries of domination by foreign styles, English composers in the early twentieth century sought a distinctive voice for English art music, often drawing on folk songs.
- English style
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) cultivated a national style and wrote both art music and utilitarian music, using elements from each tradition in the other. The natural quality of Vaughan Williams’s music comes from his incorporation and imitation of British folk tunes and his assimilation of the modal harmony of sixteenth-century English composers.
- Czechoslovakia: Leoš Janáček
Music that reflected their language and traditions allowed the peoples of Eastern Europe to assert an independent identity at home and gain recognition abroad.
- National style
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), the leading twentieth-century Czech composer, created a specifically national style through a distinctive melodic idiom based on peasant speech and song and through procedures more similar to Musorgsky’s or Debussy’s than to Germanic tradition.
Janáček’s operas dominated the Czech stage between the world wars and later became part of the international repertory.
- Finland: Jean Sibelius
In the 1890s, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) established his reputation as Finland’s leading composer through symphonic poems on Finnish topics, then wrote seven symphonies and a violin concerto for an international audience. He created a distinctive sound marked by modal melodies, simple rhythms, repetition, pedal points, and strong contrasts.
- Russia: Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin
The works of Russian composers Rachmaninov and Scriabin illustrate the wide variety of personal styles in this period.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943), a virtuoso pianist, is best known for his piano music.
- Prelude in G Minor
Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Minor (1903) illustrates his ability to create innovative textures and individual melodies within traditional harmonies and ABA' form. Music: NAWM 157
Rachmaninov’s music retains elements from the Romantic tradition and combines them with a unique approach to melodies and textures.
Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) began by writing in the manner of Chopin and gradually evolved an innovative harmonic vocabulary in which a complex chord can serve as a kind of tonic.
- Vers la flamme
Scriabin’s unique harmonic process is illustrated in his tone poem for piano, Vers la flamme (Toward the Flame), Op. 72. Music: NAWM 158
II. Tonal and Post-Tonal Music (CHWM 540–52, NAWM 160–63)
Strauss, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, and other composers active in this period wrote tonal music. Others, including Debussy, Falla, Janáček, and Scriabin, wrote in post-tonal idioms that moved beyond common practice tonality.
- Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) moved beyond tonality to atonality and then to the twelve-tone method.
- Tonal works
Schoenberg began by writing tonal music in a late Romantic style.
Biography: Arnold Schoenberg
Schoenberg was born in Vienna, where he studied violin as a boy and received minimal instruction in theory and composition. After moving to Berlin, where he worked at a cabaret and taught composition, he returned to Vienna, where he taught Alban Berg and Anton Webern and became acquainted with expressionist painters. Schoenberg formulated the twelve-tone method in the 1920s. After the Nazis came to power, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught at UCLA. Schoenberg was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century.
- Developing variation
After turning toward chamber music, Schoenberg applied the principle of developing variation to his own works.
Schoenberg asked of each work that it not simply repeat but build on the past.
- Atonal music
Schoenberg’s experimentation with novel harmonic progressions led to what he called "the emancipation of dissonance," since dissonances were freed of the need to resolve to consonance, and in 1908, he began to compose pieces that others called atonal.
- Coherence in atonal music
To organize atonal music, Schoenberg relied on developing variation, the integration of harmony and melody, and chromatic saturation, as well as gestures from tonal music.
- Compositional process
To integrate melody and harmony, Schoenberg manipulated the notes and intervals of motives to create chords and new melodies.
- Pitch-class sets
Schoenberg generated melodies and harmonies for a composition from sets, or pitch-class sets.
In Context: Expressionism
In the early twentieth century, some German and Austrian painters embraced expressionism, which developed from the subjectivity of Romanticism. Expressionist painters aspired to convey an introspective experience. Schoenberg and Berg, two leading exponents of expressionism in music, deployed angular melodies, fragmented rhythms, and discordant harmonies to convey extreme and irrational states of mind.
- Chromatic saturation
Atonal music can be shaped through chromatic saturation, the appearance of all twelve pitch-classes within a segment of music.
- Atonal works
Schoenberg’s one-character opera Erwartung (1909) exemplifies expressionism, which portrayed extreme emotions through dissonances and exaggerated gestures and pushed nonrepetition to an extreme.
- Pierrot lunaire
Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot, 1912) is a song cycle for a woman’s voice and chamber ensemble.
Sprechstimme ("speaking voice") is a style of performing that approximates written pitches in the gliding tones of speech, while following the notated rhythm exactly. Pierrot lunaire has expressionist features (such as Sprechstimme) and uses many traditional elements. Music: NAWM 160
A Closer Look: Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, Op. 25
Schoenberg’s Piano Suite illustrates some of his methods, such as division of the row into segments (here, three tetrachords, or groups of four notes) that are used as sets, analogies between row transpositions and keys, and references to tonal music. Music: NAWM 161
- Twelve-tone method
Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone method to lend formal coherence to atonal music without text. The basis of a twelve-tone composition is a row or series that can be used in its original, or prime, form but also in inversion, in retrograde, and in retrograde inversion.
- Return to form
In his twelve-tone music, Schoenberg evoked traditional forms and the structural functions of tonality by focusing on motives, themes, and long-range repetition.
- Schoenberg as modernist
The problems Schoenberg addressed as a modernist and the way he faced them did much to shape musical practice in the twentieth century.
- The Second Viennese school
Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern are known as the Second Viennese School.
- Alban Berg
Alban Berg (1885–1935) adopted Schoenberg’s atonal and twelve-tone methods but achieved greater popularity by infusing his music with the familiar forms, expressive gestures, and characteristic styles of tonal music.
Wozzeck (premiered in 1925) is an expressionist opera in three acts with continuous music and orchestral interludes linking acts. Berg highlights the drama and organizes the music through the use of leitmotives, or pitch-class sets identified with the main characters, and traditional forms. References to tonality and familiar types of music helped him to convey strong emotions in a language that listeners could understand. Music: NAWM 162
- Twelve-tone works
In his twelve-tone works, Berg often chose rows that allowed for tonal-sounding chords and chord progressions.
- Violin Concerto
Berg designed the row of the Violin Concerto (1935) with four interlocking minor and major triads, which gives this twelve-tone work a familiar sound.
- Anton Webern
Anton Webern (1883–1945) was trained as a musicologist and absorbed ideas about music history that influenced his development as a composer.
- View of music history
Webern believed that twelve-tone music was the inevitable result of music’s historical evolution.
- Webern’s style
Webern’s style passed through the stages of late Romantic chromaticism, atonality, and twelve-tone organization.
- Economy of means
Webern sought to write deeply expressive music, yet his music is extremely concentrated. His works are usually brief, spare in texture, canonic, and without tonal references.
- Symphony, Op. 21
The first movement of Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, illustrates his use of twelve-tone procedures, canons, instrumentation, form, and Klangfarbenmelodie. Music: NAWM 163
The first movement of Webern’s symphony exemplifies Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody).
Webern never gained wide popularity, but his reputation and his influence on other composers grew steadily after World War II.
Postlude (CHWM 553–54)
The music of the early twentieth century was remarkably diverse, and its reception has varied. While some of this music may sound late Romantic in spirit or technique, all of it is modern in its overwhelming sense of measuring itself against the past.