Classical Music: The 20th Century and Beyond

The twentieth century saw massive change in the world of classical music. One of the first composers to seize upon the advances in recording technology that it brought was the English composer Edward Elgar. In his lifetime he oversaw the recording, and in some cases as technology advanced still further re-recording, of many of his works. Between the ‘wireless’ and the gramophone, for the first time ever people didn’t have to go out to hear orchestral music, or have someone around who could play them the piano – all they needed was the requisite technology. Whereas once you might have heard a favourite piece only three or four times in your life – if you were lucky, and if the piece were popular – now you could play it over and over again to your heart’s content.

There is no question that this has changed the way we listen to music. At a concert there are few distractions: it’s just you and the music. Of course, you can ‘just’ listen to music at home – turn it on, lie down on the sofa and focus on the music to the exclusion of all else – but it’s surprisingly difficult to do. Often we play music while we’re doing something else, half-listening while we drive, cook dinner, read a book, or talk with friends, tuning in and out and missing bits. On the other hand, if you’re at a concert and you don’t like the music you’re a bit stuck: if you leave you’ve wasted the cost of your admission and might miss something good later on, so you just have to tough it out whether you like it or not – and modern classical music has managed to garner a reputation for being all too easy to dislike.

Changing technology has also introduced us to a range of new instruments including the saxophone (1840), electric guitar (1933), the modern drum kit (which evolved progressively from the 1880s), and the musical synthesisers of the 1960s. These have been incorporated most noticeably into the vast array of musical styles which have developed from the tradition of folk music to form the popular music scene today, but can also be found in some more ‘classical’ pieces, such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which is piano-heavy but incorporates saxophone and subtle drum effects at multiple points (the opening solo can be played on saxophone ).

Beyond the introduction of recording technology and new instruments, new developments in the classical music of the 20th century have included an increasing academic influence as young musicians and composers follow their passions into tertiary education where they learn vastly more about music than I will ever know. Unfortunately, one side effect of this is that academics, particularly younger ones, have an overwhelming urge to be clever, and few people like a smarty-pants (believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way).

Atonality, pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), attempts to move away from the idea of dominant key structures (do-re-mi) as a guide to melody and harmony and into a world in which all notes have equal value and are all used equally. Suffice it to say this nobly democratic impulse is as radical a development as the introduction of tonality at the dawn of the Baroque, and time will tell whether it proves as popular. Six Little Piano Pieces is reckoned to be a good example of the style.

Minimalism, which first emerged in America, uses small chunks of melody with detailed rhythm repeated many times with subtle variations. At its best it can be beautiful, evoking a sense of atmosphere and emotion as intense as that of Impressionism a generation before (and often used in soundtracks for that very reason). But nothing is at its best all the time: John Cage’s 4 Minutes, 33 Seconds involves a performer sitting at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing anything before taking a bow and walking off. It’s supposed to be deep and insightful and encourage the listener into a meditative contemplation of the ambient noise in the surrounding environment. I flat-out don’t get it, but this guy’s enthusiasm for Minimalism in general is infectious.

Mondrian Composition with R B Y 1930
Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow’ (1930) is one of the most famous examples of Minimalist art.

As he said, today, television and movies are the places where people are most likely to encounter classical music that they can understand and enjoy, albeit as the background to the action on-screen. But composers for the screen do a wonderful job of matching their music to the mood and images being portrayed, enhancing the overall experience of the audience. If you don’t believe me, pay attention to the soundtrack playing in the background of the next movie you watch. Once you start noticing it you’ll almost certainly be impressed by the skill and subtlety of whoever composed and conducted it.

In the 21st century classical music today has largely moved to the margins of the music scene and has a serious image problem: when most pop songs have a play time of around 3-4 minutes, and even traditional hymns are being shortened by slashing multiple verses, is it any wonder that people come to feel they ‘don’t have time’ to listen to longer classical pieces? When popular music has simple, catchy tunes and lyrics, the subtle nuances and slow development of classical music can’t compete. And when you get a reputation for being elitist, snobbish and boring, arguably you’re pretty much doomed. But one thing I’ve learned through the Culture Project is that classical music isn’t boring, or elitist, or a waste of time. It’s hugely varied, interesting and enjoyable, and the more time I make for it the more I enjoy it.

Do you enjoy classical music? If so, where did your interest come from? What are some of your favourite composers or pieces? If not, what might inspire you to begin exploring it?

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