Modernism (music)  

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Pierre Boulez dates the awakening of modern music from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."

"an obvious point of historical discontinuity....The "breakthrough" of Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy implies a profound historical transformation.... If we were to search for a name to convey the breakaway mood of the 1890s (a mood symbolized musically by the opening bars of Strauss's Don Juan) but without imposing a fictitious unity of style on the age, we could do worse than revert to Hermann Bahr's term "modernism" and speak of a stylistically open-ended "modernist music" extending (with some latitude) from 1890 to the beginnings of our own twentieth-century modern music in 1910." --Carl Dahlhaus

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Modernism in music is characterized by a desire for or belief in progress and science, surrealism, anti-romanticism, political advocacy, general intellectualism, and/or a breaking with tradition or common practice. It is Ezra Pound's modernist slogan, "Make it new," applied to music.

Examples include the celebration of Arnold Schoenberg's rejection of tonality and Igor Stravinsky's move away from metrical rhythm

Frequently modern music is thought to begin with, or just after, Debussy's impressionism, rising to rhetorical, if not commercial, dominance after World War Two, and then being gradually superseded by postmodern music.


Defining musical modernism

Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus restricted his definition of musical modernism to progressive music in the period 1890-1910: "The year 1890...lends itself as an obvious point of historical discontinuity....The "breakthrough" of Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy implies a profound historical transformation....If we were to search for a name to convey the breakaway mood of the 1890s (a mood symbolized musically by the opening bars of Strauss's Don Juan) but without imposing a fictitious unity of style on the age, we could do worse than revert to [the] term "modernism" extending (with some latitude) from the 1890 to the beginnings of our own twentieth-century modern music in 1910....The label "late romanticism" a terminological blunder of the first order and ought to be abandoned forthwith. It is absurd to yoke Strauss, Mahler, and the young Schoenberg, composers who represent modernism in the minds of their turn-of-the-century contemporaries, with the self-proclaimed anti-modernist Pfitzner, calling them all "late romantics" in order to supply a veneer of internal unity to an age fraught with stylistic contradictions and conflicts."

Thus, Daniel Albright (2004) dates musical modernism from 1894-5 (Debussy's Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche), and considers musical modernism's main features to be:

  1. Comprehensiveness and depth.
  2. Semantic specificity and density.
  3. Extensions and destructions of tonality.

However, as an alternative to this definition Albright proposes: "Modernism is a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction." Besides eliminating the progress meta-narrative of the above definition, this definition is also capable of application to more the music, artists, and movements considered modernist: Expressionism & New Objectivity, Hyperrealism & Abstractionism, Neoclassicism & Neobarbarism, Futurism & the mythic Method.

The modern music would, in turn, give rise to postmodernism. Albright cites John Cage's 1951 composition of Music of Changes as the beginning of post-modern music.

Examples of modernism in music

See: List of modernistic pieces.

  • Expansion and destruction of tonality

Modernist movements include expansion to common practice tonality, such as Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, the young Schoenberg, and the polytonality of Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and Charles Ives. Alternatives to common practice include the twelve tone technique of the older Arnold Schoenberg and pupils, the serialism of Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, as well as the high dissonance of Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and Charles Seeger's dissonant counterpoint and Henry Cowell's tone clusters.

  • Comprehensiveness and depth

Gustav Mahler attempted extreme comprehensiveness and depth, to write the music of the whole world.

  • Science and sci-fi

Futurists such as Ferruccio Busoni and Luigi Russolo looked to a future of music liberated to the point of being able to use any sound, even "noises" such as factory and mechanical sounds, while Edgard Varèse gave his pieces scientific names such as Hyperprism and Intégrales, comparing the musical structures to crystals, before creating electronic tape pieces such as Poème Électronique, premiered in the Le Corbusier designed Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair with 400 speakers, designed with assistance by Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis himself applied mathematical concepts to the composition of music.

  • Extended techniques and sounds

John Cage and Lou Harrison wrote works for percussion orchestras, Harrison eventually writing for and building gamelans, while Cage popularized extended techniques on the piano in his prepared piano pieces. Harry Partch built his own ensemble of instruments, mostly percussion and string instruments, to allow the performance of his theatrical ("corporeal") justly tuned microtonal music. Alois Haba specialized in alternative equal temperaments rather than the standard twelve-tone equal temperament and Ives wrote quarter tone pieces for piano.

  • Speech and singing

One of the aesthetical boundaries tested was that between speech and singing, with composers such as Leoš Janáček, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Harry Partch suggesting greater attention to and use of speech in music. Berg wrote Wozzeck using Schoenberg's Sprechstimme, Janacek based his melodies and motifs upon rhythms and inflections of Hungarian speech, and Partch devised his first just intonation instruments partly so as to play the fine pitch inflections of speech.Luciano Berio explored all manner of vocal sounds in his piece Sequenza III for solo female voice. It was written for and performed by his wife Cathy.

Artists who were non-professional composers also wrote music with an emphasis on speech. Ezra Pound wrote a monophonically chanted opera, T.S. Eliot wrote "The Music of Poetry" (1942), while dada artist Kurt Schwitters wrote "speech-music" that proved highly influential on later sound poets. For example Schwitters' Ursonate (1921-32) develops from words like "fmsbwtözäu", taken from the "poster-poems" of Raoul Hausmann.

  • Visual art and music

Schoenberg was a painter, while dada and futurist visual artists such as Jean Cocteau and Luigi Russolo wrote music. Theodor Adorno accused Igor Stravinsky's music of being a "pseudomorphism of painting." Xenakis created the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair after his earlier piece Metastasis. The ballet became more respected during the modernist period, see Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, and the development of the film industry created a market and outlet for film composers such as communist Hanns Eisler who borrowed Brecht and Weill's ideas of alienation from the theater.

  • Individualism

Many modernists are ardent individualists, such as Varèse, transcendentalist Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, who became an expatriot in Mexico after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and Elliott Carter. Carter composes atonal music with complex rhythms and often highly individualized parts, but refuses to be confined by writing twelve tone or serial music.

  • Ethnomusicology and political advocacy

Béla Bartók devoted much of his time to the study and preservation in recording of Hungarian folk music, which influenced his music, while Ruth Crawford-Seeger abandoned modernist composition for years while working as an ethnomusicologist studying, transcribing, and setting folk music.

The Seegers were communists, while Ives was, politically, blatantly populist, if androcentric, and considered that some insurance should be affordable for everyone. He petitioned William Howard Taft in 1920 to transform the presidential election into a national referendum. Schoenberg wrote a Zionist play about the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Africa. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was one of the first fascists in Italy.

  • Neoclassicism

Igor Stravinsky abandoned the "Dionysian" modernism of his early work The Rite of Spring for a more "Apollonian" neo-classicism. Aaron Copland shifted from a highly dissonant modernist style to the populism of many of his works.

George Perle sees a "common practice" in the "shared premise of the harmonic equivalence of inversionally symmetrical pitch-class relations" among modernist composers such as Varèse, Alban Berg, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern.

History of modernism in music

Late 19th century origins

As with many other arts, the consciousness of modernity appeared before music which is now labelled "modernist". Mahler and Puccini both thought of themselves as modern composers and were concerned with their place in modern music. The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century saw a host of harmonic, melodic and instrumental innovations in music, but in an effort to preserve and build upon the past, rather than radically alter it.

The defining break with the Victorian and Romantic tradition was the alliance of music with the depiction of new subjects, removing old unities, and with an intent to push the audience forward. The rise of musical modernism can be tied to the rise of expressionism, primitivism and cubism in the arts, Freudian theory in philosophy and the range of other artistic and scientific ideas which flowered forth from 1890 through the beginning of the First World War. There was a conscious sense of seeing an analog between changes in music and changes in the other arts among the first wave of musical modernists.

The transitional moment came with the introduction by Debussy and Ravel of an expanded chord vocabulary now labelled "impressionism", this movement in painting and music is generally regarded as transitional, because while the intent was aesthetic appeal, its means were a departure from the formal, some might say academic, norms which held in the arts. While initially controversial, Impressionism became widely acceptable very quickly in all but the most conservative of artistic circles. However, the precedent for a radical break with previous technique had been set.

Another transitional force was the synthesis by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler of the music of Wagner. By detaching Wagner's musical innovations from the setting of the musical drama, Strauss and Mahler excited a generation of composers eager to use the broader range of chromatic possibilities which their techniques offered.

A third, and less carefully examined, road into musical modernism was the progressively more percussive use of the orchestra found in both Italian opera and in Russian concert music. While Rimsky-Korsakov is not generally thought of as a precursor to Modernism, some of his innovations were influential on the young Igor Stravinsky as well as other young Russians of the early 20th century. These included a use of exotic scales rarely seen in western music, as well as a brighter, colorful style of orchestration increasingly reliant on percussion for its effect.

Alternative categorizations

Despite Albright's definitions he points out examples of his three traits of modernism long before 1894. Orlando Gibbons' The Cries of London, Joseph Haydn's The Creation, and many romantic works attempt maximal comprehensiveness and depth, such as Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Semantic specificity has always existed, such as in Clément Janequin's Le chant des oiseaux (birds), Alessandro Poglietti's Rossignolo (nightingale), Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (barking dog), Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (birds), or Haydn's The Seasons (frog croaks). Composers have long used semantic density to indicate disorder, while Nicolas Gombert has used four voices singing four simultaneous different antiphons to the Virgin Mary, as would be heard by the omniscient Mary. Chromaticism has existed since the Greeks in some conception or another, such as Carlo Gesualdo's Tristis est anima mea.

Albright also points out that there are few traits of postmodernism not present in modernism. Erik Satie and the neoclassicism of Stravinsky is sometimes near indistinguishable with bricolage and polystylism. Surrealist Marcel Duchamp wrote chance music while Cage was still into percussion.

Musical modernism's reception and controversy

Many people have criticized musical modernism, including George Rochberg and Fred Lerdahl. Stanley Cavell (1976, p.187) describes the "burden of modernism" as caused by a situation wherein the "procedures and problems it now seems necessary to composers to employ and confront to make a work of art at all themselves insure that their work will not be comprehensible to an audience."

Brian Ferneyhough coined the neologism "too-muchness" to describe the excess of information contained in music exhibiting the New Complexity. Arved Ashby compares the information conveyed when "Modernism Goes to the Movies" (2004) with the failure to communicate attributed to modernist music by Lerdahl and others and concludes that "the tendency to fault modernist music [for being non-syntactical] would seem, then, to stem from interrelated desires to limit the powers of music in general and to prevent it from keeping pace with the sociogenetic, media-related tendencies of recent decades."


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  • Ashby, Arved (2004). "Modernism Goes to the Movies", The Pleasure of Modernist Music, p.345-386. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl, ed. with commentary (). Nineteenth-Century Music, p.334. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Cavell, (1976). "Music Discomposed", Must We Mean What We Say?. Cited in The Pleasure of Modernist Music, p.146n13. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.

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