Music history

A History of Classical Music – Part 5: Modern

Still Life with Mandolin – Pablo Picasso (Guggenheim Museum, New York)

‘Modern’ classical music is a broad term, referring to music composed from around the turn of the twentieth-century to present-day (music composed now is usually called ‘contemporary’). Like modern art, modern music is all about breaking the rules.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, music was generally ‘romantic’ in style, but composers such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius were pushing the boundaries of music beyond pure romantic, while French composer Claude Debussy was at the forefront of a new movement in music called ‘Impressionism’. Many composers reacted to the romantic movement and branched out into many different styles, drawing influences from many different sources, including Eastern music and jazz, and experimenting with new ways of writing music, new sounds, new instruments and new orchestration. The real turning point came in 1910 when Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet called Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) which was unlike anything else that had come before it. Audiences were shocked by this music, and there were even riots at some performances.

After the First World War (1914-18) some composers returned to the influences and structures of earlier periods of music: this is usually referred to as “neoclassicism”. But others continued to explore new ideas. With the advent of electronic technology, some composers became more and more experimental.

Modern music can seem difficult to listen to because of its unusual harmonies, chords, rhythm or lack of clear melody (tune) and structure. However, because it is so different, it is also exciting and unusual, highly varied and often very complex. One very famous piece by American composer John Cage doesn’t even sound like music. Entitled 4’33” It is called 4’33, it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence! And some Modern music is just a joke, such as this piece for orchestra and typewriter:

Modern Classical Music playlist (a Spotify playlist)


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