Not So New at All Any More

Contemporary classical music: a short history of the sound of the 20th century

It’s really something of a truism: music history is full of new music. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven wrote one new piece after another: unlike today, when people prefer to listen to classics from the past, an 18th or 19th century audience constantly called for premieres of new works. Thus it seems a little odd to attach the label »new« to an entire period of music history. What we mean is  »contemporary music«, which covers numerous different musical trends and styles of the 20th century whose harmonic and tonal innovations were felt at the time to be radical in the extreme.

Historical preconditions

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century

It goes without saying that all this didn’t happen out of the blue. As early as the mid-19th century, Richard Wagner advanced into harmonic worlds that could no longer be clearly classified into major and minor (as exemplified by the »Tristan chord«). Then the French impressionists Claude Debussy und Maurice Ravel started to flood music with all kinds of new tone colours from about 1890. And in 1910 Gustav Mahler finally flung open the door to modern music with his Ninth Symphony, which Alban Berg later called the first work of contemporary classical music. In the German language, »Neue Musik« (which translates to »New Music«) is used when speaking about contemporary music. The term was coined in 1919 by Paul Bekker, one of the most influential German music critics of the early 20th century.

New sounds, new rhythms

Henceforth, new departures were on the cards. In Paris Russian composer Igor Stravinsky unleashed an orgy of rhythm in 1913 with his expressionist ballet »Le sacre du printemps« – and triggered one of the biggest scandals in music history.

Reconstruction of the first performance of »Le sacre du printemps«

At roughly the same time as Mahler, Arnold Schönberg abandoned major-minor tonality completely: henceforth, he composed »atonal« music, with the Piano Pieces, Op. 11 as his first work in this new style. This development, which Schönberg pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg joined in, led circa 1920 to the method »composition with twelve notes only related to one another«, also known as twelve-note or twelve-tone technique, with which the three composers gave the reclaimed harmonic freedom a form. Together with fellow composers like Béla Bartók in Hungary and Alexander Scriabin in Russia, they created a pluralism of styles in the following years that has, in principle, continued to the present day.

Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg und Anton Webern
The »Big Three« of twelve-note technique: Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern © Wikimedia Commons

»Degenerate music«: The Second World War

But first of all, there was a major break: the Nazi terror on the one hand and Stalinism on the other brought the development initiated by Schönberg, Berg and Webern to an abrupt end. In Nazi Germany, many contemporary music pioneers (as well as jazz artists and all composers with a Jewish background) were branded as »degenerate«, and anyone able to do so went into exile. Many of them found a new home in the USA, Schönberg, Bartók, Stravinsky und Paul Hindemith among them, while others, such as Richard Strauss and Carl Orff, tried to come to terms with the regime, or chose the path of »inner emigration«, and wrote music that was never performed.

Plakat zur Ausstellung 1938

Exhibition poster 1938

Music after 1945

Zero Hour

The greatest disaster of 20th century civilisation also caused a massive caesura in the history of music. Music philosopher Theodor W. Adorno is remembered for his 1949 comment that »It’s barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz«, and this sentiment was applied to music as well. How was a composer meant to write anything now?

A way out of this dilemma was found by freeing music of everything that had been seen as constituting its essence, but had fallen into disrepute under the Nazis: melody, emotions – none of this existed any more. Instead, music was subjected to strictly constructivist methods, where every parameter like pitch, note duration and volume was defined in advance by mathematical principles. The French composer Olivier Messiaen played a substantial role in the development of this serial music, as it was known, which was later pushed ahead by his pupil Pierre Boulez.

Pierre Boulez talks about lessons in music analysis given by Messiaen

New centres for new sounds

However, music designed along these lines was (and still is) hard to impart to people, so that centres such as the Darmstadt vacation courses and the Donaueschingen Music Festival were soon established, where modern composers could, as Karlheinz Stockhausen put it, do their thing »without any consideration for ruins and tasteless remains«. He and colleagues like Italian composer Luigi Nono, the Greek Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti from Hungary, who settled in Hamburg, were among the best-known musical figures of the time, and personify the term contemporary music as no-one else does.

Darmstädter Ferienkurse 1957
Darmstadt vacation courses 1957: Lessons with Karlheinz Stockhausen © Wikimedia Commons

A key figure of contemporary music: Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Back to beauty

But soon enough, serial music had in turn exhausted its potential. The American John Cage started experimenting with noises and randomness (chance procedures), arriving in 1952 at his key work »4′33"«, which questions the very concept of music: the musicians appear on stage, but remain silent for the duration of the piece. Other composers, such as Hans Werner Henze, went different ways and soon found the confidence to write actual chords again.

»My music doesn't necessarily have to be called music. It contains nothing memorable. No themes, just activity with sound and silence.«

John Cage

John Cage’s »4’33’’« at the Elbphilharmonie

Cage and Henze were followed in the 1970s by composers like Wolfgang Rihm, who came out in clear support of traditional techniques and believed that music should reflect emotions and have an impact on the listener. The minimal music that emerged in sixties America also managed to evolve free of historical ballast. Composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich turned constantly recurring repetitive structures into a musical principle, thus creating ecstatic music that met with a positive reception amongst a wider public.

Philip Glass
Philip Glass

Philip Glass: »Metamorphosis«

And today?

Back in 1992, John Cage referred to a river delta into which the river known as music history was now flowing. And it’s true that every composer (female composers as well, in the meantime) does his or her own thing, making a single standard term obsolete. Quite recently, German musicologist Christoph von Blumröder declared the official »end of contemporary music« – thus the title of an essay published in 2019.

We are left with one question to close the debate: What are we supposed to call the music being written today? The dilemma is mostly still solved by using the term »contemporary music«. And the adjectives »current«, »present-day« and »new« are often brought into play as well. What all these terms have in common is that they focus solely on the timeline – today; there is no attempt to classify according to quality.

But is that so bad? Not really! In the Baroque era, people were not familiar with this term yet. Let’s leave it to future generations to find a term to describe our own present.

Text: Simon Chlosta; last updated: 01.02.2021
Translation: Clive Williams
Cover picture: Iannis Xenakis / Syrmos (with the kind permission of the Edition Salabert)

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