Styles & Forms | Contemporary | Classical Music

The Contemporary era can be dated back to Anton Webern’s death in September 1945. Webern’s influence on the generation of post-Second World War composers means that much of the music from the 1950s sounds more modern than music from the last 20 years.

Composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) and Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) extended the 12-note, or serial, principles of Webern to all the elements of music: not only pitch, but duration (the basic component of rhythm), timbre (instrumental colour) and dynamics (loudness). The results of this method, in works such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1957), scored for three spatially separated orchestras with their own conductors, could be explosive, if seldom easy on the ear.

Post-modernism And Messiaen

The widespread influence of this method was short-lived, so that by the mid-1960s a wide range of possible styles lay open to composers. This eclecticism, the increasing influence of non-Western music in particular, is the essential quality of an artistic philosophy that has come to be known as post-modernism. This phenomenon has led some commentators to pronounce the Western tradition well and truly dead, while in the minds of others, it is the path of renewal.

Olivier Messiaen (1908–92) towers above the contemporary era. In his analysis classes at the Paris Conservatoire in the late-1940s, he introduced many of the movers and shakers of the next generation, among them Boulez and Stockhausen, to the music of Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. His influence on music of the post-war period would be profound had it stopped there. But by that time, Messiaen, a devout Catholic, had evolved a unique compositional idiom to communicate a powerful, personal vision of God. This was sometimes apocalyptic, as in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (‘Quartet For The End Of Time’) (1940), composed and first performed in a Nazi prison camp, and sometimes erotic, as in the joyous, 10-movement Turangalîla-symphonie (1948).

Conceived on a vast scale, many of his works take up an entire concert programme. His musical language is founded on a highly individual modal approach to harmony; a conception of rhythm that owes more to the principles of Indian classical music than to the West, and a melodic voice that owes almost everything to his love of ornithology and a painstaking ear. Over many decades, Messiaen accurately notated thousands of bird songs, and reproduced these extremely complex melodies verbatim in pieces from the 1950s onwards, often densely layered on top of each other. In works such as the lustrous orchestral piece Des canyons aux étoiles (‘From The Canyons To The Stars’) (1974), the most striking element is Messiaen’s sense of time, which owes more to a pervasive idea of eternity than the strictly measured periods of the Western world.

The Influence Of Asia

Messiaen’s absorption of aspects of Indian music is just one instance of how Asian philosophy and music has changed Western musical practice since the 1960s. During...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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