Styles & Forms | Modern Era | Classical

Nineteenth-century music had developed with an unprecedented awareness of its own history, and by 1900 the European musical legacy seemed as permanent and unshakeable as the institutions – the opera houses, concert halls and conservatories – that nurtured it.

Above all, classical tonality and its associated forms and genres, now the everyday stuff of textbooks, had acquired for the majority the status of an entirely natural musical language. Though challenges to this apparently stable order had been evident late in the nineteenth century, it was in the first decade of the twentieth that their full impact was felt. The result amounted to the most far-reaching changes music had experienced for 300 years.

Radical Change

These changes took a variety of forms. Some composers completely abandoned the pitch materials of tonal music – major and minor scales, triads and other standard harmonic combinations – along with the formal and rhythmic structures associated with them. Some deployed those familiar materials in unfamiliar ways, assigning them new structural and functional roles. Others looked elsewhere – to the distant past, folk traditions and the new popular styles – for the means to enrich their language. Still others looked beyond the realm of sounds hitherto regarded as ‘musical’, turning to the noise available from percussion instruments, or from mechanical or environmental sources.

Many composers, too, continued to write in an essentially tonal, late-Romantic style. But increasingly they did so from conscious aesthetic choice, rather than mere instinct or habit. Style was no longer something unthinkingly inherited, but rather something consciously adopted or even invented. Nothing is more striking about twentieth-century composition than this heightened self-consciousness on the part of its creators.

Departing from Tonality

During the nineteenth century, it was the very stability of tonality, the familiarity to composers and listeners of its network of stable functional relationships, that had allowed the progressively wider exploration of its possibilities. Early in the century composers started to make regular use of modulations to distantly related keys, while in the music of Wagner especially, the perfect cadence, the conventional key defining motion from the dominant to the tonic chord, was increasingly avoided in favour of less conclusive ways of marking the ends of phrases or even of longer musical paragraphs. The tonic, in other words, was often merely implied rather than actually stated. At other times, it was the sheer number of chromatic alterations, notes not belonging to the harmony or key being asserted, that set the identity of that harmony into question.

Extended Tonality

The consequences of this ‘extended tonality’ are evident, too, in Schoenberg’s early works. In the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1902–03), on the other hand, the pervasive contrapuntal interweaving of the work’s chromatic leitmotifs makes for an uncertain tonal foundation. Five years later a decisive break was made: in the last movement of the Second String Quartet (1907–08), Schoenberg noted how ‘the overall multitude of dissonances cannot be counterbalanced any longer by occasional returns to such tonal triads as represent a...

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