Styles & Forms | Twentieth Century | Classical Music

By the turn of the twentieth century, Western classical music seemed to have reached a crisis in language. Tonality had become enfeebled by its own progressive tendency, via increasing chromaticism, toward subtler and more complex forms of expression. European society had become similarly enervated by the familiar comforts of a bourgeois existence.

In many quarters across the Continent, before war was imminent, there was a sense that a cataclysm was needed in order for things to change.

The Loss Of A Common Language

In 1900, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation Of Dreams, the book that ushered in his revolutionary psychiatric method of psychoanalysis. The subsequent awareness of the unconscious mind contradicted notions of the supremacy of the will that underpinned so much nineteenth-century thought – in particular, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche – and made itself felt in much late-nineteenth-century music. The exhaustion of the tonal system, for example, forced composers to confront the loss of a common language. In the various solutions they found, we can now see that what had been lost was not just language, but whole realms of experience that several centuries of increasing civilization had either obscured or annulled.

Sound For Sounds’ Sake

If the giddy expansion of tonality at the end of the nineteenth century held composers in a kind of spell, the first to break it was a Frenchman. Beginning with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to an afternoon of the faun’), a brief orchestral work whose 1894 premiere caused a scandal, Claude Debussy (1862–1918) adopted a radical new approach to harmony. He freed chords from their place within a functional, tonal hierarchy of keys, valuing them instead for their own intrinsic beauty or interest. In La Cathédrale engloutie (‘The Sunken Cathedral’), a piece from the first book of Préludes (1910) for solo piano, a series of rising chords made up of fourths and fifths depicts a medieval cathedral rising from the waves in a passage appropriately suggestive of medieval organum. The chord sequence is twice repeated over a series of descending bass notes, but it leads nowhere, giving way to a passage of entirely new material in a completely unrelated key.

After the French Impressionist painters, Debussy’s intention is to depict the phenomena or sensations of the physical world, using resources that have no meaning within the tonal system. To this end, he frequently employs modes such as the pentatonic scale, or even the tonally neutral whole-tone scale. In Voiles (‘Veils’), for instance, from the same book of Préludes, a fragmentary, whole-tone melody is subtly suggestive of the sensual movements of an exotic dancer. Like so much of Debussy’s music, the piece seems aimless because it has no aim: it exists for and in the moment.

The Vitality Of Folk Music

In the late-nineteenth century, composers from countries on the musical periphery of Europe increasingly turned to their own native folk music, adjusted to fit the tonal system,...

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


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