Modernism (music)

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Modernism in music is characterized by a desire for or belief in progress and science, surrealism, anti-romanticism, political advocacy, general intellectualism, and/or a breaking with tradition or common practice. Ezra Pound's modernist slogan, "Make it new," in music. Modern music is often thought to begin with, or just after, Debussy's impressionism, rising to rhetorical, if not commercial, dominance after World War Two, and then being gradually superseded by post-modern music.


Defining musical modernism

Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus restricted his definition of musical modernism to progressive music in the period 1890-1910: "The year 1890...lends itself as an obvious point of historical discontinuity....The "breakthrough" of Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy implies a profound historical transformation....If we were to search for a name to convey the breakaway mood of the 1890's (a mood symbolized musically by the opening bars of Strauss's Don Juan) but without imposing a fictitious unity of style on the age, we could do worse than revert to [the] term "modernism" extending (with some latitude) from the 1890 to the beginnings of our own twentieth-century modern music in 1910....The label "late romanticism" a terminological blunder of the first order and ought to be abandoned forthwith. It is absurd to yoke Strauss, Mahler, and the young Schoenberg, composers who represent modernism in the minds of their turn-of-the-century contemporaries, with the self-proclaimed anti-modernist Pfitzner, calling them all "late romantics" in order to supply a veneer of internal unity to an age fraught with stylistic contradictions and conflicts."

Thus, Daniel Albright (2004) dates musical modernism from 1894-5 (Debussy's Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche), and considers musical modernism's main features to be:

  1. Comprehensiveness and depth.
  2. Semantic specificity and density.
  3. Extensions and destructions of tonality.

However, as an alternative to this definition Albright proposes: "Modernism is a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction." Besides eliminating the progress meta-narrative of the above definition, this definition is also capable of application to more the music, artists, and movements considered modernist: Expressionism & New Objectivity, Hyperrealism & Abstractionism, Neoclassicism & Neobarbarism, Futurism & the Mythic Method.

The modern music would, in turn, give rise to postmodernism. Albright cites John Cage's 1951 composition of Music of Changes as the beginning of post-modern music.

Examples of modernism in music

Expansion and destruction of tonality

Modernist movements include expansion to common practice tonality, such as Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, the young Schoenberg, and the polytonality of Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and Ives. Alternatives to common practice include the twelve tone technique of the older Arnold Schoenberg and pupils, the serialism of Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, as well as the high dissonance of Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and Charles Seeger's dissonant counterpoint and Henry Cowell's tone clusters.

Comprehensiveness and depth

Gustav Mahler attempted extreme comprehensiveness and depth, to write the music of the whole world.

Science and sci-fi

Futurists such as Ferruccio Busoni and Luigi Russolo looked to a future of music liberated to the point of being able to use any sound, even "noises" such as factory and mechanical sounds, while Edgard Varese gave his pieces scientific names such as Hyperprism and Intégrales, comparing the musical structures to crystals, before creating electronic tape pieces such as Poème Électronique, premiered in the Le Corbusier designed Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair with 400 speakers, designed with assistance by Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis himself applied mathematical concepts to the composition of music.

Extended techniques and sounds

John Cage and Lou Harrison wrote works for percussion orchestras, Harrison eventually writing for and building gamelans, while Cage popularized extended techniques on the piano in his prepared piano pieces. Harry Partch built his own ensemble of instruments, mostly percussion and string instruments, to allow the performance of his theatrical ("corporeal") justly tuned microtonal music. Alois Haba specialized in alternative equal temperaments rather than the standard twelve-tone equal temperament and Ives wrote quarter tone pieces for piano.

Speech and singing

One of the aesthetical boundaries tested was that between speech and singing, with composers such as Leos Janacek, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Harry Partch suggesting greater attention to and use of speech in music. Berg wrote Wozzeck using Schoenberg's Spreichsteime, Janacek based his melodies and motifs upon rhythms and inflections of Hungarian speech, and Partch devised his first just intonation instruments partly so as to play the fine pitch inflections of speech.

Artists who were non-professional composers also wrote music with an emphasis on speech. Ezra Pound wrote a monophonically chanted opera, T.S. Eliot wrote "The Music of Poetry" (1942), while dada artist Kurt Schwitters wrote "speech-music" that proved highly influential on later sound poets such as Ursonate: Rondo (1921-32), based on a single word, fmsbwtözäu, from a Raoul Hausmann poem.

Visual art and music

Schoenberg was a painter, while dada and futurist visual artists such as Jean Cocteau and Luigi Russolo wrote music. Theodor Adorno accused Igor Stravinsky's music of being a "pseudomorphism of painting." Xenakis created the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair after his earlier piece Metastasis. The ballet became more respected during the modernist period, see Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, and the development of the film industry created a market and outlet for film composers such as communist Hanns Eisler who borrowed Brecht and Weill's ideas of alienation from the theater.


Many modernists are ardent individualists, such as Varese, transcendentalist Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, who became an expatriot in Mexico after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and Elliott Carter. Carter composes atonal music with complex rhythms and often highly individualized parts, but refuses to be confined by writing twelve tone or serial music.

Ethnomusicology and political advocacy

Bela Bartok devoted much of his time to the study and preservation in recording of Hungarian folk music, which influenced his music, while Ruth Crawford-Seeger abandoned modernist composition for years while working as an ethnomusicologist studying, transcribing, and setting folk music.

The Seegers were communists, while Ives was, politically, blatantly populist, if androcentric, and considered that some insurance should be affordable for everyone. He petitioned William Howard Taft in 1920 to transform the presidential election into a national referendum. Schoenberg wrote a Zionist play about the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Africa. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was one of the first fascists in Italy.


Igor Stravinsky abandoned the "Dyonysian" modernism of his early work The Rite of Spring for a more "Apollonian" neo-classicism. Aaron Copland shifted from a highly dissonant modernist style to the populism of many of his works.

George Perle sees a "common practice" in the, "shared premise of the harmonic equivalence of inversionally symmetrical pitch-class relations," among modernist composers such as Varese, Alban Berg, Bartok, Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Anton Webern.

See: List of modernistic pieces

History of modernism in music

Late 19th century origins

As with many other arts, the consciousness of modernity appeared before music which is now labelled "modernist". Mahler and Puccini both thought of themselves as modern composers and were concerned with their place in modern music. The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century saw a host of harmonic, melodic and instrumental innovations in music, but in an effort to preserve and build upon the past, rather than radically alter it.

The defining break with the Victorian and Romantic tradition was the alliance of music with the depiction of new subjects, removing old unities, and with an intent to push the audience forward. The rise of musical modernism can be tied to the rise of expressionism, primitivism and cubism in the arts, Freudian theory in philosophy and the range of other artistic and scientific ideas which flowered forth from 1890 through the beginning of the First World War. There was a conscious sense of seeing an analog between changes in music and changes in the other arts among the first wave of musical modernists.

The transitional moment came with the introduction by Debussy and Ravel of an expanded chord vocabulary now labelled "impressionism", this movement in painting and music is generally regarded as transitional, because while the intent was aesthetic appeal, its means were a departure from the formal, some might say academic, norms which held in the arts. While initially controversial, Impressionism became widely acceptable very quickly in all but the most conservative of artistic circles. However, the precedent for a radical break with previous technique had been set.

Another transitional force was the synthesis by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler of the music of Wagner. By detatching Wagner's musical innovations from the setting of the musical drama, Strauss and Mahler excited a generation of composers eager to use the broader range of chromatic possibilities which their techniques offered.

A third, and less carefully examined, road into musical modernism was the progressively percussive use of the orchestra found in both Italian Opera and in Russian concert music. Rimsky-Korsakov is not generally thought of as a percursor to Modernism, however, by using a wider range of scales, and a brighter, more forcefully orchestra, he would be a profound influence on Igor Stravinsky and other young Russians who would depart from the past.

Alternative categorizations

Despite Albright's definitions he points out examples of his three traits of modernism long before 1894. Orlando Gibbons' The Cries of Love, Haydn's The Creation, and many romantic works attempt maximal comprehensiveness and depth, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Semantic specificity has always existed, such as in Clement Janequin's Le chant des oyseaulx (birds), Alessandro Poglietti's Rossignolo (nightingale), Vivaldi's Four Seasons (barking dog), Beethoven's Sixth (birds), or Haydn's The Seasons (frog croaks). Composers have long used semantic density to indicate disorder, while Nicolas Gombert has used four voices singing four simultaneous different antiphons to the Virgin Mary, as would be heard by the omniscient Mary. Chromaticism has existed since the Greeks in some conception or another, such as Carlo Gesualdo's Tristis est anima mea. Nicola Vicentino built an archicembalo, a microtonal keyboard.

Albright also points out that there are few traits of postmodernism not present in modernism. Erik Satie and the neoclassicism of Stravinsky is sometimes near indistinguishable with bricolage and polystylism. Surrealist Marcel Duchamp wrote chance music while Cage was still into percussion.


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl, ed. with commentary (). Nineteenth-Century Music, p.334. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press.



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