20th Century Classical Music: A Brief History Lesson

Back to Blog
20th-century classical music had a significant impact on the artistic and cultural world. The 20th century saw many new classical music styles emerge from the previous century’s romantic period and traditional forms such as opera and symphony.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, composers responded to divided political climates around the world and technological advancements by creating new musical styles, each reflecting its own time period and culture.

The scenario of the 20th Century Classical Music Period

Right before the 20th-century music period, we were in the Romantic era. The piano was improved in several ways. A wider range of notes was added, and the tonal quality became richer and more varied. Woodwinds and brass instruments became more plentiful when the valve was developed. Romantic composers flouted Classical rules, arranging symphonies with more than four movements and composing single-movement works in various forms.

The 20th-century European political climate had a profound impact on the musical output of Western classical composers. Because the Soviet and Nazi regimes placed strict expectations on their nation’s composers, blacklisting those who did not conform and forcing them to write in styles deemed ‘acceptable’ by their governments in order to avoid persecution, composers such as Hindemith and Shostakovich wrote music that is rife with a political subtext.

New implementations and music changes

It was a time for composers to experiment with new ways of writing music, employing scales other than those based on the key system. Arnold Schoenberg and his student Anton Webern developed a musical language called twelve-tone or serialism, which was followed by a number of later composers.

Around 1900-1930 we had the Modern Era. At this time, composers like Igor Stravinsky challenged the rules of harmony and structure in classical music, embracing mixed meter and stretching instruments to their natural limits. Others like Dmitri Shostakovich, Paul Hindemith, and Béla Bartók continued to compose music in forms such as the piano concerto and the sonata. In doing so, they challenged harmonic traditions

Dmitri Shostakovich was a soviet composer that was the most brilliant composer of all and was hotly debated. His creative personality makes him impossible to tie down, as shown by his Piano Concerto No.1, which mixes everything together and is reminiscent of Milhaud’s slapstick.

Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer who revolutionized 20th-century music and provoked riots with The Rite of Spring. He was also the first composer to find an innovative way for composers to follow in the footsteps of Bach and Beethoven, by creating masterpieces in almost every genre. Among Stravinsky’s most celebrated compositions are his incomparable series of ballet scores, which have influenced many other artists across the globe.

After that, comes the Postmodern. Music took a new direction starting in the 1930s and continuing into the post-World War II era. Olivier Messiaen was one of the first composers to bring together classical forms with new instruments such as the ondes martenot.

Composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich incorporated mathematical elements of chance into their compositions to create process music. John Cage had an important role. The American composer made in the 12-tone method of his teacher Schoenberg for a time, but by 1939 he had begun experimenting with increasingly unorthodox instruments such as the “prepared piano” (a piano modified by objects placed between its strings in order to produce percussive and otherworldly sound effects).

Steve Reich composed Minimalist music, which is based on repetitions and combinations of simple motifs and harmonies. Like Philip Glass, his compositions are characterized by their use of minimal materials—a single chord, a brief musical motif, a spoken exclamation—which are repeated at length with small variations introduced slowly.