How to Appreciate Twentieth-Century Music
Twentieth-century classical music is intimidating for many people. I believe this is mainly due to what has been written about it rather than to the music itself. The music of the last century is just as vibrant and interesting, and just as important, as the music of the previous eras in Western classical music, and… The post How to Appreciate Twentieth-Century Music appeared first on VoegelinView.




Twentieth-century classical music is intimidating for many people. I believe this is mainly due to what has been written about it rather than to the music itself. The music of the last century is just as vibrant and interesting, and just as important, as the music of the previous eras in Western classical music, and it can very well form part of the appreciation of even casual music lovers.
As I suggested, part of what has created a fearsome aura around 20th-century music is the way it has been treated by critics and commentators. Many music-history and music-appreciation texts come at 20th-century music from a particular viewpoint. They tell a story of music in the 20th century that emphasizes rupture and revolution (in aesthetic terms). It is often said that composers around 1900 came to regard tonality—the concept of music as organized around key and harmonic relationships—as exhausted and worn out. Perhaps understandably, music history books emphasize what is most “progressive” and what “moved music forward.”
The problem is that this does not ideally serve the lay listener, who wants to find pleasure in music on its own terms and not because it fits into some historical scheme that is of interest principally to academics.
Unfortunately, the business of writing about and commenting on music has too often been carried out by those of an avantgarde outlook, who are in thrall to a number of mistaken artistic values. There has been, to my taste, too much adulation of composers and musical works because they supposedly mean something to music history, not enough appreciation or explanation of aesthetic or expressive values. Critics tell us that the opening chord of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde “changed the course of music for a hundred years.” Fine—but what does it actually mean? A similar thing might be said about a work like the Stravinsky Rite of Spring. What is its expressive meaning, if any? Classical music has suffered sorely from a dry externalism and worship of technique that are foreign to true aesthetic appreciation.
When it comes to the history of music in the 20th century, much writing has been misleading and confusing. The evidence of our ears tells us that the 20th century in music was not one great rebellion against the past, and that there was quite a lot of musical work that respected and built on the past in a way that the aesthetically conservative can admire.
In this respect, although I esteem his commentary very highly, I am not completely at one with Mr. Robert Reilley in his discussion of the crisis of modern music in his essay collection Surprised by Beauty. Reilley argues that Arnold Schoenberg introduced a metaphysical error which affected the subsequent history of “serious” music in the 20th century. This error, in brief, consisted in a denial of tonal center and the distinction between consonance and dissonance, leading to atonality and the negation of harmony as traditionally understood.
In discussing Schoenberg’s revolution, Mr. Reilley draws some interesting parallels between music and philosophy, theology, and morality. His points are well argued and convincing. However, I think that getting too up-in-arms about atonality is a mistake because we imbue it with more importance than it actually had. The actual body of 20th-century music is much larger than merely the atonal school of Schoenberg or the radical experimental sect of John Cage. Hundreds of 20th-century composers did not feel the need to follow Schoenberg’s methods and instead extended tonality in various and often fascinating ways. Among the 20th-century music most performed and listened to today, the music of the atonal school does not loom large, although it did produce a few works that found wide acceptance with listeners.
Nor did modern composers all abandon traditional instruments or musical forms and genres; they wrote symphonies, sonatas, cantatas and Masses just as previous composers did. The critic David Hurwitz has argued that the 20th century was the golden age of the symphony; a book could also be written about 20th-century religious music.
My argument here is not that we should pay attention to music written during the 20th century that is more conservative or traditionalist (although we should). What I am saying is that all music should be judged according to its aesthetic and expressive values, not by criteria that are artificial or academic. Music only has personal meaning for you when it speaks to you on the basis of its intrinsic artistic qualities, which are not strictly tied to history or evolution of the spirit of the age.
My plea is, give me music for its own sake, not music for the sake of history. Music is, or should be, about joy and delight and pleasure; it touches the emotions and stimulates the mind; but it should be approached with passion and involvement and not in sterile abstraction.
When we take a more pluralistic view of things, we realize that the 20th century is by far the most diverse period of Western musical history, with something for everybody. The atonal school, whatever you happen to think of it, is but one strand in a marvelous tapestry. The 20th century begins with the shimmering Impressionist soundscapes of Debussy and the extra-ripe late Romantic fruit of Mahler and Strauss (out of which emerged the German Expressionist tradition). It continues with the rhythmically dynamic primitivism of Stravinsky and Bartók, the pastoral Englishness of Vaughn Williams and others of the “British renaissance,” the urbane and humane renewal of tonality and classic form by neoclassicists from Stravinsky (again) to Walter Piston and Poulenc. There were the Russian Soviet masters Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a whole new school of composition in the United States led by Aaron Copland. This only skims the surface.
In my view, the story of music after 1900 is one of extending the tradition and expanding music’s resources in various ways, some more radical and some more traditional. Over in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg came to the conclusion that the only way forward in music was to treat the twelve tones of the chromatic scale as equal, thus putting an end to the traditional relationships between sounds that form the basis of tonality. But his solution was both highly personal and highly culturally conditioned toward the Austro-German tradition of chromatic harmony. Late in life Schoenberg came to acknowledge that the 12-tone technique was not for everybody.
Yet it’s true that the devices of traditional tonality became exhausted around the end of the 19th century. Music is a living art, and it must take new forms according to new circumstances while remaining true to eternal principles of beauty and order. But as many composers discovered, there were plenty of other ways to move music forward than by casting tonality and traditional ideas of the beautiful aside. One was through extending and transforming tonal harmony through such new devices as polytonality and pan-diatonicism—juxtaposing familiar tonal material (the triad, for example) in new combinations and contexts, or combining multiple tonalities simultaneously. Rhythmic excitement, and new combinations of rhythms, opened up a whole new world of possibility, one that had been comparatively neglected by Romanticism. Another way forward was to go back in time or to the East for inspiration, exploring the modes of old ecclesiastical and oriental music—systems differing from the major and minor scales of Western common practice. Debussy and other Impressionist composers did this to stunning effect, adding new spice to tonal music.
The musical methods of many 20th-century composers who did not embrace atonality could be called “neo-tonality,” or “extended tonality.” As is well known, 20th-century composers gave much freer play to dissonance (I often prefer to use the term “harmonic pungency”) to the extent that it become more or less on a par with consonance. In the hands of the best composers, dissonance was wielded not gratuitously but as a tool for greater intensity of feeling. Like composers of the past, the best 20th-century composers knew how to create an interplay between consonance and dissonance in ways that were equally meaningful, yet different from, traditional tonality.
The finest composers of the century tried to express musically the tumult of their era, and in listening to their music one re-experiences that history and concerns of the century we have left behind.
In a previous essay I presented some thoughts about the nature and definition of classical music. There is a point which I regret not having made there, and that is the close relationship between classical music and folk music. It has been said, with some justice, that all “classical music” derives in some way from folk music. It is certainly true that composers of “cultivated” music have often drawn inspiration from the sounds of musicmaking among the common people and the popular traditions of song and dance—traditions handed down from generation to generation, especially in rural places. As it turns out, this was especially true at the turn of the 20th century. A connection with folk roots was essential to the work of such diverse composers as Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, and Bartók. This folk connection meant little to the hardcore modernists, who instead devoted their energies to the construction of abstract musical patterns that had little connection with everyday life or emotions; but, as stated before, this ultramodern school represents only a small part of the totality of the music of the 20th century.
The infusion of modern classical music with folk flavor represents another instance of how 20th-century music was in many respects a continuation of 19th-century music—in this case, the nationalist movement in music, a major feature of Romanticism—instead of a complete rupture with everything that had gone before.
Many things in artistic history seemed revolutionary when first encountered, but with hindsight and a more balanced perspective they often turn out to be evolutionary. Nothing comes out of a void, and most things in 20th-century music, at least as far as the early part of the century is concerned, were prepared to some degree by what happened previously in music.
Writers often mention John Cage’s infamous “silent composition” 4’33 as the nadir of nihilism in modern music. Well, I think we can agree that 4’33 was meant not as a musical composition but as a philosophical statement about appreciating silence and the sounds around us. But let’s not allow Cage’s “performance art” to blind us to the actual music of the 20th century.
The principle I am trying to stress is that periods of artistic history are not monolithic, nor does the history as a whole consist of a single straight line; it consists rather of swerves and zigzags and overlapping lines, with a diversity of styles and artistic personalities. This is especially true of the bustling and diverse 20th century, which produced a good deal of music that continues the great humane Western tradition—a tradition that combines passion and intellect, the personal and the transcendent. The last century’s classical music constitutes a large and varied menu—one that has hardly even now been fully absorbed or explored—and all listeners should be welcome to the feast.
*This essay was first published at The Imaginative Conservative, 13 January 2022, and is republished here with gracious permission.

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