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The Classical Music of the Twenty-First Century
by Don Robertson
© 2000 by Don Robertson

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Twentieth-Century Classical Music
During the 20th Century, classical music was considered to be a long and evolving tradition, both in the western world, and in the eastern. But the association of the music with the royal courts and the ruling classes had disappeared. By the middle of the last century, classical music was available to anyone that owned a Television set or radio. However, the tradition was still associated with people who had a certain breading or refinement (hence the term ‘high-brow music’).

As the tradition of classical music evolved in Europe during the 20th Century, it left behind its former elements of romanticism that represented the style of the 19th Century, and instead embraced the doctrines of Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg who introduced what was called atonality and serialism. As I have explained in other articles, these new elements introduced negativity into music.* During the 19th Century, classical music expressed emotions such as joy, sadness, grief, love, passion, and hope. This music was anchored to the traditional seven-note scale, or octave, that had been employed in all music since long before the birth of Christ. Pathagoras demonstrated that this seven-note scale was a natural phenomenon, and not an invention of mankind. The foundation of music is established by the octave and major and minor triads: the three-note major and minor chords that are used in all music.

Schönberg introduced the concept of atonal music in his compositions early in the 20th Century. This atonal (meaning non-tonal) music was not based on major and minor chords. Schönberg‘s early atonal music created near riots at concert performances.** Soon after the introduction of atonal music, Schönberg introduced a method of "composition using twelve-tones" that became known as serial music composition. Using this method, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are treated equally.*** Since Schönberg’s new style of music no longer differentiated between consonant and discordant musical intervals, Schönberg allowed the door to discordance to be opened, and thus he broke the underpinnings of traditional music, underpinnings that had been based on natural laws. Schönberg composed a dark negative music that influenced many composers throughout the 20th Century and he became the composer who caused the greatest change to the tradition of western classical music during the last century.

The style of classical music that was prevalent during the third quarter of the 20th Century was inspired primarily by Schönberg’s student Anton Webern, whose completely intellectual music creates a disjoint and confused emotional state in the listener.**** However, during the 1960s, the music and ideas of American composer John Cage had become an important influence. Cage brought classical music to the point of being little more than noise. Here we have music that was governed by ‘chance,’ where the rolling of dice determined what notes were to be used in a composition. Cage’s ideas, many derived from Zen Buddhism, are indeed very interesting, and they certainly gave composers an impression of freedom from the servitude of tradition and law along with a feeling of freshness and originality. But the universe is based on order, not on anarchy and chaos as Cage’s theories might lead one to imagine. In truth, Cage’s music is to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as Christo’s Wrapped Trees is to Michelangelo’s David.

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* Actually, you could say that Wagner was perhaps the first to introduce negative elements into classical music when he used the musical interval of the tritone to represent negative influences in the music drama Siegfried.

** Apologists for the music of Schönberg usually like to say that all new innovations in classical music have always created similar riots. This is simply not true. Naturally, a music filled with discordance was an abhorrence to the concert goers of the early 19th Century. It took many years for people to get used to this kind of music, mostly thanks to television and the motion picture industry who use negative music to give emotional impact to violence, suspense and horror.

*** The chromatic scale consists of the twelve notes of the octave: the seven white keys of the piano, plus the five black keys.

****I have long been condemned for my views on the music of Schönberg (and his students Webern and Berg, and the ensuing art music of the 20th Century) by individuals who love this music and listen to it all the time. All I can say is that "I have been there, done it and it is time to move on!"

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