Divergent Directions: Music in the Twentieth Century

Music in the twentieth century saw composers moving in multiple directions. Some sought to break free from the strictures of harmony and the conventions of previous periods, while others rejected modernist ideologies. Nearly all composers felt the influence of communist and fascist regimes in Europe, either directly through censorship, or through working in opposition. The rise of ethnomusicology and the role of academia in music further encouraged composers to investigate new directions. This combination of factors lead twentieth century composers to create a diversity of styles and techniques not seen in previous centuries.

The most significant musical developments of the twentieth century came with regard to harmony and the development of dodecaphonic techniques and serialism. While it is certainly true that harmonic developments in the late nineteenth century were moving into more ambiguous and atonal territory, the ultimate break with traditional tonal harmony came in the early 1920’s with Arnold Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone system. First demonstrated in his piano pieces Op.23-35, this groundbreaking technique treated all twelve pitches of the octave as equal. In these works, pitches were organized through the use of matrices rather than tonal relationships such as tonic and dominant or major and minor. Melodic and harmonic transformations were accomplished according to operations such as retrograde, inversion of intervals, and exact transpositions. By stipulating in early works that all twelve pitches of a given row must be used before any can be reused, Schoenberg made certain that no single pitch would have more gravity than any other.

What made Schoenberg’s system unique, and what largely contributed to its lasting influence is the simple fact that it was a system. Atonality in general was not a new concept in the 1920’s. Franz Liszt had written his Bagatelle sans Tonalité some fifty years earlier and composers such as Wagner and Strauss had pushed the boundaries of what a tonal system could accommodate for decades. (1) Schoenberg himself had suspended tonality through his expressionist works such as Pierrot Lunaire. While all of these works defied the conventions of tonality, they did so in an ad hoc fashion, each piece using its own unique combination of scales and nonfunctional harmonies. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system offered a complete working alternative to conventional harmony, and it was applied with rigor. Some of his followers would go on to serialize aspects of rhythm, dynamic, and orchestration as well.

In closing remarks at the 1984 International Schoenberg Conference in Vienna, Ernst Krenek stated that “Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School had altered musical thinking forever” and that “no composer in the future would be able to circumvent Schoenberg and his influence.”(2) While Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system has largely fallen out of fashion, it was the dominant mode of composition taught at universities for decades in the twentieth century. Perhaps more importantly, Schoenberg’s musical thinking laid the groundwork for the more flexible post-tonal system known as set theory, which is widely used today.

One possible reason that many German composers were drawn to serialism after the second world war is that the level of abstraction inherent in twelve-tone music would have made it difficult for authorities to misuse the music for political purposes. (3) This seems somewhat contradictory with Schoenberg’s thinking. The composer viewed his developments as the logical next step in the natural progression of a long tradition of German music, remarking that the twelve-tone system would guarantee “the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” Interestingly, the propaganda and cultural arms of the Third Reich overlooked Schoenberg’s reasoning and instead conflated his systematic destruction of tonal harmony with their perceived destruction of the natural order by Jewish forces. (4) His music was thusly labeled degenerate and banned in Germany. One cannot help but marvel at the ignorance that lead the Third Reich to label what would become one of the most influential musical developments of the twentieth century as un-German.

One side effect of the invention of twelve-tone writing is that it was extremely polarizing, forcing composers to take a side. Those that rejected this technique were faced with the problem of defining their own music in relation to modernity. By taking the opinion that serialism was not the future of music, composers such as Paul Hindemith and Karl Amadeus Hartmann were forced to justify their musical thinking in a way that might not have been necessary without the impetus given from the serialists.

The figure of Karl Amadeus Hartmann is an example of a composer who encountered serialism, ultimately rejected it, and as a result developed an individual style. Hartmann studied composition and analysis with Anton Webern, one of the strictest advocates of serialism of the Second Viennese School. Though Hartmann never adopted the techniques of his mentor, he later admitted the importance of his studies with Webern, saying in a letter that “…not only did I learn a great deal about composing through Webern, but due to him I became a much more orderly person.” (5) It has been suggested that several devices common to Hartmann’s musical language, such as his particular affinity to symmetry, are derived from his training with Webern. (6) Through this example, the importance of the influence of serialism in the twentieth century is evident, even in cases where it is ultimately rejected.

Paul Hindemith is another towering figure in German music of the twentieth century who objected to serialism. A relentlessly hardworking musical pragmatist, Hindemith is commonly associated with the concept of gebrauchsmusik, or utility music, a term which the composer reportedly disliked. (7) Terminology aside, Hindemith had a large compositional output including many works for stage and a string of sonatas for nearly every instrument, several of which have become staples in solo repertoires. Marking a clear break with the Romantic period, Hindemith found his unique voice through clarity and economy. As Alex Ross states, Hindemith’s music exemplifies the idea of New Objectivity put forward by Gustav Hartlaub, “neither sensuously superficial nor constructivistically introverted.” (8) A lifelong music educator, Hindemith held posts at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and at Yale, also spending two years in Turkey establishing music education programs while in exile from Germany. Hindemith wrote several books on harmony and music theory, and it is possible to imagine that this output may have come as a reaction to the development of serialism and his desire to put forward his own musical ideas, however it is also probable that these volumes were the result of his holding academic posts.

Hindemith is commonly associated with the neoclassical movement, where a returned emphasis on form and clarity was primary. This renewed interest in form is where Hindemith is on common ground with Schoenberg. Both composers used older forms for their compositions as a way to spark recognition in their listeners when presenting them with radically new material. Both composers desired for audiences to become active listeners and a return to clarity of form was a means utilized both to achieve this outcome. (9)

Though the debate over whether serialism was the future of composition was an important concept in the twentieth century, it was not the only development. The rapid fracturing of broad stylistic trends in the twentieth century was brought on in part by composers developing individual techniques which were not necessarily derived from larger trends. Examples of these conceptual developments include the micropolyphony of György Ligeti and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke. Both Ligeti and Schnittke faced rejection and persecution from fascist regimes in their lifetimes. Could it be that this institutional rejection spurred the composers to forge their own paths with radically new concepts? In her article, Between Dissonance and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic, Laura Silverberg describes how fascist and communist leaders throughout Central and Eastern Europe favored tonal compositions with “memorable melodies,” as being in line with socialist ideologies, while composers in political opposition to these regimes often worked with abstract and modernist techniques that rejected the ideals demanded by party officials. (10)

While it may be speculative to assert that societal pressures influenced the developments of Ligeti, Schnittke, and others, it is clear that the rise of academia did play an important role. Ethnomusicology was a growing force throughout the major cultural centers of Europe, particularly in Budapest, where figures such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were actively researching the folk music of Central Europe, inspiring a younger generation of composers in the process. In his article, Ligeti, Africa and Polyrythm, Stephen Andrew Taylor describes Ligeti’s exposure to and ultimately fascination with the rhythmic structures found in indigenous African musics. (11) It seems only logical that his earlier exposure to the ethnomusicological work of his teacher, Kodály, would have prepared him for this encounter.

In a description of his first book of piano etudes, Ligeti makes clear the importance of his musicological endeavors to his compositional process. “One often arrives at something qualitatively new by unifying two already known but separate domains. In this case, I have combined two distinct musical ideas: the hemiola of Schumann and Chopin, which depends on meter, and the additive pulsation principle of African music…” (12) Through thorough study and analysis, Ligeti was able to identify specific aspects of disparate musics for use in future composition. Here, the influence of ethnomusicology on the composer’s work is evident.

While Ligeti was surgical with combining various foreign musical techniques, Schnittke was more liberal, applying a wide variety of sounds from the past and present in collage-like fashion to create his polystylistic works. As Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise, Schnittke’s works contained “…the detritus of a millennium of music: medieval chant, Renaissance mass, Baroque figurations, Classical sonata principle, Viennese waltz, Mahlerian orchestration, twelve-tone writing, aleatory chaos, and touches of modern pop.” (13) In the music of both Ligeti and Schnittke, it is clear that a thorough study of musics from diverse origins was an important source for developing their unique styles.

Music in the twentieth century was not strictly defined by radically new ideas. Composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev maintained more traditional approaches to harmony. While this path offered them some refuge from brutal regimes, it generated criticism from younger and more radical members of the avant-garde. Thus became the problem for composers such as Shostakovich, how to work within the official party system whilst maintaining cultural relevancy as a composer of new and modern music. When Shostakovich accepted Nikita Krushchev’s invitation to lead the Composer’s Union of the Communist Party, Sofia Gubaidulina spoke for the younger generation, saying “Our disappointment knew no bounds…when at last it seemed possible to preserve one’s integrity, Shostakovich fell victim to official flattery.” (14) Interestingly, Shostakovich seems to have been self-aware of his status as the “old guard.” This is evidenced by his telling of Gubaidulina “I want you to continue along on your mistaken path.” (15) This was perhaps a recognizing on the part of the old master that the future of music lay with the next generation of composers.

As Europe experienced the horrors of war and the rise of fascist totalitarian regimes, the United States benefited greatly from the immigration of many of Europe’s leading composers. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Toch, Weill, and Hindemith, among many others made new lives for themselves in America. Initially, many of these composers found their new homes disorienting and some had difficulties returning their careers to the same stature they enjoyed in Europe. Many did ultimately find success and come to embrace their new homes. Regarding his new surroundings in California, Arnold Schoenberg famously said, “[I] was driven into paradise.” Kurt Weill found success working in New York as a composer for Broadway, working on productions of Knickerbocker Holliday, Lady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus. It seems only natural that the composer of Threepenny Opera should find success in working on Broadway. Many other composers in exile, particularly Erich Korngold found success working in Hollywood writing as film composers. (16)

Musical developments in America were far from limited to the output of European emigres. A generation of composers was shaped by experiences of living through the Great Depression, and as a result forged a new musical spirit steeped in self-reliance and the American experience. Embracing a home-spun sense of experimentalism, composers such as Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison began playing instruments in unorthodox ways as well as working with homemade instruments. One can understand how the harsh realities of the Depression would spawn do-it-yourself sensibilities in a composer like Harry Partch.

In the second chapter of his book, Genesis of a Music, Partch questions whether music must be written in the abstract fashion of the German model to be considered amongst the “best.” He also suggests that popular music in America might offer some ‘relief’ from the dominating German model. (17) These questions illustrate a composer looking inward and toward his surroundings for sources of musical inspiration, a trend reflected in the music of other American composers such as Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson. Indeed, American composers had been searching for a new American idiom for several generations in order to move out of the shadows of the old world. Ironically, many of these composers found license to do so from studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where pupils as diverse as Elliot Carter, Philip Glass, and Walter Piston were encouraged to look inward for musical inspiration. The training these composers received from Mlle Boulanger was undogmatic and largely along the lines of achieving technical mastery, leaving them free to find their own unique voices. (18)

In many ways, the narrative of music in the twentieth century can be viewed a series of rejections, each spawning new creative forces. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith rejected the music of the Romantic period, finding new inspiration in objectivity and clarity of form. Schoenberg’s liberation of the dissonance was embraced by many and rejected by others. Nearly all European composers of modernist music felt the rejection of having their art labeled as degenerate by oppressive regimes, yet this rejection may have lead them to further the art of abstraction. Rejected as racially impure, many European composers made new lives for themselves in America, where composers as diverse as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, and Harry Partch were forming a new American sound, rejecting the influence of old Europe. Despite struggles with war and fascist regimes, composers of the twentieth century created a vast network of new styles moving in divergent directions.


(1) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 43.

(2) Leon Botstein, Schoenberg and the Audience: Modernism, Music, and Politics in the Twentieth Century in Schoenberg and His World, (Princeton University Press, 1999), 19-21.

(3) Laura Silverberg, Between Dissonance and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic, in The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26 No.1, (University of California Press, 2009), 46.

(4) Erik Levi, 12-Tone Music and the Third Reich, in Tempo, New Series, No. 178, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 17-21.

(5) Guy Rickards, Hindemith, Hartmann, and Henze, (London: Phaidon Press, 1995) 107-109.

(6) Peter Evans, Compromises with Serialism, in Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 88th Session, (Taylor and Francis, 1961), 1-15.

(7) Guy Rickards, Hindemith, Hartmann, and Henze, (London: Phaidon Press, 1995) 61.

(8) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 198.

(9) Magnar Breivik, Musical Functionalism: The Musical Thoughts of Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith, (New York: Pendragon Press, 2011), 395-396.

(10) Laura Silverberg, Between Dissonance and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic, in The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26 No.1, (University of California Press, 2009), 44-84.

(11) Stephen Andrew Taylor, Ligeti, Africa and Polyrhythm in The World of Music, Vol. 45 No. 2, (Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2003), 83-94.

(12) Stephen Andrew Taylor, Ligeti, Africa and Polyrhythm in The World of Music, Vol. 45 No. 2, (Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2003), 84.

(13) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 576.

(14) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 575.

(15) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 577.

(16) Music and the Holocaust: Composers in Exile, accessed 22 April, 2020, http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/resistance-and-exile/composers-in-exile/.

(17) Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music, 2nd ed, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 48.

(18) Philip Glass, Words Without Music, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp, 2015), 136-149