For some of us, the words “classical music” evoke a special sense memory, a sort of psychic portal straight to the heart of humankind’s most soaring artistic achievements.
For others, it’s an instant cue for us to toggle quickly to the next radio station or risk falling asleep at the wheel.
Like nearly every musical genre, classical music can inspire a powerful emotional response. But perhaps owing to the cultural shifts that birthed the explosion of Western youth culture about 60 years ago, classical has a certain special charge associated with it.
That’s not to say everyone loved classical music before the middle of the 20th century. But after jazz, folk and rock and roll conquered young hearts and minds around the world, classical would forever be associated with stuffiness, old age, and conservatism.
There are plenty of valid reasons for this attitude, and just as many questionable ones. Let’s dive into just a small inlet of the vast ocean called “classical music” and see if we can’t untangle some of those knotty attitudes. For the sake of brevity and relevance, we’re going to focus on the broad subset of classical that might be called “modern” or “contemporary,” depending on the listener’s whim.
Why? If “traditional” classical music—that written by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers of the 17th to 19th centuries—had by the middle of the 20th century become “old peoples music,” modern classical is a vibrant, growing, and very much alive genre, proof positive that both our curiosity and our creativity truly know no bounds.
The Birth of the Modern
Every age is modern in its own time, of course. After all, at one point the hand-cranked gramophone was the Sonos of its age. But while classical music had been established as one of Western culture’s principal art forms since at least the Medieval era—roughly 500 to 1400 AD—the genre truly took a leap into the new around the dawn of the 20th century.
Then as now, many artists felt that the genre was too rooted in styles of the past, such as the Romanticism espoused by mid-19th century composers such as Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert and many others. Inspired by the first glimmerings of jazz, traditional folk, the sounds both of nature and of the burgeoning, bustling and chaotic metropolises that were then rising up all over the globe, a new crop of composers were determined to bring classical music into the modern age.
Two of the era’s most celebrated composers were Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) and Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971). Schoenberg began his musical career under the wing of such influential composers as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, but his interest in breaking the existing norms of musical convention soon found him forging his own path. Though the early piece Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night’) found him eager fans, later work, such as the Quartet for Winds No. 26, written in the revolutionary 12-tone system of his own design, made him perhaps the most influential composer of his day (though not one universally embraced by the public).
Stravinsky hardly wrote music for the masses, but the popularity and influence of his work held massive sway not over multiple musical genres—including jazz and rock—but even seemingly unrelated disciplines such as painting, literature and film. If his 1910 score for the ballet The Firebird catapulted him to international celebrity, it may be a subsequent work for which he’s best remembered today.
First performed in 1913, Le sacre du printemps—the Rite of Spring—was deemed so controversial that it caused “a near-riot.” Whether or not it was truly explosive (or subsequent retellings have inflated the chaos) remains an open question. What isn’t in question is the ominous, magnetic power of Stravinsky’s score, a harsh and unsettling taste of a pagan darkness European audiences were perhaps then less than eager to examine. Over a century after it was written, it remains as epochal and defiantly modern as any work of art could aspire to be.
Building Up By Breaking Down: Modern Classical
The period between the early and late 20th century hardly wanted for classical music, much of it ground-breaking and genre-bending. Béla Bartók would take inspiration from simple Hungarian folk melodies and write compositions of transfixing strangeness and beauty; George Gershwin’s orchestral works would blend popular, jazz and classical genres; John Cage would physically alter traditional instruments such as pianos, and eventually subvert the very idea of music itself.
But broadly speaking, classical’s place as young people’s music diminished, in large part due to competition from the other genres we outlined earlier. Ironically, it was in part the emergence of electronic instruments such as the synthesizer that helped spur a new generation of composers to create a wide-ranging and amorphous genre called, variously, “modern” or “contemporary” classical music.
One of classical music’s defining qualities is that it’s notated, or written down. This is what makes it replicable over years (and even centuries) after it was composed. Of course, this demands a certain facility: Performers must at the very least be able to read music, and often be able to demonstrate remarkable proficiency at their given instrument.
This requirement didn’t end with the advent of synthesizers. But what these instruments suggested was a complete redefinition of what music was “supposed” to be. If the pure synthesized tone of a Moog wasn’t dependent upon years of hard study and flawless technique, was it still as qualitatively “good” as that of a first-chair symphonic player?
Similarly, the classical world received a jolt of energy, not only from the groundbreaking academicians at hotbeds like Mills College but a groundswell of interest in genres outside the Western European tradition. A flood of art forms that were once deemed “primitive” began to inflect the work of this new breed of composers: Indonesian gamelan, Burundian drumming and other genres took their place alongside the avant-garde experiments of Hungarian composer György Ligeti and tape-loop pioneer Delia Derbyshire.
That’s not to say classical suddenly leapt back into the mainstream. For a variety of reasons, many of the artists who participated in the late 20th-century classical renaissance would remain willfully obscure. But in incorporating sonic textures and influences from outside the realm of traditional classical—and in large part adopting a minimal, often repetitive approach familiar to any fan of rock or pop music—the genre found new relevance and audiences.
In the United States, John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass epitomize this less-is-more approach to varying degrees. Elsewhere, Estonia-born Arvo Pärt is one of the best-known latter-day composers; his largely choral works such as De Profundis employ a pseudo-Medieval sonic palette, demonstrating yet again that sometimes the most forward-looking art brings us instead to the distant past.
The unprecedented diversification of the music industry in the last 20 years has brought many formerly fringe genres to a growing and global audience. Modern classical music might not conquer the airwaves in the same way that,for instance, opera was a massively popular—and populist—art form in the last 19th and early 20th centuries. But by drawing upon a tradition dating back centuries and imbuing it with new perspectives, sonic shadings and approaches, today’s modern classical composers continue to define the very limits of musical expression.
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