In olden days, when classical was the popular music of the day,
audiences looked forward to the next new piece by Mozart or
Nowadays, audiences that thrill to Bach and Rachmaninoff - music
spanning nearly three centuries - tend to cringe at the thought of
sitting through a symphonic concert featuring the music of their own
A large part of the problem is fear of the unknown. While much of
the music of the first half of the 20th century has entered into the
mainstream repertory (see "A taster's choice," page 16), classical
music of the past 50 years has been mostly a grab bag for typical
For one thing, it has been especially difficult to categorize,
which often leaves listeners without an easy entree into what the
music is all about - what to listen for, and what it all means.
Unlike music of the past, there have been few movements or
periods with commonly accepted forms and rules. Twentieth-century
music had no one unified musical language, but rather a rich
multiplicity of styles, with composers drawing from a wealth of
diverse influences, from rap to Indonesian gamelan (a musical
ensemble). Composers also have had all of civilization's history up
to now from which to draw - talk about hindsight.
A work being written at the end of the 20th century can play off
anything from Gregorian chant to state-of-the-art electronics. As we
enter the new millennium, "the sky's the limit," which often can
leave uninformed listeners struggling to open their parachutes.
Conductor-composer Robert Kapilow, who has devoted much of his
career to educating the public about classical music, says: "New
music on an orchestral program often puts people in a defensive
frame of mind. They either feel bad if they don't like something or
mad at the orchestra for programming it, and they shut down."
Instead of shutting down, however, audiences armed with
background information can find that music of the here and now is
just as compelling, and often more exciting and relevant, than music
of "way back when."
Music written today is being informed by the rich and complicated
world in which we live, and a little understanding of the plethora
of influences on it can make for greater appreciation.
A little history
First, there is no clear linear history of modern music - pieces
being written at any given time can and do vary wildly. But there
are some general trends over the past century that can put things in
Probably the greatest shift has been the transformation of melody
and harmony. Although there still are many contemporary composers
who can write as lyrical a melody as their forebears, most composers
these days don't send audiences away with a tune they can hum;
that's a trend that started more than 100 years ago.
As the centuries-old diatonic tradition of major and minor keys
seemed to lose expressive potential with overuse, composers began
searching for a new musical language by exploring other combinations
of notes, creating different kinds of tonalities, and exploring the
clashing pitches of dissonance.
Take the Impressionists, primarily represented by Claude Debussy
(1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). These two Frenchmen
composed some of the most memorable melodies ever written, but they
often defied the 19th-century standard of centering them around a
particular pitch (which helped define the key of a work), using
instead a whole-tone scale in which all notes could have equal
Similarly, chords (simultaneously played clusters of notes,
creating a work's harmony) didn't follow traditional patterns of
resolution. These composers were out to create less-concrete musical
images, much the way the Impressionist painters blurred the
clarities of line in art.
With Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), commonly considered the most
important composer of the 20th century, the classical world began to
embrace dissonance (pitches that clash with one another) and a
reinvigoration of rhythm. …