The Twentieth Century saw many rapid changes in society with the industrial revolution, rise of capitalism, women’s suffrage, challenging of religious concepts and World Wars. These changes led to people questioning everything they had known, including music. The questions asked led many composers into developing experimental ideas that were radical and unusual which gave rise to the Modernism era of music.
The earliest modernist movement is referred to as Impressionism. Closer to symbolism, impressionism is music that suggests and creates an atmosphere for listeners to come up with their own interpretation. A famous impressionism work is Three Nocturnes (1899) by composer Claude Debussy. Inspired by artist James Whistler, Debussy sought to use music to show the fluidity and mystery of light. (Nocturnes) The first of the nocturnes is titled “Clouds” and suggests relaxing while watching the clouds pass by. The piece introduces new ideas as it is played to the pentatonic scale, which is just the five black keys of the chromatic scale. While seeming to be in sonata form of ABA’ , the exposition (A) contains the entire form of aba and the recapitulation (A’) does not contain the full sequence. The English horn motive returns several times but the cloud sequence remains the theme of the piece. The cloud theme is repeated over and over at different pitches and instruments but is still unchanged in base form. Soft and restrained the composition accomplishes its purpose of invoking an image of a peaceful evening watching the clouds go by. The refinement of Debussy created another modernist movement called primitivism. (Kerman)
Primitivism is the unrestrained expression of pre-technological cultures. (Blood) The cultures were seen as being direct and exotic. Composers emphasized rhythm, irregular meters and percussive elements to make the work shocking. Pioneering the style in 1913, was Igor Stravinsky with his ballet The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky favored the octatonic, or eight-toned scale and uses it to great effect. The introduction begins and ends with a short melody that frames a dissonant polyphony of wind instruments. Soon the composition is loud and heavy on the rhythm, yet the irregularity and interruptions prevents tapping along to the beat. Russian folk-songs are introduced in fragmented melodies. Ostinato motives are present, as short melodies are repeated with different rhythms. The first showing of The Rite of Spring ended in a riot as the suggestive choreography created an unintentional intense emotional effect in the audience. The modernist movement to create an intentional emotional effect is called expressionism. (Kerman)
Expressionism stressed intense emotion by using unusual instrumental effects, harsh dissonance and fragmentation. Arnold Schoenberg was the era’s leading expressionist. Pierrot lunaire (1912) is a melodrama, a set of dramatic poems by Belgian writer Albert Giraud with exaggerated vocals set to music to conjure...