The music of the twentieth century: the genuine father of modern-day works

Music, as indeed all the arts, is a historical process. What we can listen to today acquires meaning only because of what was composed and played not only yesterday but throughout the time between the Middle Ages and yesterday. Unfortunately, for strange reasons, knowledge of so-called “cultured” music (a term I dislike) is concentrated in a period that comprehensively covers the Baroque, Classicism, and Romanticism. Already, beginning with the period from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many authors begin to thin out their treatments and leave it to the reader/listener to delve into what happened next.

Modern Music and After by Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After is a text that focuses admirably on this century, not excluding any particularly charismatic composer or performer.

The twentieth century: the fast track for music and every other discipline

However, the twentieth century, far from being an unprolific period, is perhaps far more active and revolutionary than one might imagine. In all areas of human knowledge, progress, having passed through the horrors of two world wars, has gained energy and accelerated exponentially. Science, technology, medicine, etc., and art have changed their appearance several times, adapting to new things and making them new springboards for further research.

A scientific tribute to modern music

In his book “Modern Music and After,” Paul Griffiths devoted all his efforts to this century full of contradictions through a series of analyses that were always well-focused on a particular moment or phenomenon beginning to make its way. From the late romanticism of Debussy and Satie, he began a journey that passed through the influence of jazz culture in Europe, the birth of expressionist and atonal currents (by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), the spread of new media (such as radio), the explosion of pop music, neoclassicism (mainly by Stravinsky), the avant-gardes, futurism, experiments with early electronic instruments, and so on, almost up to the present day.

On one side, the night. On the other, the day

Indeed, while the twentieth century was a century of socio-political instability, with a first half that witnessed the catastrophe of the Great War and the decimation of families (including those of many composers who died prematurely in battle), the rise of totalitarian and ideologically isolationist and belligerent regimes, until the apotheosis of World War II and the rearrangement of the structure of the old continent, the twentieth century was also able to serve as a crucible where the fruits of the intellect took new forms.

Music, thanks in part to its ability to entertain, has not succumbed to the pressures of an unstable social condition and, on the contrary, has drawn its cues from even the darkest reality, changing in appearance and constantly seeking new ways of expression. Although many composers had begun to move from Paris (which, in turn, had become the musical center par excellence along with Vienna) to the United States, considered the land of novelty and, therefore, opportunity, in almost every country, musical activity was vibrant and focused on particular aspects.

Musical cosmopolitanism: the beginnings of a rational globalization

The Slavic states, previously almost entirely culturally isolated, had discovered, especially with Bartók and Dvořák, a wealth of popular music worthy of appreciation. The fledgling Soviet Union, although based on a closed regime, gave ample space to experimental cultural events and was considered (at least until the rise of Stalin) a symbol of progressivism. And, of course, the United States, with its aptitude for welcoming migrants from all parts of the world, had thrown its doors wide open to the genius of composers who, freely or forced by the Nazi regime, had abandoned Europe to find refuge among the glittering streets of New York.

This intermingling of genres, styles, and social and personal conditions could only give a propulsive boost to the desire to try new creative activities based on both the old instruments and the new combinations typical of blues and jazz (e.g., brass ensembles) and the extraordinary possibilities offered by “noise generators” and primordial synthesizers. It was now time to believe in futurism, to leave behind a past that no longer attracted viewers, and, finally, to reinvent a way of expression that reflected current reality.

Conclusion: the twentieth century is the ground where we still rest our feet

I cannot hide my love for this period (which I lived through in part), but beyond one’s inclinations, I believe that a true music lover cannot overlook the immense heritage this century has bestowed. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, it is not possible to understand the present, With its domination of the pop song, without going through the myriad experiments that involved not only composers of the so-called Darmstadt school (in particular, Stockhausen) but also those who made extensive use of the RAI (ed. National Italian Television) phonology studio in Milan (such as Berio, Maderna, Nono, Cage, etc.).

Moreover, the 20th century was also the century that re-energized the ostensibly simplest musical form, namely the song. As the Lieder became less and less attractive and opera was based on more complex structures, songs based on new sounds and lyrics of various kinds offered the ideal entertainment cue. However, without electronic experimentation, combined with American, African, and, to some extent, Asian musical currents, a complete emancipation of what, a few decades earlier, was perceived almost as an offense to hearing could not have been achieved.

So, I recommend this book to all my readers and hope that the more reluctant ones can be convinced that even the most extravagant efforts were based on a genuine desire to make an original, reality-based contribution to art (with its pros and cons) that surrounded every man in the civilized world by now!

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