Theoretically Speaking S5:E14: What Makes Modernism Modernism ?


This is where things start getting weird.

Why, we hadn’t noticed a thing.

Yes, I know we’ve covered some pretty weird stuff in the previous 50 episodes of the “What Makes…” series.

But let’s look at what happens when centuries of structures and forms and rules are tossed out the window. Let’s watch artists end a genre by taking divergent paths.

We know that genres often splinter into new ones.

There are myriad varieties of Heavy Metal, Electronic Music, and Blues. Last week, we speculated how Hyperpop might evolve into different styles. 

In the classical music world, however, the timeline had been more or less straight.

Medieval music led to the Renaissance…

which led to Baroque…

which led to Classical…

which led to Romanticism.

Each bent the rules of its predecessor because composers thought they’d done everything they could do under those rules. When people felt Romanticism had run its course and it was time to bend the rules, they didn’t just bend them. They broke the rules beyond recognition.

We call it Modernism, because it fragmented so much, that the biggest thing the styles had in common was that they were modern.

Composers thought Romanticism couldn’t truly express how the world was changing.

Think about what happened around that time. There were terrible things: 

Like the Spanish-American War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, Communism, Nazism, World War II, and the Atomic Bomb. 

On the more positive side, there were great advances:

Like vaccines, radio, the car, the airplane, recorded sound, the telephone, television, skyscrapers, women’s suffrage, and the theories of psychoanalysis and relativity.

But what really started things off was: The camera.

Before film photography, if someone wanted a picture of themselves or a family member or a landscape, they’d have to hire a painter. Some journeymen painters made their living doing portraits of rich people. All that came to an end with the camera.

That left a lot of painters out of work, but it freed them, or some of them anyway, to experiment with what they could do with paints and brushes.

And in the twinkling of an eye, along came Claude Monet and his 1872 painting, “Impression, Sunrise.” That’s the one that gave the Impressionism art movement its name.

Musicians wanted in on the fun. Composers took the idea of portraying an impression of a subject musically. Impressionism, as a style of music, was born. 

I’m simplifying here. Just go with it.

As painting got more abstract, so did music.

Gone are the rules of forms and structures and conventions.

Even when it came to something as basic as key signatures, the new idea was something along the lines of, “Keys? We don’t need no stinkin’ keys.”

Modernism didn’t just break Romanticism’s rules. It rejected them. Their mindset isn’t that different from the Hyperpop artists we covered last week. Both eras want to push the extremes of music as far as they could.

With no rules, composers could do anything they wanted. So they did.

Some composers went this way, some went that way, and others went backwards.

Some went bigger, some went smaller, some incorporated folk music, some used multiple time signatures. 

We call all the classical music from the first half of the 20th Century “Modernism.” Seems simple enough, but it’s really made up of various new subgenres that shared few traits other than the time period.

I could have titled this article “What Makes The Classical Music Of The First Half Of The 20th Century, The Classical Music Of The First Half Of The 20th Century?” but it wouldn’t have fit on the marquee.

Some of the ideas they shared include irregular meters and atonality. However, different schools of thought developed simultaneously. The major subgenres of Modernism included: 

  • Impressionism
  • Expressionism 
  • Primitivism
  • and Neoclassicism. 

Impressionism is a direct offshoot of Romanticism. It started in France, where Monet was from, not so coincidentally.

The idea is to portray moods or imagery through music. The subjects can be natural or supernatural but are usually ephemeral or momentary. 

How did it give those impressions? Primarily through timbre and chord choices. “Timbre” is the way an instrument sounds.

A string section sounds lush. A brass section sounds brash. Composers can use instruments’ timbres, alone or in combination, to color sound, like a painter uses different color paint.

Impressionism also embraces non-functional harmony. Functional harmony is when each chord has a relationship to a tonal center. If a piece is in the key of C major, the tonal center is C. It feels like home. Some chords feel close to C, others feel distant or tense, and their function is based on that distance or tension. The piece only feels finished when it gets back to C.

In non-functional harmony, there is no tonal center, so we call it atonal.

In atonality, chords are used for color, for the way they make us feel, not for their ability to lead back to home because there isn’t one.

And if one chord starts before the previous one ends, something that wouldn’t happen in the Romantic period or earlier, that only adds new colors. The ambiguity of overlapping chords is intentional.

Impressionism wasn’t even married to strict time signatures. If the composer thought a measure of five beats would do a better job portraying his ideas than a measure of four, that’s what he’d write.

And maybe he’d follow it with a measure of nine or two or something else before going back to four, if it went back at all.

Where Impressionism was ephemeral, Expressionism was intense, powerful, and harsh, and it was all those things to better express emotions. Its composers drew ideas from Freud and others about various psychological states, and its subjects could be disturbing.

Expressionism used non-functional harmony like Impressionism, but with greater use of dissonance, abrasive timbres, and sudden, extreme, jump-out-of-your-seat volume changes.

Melodies are often described as “angular,” meaning they don’t flow from note to nearby note. Instead they take sharp corners, leaping from note to faraway note with nothing in-between. There may or may not be any consistent rhythm.

Primitivism dove deep into Romanticism’s use of folk songs. It often used non-Western scales and harmonies, and could therefore be a little atonal. Its composers embraced “primitive” indigenous cultures as a way of breaking from musical and societal conventions, and to look for something wild and exotic. 

There was heavy emphasis on rhythm and percussion. There aren’t any sweeping strings washing over everything in Primitivism. Even the piano was used as a percussive instrument. 

So far, these styles share a rejection of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Treatise on Harmony,” which we talked about in the Classical article. However, another school of thought was Neoclassicism. It looked back, past Romanticism, to the Classical and Baroque periods for inspiration, and kept Rameau’s ideas.

Neoclassicists used earlier forms, like Sonatas and Rondos, and smaller ensembles with an emphasis on wind instruments.

Rather than the atonal techniques of their contemporaries, the Neoclassicists used tonality, traditional harmonies, and counterpoint, all found in Rameau’s “Treatise.”

Keep in mind: these four main subgenres aren’t mutually exclusive.

Also, each had a matching movement in the visual arts.

It’s always been that way, with music about 20 years behind.

Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned any Modernist composers by name?

That’s because the lines between these subgenres are blurry and composers mixed and matched these ideas into their own creations. 

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, for example, had a long varied career with different phases.

He had a Neoclassical period in the 1900s but then evolved into “Modern Classicism” in the 1910s. That was when he balanced Impressionism and Expressionism with Classical forms.

Igor Stravinsky dabbled in all the subgenres, sometimes in the same piece. His music, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, for the ballet The Rite Of Spring were so far removed from what people were familiar with that arguments and fisticuffs broke out in the audience at its premier in 1913. It’s been called a riot, but that’s probably an exaggeration.

However, The Rite Of Spring is now considered one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Another work that caused physical violence is Ballet Mécanique by American George Antheil. He originally wrote it for a movie by cubist painter Fernand Léger and director Dudley Murphy, however Antheil worked separately and apparently didn’t talk it through with the others.

The music was much longer than the movie, so the movie premiered without a soundtrack. When Antheil debuted his work as a standalone musical piece in 1924, some audience members shouted their disapproval.

But they couldn’t be heard over the orchestra of a player piano, ten regular pianos, two xylophones, three airplane propellers, electric bells, a hand-cranked siren, four bass drums, and various percussion instruments.

Many people liked the work and their arguments with the naysayers led to some brawls outside the theater.

Claude Debussy is closely aligned with Impressionism but he didn’t like the name. He objected to being limited by a label.

Still, he’s considered a big part of Impressionism, though his use of non-traditional scales and harmonies is pretty close to Primitivism, too.

He liked the whole tone scale, which has no half steps. All its notes are two piano keys apart, which means it has six notes. Also, since there are only twelve notes, there can only be two whole tone scales because you can start on any note, go up by whole steps, and end up on the same note.

So the notes of the two scales are E, F#, G#, A#, C, D and F, G, A, B, D♭, E♭ .

Since the same six notes are the same interval from each other, none can be the tonal center. It has an open, floaty feel to it. Perfect for setting up an aural dream sequence.

Josef Matthias Hauer and Arnold Schoenberg, independently from each other, developed twelve-tone technique, AKA dodecaphony.

There are twelve notes in an octave and the idea behind dodecaphony is that each should have equal importance. Hauer said that no note should be used a second time until the other eleven had been played.

Like the whole tone scale, the twelve-tone technique guarantees that the piece has no tonal center. It doesn’t have a key. It’s atonality taken to its logical extreme. 

Hauer, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others used this technique. It’s a new rule they imposed on themselves.

Despite the rejection of tradition as limiting, some composers limited themselves to their own new rules. I guess learning to work without a framework takes time.

The genre that came after Modernism did a better job of creating without a net.

We’ll talk about it next week.

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

Menuet antique
Maurice Ravel

Claude Debussy

Sonatina No.1, Op. 67/3
Jean Sibelius

The Tides of Manaunaun
Henry Cowell

D’un matin de printemps
Lili Boulanger

Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 3
Arnold Schoenberg

Ballet Mécanique
George Antheil

Edgard Varèse

Zwölftonspiel per pianoforte
Josef Matthias Hauer

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Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:

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Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
December 1, 2023 7:47 am

Uh-oh, sounds like you’ll be writing about something that I just submitted. But I’ve been wrong before (like, maybe every time except once).

Just wondering: what is your process for determining to what to write about and in what order? Perhaps a system developed by John Cage? 🤓

In my previous posts, I only danced around Schoenberg and the Viennese serialists. One, because I’m not confident writing about music from a technical point of view, but also because I felt like I’d be making that extra effort for music that readers probably wouldn’t enjoy anyway. But I’ve come to regret that decision as a mistake. in any event, there will be a post of mine that finally does go into the topic a bit more–though it will likely be a few months before it gets put up.

I know I haven’t been exactly effusive about Schoenberg in my past articles, but I do usually enjoy his music more than I think I will. He has a reputation for making completely tuneless noise, but in truth it sounds more like a talented musician who decided to write when heavily inebriated–and that adds a dreamy allure sometimes.

I definitely need to listen to more Sibelius. And I’ve never even heard of Hauer! I guess he’s the Alfred Russell Wallace of dodecaphony. Yay for homework! Thanks for the recommendations!

Famed Member
Online Now
December 1, 2023 9:33 am
Reply to  Virgindog

An enraged and jealous Salvador Dali has entered the chat.

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
December 1, 2023 9:53 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I don’t know what it says about me, but I unabashedly love Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique. Maybe because it just tilts so forcefully into clattering noise, it’s easier to process conceptually than Schoenberg’s subtler subversions.

No need to explain the inclusion of the Rite. It is one of the most important works of the last century–and a transcendent bit of dark sorcery at that. I saw a performance last year that was over the top in all the best ways. If Antheil was doing early industrial, this was fookin metal.

Famed Member
December 1, 2023 12:51 pm

Ah! Now then…this is the period of Classical music that I find easiest to like. I really have only a very average knowledge of Classical, but Ravel and Debussy are my sweet spots…along with Aaron Copland (which may be saved for a future entry?). I do like Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, but what I’ve heard of “Rite of Spring” can go in the trash. I probably need to give it a full listen, but it doesn’t sound delicious to my ears.

I don’t have time yet to listen to the suggested tunes, but I hope to soon. Good entry, Bill!

Famed Member
December 1, 2023 1:45 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

OK, I carved out the time 🙂

Most of these piano pieces are wonderful. The Ravel “Menuet Antique” is gorgeous, the Debussy is relaxing, even the Webern and Schoenberg were pleasant to hear.

Stravinsky and Cowell not so much. And “O Fortuna”…so THAT’s what that piece is. I hear it in commercials and such occasionally. That final chord is rewarding, but getting there is just awful. I don’t know if I could train myself to like that one ever. 🙂

I know that in jazz the complaint is that there aren’t any wrong notes, but listening to Varese (nod to Chicago V) since there are no patterns of tone or rhythm whatsoever, one would never know if a percussionist went rogue and played whatever he wanted. I’m sure that offended folks. (I’m not sure I liked that one either, really).

Thanks for choosing pieces that were mostly bite-size. I know that’s not easy to do with classical music.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
December 1, 2023 1:01 pm

Composing a film score without any discussion with the film makers; what could possibly go wrong?!

Just the description of Antheil’s ‘soundtrack’ sounds like a riot. As ever it’s fascinating to bring these stories to light and show how vibrant, revolutionary and, apparently, dangerous these movements could be.

Excellent work!

Famed Member
December 3, 2023 2:33 pm

There’s a real chance I’m the least musical human to have ever lived. When I’m doing what I call singing along to the radio, my wife often accuses me of changing key. “Key? I don’t need no stinking key,” I proclaim. “ I cannot and will not be limited by such outdated Western notions of music.” I had no idea I was keeping such good company.

Famed Member
December 4, 2023 1:51 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Better get some provisions in.

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