Music Viva Voce 1900-1945 (Early 20th Century)

Essay by davu4evaHigh School, 12th gradeA+, February 2006

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The high value placed on individuality and personal expression in the romantic era grew even more pronounced in the 20th century. This was partly the result of several features of 20th-century life. More people from more social and geographic backgrounds than ever before were able to study music and develop their aptitude for composition. An enormous range of tastes and skills thus became a feature of modern composition. Radios and recordings brought music from once-remote countries in South America and the Far East to the attention of musicians in all parts of the world. The speed of modern communications made it possible for listeners to evaluate innovations more quickly than ever before. The result of these features is that today originality is more highly valued than in any previous era, and that diversity and rapid change have become the most prominent general features of music. The characteristics of the early 20th century era can be split into different categories.

Impressionism in music

In musical terms, composers realized that they need no longer be subject to the tyranny of traditional tonality-a system which had lasted for 400 years. One of the pioneers of the "music of the future" was the Frenchman Claude Debussy, whose fluid structures, built out of the repetition of tiny motifs with colouristic instrumental effects, were likened to impressionist techniques in painting. Little of Debussy's mature music could be said to be in a "key"; instead, its gravitational centre constantly shifts as a result of his use of chromatic harmony.


Neoclassicism, which developed in the 1920s, is a comprehensive style involving more than harmonic features. It marked a return to the classic concept that all elements in a composition should contribute to the clarity of the overall structure of form. Neoclassicism includes the use of a...