Reply To: Music

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:30 AM

    The 20th century: up to the fifties

    A series of new phenomena, both of a strictly aesthetic order and of a more broadly historical-sociological character, characterize the music of the twentieth century, an epoch that for the multiplicity and contradictory nature of its aspects has no equal in the entire historical development of Western music. The crisis of tonality, which matured above all in the sphere of late German Romanticism and was brought to its extreme consequences by A. Schoenberg and his students Berg and Webern (who, with dodecaphony, attempted to reconstruct a new, coherent linguistic system on a completely renewed basis), led to the definitive rupture of the unity of European music, which would henceforth be characterized above all by the multiplicity of linguistic systems, responding to different codes, only partially referable to common matrices and semantic conventions.

    Parallel to this radicalization of linguistic research and to the contradictory and in some ways paradoxical process of officialization of the avant-garde, two completely new conditions were created. On the one hand, the process of historicization started in the nineteenth century and the enormous work done by musicological disciplines have put at the disposal of musicians and, more generally, of the public, a patrimony that ranges over all previous historical epochs, also making room for cultural expressions of non-European civilizations. On the other hand, the process of enormous diffusion of music in all social strata, favored by the means of mass communication, has given an exceptional importance to the various forms of consumer music that, contrary to what happened in the past (when the phenomenon occurred on an infinitely smaller scale and at a much higher qualitative level), has assumed in the entire industrialized world an overwhelming weight compared to all other expressions, including folkloric ones that appear to be rapidly disappearing.

    Contemporary music was structurally configured, throughout the twentieth century, as an expression of the elite: as such, it was consistently banned in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (with some significant exceptions, such as Poland) and in China. Regardless of the basic stylistic choices, it has been configured in such a way that the problem of language has always constituted, regardless of the solutions adopted, a discriminating moment of the artist’s aesthetic attitude. On the one hand, through the lesson of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and of the movements that directly sprang from them and that essentially belonged to the Darmstadt School, there was first the foundation of a new musical syntax, then its systematic development through compositional methods that tended to the maximum rigor in the compositional project, removing any aspect of the work from interventions that could not be rationally motivated by the author. On the other hand, we have witnessed a broader use of tonality (also through the recovery of non-European modal structures, as in Debussy, or of folkloric elements, as in B. Bartók) or the revival of techniques and methods of a more or less recent past, revived with a modern spirit and taste (I. Stravinsky, P. Hindemith, A. Honegger, D. Milhaud, P. Poulenc, D. D. Šostakovič, etc.) through a series of proposals that are difficult to reduce to a common denominator, due to the multiplicity of choices and attitudes of taste, but cumulatively defined under the generic name of “neoclassicism”.

    During the fifties, while electronic music opened up a series of new possibilities (still far from being exhausted or even just scientifically inventoried), there was a generalized rejection of compositional procedures of strictest rationalistic obedience and there was a revaluation of random elements, improvisational techniques (with a new emphasis on the virtuoso skills of the performers), as well as gestural and implicitly theatrical components inherent in the executive act; point, the latter, which has contributed to relaunch dramatic-musical forms completely detached from the traditional modules of the opera, headed towards an irreversible decline. In general, it is possible to recognize on many levels a restless search for a new linguistic syncretism, for a new universality capable of removing contemporary musical experience from the fictitious, and in the long run unsustainable, state of isolation that has marked its history in the last fifty years, in order to recover its lost social function.

    It is not by chance that generations of composers have turned to the recovery of the relationship with the public, already compromised, returning to “traditional” genres (such as opera) and to a musical language that does not refuse to be a vehicle for expressions and emotions. § For the various musical genres and directions, see the specific determinations that qualify them (for example: chamber music, see chamber; absolute music, see absolute; experimental music, see experimental).