Modernism in Music (Early 20th Century Classical)

Today we’re going to be taking a look at Modernism in music. Modernism is a style that ran concurrently to Impressionism in music (which we’ve done a video on previously).

Key composers in modernism include Stravinsky, Mahler and more – lots of very intense, very strange writing.

We’re going to talk about key musical components of the modernist era (around 1900-1930), and the genres involved (such as ballet and symphony). We’re also going to look at the Neoclassical movement.

Let’s get started!

Music history

In music history, things were pretty clear-cut for a while. You had the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic eras, each with their own set of very distinct styles and composers.

In the 1900s, things changed. Western music, which started out as one unbroken string, began to fray into a bunch of smaller strings. More started happening, and more started to change, more quickly than ever before.

Because of that, I can’t do a blanket video for the modern era (the way I did blanket videos for other eras). The modern era is full of so many little subsets, each of which is entirely worthy of its own individual attention.

What is modernism? Modernism in music

Previously, we talked about Impressionism in music, featuring the works of composers such as Debussy and Ravel, among others.

Simultaneous to that movement was one that’s sometimes referred to as “Modernism” in music. To simplify it, modernism was all about defying convention to an extreme degree.

For example, modernist music sometimes rejects tonality – it’s music that isn’t anchored in any “key”, and thus always tends to feel unsettled, or “off”.

Modernist music sometimes rejects standard rhythmic meters as well, abolishing 4/4 and 3/4 and others entirely.

It’s music that considers the borders of key and rhythm too stifling. It doesn’t even push boundaries; it destroys boundaries.

Expanded tonality, polytonality, Atonality and Schoenberg

Probably the most important and obvious quality of Modernism in music is atonality.

Atonality, or lack of a tonal center, is a term that was first used in the early 1900s to describe music with “ambiguous chords and more unusual melodic and rhythmic inflections”. This style of playing was innovated by Arnold Schoenberg, a Jewish composer from Vienna.

A version of atonality is called “Twelve tone technique”, and it’s a way of giving all twelve notes on the keyboard (or other instrument) equal weight, so that no note dominates any other, and you never get a sense of a “home key”.

Twelve tone technique is actually much more detailed and specific than this – there are “tone rows”, which is basically a “row” of music that uses each of the twelve tones without ever repeating one, that are then inverted, played backward, and turned around in various ways to become a “row form”.

This music was very fringe, and its audience was generally music nerds and academics.

Schoenberg: Piano Concerto

Schoenberg’s piano concerto, op. 42, is a great example of this. Composed in 1942, it’s one of Schoenberg’s later works, written when he lived in America.

Stravinsky, another popular composer we’ll talk about today, criticized the piano writing of this concerto, as has Mitsuko Uchida (a famous performer), saying that Schoenberg wasn’t a very good piano, and thus didn’t write “effectively or comfortably” for it.

With all that said, let’s take a listen to the opening seconds of the concerto, so you can get a feel for how weird it is.


Complete recording by James Irsay
Schoenberg – Piano Concerto Op.42 (1942)
Indiana University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bryan Balkwill

Modernism in Music and Nazi germany

In Nazi Germany, atonal music was labeled as degenerate, and composers who wrote in this style had their music banned – and Schoenberg’s music was no exception (though he lived in America by that time).

Second Viennese school

It’s worth noting that Schoenberg was a highly influential teacher and composer. Schoenberg, along with his contemporaries and pupils, made up a group of composers known as “The Second Viennese School”. They were active in Vienna between 1903 and 1925, and their music evolved from a little atonal to fully atonal, and then eventually to the use of twelve-tone technique.

Ballet, Stravinsky and free rhythm

Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer born into a musical family in 1882. He’s particularly known for the music of three potent ballets – Firebird (1909), Petrushka (1911) and the Rite of Spring (1913).

Let’s talk about his ballet Petrushka, which is a great example of Modernist rhythm styles – irregular meters, irregular rhythms and a more driving rhythm.

When I say irregular meter, I mean any rhythm that alternates – each bar might have a different meter (time signature). It’s not going to be 4/4 or 3/4 for the entire piece – it’s going to be flexible and alternate.

In this Modernist era, you’ll also sometimes see something crazy called polymeters, which is when different instruments do different time signatures. Maybe the pianist is playing in 4/4, but the violinist is playing in 7/8, and so on – which creates a really strange effect (as you might imagine).

So aside from Stravinsky bending rhythms, you can also hear how orchestration evolved in this period – more percussion (such as the xylophone), more drums, more of a rhythmic backbone.

Modernism in Music: Stravinsky’s Petrushka

We’re going to take a listen to a part from the second movement of Petrushka. Instead of listening to the orchestral version, I’m showing you a version for piano four-hands (duet). It’s easier to follow the sheet music this way, and notice the completely wild meter changes and rhythms.


Complete recording by Graziella Concasand Dario Strazzeri, 2010
Petrouchka (complete ballet) by Concas, G (with Dario Strazzeri, piano 4-hands)
Recording accessed at Piano Society

Modernist symphony and Mahler

In the hands of Gustav Mahler, the symphony transformed into an even larger beast – it was already quite expansive in the preceding Romantic era.

His Eighth Symphony from 1906, for example, is nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the sheer number of vocalists involved (two SATB choirs, a children’s choir, and eight soloists). Another example is his, Third Symphony, which is over an hour and a half long.

Mahler, along with some contemporaries, was said to compose symphonies that were “extraordinary in scope, richness, originality, and urgency of expression” (Steinberg).

Mahler’s music can be thought of as a link between the late Romantic-era composers like Wagner, to the more abstract and modern compositions of Schoenberg. There is more traditional “musicality” in these earlier compositions, but you can still hear them leaning in a modernist direction.

We’re going to take a quick listen to the fourth movement from his Fifth Symphony, which could be described as a “conventional symphony by an unconventional composer”. This is one of his more famous movements, and was written as a love song for his wife.


Gustav Mahler: “Adagietto”, 4th movement from Symphony #5
Date: 6 May 2010
Author  Reinhold Behringer (Virtual Philharmonic Orchestra)

Modernism in Music: Neoclassicism

Between the two world wars, some composers wanted to get back into the balanced and ordered style of Classical music. Music had become very formless and abstract, so there was a movement to give it form again.

Composers who wrote music in this “genre” are:

We’re going to talk about Francis Poulenc’s “Concert Champetre”, which is a harpsichord concerto. It was written between 1927-28.

It’s a really interesting concerto for a lot of reasons. First, you have the small sound of the harpsichord, the feature instrument, up against a full orchestra, which creates a really cool contrast. Then, you have the fact that the feature instrument is a harpsichord, a direct and obvious call-back to the Baroque period.

As such, this is a great example of Neo-Classical writing – we could even more specifically label it Neo-Baroque, but the idea is the same – integrate the old with the new.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s tour of Modernism in Music! If you liked this history video, be sure to check out some of the other history series we’ve done:

Baroque era, part 1 and part 2
Classical era, part 1 and part 2
Romantic era, part 1 and part 2

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.