Classical Period

At the turn of the 20th century classical was characteristically late Romantic in style, while at the same time the Impressionist movement, spearheaded by was taking form. America began forming its own vernacular style of , notably in the works of , John Alden Carpenter, and , while in Vienna, conceived , and later developed the twelve-tone technique. Classical music in the 20th century varied greatly, from the of early Schoenberg, Neoclassical music of , the of Luigi Russolo, Alexander Mossolov, early Prokofiev and Antheil, to the of Julián Carrillo, Alois Hába, , and , to the socialist realism of late Prokofiev and Glière, Kabalevsky, and other Russian , as well as the simple and of minimalist composers such as , and , to the musique concrète of and the intuitive music of ; from the total of and the political commitment of to the aleatoric music of .

Perhaps the most salient feature during this time period of classical music was the increased use of dissonance. Because of this, the twentieth century is sometimes called the "Dissonant Period" of classical music, following the , which emphasized consonance. The watershed transitional moment was the international Exposition celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution, in 1889.

Composers such as , , Edgard Varèse, Milton , Luigi Nono and have devoted followings within the avant-garde, but are often attacked outside of it. As time has passed, however, it is increasingly accepted, though by no means universally so, that the boundaries are more porous than the many polemics would lead one to believe: many of the techniques pioneered by the above composers show up in by , Deep Purple, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, ELP, Mike Oldfield, Enigma, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, in scores and video game music that draw mass audiences.

It should be kept in mind that this article presents an overview of twentieth-century classical music and many of the composers listed under the following trends and movements may not identify exclusively as such and may be considered as participating in different movements. For instance, at different times during his career, Igor Stravinsky may be considered a romantic, modernist, neoclassicist, and a serialist.

Romantic style

Particularly in the early part of the century, many composers wrote music which was an extension of nineteenth-century , and traditional groupings such as the and remained the most usual. Traditional forms such as the and remained in use. While some writers hold that Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi- d'un faune and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht are dramatic departures from and have strong modernist traits, others hold that the Schoenberg work is squarely within the late-Romantic tradition of Wagner and Brahms and, more generally, that "the who most directly and completely connects late Wagner and the twentieth century is Arnold Schoenberg".

Many prominent composers — among them , , , and — made significant advances in style and technique while still employing a melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, structural, and textural language which was related to that of the nineteenth century.

Music along these lines was written throughout the twentieth century, and continues to be written today.


Impressionism was a French revolt, led by Claude Debussy, against the emotional exuberance and epic themes of German Romanticism exemplified by Wagner. In Debussy's view, art was a sensuous experience, rather than an intellectual or ethical one. He urged his countrymen to rediscover the French masters of the eighteenth century, for whom music was meant to charm, to entertain, and to serve as a "fantasy of the senses". Other composers associated with impressionism include Maurice Ravel, , Isaac Albéniz, , Manuel de Falla, Charles Martin Loeffler, Charles Griffes, Frederick Delius, Ottorino Respighi, and . Although impressionism is generally held to have been superseded in the by neoclassicism, many French composers continued its language, including Albert Roussel, , André Caplet, and, later, . Composers from non-Western cultures, such as Tōru Takemitsu, and such as , Gil Evans, , and Cecil Taylor, also have been strongly influenced by the impressionist musical language.


Expressionism was a prominent artistic trend associated especially with Austria and Germany before, during, and immediately after . In some measure a reaction against the perceived passive nature of impressionism, it emphasized an eruptive immediacy of expressive feeling, often based on the psychology of the unconscious. Expressionism is primarily identified with Arnold Schoenberg’s "free atonal’ period" (1908–1921), in particular the monodrama , the Klavierstück op. 11, no. 3, and the first and last of his Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16. Certain works from this same period by his pupils and Anton Webern are also usually included. Although this music sets out from Wagner’s chromatic (especially Kundry’s music in Parsifal), it tends to avoid cadence, repetition, sequence, balanced phrases, and any reference to traditional forms or procedures, for which reason it came to be associated with a rejection of tradition. Other composers active in approximately this period such as , Alexander Skryabin, Josef Matthias Hauer, Igor Stravinsky, Karol Szymanowski, Béla Bartók, , Charles Ives, and also exhibit expressionist traits, while important stage works of the 1920s by , Hindemith, and Krenek retain expressionistic textual and visual aspects even though their musical language no longer reflects expressionism's aesthetic principles. By the late 1920s, though many composers continued to write in a vaguely expressionist manner, it was being supplanted by the more impersonal style of the German Neue Sachlichkeit and neoclassicism. Because expressionism, like any movement that had been stigmatized by the Nazis, gained a sympathetic reconsideration following World War II, resurfaced in works by composers such as , Pierre Boulez, , , and .


Futurism was an initially Italian artistic movement founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and soon embraced by the Russian avant garde. In 1913, the painter Luigi Russolo published a manifesto, L'arte dei rumori (The Art of Noises), calling for the incorporation of noises of every kind into music. In addition to Russolo, composers directly associated with this movement include the Italians Silvio Mix, Nuccio Fiorda, Franco Casavola, and Pannigi (whose 1922 Ballo meccanico included two motorcycles), and the Russians Artur Lourié, Mikhail Matyushin, and . Though few of the futurist works of these composers are performed today, the influence of futurism on the later development of twentieth-century music was enormous. Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, , , , and Edgard Varèse are among the notable composers in the first half of the century who were influenced by futurism. Characteristic features of later twentieth-century music with origins in futurism include the prepared , integral serialism, extended vocal techniques, graphic notation, improvisation, and .

Second Viennese School, atonality, twelve-tone technique, and serialism

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most significant figures in . In 1921, he developed the twelve-tone technique of composition, which he first described privately to his associates in 1923.

In , the "punctual", "pointist", or "pointillist" style of Messiaen's "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités"—in which individual tones' characteristics, or "parameters" are each determined independently—was very influential in the years immediately following 1951 among composers such as Pierre Boulez, , Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Free dissonance and experimentalism

In the early part of the 20th century Charles Ives integrated American and European traditions as well as vernacular and church styles, while innovating in , harmony, and form. Edgard Varèse wrote highly dissonant pieces that utilized unusual sonorities and futuristic, scientific sounding names.


Electronic music

Technological advances in the twentieth century enabled composers to use electronic means of producing sound.

After the Second World War, magnetic tape became available for the creation of music by recording sounds and then manipulating them in some way. When the source material was acoustical sounds from the everyday world, the term musique concrète was used; when the sounds were produced by electronic generators, it was designated . After the , the term "electronic music" came to be used for both types. Sometimes such electronic music was combined with more conventional instruments, Stockhausen's , Edgard Varèse's Déserts, and 's series of Synchronisms are three examples.

Jazz-influenced classical composition

A number of composers combined elements of the jazz idiom with classical compositional styles, notably , , George Gershwin, , and Maurice Ravel.

Post-modernist music

Birth of post-

Post-modernism can be said to be a response to modernism, but it can also be viewed as a response to a deep-seated shift in societal attitude. According to this view, began when historic (as opposed to personal) optimism turned to pessimism, at the latest by 1930.

John Cage is a prominent figure in 20th-century music whose influence steadily grew during his lifetime. Michael Nyman argues that minimalism was a reaction to and made possible by both serialism and indeterminism.


In the later twentieth century, composers such as , Philip Glass, , and Steve Reich began to explore what is now called minimalism. Early examples include Terry Riley's In C (1964) and Steve Reich's Drumming (1970–71).

Recording technology

The twentieth century saw a change in the way in which classical music was heard. Advances in recording technologies, beginning with the rise in popularity of the in the early part of the century, and later with the inventions of magnetic tape, the cassette, DAT, and the compact disk. In addition, broadcasting technologies, such as radio and television have meant that the concert hall, house, salon, and domestic music-making are no longer the only means by which a performance can reach its audience.


Prominent spectral composers include Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, and the 'post- spectral' composers and .

Other notable twentieth-century composers

John Luigi Gustav Holst Krzysztof Jean Coolidge Dallapiccola Alan Hovhaness Penderecki Sibelius Adams Frederick Scott Joplin Ástor Elie Malcolm Delius Aram Piazzolla Siegmeister Arnold Franco Khachaturian Francis Richard Samuel Donatoni Zoltan Kodaly Poulenc Strauss Barber Henri Włodzimierz Giacomo Tōru

Arnold Bax Dutilleux Kotoński Puccini Takemitsu Harrison Edward György Ligeti Sergei Josef Tal Birtwistle Elgar Rachmaninoff Witold Michael Ernest George Einojuhani Tippett Lutosławski Bloch Enescu Rautavaara Ralph Gian-Carlo William Gabriel Silvestre Vaughan Menotti Bolcom Fauré Revueltas Williams Carl Nielsen Frank Morton Joaquín Heitor Bridge Feldman Carl Orff Rodrigo Villa-Lobos Carlos Alberto Arvo Pärt Ned Rorem William Chávez Ginastera Walton John Henryk Alfred Kurt Weill Corigliano Górecki Schnittke John Henry Percy Williams Cowell Grainger Charles George Howard Wuorinen Crumb Hanson Iannis Roy Harris Xenakis Lou Harrison