16 Chapter 16: Music of the 20th Century

Introduction to Impressionism, Expressionism, and Twelve-Tone

This section includes readings that will provide an overview of major trends in the Modern era. The readings will specifically focus on impressionism, expressionism, and twelve-tone technique. It also provides specific information on composers and pieces created in those styles.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Music of the 20th Century
  • Impressionism
  • Claude Debussy
  • Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  • Maurice Ravel
  • Daphnis et Chloe
  • Expressionism
  • Arnold Schoenberg
  • Pierrot Lunaire
  • Sprechstimme
  • Twelve-Tone Technique
  • Suite for Piano

Music of the 20th Century

Let’s begin the study of our final historical period with an overview of major trends and composers from the era. As you read this page, please pay special attention to the fact that this description focuses on compositional techniques and very little is said about dominant genres. The 20th century was clearly a period of widespread experimentation, and many composers wanted the freedom to explore new compositional approaches without the restrictions and expectations that accompany traditional genres. Even when longstanding genres were used, composers felt very comfortable abandoning the traditional structures of those genres.


At the turn of the century, music was characteristically late Romantic in style. Composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius were pushing the bounds of Post-Romantic Symphonic writing. At the same time, the Impressionist movement, spearheaded by Claude Debussy, was being developed in France. The term was actually loathed by Debussy: “I am trying to do ‘something different’—in a way realities—what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics”; and Maurice Ravel’s music, also often labeled with this term, explores music in many styles not always related to it (see the discussion on Neoclassicism below).

Arnold Schoenberg, Los Angeles, 1948
Figure 1. Arnold Schoenberg, Los Angeles, 1948.

Many composers reacted to the Post-Romantic and Impressionist styles and moved in quite different directions. The single most important moment in defining the course of music throughout the century was the widespread break with traditional tonality, effected in diverse ways by different composers in the first decade of the century. From this sprang an unprecedented “linguistic plurality” of styles, techniques, and expression. In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg developed atonality out of the expressionism that arose in the early part of the 20th century. He later developed the twelve-tone technique, which was developed further by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern; later composers (including Pierre Boulez) developed it further still. Stravinsky (in his last works) explored twelve-tone technique, too, as did many other composers; indeed, even Scott Bradley used the technique in his scores for the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

After the First World War, many composers started returning to the past for inspiration and wrote works that draw elements (form, harmony, melody, structure) from it. This type of music thus became labeled neoclassicism. Igor Stravinsky (Pulcinella and Symphony of Psalms), Sergei Prokofiev (Classical Symphony), Ravel (Le tombeau de Couperin), and Paul Hindemith (Symphony: Mathis der Maler) all produced neoclassical works.

Igor Stravinsky
Figure 2. Igor Stravinsky.

Italian composers such as Francesco Balilla Pratella and Luigi Russolo developed musical Futurism. This style often tried to recreate everyday sounds and place them in a “Futurist” context. The “Machine Music” of George Antheil (starting with his Second Sonata, “The Airplane”) and Alexander Mosolov (most notoriously his Iron Foundry) developed out of this. The process of extending musical vocabulary by exploring all available tones was pushed further by the use of Microtones in works by Charles Ives, Julián Carrillo, Alois Hába, John Foulds, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, and Mildred Couper among many others. Microtones are those intervals that are smaller than a semitone; human voices and unfretted strings can easily produce them by going in between the “normal” notes, but other instruments will have more difficulty—the piano and organ have no way of producing them at all, aside from retuning and/or major reconstruction.

In the 1940s and ’50s, composers, notably Pierre Schaeffer, started to explore the application of technology to music in musique concrète. The term electroacoustic music was later coined to include all forms of music involving magnetic tape, computers, synthesizers, multimedia, and other electronic devices and techniques. Live electronic music uses live electronic sounds within a performance (as opposed to preprocessed sounds that are overdubbed during a performance), Cage’s Cartridge Music being an early example. Spectral music (Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail) is a further development of electroacoustic music that uses analyses of sound spectra to create music. Cage, Berio, Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Luigi Nono, and Edgard Varèse all wrote electroacoustic music.

From the early 1950s onward, Cage introduced elements of chance into his music. Process music (Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Prozession, Aus den sieben Tagen; and Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Clapping Music) explores a particular process which is essentially laid bare in the work. The term experimental music was coined by Cage to describe works that produce unpredictable results, according to the definition “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.” The term is also used to describe music within specific genres that pushes against their boundaries or definitions, or else whose approach is a hybrid of disparate styles, or incorporates unorthodox, new, distinctly unique ingredients.

Important cultural trends often informed music of this period, romantic, modernist, neoclassical, postmodernist, or otherwise. Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev were particularly drawn to primitivism in their early careers, as explored in works such as The Rite of Spring and Chout. Other Russians, notably Dmitri Shostakovich, reflected the social impact of communism and subsequently had to work within the strictures of socialist realism in their music. Other composers, such as Benjamin Britten (War Requiem), explored political themes in their works, albeit entirely at their own volition. Nationalism was also an important means of expression in the early part of the century. The culture of the United States of America, especially, began informing an American vernacular style of classical music, notably in the works of Charles Ives, John Alden Carpenter, and (later) George Gershwin. Folk music (Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus; Gustav Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody) and Jazz (Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde) were also influential.

In the latter quarter of the century, eclecticism and polystylism became important. These, as well as minimalism, New Complexity, and New Simplicity, are more fully explored in their respective articles.


The first post-Romantic movement we’ll study is Impressionism. As you’ll see from the linked article, Impressionism was a movement in the visual arts, namely painting, centered in Paris in the late 19th century. The term was later applied, not always to the liking of the composers, to the music of early 20th-century French composers who were turning away from the grandiosity of late Romantic orchestral music.


Impressionism is a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s. Impressionist painting characteristics include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes; open composition; emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time); ordinary subject matter; inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience; and unusual visual angles.

The Impressionists faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France. The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satirical review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.

The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media that became known as impressionist music and impressionist literature.

Music and Literature

Musical Impressionism is the name given to a movement in European classical music that arose in the late 19th century and continued into the middle of the 20th century. Originating in France, musical Impressionism is characterized by suggestion and atmosphere and eschews the emotional excesses of the Romantic era. Impressionist composers favored short forms such as the nocturne, arabesque, and prelude and often explored uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. Perhaps the most notable innovations of Impressionist composers were the introduction of major 7th chords and the extension of chord structures in 3rds to five- and six-part harmonies.

The influence of visual Impressionism on its musical counterpart is debatable. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravelare are generally considered the greatest Impressionist composers, but Debussy disavowed the term, calling it the invention of critics. Erik Satie was also considered in this category, though his approach was regarded as less serious, more musical novelty in nature. Paul Dukas is another French composer sometimes considered an Impressionist, but his style is perhaps more closely aligned to the late Romanticists. Musical Impressionism beyond France includes the work of such composers as Ottorino Respighi (Italy); Ralph Vaughan Williams, Cyril Scott, and John Ireland (England); and Manuel De Falla and Isaac Albeniz (Spain).

Claude Debussy

One of the towering figures of impressionism in music, though he did not approve of that term being applied to his music, is Claude Debussy. A child prodigy and difficult personality, his innovations are seen as the beginnings of modernism in music.


Claude Debussy in 1908
Figure 1. Claude Debussy in 1908.

Claude-Achille Debussy (22 August 1862–25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though he himself disliked the term when applied to his compositions. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in his native France in 1903. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed.

Debussy’s music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of atonality. The prominent French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.

Early Life

Debussy was born Achille-Claude Debussy (he later reversed his forenames) on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the oldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a china shop there; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870, Debussy’s pregnant mother fled with Claude to his paternal aunt’s home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of 7 with an Italian violinist in his early 40s named Cerutti; his aunt paid for his lessons. In 1871, he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence to support her claim. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age 10, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent the next 11 years. During his time there, he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and distinguished pianist Isidor Philipp. After Debussy’s death, many pianists sought Philipp’s advice on playing Debussy’s works.

Musical Development

Debussy was argumentative and experimental from the outset, although clearly talented. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader who could have had a professional career had he so wished. The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann, and Weber and Chopin’s Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert.

During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882, Debussy accompanied Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as she traveled with her family in Europe. The young composer’s many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends. Despite von Meck’s closeness to Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had minimal effect on Debussy. In September 1880, she sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky’s perusal. A month later, Tchaikovsky wrote back to her: “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.” Debussy did not publish the piece, and the manuscript remained in the von Meck family; it was eventually sold to B. Schott’s Sohne in Mainz and published by them in 1932.

A greater influence was Debussy’s close friendship with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money, embarking on an eight-year affair together. She and her husband, Parisian civil servant Henri, gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Henri Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine (the son-in-law of his former teacher Mme. Mauté de Fleurville).

Debussy at the Villa Medici in Rome, 1885, at centre in the white jacket
Figure 2. Debussy at the Villa Medici in Rome, 1885, at center in the white jacket.

As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue, Debussy received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887). According to letters to Marie-Blanche Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters “abominable.” Neither did he delight in Italian opera, as he found the operas of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable. In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!”

Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima (based on a text by Heinrich Heine); the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887–1888) (which was criticized by the Academy as “bizarre,” although it was the first piece in which the stylistic features of Debussy’s later style began to emerge); and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, which was heavily based on César Franck’s music and therefore eventually withdrawn by Debussy. The Academy chided him for “courting the unusual” and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Although Debussy’s works showed the influence of Jules Massenet, Massenet concluded, “He is an enigma.”

During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888–89, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which would have a lasting impact on his work. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Richard Wagner’s sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies. Wagner’s extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy’s way, but the German composer’s influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine—Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes—are all in a more capricious style.

Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. Both musicians were bohemians during this period, enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.

In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music. He incorporated gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, and ensemble textures into some of his compositions, most notably Pagodes from his piano collection Estampes.

Music Style

Rudolph Reti points out the following features of Debussy’s music, which “established a new concept of tonality in European music”:

  1. Glittering passages and webs of figurations that distract from occasional absence of tonality;
  2. Frequent use of parallel chords which are “in essence not harmonies at all, but rather ‘chordal melodies,’ enriched unisons,” described by some writers as non-functional harmonies;
  3. Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;
  4. Use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scale;
  5. Unprepared modulations, “without any harmonic bridge.”

He concludes that Debussy’s achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based “melodic tonality” with harmonies, albeit different from those of “harmonic tonality.”

The application of the term “Impressionist” to Debussy and the music he influenced is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. One side argues that the term is a misnomer, an inappropriate label which Debussy himself opposed. In a letter of 1908 he wrote: “I am trying to do ‘something different’—an effect of reality . . . what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism,’ a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to [J. M. W.] Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art.” The opposing side argues that Debussy may have been reacting to unfavorable criticism at the time and the negativity that critics associated with Impressionism; it could therefore be argued that he would have been pleased with application of the current definition of Impressionism to his music.

Chords, featuring chromatically altered sevenths and ninths and progressing unconventionally, explored by Debussy in a "celebrated conversation at the piano with his teacher Ernest Guiraud"
Figure 3. Chords, featuring chromatically altered sevenths and ninths and progressing unconventionally, explored by Debussy in a “celebrated conversation at the piano with his teacher Ernest Guiraud.”

Prelude to the Afternoon of the a Faun

Though the piece was composed in the late 19th century, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is seen by no less a figure of modernism as Pierre Boulez as the beginning of modern music. If you’re interested, here is an English translation of the Mallarme poem upon which Debussy based his composition.


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (L. 86), known in English as Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is a symphonic poem for orchestra by Claude Debussy, approximately 10 minutes in duration. It was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.


The composition was inspired by the poem Prélude à l’après-midi d‘un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy’s work later provided the basis for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. It is one of Debussy’s most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music; Pierre Boulez has said he considers the score to be the beginning of modern music, observing that “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” It is a work that barely grasps onto tonality and harmonic function.

About his composition Debussy wrote:

The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.

Paul Valéry reported that Mallarmé himself was unhappy with his poem being used as the basis for music: “He believed that his own music was sufficient, and that even with the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.”

However, Maurice Dumesnil states in his biography of Debussy that Mallarmé was enchanted by Debussy’s composition, citing a short letter from Mallarmé to Debussy that read: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”

The opening flute solo is one of the most famous passages in the orchestral repertoire, consisting of a chromatic descent to a tritone below the original pitch and the subsequent ascent.


Principal theme
Figure 1. Principal theme.

The work is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in A and Bb, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, two crotales, and strings.

Although it is tempting to call this piece a tone poem, there is very little musical literalism in the piece; instead, the slow and mediated melody and layered orchestration as a whole evoke the eroticism of Mallarmé’s poem.

[This prelude] was [Debussy’s] musical response to the poem of Stephane Mallarmé (1842–1898), in which a faun playing his pan-pipes alone in the woods becomes aroused by passing nymphs and naiads, pursues them unsuccessfully, then wearily abandons himself to a sleep filled with visions. Though called a “prelude,” the work is nevertheless complete—an evocation of the feelings of the poem as a whole.

The Prélude at first listening seems improvisational and almost free-form; however, closer observation will demonstrate that the piece consists of a complex organization of musical cells, motifs carefully developed and traded between members of the orchestra. A close analysis of the piece reveals a high amount of consciousness of composition on Debussy’s part.

The main musical themes are introduced by woodwinds, with delicate but harmonically advanced underpinnings of muted horns, strings, and harp. Recurring tools in Debussy’s compositional arsenal make appearances in this piece: extended whole-tone scale runs, harmonic fluidity without lengthy modulations between central keys, and tritones in both melody and harmony. The development of the slow main theme transitions smoothly between 9/8, 6/8, and 12/8 meters. Debussy enacts voicings and shading in his orchestration to a high degree, allowing the main melodic cell to move from solo flute to oboe, back to solo flute, then two unison flutes (yielding a completely different atmosphere to the melody), then clarinet, etc. Even the accompaniment explores alternate voicings; the flute duo’s crescendo during their melodic cells accompany legato strings with violas carrying the soprano part over alto violins (the tone of a viola in its upper register being especially pronounced).

Maurice Ravel

Like Debussy, Ravel is considered one of the leading composers of impressionist music, though, like Debussy, he disliked that label. Unlike Debussy, at least in my opinion, there are numerous pieces by Ravel that clearly do not follow impressionistic practice. However, his ballet Daphnis and Chloe is a clear example of impressionist style, so we will disregard the artists preference and study him as part of our consideration of the impressionist movement.


Ravel in 1925
Figure 1. Ravel in 1925.

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (7 March 1875–28 December 1937) was a French composer, pianist, and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and ’30s, Ravel was internationally regarded as France’s greatest living composer.

Born to a music-loving family, Ravel attended France’s premier music college, the Paris Conservatoire; he was not well regarded by its conservative establishment, whose biased treatment of him caused a scandal. After leaving the conservatoire, Ravel found his own way as a composer, developing a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of baroque, neoclassicism, and, in his later works, jazz. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development. He made some orchestral arrangements of other composers’ music, of which his 1922 version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the best known.

As a slow and painstaking worker, Ravel composed fewer pieces than many of his contemporaries. Among his works to enter the repertoire are pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concertos, ballet music, two operas, and eight song cycles; he wrote no symphonies or religious works. Many of his works exist in two versions: a first piano score and a later orchestration. Some of his piano music, such as Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is exceptionally difficult to play, and his complex orchestral works such as Daphnis et Chloé (1912) require skillful balance in performance.

Ravel was among the first composers to recognize the potential of recording to bring their music to a wider public. From the 1920s, despite limited technique as a pianist or conductor, he took part in recordings of several of his works; others were made under his supervision.

Ravel and Debussy

Around 1900, Ravel and a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians joined together in an informal group; they came to be known as Les Apaches (“The Hooligans”), a name coined by Viñes to represent their status as “artistic outcasts.” They met regularly until the beginning of the First World War, and members stimulated one another with intellectual argument and performances of their works. The membership of the group was fluid and at various times included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla, as well as their French friends.

Among the enthusiasms of the Apaches was the music of Debussy. Ravel, 12 years his junior, had known Debussy slightly since the 1890s, and their friendship, though never close, continued for more than 10 years. In 1902, André Messager conducted the premiere of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique. It divided musical opinion. Dubois unavailingly forbade Conservatoire students to attend, and the conductor’s friend and former teacher Camille Saint-Saëns was prominent among those who detested the piece. The Apaches were loud in their support. The first run of the opera consisted of 14 performances: Ravel attended all of them.

Debussy was widely held to be an impressionist composer—a label he intensely disliked. Many music lovers began to apply the same term to Ravel, and the works of the two composers were frequently taken as part of a single genre. Ravel thought that Debussy was indeed an impressionist but that he himself was not. Orenstein comments that Debussy was more spontaneous and casual in his composing, while Ravel was more attentive to form and craftsmanship. Ravel wrote that Debussy’s “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy . . . I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of [his] symbolism.” During the first years of the new century, Ravel’s new works included the piano piece Jeux d’eau (1901), the String Quartet, and the orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade (both 1903). Commentators have noted some Debussian touches in some parts of these works. Nichols calls the quartet “at once homage to and exorcism of Debussy’s influence.”

The two composers ceased to be on friendly terms in the middle of the 1900s, for musical and possibly personal reasons. Their admirers began to form factions, with adherents of one composer denigrating the other. Disputes arose about the chronology of the composers’ works and who influenced whom. Prominent in the anti-Ravel camp was Lalo, who wrote, “Where M. Debussy is all sensitivity, M. Ravel is all insensitivity, borrowing without hesitation not only technique but the sensitivity of other people.” The public tension led to personal estrangement. Ravel said, “It’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.” Nichols suggests an additional reason for the rift. In 1904, Debussy left his wife and went to live with the singer Emma Bardac. Ravel, together with his close friend and confidante Misia Edwards and the opera star Lucienne Bréval, contributed to a modest regular income for the deserted Lilly Debussy, a fact that Nichols suggests may have rankled with her husband.

Daphnis et Chloé

Daphnis et Chloé was commissioned in or about 1909 by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his company, the Ballets Russes. Ravel began work with Diaghilev’s choreographer, Michel Fokine, and designer, Léon Bakst. Fokine had a reputation for his modern approach to dance, with individual numbers replaced by continuous music. This appealed to Ravel, and after discussing the action in great detail with Fokine, Ravel began composing the music. There were frequent disagreements between the collaborators, and the premiere was under-rehearsed because of the late completion of the work. It had an unenthusiastic reception and was quickly withdrawn, although it was revived successfully a year later in Monte Carlo and London. The effort to complete the ballet took its toll on Ravel’s health; neurasthenia obliged him to rest for several months after the premiere.

Ravel composed little during 1913. He collaborated with Stravinsky on a performing version of Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina, and his own works were the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé for soprano and chamber ensemble and two short piano pieces, À la manière de Borodine and À la manière de Chabrier. In 1913, together with Debussy, Ravel was among the musicians present at the dress rehearsal of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky later said that Ravel was the only person who immediately understood the music. Ravel predicted that the premiere of the Rite would be seen as an event of historic importance equal to that of Pelléas et Mélisande.


Marcel Marnat’s catalog of Ravel’s complete works lists eighty-five works, including many incomplete or abandoned. Though that total is small in comparison with the output of his major contemporaries, it is nevertheless inflated by Ravel’s frequent practice of writing works for piano and later rewriting them as independent pieces for orchestra. The performable body of works numbers about sixty; slightly more than half are instrumental. Ravel’s music includes pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concerti, ballet music, opera, and song cycles. He wrote no symphonies or religious works.

Ravel drew on many generations of French composers from Couperin and Rameau to Fauré and the more recent innovations of Satie and Debussy. Foreign influences include Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin. He considered himself in many ways a classicist, often using traditional structures and forms, such as the ternary, to present his new melodic and rhythmic content and innovative harmonies. The influence of jazz on his later music is heard within conventional classical structures in the Piano Concerto and the Violin Sonata.

Whatever sauce you put around the melody is a matter of taste. What is important is the melodic line.
—Ravel to Vaughan Williams

Ravel placed high importance on melody, telling Vaughan Williams that there is “an implied melodic outline in all vital music.” His themes are frequently modal instead of using the familiar major or minor scales. As a result, there are few leading notes in his output. Chords of the ninth and eleventh and unresolved appoggiaturas, such as those in the Valses nobles et sentimentales, are characteristic of Ravel’s harmonic language.

Dance forms appealed to Ravel, most famously the bolero and pavane, but also the minuet, forlane, rigaudon, waltz, czardas, habanera, and passacaglia. National and regional consciousness was important to him, and although a planned concerto on Basque themes never materialized, his works include allusions to Hebraic, Greek, Hungarian, and gypsy themes. He wrote several short pieces paying tribute to composers he admired—Borodin, Chabrier, Fauré, and Haydn, interpreting their characteristics in a Ravellian style. Another important influence was literary rather than musical: Ravel said that he learned from Poe that “true art is a perfect balance between pure intellect and emotion,” with the corollary that a piece of music should be a perfectly balanced entity with no irrelevant material allowed to intrude.

Daphnis et Chloe

Please read this article on Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe. This page just discusses Part III, as that is the portion of the ballet that our listening example comes from. If you’d like to read about the entire scenario of the ballet—which I hope you will—you can read the rest of the Wikipedia article here.

Part III


Morning at the grotto of the Nymphs. There is no sound but the murmur of rivulets produced by the dew that trickles from the rocks. Daphnis lies, still unconscious, at the entrance of the grotto. Gradually the day breaks. The songs of birds are heard. Far off, a shepherd passes with his flock. Another shepherd crosses in the background. A group of herdsmen enters looking for Daphnis and Chloe. They discover Daphnis and wake him. Anxiously he looks around for Chloe. She appears at last, surrounded by shepherdesses. They throw themselves into each other’s arms. Daphnis notices Chloe’s wreath. His dream was a prophetic vision. The intervention of Pan is manifest. The old shepherd Lammon explains that if Pan has saved Chloe, it is in memory of the nymph Syrinx, whom the god once loved. Daphnis and Chloe mime the tale of Pan and Syrinx. Chloe plays the young nymph wandering in the meadow. Daphnis as Pan appears and declares his love. The nymph rebuffs him. The god becomes more insistent. She disappears into the reeds. In despair, he picks several stalks to form a flute and plays a melancholy air. Chloe reappears and interprets in her dance the accents of the flute. The dance becomes more and more animated, and in a mad whirling, Chloe falls into Daphnis’s arms. Before the altar of the Nymphs, he pledges his love, offering a sacrifice of two sheep. A group of girls enters dressed as bacchantes, shaking tambourines. Daphnis and Chloe embrace tenderly. A group of youths rushes on stage and the ballet ends with a bacchanale.


  • Lever du jour
  • Pantomime (Les amours de Pan et Syrinx)
  • Danse générale (Bacchanale)


Expressionism is a term that, like impressionism, originated in the visual arts and was then applied to other arts, including music. Expressionism can be considered a reaction to the ethereal sweetness of impressionism. Instead of gauzy impressions of natural beauty, expressionism looks inward to the angst and fear lurking in the subconscious mind. In music, expressionism is manifest in the full embrace of jarring dissonance.


Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.

Expressionism was developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War. It remained popular during the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including expressionist architecture, painting, literature, theater, dance, film, and music.

The term is sometimes suggestive of angst. In a general sense, painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco are sometimes termed expressionist, though in practice, the term is applied mainly to 20th-century works. The Expressionist emphasis on individual perspective has been characterized as a reaction to positivism and other artistic styles such as Naturalism and Impressionism.


The term expressionism “was probably first applied to music in 1918, especially to Schoenberg,” because like the painter Kandinsky, he avoided “traditional forms of beauty” to convey powerful feelings in his music. Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, the members of the Second Viennese School, are important Expressionists (Schoenberg was also an Expressionist painter). Other composers that have been associated with expressionism are Krenek (the Second Symphony), Paul Hindemith (The Young Maiden), Igor Stravinsky (Japanese Songs), and Alexander Scriabin (late piano sonatas) (Adorno 2009, 275). Another significant expressionist was Béla Bartók in early works, written in the second decade of the 20th-century, such as Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), The Wooden Prince (1917), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919). Important precursors of expressionism are Richard Wagner (1813–83), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and Richard Strauss (1864–1949).

Theodor Adorno describes expressionism as concerned with the unconscious and states that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating so that the “harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished.” Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand by Schoenberg and Wozzeck, an opera by Alban Berg (based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner), are examples of Expressionist works. If one were to draw an analogy from paintings, one may describe the expressionist painting technique as the distortion of reality (mostly colors and shapes) to create a nightmarish effect for the particular painting as a whole. Expressionist music roughly does the same thing, where the dramatically increased dissonance creates, aurally, a nightmarish atmosphere.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He championed atonality in music composition, first through freely composed, expressionist works such as Pierrot Lunaire (one song from that cycle, “Madonna,” is on our playlist) and later through his own system of composition commonly referred to as twelve-tone music (the Piano Suite, a portion of which is on our list, was composed using this method). This system of atonal composition became the dominant musical idiom at music conservatories in America and Europe during the latter half of the 20th century. Though the influence of twelve-tone composition appears to be waning, its impact on the music of the last century is enormous. Love it or hate it, the music of Schoenberg walks large on the stage of history.


Early Life

Arnold Schönberg in Payerbach, 1903
Figure 1. Arnold Schönberg in Payerbach, 1903.

Arnold Schoenberg was born into a lower middle-class Jewish family in the Leopoldstadt district (in earlier times a Jewish ghetto) of Vienna at “Obere Donaustraße 5.” His father Samuel, a native of Bratislava, was a shopkeeper, and his mother Pauline was native of Prague. Arnold was largely self-taught. He took only counterpoint lessons with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was to become his first brother-in-law.

In his twenties, Schoenberg earned a living by orchestrating operettas while composing his own works, such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). He later made an orchestral version of this, which became one of his most popular pieces. Both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler recognized Schoenberg’s significance as a composer—Strauss when he encountered Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, and Mahler after hearing several of Schoenberg’s early works.

Strauss turned to a more conservative idiom in his own work after 1909 and at that point dismissed Schoenberg. Mahler adopted him as a protégé and continued to support him, even after Schoenberg’s style reached a point Mahler could no longer understand. Mahler worried about who would look after him after his death. Schoenberg, who had initially despised and mocked Mahler’s music, was converted by the “thunderbolt” of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which he considered a work of genius. Afterward he “spoke of Mahler as a saint.”

In 1898, Schoenberg converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church. According to MacDonald, this was partly to strengthen his attachment to Western European cultural traditions and partly as a means of self-defense “in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism.” In 1933, after long meditation, he returned to Judaism, because he realized that “his racial and religious heritage was inescapable” and to take up an unmistakable position on the side opposing Nazism. He would self-identify as a member of the Jewish religion later in life.

In October 1901, he married Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of the conductor and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, with whom Schoenberg had been studying since about 1894. Mathilde bore him two children, Gertrud (1902–1947) and Georg (1906–1974). Gertrud would marry Schoenberg’s pupil Felix Greissle in 1921. During the summer of 1908, his wife Mathilde left him for several months for a young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl. This period marked a distinct change in Schoenberg’s work. It was during the absence of his wife that he composed “You lean against a silver-willow” (German: Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide), the 13th song in the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15, based on the collection of the same name by the German mystical poet Stefan George. This was the first composition without any reference at all to a key. Also in this year, he completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2, whose first two movements, though chromatic in color, use traditional key signatures, yet whose final two movements, also settings of George, daringly weaken the links with traditional tonality. Both movements end on tonic chords, and the work is not fully non-tonal. Breaking with previous string-quartet practice, it incorporates a soprano vocal line.

During the summer of 1910, Schoenberg wrote his Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony; Schoenberg 1922), which remains one of the most influential music-theory books. From about 1911, Schoenberg belonged to a circle of artists and intellectuals who included Lene Schneider-Kainer, Franz Werfel, Herwarth Walden, and the latter’s wife, Else Lasker-Schüler.

In 1910, he met Edward Clark, an English music journalist then working in Germany. Clark became his sole English student, and in his later capacity as a producer for the BBC, he was responsible for introducing many of Schoenberg’s works, and Schoenberg himself, to Britain (as well as Webern, Berg, and others).

Another of his most important works from this atonal or pantonal period is the highly influential Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, of 1912, a novel cycle of expressionist songs set to a German translation of poems by the Belgian-French poet Albert Giraud. Utilizing the technique of Sprechstimme, or melodramatically spoken recitation, the work pairs a female vocalist with a small ensemble of five musicians. The ensemble, which is now commonly referred to as the Pierrot ensemble, consists of flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), violoncello, speaker, and piano.

Wilhelm Bopp, director of the Vienna Conservatory from 1907, wanted a break from the stale environment personified for him by Robert Fuchs and Hermann Graedener. Having considered many candidates, he offered teaching positions to Schoenberg and Franz Schreker in 1912. At the time, Schoenberg lived in Berlin. He was not completely cut off from the Vienna Conservatory, having taught a private theory course a year earlier. He seriously considered the offer, but he declined. Writing afterward to Alban Berg, he cited his “aversion to Vienna” as the main reason for his decision, while contemplating that it might have been the wrong one financially, but having made it, he felt content. A couple of months later he wrote to Schreker suggesting that it might have been a bad idea for him as well to accept the teaching position.

World War I

Arnold Schoenberg, by Egon Schiele 1917
Figure 2. Arnold Schoenberg, by Egon Schiele 1917.

World War I brought a crisis in his development. Military service disrupted his life when at the age of 42 he was in the army. He was never able to work uninterrupted or over a period of time, and as a result, he left many unfinished works and undeveloped “beginnings.” On one occasion, a superior officer demanded to know if he was “this notorious Schoenberg, then”; Schoenberg replied: “Beg to report, sir, yes. Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me” (according to Norman Lebrecht [2001], this is a reference to Schoenberg’s apparent “destiny” as the “Emancipator of Dissonance”).

In what Ross calls an “act of war psychosis,” Schoenberg drew comparisons between Germany’s assault on France and his assault on decadent bourgeois artistic values. In August 1914, while denouncing the music of Bizet, Stravinsky, and Ravel, he wrote: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.”

The deteriorating relation between contemporary composers and the public led him to found the Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in German) in Vienna in 1918. He sought to provide a forum in which modern musical compositions could be carefully prepared and rehearsed and properly performed under conditions protected from the dictates of fashion and pressures of commerce. From its inception through 1921, when it ended because of economic reasons, the Society presented 353 performances to paid members, sometimes at the rate of one per week. During the first year and a half, Schoenberg did not let any of his own works be performed. Instead, audiences at the Society’s concerts heard difficult contemporary compositions by Scriabin, Debussy, Mahler, Webern, Berg, Reger, and other leading figures of early 20th-century music.

Development of the Twelve-Tone Method

Arnold Schoenberg, 1927, by Man Ray
Figure 3. Arnold Schoenberg, 1927, by Man Ray.

Later, Schoenberg was to develop the most influential version of the dodecaphonic (also known as twelve-tone) method of composition, which in French and English was given the alternative name serialism by René Leibowitz and Humphrey Searle in 1947. This technique was taken up by many of his students, who constituted the so-called Second Viennese School. They included Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Hanns Eisler, all of whom were profoundly influenced by Schoenberg. He published a number of books, ranging from his famous Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony) to Fundamentals of Musical Composition, many of which are still in print and used by musicians and developing composers.

Schoenberg viewed his development as a natural progression, and he did not deprecate his earlier works when he ventured into serialism. In 1923, he wrote to the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart:

For the present, it matters more to me if people understand my older works. . . . They are the natural forerunners of my later works, and only those who understand and comprehend these will be able to gain an understanding of the later works that goes beyond a fashionable bare minimum. I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!

His first wife died in October 1923, and in August of the next year, Schoenberg married Gertrud Kolisch (1898–1967), sister of his pupil, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch. She wrote the libretto for Schoenberg’s one-act opera Von heute auf morgen under the pseudonym Max Blonda. At her request, Schoenberg’s (ultimately unfinished) piece Die Jakobsleiter was prepared for performance by Schoenberg’s student Winfried Zillig. After her husband’s death in 1951, she founded Belmont Music Publishers, devoted to the publication of his works. Arnold used the notes G and E (German: Es, i.e., “S”) for “Gertrud Schoenberg,” in the Suite, for septet, Op. 29 (1925).

Following the 1924 death of composer Ferruccio Busoni, who had served as Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, Schoenberg was appointed to this post the next year but because of health problems was unable to take up his post until 1926. Among his notable students during this period were the composers Roberto Gerhard, Nikos Skalkottas, and Josef Rufer.

Along with his twelve-tone works, 1930 marks Schoenberg’s return to tonality, with numbers 4 and 6 of the Six Pieces for Male Chorus Op. 35, the other pieces being dodecaphonic.

Third Reich and Move to America

Schoenberg continued in his post until the Nazis came to power under Adolf Hitler in 1933. While vacationing in France, he was warned that returning to Germany would be dangerous. Schoenberg formally reclaimed membership in the Jewish religion at a Paris synagogue, then traveled with his family to the United States. However, this happened only after his attempts to move to Britain came to nothing. He enlisted the aid of his former student and great champion Edward Clark, now a senior producer with the BBC, in helping him gain a British teaching post or even a British publisher, but to no avail.

His first teaching position in the United States was at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. He moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, both of which later named a music building on their respective campuses Schoenberg Hall. He was appointed visiting professor at UCLA in 1935 on the recommendation of Otto Klemperer, music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the next year was promoted to professor at a salary of $5,100 per year, which enabled him in either May 1936 or 1937 to buy a Spanish Revival house at 116 North Rockingham in Brentwood Park, near the UCLA campus, for $18,000. This address was directly across the street from Shirley Temple’s house, and there he befriended fellow composer (and tennis partner) George Gershwin. The Schoenbergs were able to employ domestic help and began holding Sunday-afternoon gatherings that were known for excellent coffee and Viennese pastries. Frequent guests included Otto Klemperer (who studied composition privately with Schoenberg beginning in April 1936), Edgard Varèse, Joseph Achron, Louis Gruenberg, Ernst Toch, and, on occasion, well-known actors such as Harpo Marx and Peter Lorre. Composers Leonard Rosenman and George Tremblay studied with Schoenberg at this time.

After his move to the United States in 1934, the composer used the alternative spelling of his surname Schoenberg, rather than Schönberg, in what he called “deference to American practice,” though according to one writer, he first made the change a year earlier.

He lived there the rest of his life, but at first he was not settled. In around 1934, he applied for a position of teacher of harmony and theory at the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney. The director, Edgar Bainton, rejected him for being Jewish and for having “modernist ideas and dangerous tendencies.” Schoenberg also at one time explored the idea of emigrating to New Zealand. His secretary and student (and nephew of Schoenberg’s mother-in-law Henriette Kolisch) was Richard (Dick) Hoffmann Jr., Viennese-born but who lived in New Zealand 1935–47, and Schoenberg had since childhood been fascinated with islands, and with New Zealand in particular, possibly because of the beauty of the postage stamps issued by that country.

During this final period, he composed several notable works, including the difficult Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934/36); the Kol Nidre, Op. 39, for chorus and orchestra (1938); the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41 (1942); the haunting Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942); and his memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947). He was unable to complete his opera Moses und Aron (1932/33), which was one of the first works of its genre written completely using dodecaphonic composition. Along with twelve-tone music, Schoenberg also returned to tonality with works during his last period, like the Suite for Strings in G major (1935), the Chamber Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 38 (begun in 1906, completed in 1939), and the Variations on a Recitative in D minor, Op. 40 (1941). During this period his notable students included John Cage and Lou Harrison.

In 1941 he became a citizen of the United States.

Later Years and Death

Schoenberg's grave in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna
Figure 4. Schoenberg’s grave in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna.

Schoenberg’s superstitious nature may have triggered his death. The composer had triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), and according to friend Katia Mann, he feared he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13. He dreaded his 65th birthday in 1939 so much that a friend asked the composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar to prepare Schoenberg’s horoscope. Rudhyar did this and told Schoenberg that the year was dangerous, but not fatal.

But in 1950, on his 76th birthday, an astrologer wrote Schoenberg a note warning him that the year was a critical one: 7 + 6 = 13. This stunned and depressed the composer, for up to that point, he had only been wary of multiples of 13 and never considered adding the digits of his age. He died on Friday, 13 July 1951, shortly before midnight. Schoenberg had stayed in bed all day, sick, anxious, and depressed. His wife Gertrud reported in a telegram to her sister-in-law Ottilie the next day that Arnold died at 11:45 p.m., 15 minutes before midnight. In a letter to Ottilie dated 4 August 1951, Gertrud explained, “About a quarter to twelve I looked at the clock and said to myself: another quarter of an hour and then the worst is over. Then the doctor called me. Arnold’s throat rattled twice, his heart gave a powerful beat and that was the end.”

Schoenberg’s ashes were later interred at the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna on 6 June 1974.


Listen: Second String Quartet

Please listen to the following audio file to hear the fourth movement played by the Carmel Quartet with soprano Rona Israel-Kolatt in 2007.

Schoenberg’s significant compositions in the repertory of modern art music extend over a period of more than 50 years. Traditionally, they are divided into three periods, though this division is arguably arbitrary, as the music in each of these periods is considerably varied. The idea that his twelve-tone period “represents a stylistically unified body of works is simply not supported by the musical evidence,” and important musical characteristics—especially those related to motivic development—transcend these boundaries completely. The first of these periods, 1894–1907, is identified in the legacy of the high-Romantic composers of the late 19th century, as well as with “expressionist” movements in poetry and art. The second, 1908–1922, is typified by the abandonment of key centers, a move often described (though not by Schoenberg) as “free atonality.” The third, from 1923 onward, commences with Schoenberg’s invention of dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone,” compositional method. Schoenberg’s best-known students—Hanns Eisler, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern—followed Schoenberg faithfully through each of these intellectual and aesthetic transitions, though not without considerable experimentation and variety of approach.

First Period: Late Romanticism

Beginning with songs and string quartets written around the turn of the century, Schoenberg’s concerns as a composer positioned him uniquely among his peers in that his procedures exhibited characteristics of both Brahms and Wagner, who for most contemporary listeners, were considered polar opposites, representing mutually exclusive directions in the legacy of German music. Schoenberg’s Six Songs, Op. 3 (1899–1903), for example, exhibit a conservative clarity of tonal organization typical of Brahms and Mahler, reflecting an interest in balanced phrases and an undisturbed hierarchy of key relationships. However, the songs also explore unusually bold incidental chromaticism and seem to aspire to a Wagnerian “representational” approach to motivic identity. The synthesis of these approaches reaches an apex in his Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899), a programmatic work for string sextet that develops several distinctive “leitmotif”-like themes, each one eclipsing and subordinating the last. The only motivic elements that persist throughout the work are those that are perpetually dissolved, varied, and re-combined, in a technique, identified primarily in Brahms’s music, that Schoenberg called “developing variation.” Schoenberg’s procedures in the work are organized in two ways simultaneously, at once suggesting a Wagnerian narrative of motivic ideas as well as a Brahmsian approach to motivic development and tonal cohesion.

Second Period: Free Atonality

Schoenberg’s music from 1908 onward experiments in a variety of ways with the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers. His first explicitly atonal piece was the second string quartet, Op. 10, with soprano. The last movement of this piece has no key signature, marking Schoenberg’s formal divorce from diatonic harmonies. Other important works of the era include his song cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15 (1908–1909); his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (1909); the influential Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912); as well as his dramatic Erwartung, Op. 17 (1909). The urgency of musical constructions lacking in tonal centers, or traditional dissonance-consonance relationships, however, can be traced as far back as his Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906), a work remarkable for its tonal development of whole-tone and quartal harmony and its initiation of dynamic and unusual ensemble relationships, involving dramatic interruption and unpredictable instrumental allegiances; many of these features would typify the timbre-oriented chamber music aesthetic of the coming century.

Third Period: Twelve-Tone and Tonal Works

In the early 1920s, he worked at evolving a means of order that would make his musical texture simpler and clearer. This resulted in the “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another,” in which the twelve pitches of the octave (unrealized compositionally) are regarded as equal, and no one note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. He regarded it as the equivalent in music of Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics. Schoenberg announced it characteristically, during a walk with his friend Josef Rufer, when he said, “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” This period included the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928); Piano Pieces, Opp. 33a & b (1931); and the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942). Contrary to his reputation for strictness, Schoenberg’s use of the technique varied widely according to the demands of each individual composition. Thus the structure of his unfinished opera Moses und Aron is unlike that of his Fantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (1949).

Ten features of Schoenberg’s mature twelve-tone practice are characteristic, interdependent, and interactive:

  1. Hexachordal inversional combinatoriality
  2. Aggregates
  3. Linear set presentation
  4. Partitioning
  5. Isomorphic partitioning
  6. Invariants
  7. Hexachordal levels
  8. Harmony, “consistent with and derived from the properties of the referential set”
  9. Meter, established through “pitch-relational characteristics”
  10. Multidimensional set presentations

Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot Lunaire is a song cycle. It is written in three parts, with each part containing seven songs. The piece on our playlist, “Madonna,” is song number 6 from Part I. It was composed during Schoenberg’s second period after the composer had turned to atonality but before he developed his twelve-tone method. The inward psychological focus of the text and the eerie combination of atonality and sprechstimme mark this as a clearly expressionist work. Sprechstimme is an expressionist technique in which the singer performs the musical line in a half-sung, half-spoken style. The written notes on the page are used as a guide but are only approximated by the singer.


Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” (“Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot lunaire'”), commonly known simply as Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (“Moonstruck Pierrot” or “Pierrot in the Moonlight”), is a melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg. It is a setting of 21 selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation of Albert Giraud’s cycle of French poems of the same name. The première of the work, which is between 35 and 40 minutes in length, was at the Berlin Choralion-Saal on October 16, 1912, with Albertine Zehme as the vocalist.

The narrator (voice-type unspecified in the score, but traditionally performed by a soprano) delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style. Schoenberg had previously used a combination of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment, called “melodrama,” in the summer-wind narrative of the Gurre-Lieder, and it was a genre much in vogue at the end of the 19th century. The work is atonal but does not use the twelve-tone technique that Schoenberg would devise eight years later.


The work originated in a commission by Zehme for a cycle for voice and piano, setting a series of poems by the Belgian writer Albert Giraud. The verses had been first published in 1884 and later translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. Schoenberg began on March 12 and completed the work on July 9, 1912, having expanded the forces to an ensemble consisting of flute (doubling on a piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and piano. After forty rehearsals, Schoenberg and Zehme (in Columbine dress) gave the premiere at the Berlin Choralion-Saal on October 16, 1912. Reaction was mixed. According to Anton Webern, some in the audience were whistling and laughing, but in the end “it was an unqualified success.” There was some criticism of blasphemy in the texts, to which Schoenberg responded, “If they were musical, not a single one would give a damn about the words. Instead, they would go away whistling the tunes.” The show took to the road throughout Germany and Austria later in 1912. It was performed for the first time in the Western Hemisphere at the Klaw Theatre in New York City on February 4, 1923, with George Gershwin and Carl Ruggles in attendance.


Pierrot Lunaire consists of three groups of seven poems. In the first group, Pierrot sings of love, sex, and religion; in the second, of violence, crime, and blasphemy; and in the third of his return home to Bergamo, with his past haunting him.

Part I Part II Part III
  1. Mondestrunken (Moondrunk)
  2. Columbine
  3. Der Dandy (The Dandy)
  4. Eine blasse Wäscherin (An Ethereal Washerwoman)
  5. Valse de Chopin (Chopin Waltz)
  6. Madonna
  7. Der kranke Mond (The Sick Moon)
  1. Nacht (Passacaglia) (Night)
  2. Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot)
  3. Raub (Theft)
  4. Rote Messe (Red Mass)
  5. Galgenlied (Gallows Song)
  6. Enthauptung (Beheading)
  7. Die Kreuze (The Crosses)
  1. Heimweh (Homesickness)
  2. Gemeinheit! (Vulgarity)
  3. Parodie (Parody)
  4. Der Mondfleck (The Moonspot)
  5. Serenade
  6. Heimfahrt (Barcarole) (Homeward Bound)
  7. O Alter Duft (O Ancient Fragrance)

Schoenberg, who was fascinated by numerology, also makes great use of seven-note motifs throughout the work, while the ensemble (with conductor) comprises seven people. The piece is his opus 21, contains 21 poems, and was begun on March 12, 1912. Other key numbers in the work are 3 and 13: each poem consists of 13 lines (two 4-line verses followed by a 5-line verse), while the first line of each poem occurs 3 times (being repeated as lines 7 and 13).


Pierrot Lunaire uses a variety of classical forms and techniques, including canon, fugue, rondo, passacaglia, and free counterpoint. The poetry is a German version of a rondeau of the old French type with a double refrain. Each poem consists of three stanzas of 4 + 4 + 5 lines, with line 1 a Refrain (A) repeated as line 7 and line 13, and line 2 a second Refrain (B) repeated for line 8.

The instrumental combinations (including doublings) vary between most movements. The entire ensemble plays together only in the 11th, 14th, and final 4 settings.

The atonal, expressionistic settings of the text, with their echoes of German cabaret, bring the poems vividly to life. Sprechgesang, literally “speech-singing” in German, is a style in which the vocalist uses the specified rhythms and pitches but does not sustain the pitches, allowing them to drop or rise in the manner of speech.


Pierrot Lunaire is a work which can be interpreted through the sixth song, “Madonna.” In this song, the only person who could save Pierrot, Jesus, is presented as dead. After a brief period of sorrow in “Der kranke Mond,” Pierrot in Part II of the song cycle becomes more depraved in his exploits and by the end is crucified for his sins in “Die Kreuze.” Hoping to redeem himself in Part III, Pierrot tries to go back to previous persona as the “old pantomime from Italy” but ultimately fails without much hope of redemption by the end of the work.


Pitch Structures

Everything in “Nacht” is generated from a ten-note motif, introduced in canon starting in the fourth bar. This piece predominantly uses the pitch collection (014). This collection gets introduced in the very first measure with the piano. If you take into account every note the piano plays in the first three measures, you get an octatonic scale (0134679T). This is just four groups of (014) transposed by T3. In measure 4, we see one set of (014) in the bass clarinet line. Whenever we see this pitch collection, it is usually in one of two rhythms. The first, as illustrated by the bass clarinet in measure 4, is three half notes. Later it shows up as three quarter notes, simply a compressed version of the original. The other rhythm is three eighth notes; usually this comes in groups of three. For example, in measure 8 the bass clarinet has the collection three times, each time as an eighth note rest followed by three eighth notes. If you look at that measure as a whole, and any other time this pattern shows up, we see that the second group is transposed from the first by T4. The third group of notes is transposed from the first group by T1. Thus, the entire measure is actually using (014), not just in each group, but within each group. In other words, if you take the first note of each three you get (014), if you take the second note of each you get (014), and if you take the third note you also get (014). For the first two stanzas of text, we only ever see (014) transposed by various Tx. Starting in the third stanza, we begin to see inversions of (014). In measure 19, the right hand in the piano starts off with an inversion of (014) and then goes to a transposition of (014). This continues on for the entirety of the run in both hands of the piano.

Formal Structure

Following a brief introduction, the movement falls into three strophes of seven, six, and seven bars, with section breaks occurring at measures 11 and 17, articulated by a change of tempo to etwas rascher for the second strophe, and back again to the initial tempo for the third. These follow the stanzas of the poem and are followed by a coda. The first strophe is canonic in four voices; the second is also canonic, but in just three voices; the third strophe consists of a rapid succession of ambiguous canonic fragments.

Although the pitch-class sets are virtually the same throughout the whole movement, each section has distinct musical elements that differentiate them from each other. When looking at the transition from the first section to the second section, a couple important changes take place. First, the tempo marking Etwas rascher marks an increase in speed and rhythmic energy. This is further exaggerated by the increased rhythmic density in the piano, clarinet, and cello parts. In addition to the rhythmic changes, the registers of the cello, piano, and vocal lines are notably higher in the second section. The third section returns to the original tempo, and the register and rhythmic density change again to closely resemble the first section. This analysis provides evidence for organizing the piece into an ABA’ form, as the first and last sections have many similar elements, while the middle section differs substantially. However, because of the pitch-class set similarities, the argument could be made for a quasi theme-and-variation organization, with A, A’, and A sections.

Musical Structure to Extramusical Elements

Expressionism is a modernist movement that began in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century. Schoenberg, Austrian in descent, was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art. Being from Austria at this time, his music was often labeled as degenerate music, since Schoenberg is Jewish. Expressionistic music is dominated by dissonance rather than consonance and can create an “unsettling” feeling among its listeners. For many, expressionistic music meant a rejection of the past and an acceptance of the innovative, unfamiliar future. The text of “Nacht” can be described as ominous and depicts the wings of black moths covering the sun. These views are characteristic of expressionistic poetry.

“Nacht” also employs the occasional use of word painting through his music, where he uses the music to illustrate the literal meaning of a particular word. These text expressions make general associations between the text and musical setting. This can be seen with the word “duft” translating to “scent” in measure 12. The full poetic phrase “Steigt ein Duft” means “arises a scent,” and this is depicted by a leap upward in voice from A to G. Likewise, the word “verschwiegen” loosely translates to “mutely” or “hushed” and is performed by conventional singing rather than Sprechstimme, along with prolonged silence with a fermata, though the word more precisely means “discreetly” or “closed-mouthed.”

Notable Recordings

Notable recordings of this composition include:

Sprechstimme Ensemble Conductor Record Company Year of Recording Format
Erika Stiedry-Wagner Arnold Schoenberg Columbia Records 1940 n/a[11]
Helga Pilarczyk Members of the Conservatory Society Concert Orchestra Pierre Boulez Ades 1961 CD
Bethany Beardslee Columbia Chamber Ensemble Robert Craft Columbia / CBS 1963 CD
Jan DeGaetani Contemporary Chamber Ensemble Arthur Weisberg Nonesuch 1970 CD
Yvonne Minton Ensemble InterContemporain Pierre Boulez Sony Music 1977 CD
Barbara Sukowa Schoenberg Ensemble Reinbert de Leeuw Koch Schwann 1988 CD
Jane Manning Nash Ensemble Simon Rattle Chandos 1991 CD
Phyllis Bryn-Julson Ensemble Modern n/a BMG 1991 CD
Phyllis Bryn-Julson New York New Music Ensemble Robert Black GM Recordings 1992 CD
Karin Ott Cremona Musica Insieme Pietro Antonini Nuova Era 1994 CD
Christine Schäfer Ensemble InterContemporain Pierre Boulez Deutsche Grammophon 1997 CD[12]
Anja Silja Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble Robert Craft Naxos 1999 CD[13]

Arnold Schoenberg himself made test recordings of the music with a group of Los Angeles musicians from September 24 to 26, 1940. These recordings were eventually released on LP by Columbia Records in 1949 and reissued in 1974 on the Odyssey label.

The avant-pop star Björk, known for her interest in avant-garde music, performed Pierrot Lunaire at the 1996 Verbier Festival with Kent Nagano conducting. According to the singer in a 2004 interview, “Kent Nagano wanted to make a recording of it, but I really felt that I would be invading the territory of people who sing this for a lifetime.” Only small recorded excerpts (possibly bootlegs) of her performance have become available.

The jazz singer Cleo Laine recorded Pierrot Lunaire in 1974. Her version was nominated for a classical Grammy Award. Another jazz singer who has performed the piece is Sofia Jernberg, who sang it with Norrbotten NEO.

In March 2011, Bruce LaBruce directed a performance at the Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in Berlin. This interpretation of the work included gender diversity, castration scenes, and dildos, as well as a female-to-male transgender Pierrot. LaBruce subsequently filmed this adaptation as the 2014 theatrical film Pierrot Lunaire.

Legacy as a Standard Ensemble

The quintet of instruments used in Pierrot Lunaire became the core ensemble for The Fires of London, who formed in 1965 as “The Pierrot Players” to perform Pierrot Lunaire and continued to concertize with a varied classical and contemporary repertory. This group performed works arranged for these instruments and commissioned new works especially to take advantage of this ensemble’s instrumental colors, up until it disbanded in 1987.

Over the years, other groups have continued to use this instrumentation professionally (current groups include Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Finnish contemporary group Uusinta Lunaire) and have built a large repertoire for the ensemble.


The earliest compositional use of the technique was in the first version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1897 melodrama Königskinder (in the 1910 version, it was replaced by conventional singing), where it may have been intended to imitate a style already in use by singers of lieder and popular song, but it is more closely associated with the composers of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg asks for the technique in a number of pieces: the part of the Speaker in Gurre-Lieder (1911) is written in his notation for sprechstimme, but it was Pierrot Lunaire (1912) where he used it throughout and left a note attempting to explain the technique. Alban Berg adopted the technique and asked for it in parts of his operas Wozzeck and Lulu.


In the foreword to Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg explains how his Sprechstimme should be achieved. He explains that the indicated rhythms should be adhered to, but that whereas in ordinary singing a constant pitch is maintained through a note, here the singer “immediately abandons it by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either.”

For the first performances of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg was able to work directly with the vocalist and obtain exactly the result he desired, but later performances were problematic. Schoenberg had written many subsequent letters attempting to clarify, but he was unable to leave a definitive explanation, and there has been much disagreement as to what was actually intended. Pierre Boulez would write, “The question arises whether it is actually possible to speak according to a notation devised for singing. This was the real problem at the root of all the controversies. Schoenberg’s own remarks on the subject are not in fact clear.”

Schoenberg would later use a notation without a traditional clef in the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1942), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron, which eliminated any reference to a specific pitch but retained the relative slides and articulations.


In Schoenberg’s musical notation, Sprechstimme is usually indicated by small crosses through the stems of the notes, or with the note head itself being a small cross.

Schoenberg’s later notation (first used in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1942) replaced the 5-line staff with a single line having no clef. The note stems no longer bear the x, as it is now clear that no specific pitch is intended, and instead relative pitches are specified by placing the notes above or below the single line (sometimes on ledger lines).

Berg notates several degrees of Sprechstimme, e.g., in Wozzeck, using single-line staff for rhythmic speaking, 5-line staffs with x through the note stem, and a single stroke through the stem for close-to-singing sprechstimme.

In modern usage, it is most common to indicate Sprechstimme by using x’s in place of conventional noteheads.

Twelve-tone Technique


Schoenberg, inventor of twelve-tone technique
Figure 1. Schoenberg, inventor of twelve-tone technique.

Twelve-tone technique—also known as dodecaphony, twelve-tone serialism, and (in British usage) twelve-note composition—is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note through the use of tone rows, orderings of the 12 pitch classes. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key. The technique was influential on composers in the mid-20th century.

Schoenberg himself described the system as a “Method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” It is commonly considered a form of serialism.

Schoenberg’s countryman and contemporary Josef Matthias Hauer also developed a similar system using unordered hexachords or tropes—but with no connection to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Other composers have created systematic use of the chromatic scale, but Schoenberg’s method is considered to be historically and aesthetically most significant.

Tone Row

Listen: “Sehr langsam”

Please listen to the following audio file to hear a sample of “Sehr langsam” from String Trio Op. 20 by Anton Webern, an example of the twelve-tone technique, a type of serialism.

The basis of the twelve-tone technique is the tone row, an ordered arrangement of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale (the twelve equal tempered pitch classes). There are four postulates or preconditions to the technique that apply to the row (also called a set or series) on which a work or section is based:

  1. The row is a specific ordering of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (without regard to octave placement).
  2. No note is repeated within the row.
  3. The row may be subjected to interval-preserving transformations—that is, it may appear in inversion (denoted I), retrograde (R), or retrograde-inversion (RI), in addition to its “original” or prime form (P).
  4. The row in any of its four transformations may begin on any degree of the chromatic scale; in other words, it may be freely transposed. (Transposition being an interval-preserving transformation, this is technically covered already by 3.) Transpositions are indicated by an integer between 0 and 11 denoting the number of semitones: thus, if the original form of the row is denoted P0, then P1 denotes its transposition upward by one semitone (similarly, I1 is an upward transposition of the inverted form, R1 of the retrograde form, and RI1 of the retrograde-inverted form).

(In Hauer’s system, postulate 3 does not apply.)

A particular transformation (prime, inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion) together with a choice of transpositional level is referred to as a set form or row form. Every row thus has up to 48 different row forms. (Some rows have fewer due to symmetry; see the sections on derived rows and invariance below.)


Suppose the prime form of the row is as follows:

Tone Row of music

Then the retrograde is the prime form in reverse order:

Retrograde Tone Row of music

The inversion is the prime form with the intervals inverted (so that a rising minor third becomes a falling minor third, or equivalently, a rising major sixth):

Inversion Tone Row of music

And the retrograde inversion is the inverted row in retrograde:

Retrograde inversion tone row music

P, R, I, and RI can each be started on any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, meaning that 47 permutations of the initial tone row can be used, giving a maximum of 48 possible tone rows. However, not all prime series will yield so many variations because transposed transformations may be identical to each other. This is known as invariance. A simple case is the ascending chromatic scale, the retrograde inversion of which is identical to the prime form and the retrograde of which is identical to the inversion (thus, only 24 forms of this tone row are available).

Prime, retrograde, inverted, and retrograde-inverted forms of the ascending chromatic scale. P and RI are the same (to within transposition), as are R and I.
Figure 2. Prime, retrograde, inverted, and retrograde-inverted forms of the ascending chromatic scale. P and RI are the same (to within transposition), as are R and I.

In the above example, as is typical, the retrograde inversion contains three points where the sequence of two pitches are identical to the prime row. Thus the generative power of even the most basic transformations is both unpredictable and inevitable. Motivic development can be driven by such internal consistency.

Suite for Piano

Here is some additional information on Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano. Our playlist features the Trio, which is a portion of movement 5. Please note that this suite was the first piece composed entirely in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. It’s also worth noting the connection via genre to the suites we studied in the Baroque era.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano (German: Suite für Klavier), Op. 25, is a twelve-tone piece for piano composed between 1921 and 1923.

The work is the earliest in which Schoenberg employs a row of “12 tones related only to one another” in every movement: the earlier 5 Stücke, Op. 23 (1920–23) employs a 12-tone row only in the final Waltz movement, and the Serenade, Op. 24 uses a single row in its central Sonnet.

The Basic Set of the Suite for Piano consists of the following succession: E–F–G–D–G–E–A–D–B–C–A–B.

In form and style, the work echoes many features of the Baroque suite.

Schoenberg’s Suite has six movements:

  1. Präludium (1921)
  2. Gavotte (1923)
  3. Musette (1923)
  4. Intermezzo (1921–1923)
  5. Menuett. Trio (1923)
  6. Gigue (1923)

A performance of the entire Suite für Klavier takes around 16 minutes.

Polyphonic complex of three tetrachords from early sketch for Schoenberg's Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (Whittall 2008, p. 34). The bottom being the BACH motif in retrograde: HCAB.
Figure 1. Polyphonic complex of three tetrachords from early sketch for Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (Whittall 2008, p. 34). The bottom is the BACH motif in retrograde: HCAB.

In this work, Schoenberg employs transpositions and inversions of the row for the first time: the sets employed are P-0, I-0, P-6, I-6, and their retrogrades. Arnold Whittall has suggested that “the choice of transpositions at the sixth semitone—the tritone—may seem the consequence of a desire to hint at ‘tonic-dominant’ relationships, and the occurrence of the tritone G-D in all four sets is a hierarchical feature which Schoenberg exploits in several places.”

The Suite for Piano was first performed by Schoenberg’s pupil Eduard Steuermann in Vienna on 25 February 1924. Steuermann made a commercial recording of the work in 1957. The first recording of the Suite for Piano to be released was made by Niels Viggo Bentzon some time before 1950.

The Gavotte movement contains “a parody of a baroque keyboard suite that involves the cryptogram of Bach’s name as an important harmonic and melodic device (Stuckenschmidt 1977, 108; Lewin 1982–83, n. 9)” and a related quotation of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/vi.

Edward T. Cone (1972) has cataloged what he believes to be a number of mistakes in Reinhold Brinkmann’s 1968 revised edition of Schoenberg’s piano music, one of which is in measure number five of the Suite’s “Gavotte”, G instead of G♮. Henry Klumpenhouwer invokes Sigmund Freud’s concept of parapraxes (i.e., mental slips) to suggest a psychological context explaining the deviation from the note predicted from the tone row.

Introduction to Primitivism Nationalism and Neoclassicism

In this section we’ll explore some other important trends of the early and middle years of the 20th century: primitivism, nationalism, and neoclassicism. More importantly, we’ll examine the lives and compositional styles of significant composers who worked in or were influenced by those styles: Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, and Copland.

This section includes the following pages:

  • Primitivism
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
  • Nationalism
  • Béla Bartók
  • Concerto for Orchestra
  • Aaron Copland
  • Rodeo
  • Neoclassicism
  • Dmitri Shostakovich
  • Symphony No. 5


Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892, sold for a record US $300m in 2015
Figure 1. Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892, sold for a record US $300m in 2015.

Like so many other movements of the early 20th century, primitivism had its origins in the visual arts. Painters like Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso became disillusioned with Western art traditions and sought inspiration in the works of indigenous cultures, untrained painters, and children’s art. They depicted their subjects using non-traditional perspectives. As composers tried to explore this same sense of non-Western perspective through music, they often emphasized the musical element of rhythm in their effort to express an ancient or aboriginal attitude. Unlike other musical movements in the early 1900s, such as impressionism, we cannot point to a large body of significant works in this style that remain in the concert repertoire. However, primitivism did give rise to one of the greatest works of the early 20th century, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The subject of this ballet is an imagined pagan sacrificial rite in ancient Russia. It features jarring, repetitive rhythms, and extensive use of percussion to evoke an older, less civilized time. So even though the vast majority of Stravinsky’s output does not fall into the category of primitivism, the importance of The Rite of Spring is such that the movement bears some examination. To be clear, in the visual arts, primitivism had many important adherents who produced a large number of major works. In music, on the other hand, when we speak of primitivism, it is almost always in connection to The Rite of Spring.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky is a towering figure of 20th-century music. He and Schoenberg represent two major streams of compositional thought in the modern era: Schoenberg’s twelve-tone atonality on the one hand and Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (the style in which he wrote a good deal of his music, though not The Rite of Spring) on the other. It is interesting to note that both men, as a result of upheaval in Europe and Russia, not only made the United States their home but lived a short distance from each other in Los Angeles for years.

There was a good deal of animosity between the two composers, a fact that was well known at the time, just as there was tension in the musical community between the supporters of their two compositional styles. The proponents of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique took it as proof that they had been right all along when near the end of his career, and only after Schoenberg’s death, Stravinsky experimented with twelve-tone composition. If you would like to read an archived article from the Atlantic, written by Stravinsky’s longtime personal assistant Robert Craft, on this professional animosity and the circumstances of Stravinsky’s late excursion into Schoenberg’s techniques, click here. The struggle between these two musical camps aside, there is no question that Stravinsky was one of the great masters of the era. He enjoyed considerable fame in his lifetime and traveled the world conducting his works, works that are extensively studied and performed to this day.

When you come to the section herein called “Music,” you don’t need to read it in detail; I just want you to get an overview of the stylistic evolution over the course of Stravinsky’s career.


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (17 June 1882–6 April 1971) was a Russian (and later, a naturalized French and American) composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.

Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The last of these transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design. His “Russian phase” was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassical music. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, and symphony). They often paid tribute to the music of earlier masters, such as J. S. Bach and Tchaikovsky. In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted serial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form, of instrumentation, and of utterance.

Life and Career

Early Life in the Russian Empire

Igor Stravinsky, 1903
Figure 1. Igor Stravinsky, 1903.

Stravinsky was born on 17 June 1882 in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital, and was brought up in Saint Petersburg. His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky, a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky). His great-great-grandfather, Stanisław Strawiński, was of Polish noble descent, of the Strawiński family of Sulima. According to Igor Stravinsky, the name “Stravinsky” (Polish: Strawiński) originated from “Strava” (Polish: Strawa), a small river in eastern Poland, tributary to the Vistula. He recalled his school days as being lonely, later saying that “I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me.” Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. In 1890, he saw a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre. By age 15, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov, who reportedly considered Stravinsky unmusical and thought little of his skills.

Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than fifty class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902, Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in the German city of Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time his son had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law. The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday: Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he came to regard as a second father. These lessons continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

In 1905, he was betrothed to his cousin Yekaterina Gavrilovna Nosenko (called “Katya”), whom he had known since early childhood. In spite of the Orthodox Church’s opposition to marriage between first cousins, the couple married on 23 January 1906: their first two children, Fyodor (Theodore) and Ludmila, were born in 1907 and 1908, respectively.

In February 1909, two orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks), were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg, where they were heard by Sergei Diaghilev, who was at that time involved in planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris. Diaghilev was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to carry out some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird.

Life in Switzerland

Stravinsky became an overnight sensation following the success of The Firebird’s premiere in Paris on 25 June 1910.

The composer had traveled from his estate in Ustilug, Ukraine, to Paris in early June to attend the final rehearsals and the premiere of The Firebird. His family joined him before the end of the ballet season, and they decided to remain in the West for a time, as his wife was expecting their third child. After spending the summer in La Baule, Brittany, they moved to Switzerland in early September. On the 23rd, their second son, Sviatoslav Soulima, was born at a maternity clinic in Lausanne; at the end of the month, they took up residence in Clarens.

Over the next four years, Stravinsky and his family lived in Russia during the summer months and spent each winter in Switzerland. During this period, Stravinsky composed two further works for the Ballets Russes: Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring; 1913).

Shortly following the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky contracted typhoid from eating bad oysters and was confined to a Paris nursing home, unable to depart for Ustilug until 11 July.

During the remainder of the summer, Stravinsky turned his attention to completing his first opera, The Nightingale (usually known by its French title, Le Rossignol), which he had begun in 1908 (that is, before his association with the Ballets Russes). The work had been commissioned by the Moscow Free Theatre for the handsome fee of 10,000 roubles.

The Stravinsky family returned to Switzerland (as usual) in the fall of 1913. On 15 January 1914, a fourth child, Marie Milène (or Maria Milena), was born in Lausanne. After her delivery, Katya was discovered to have tuberculosis and was confined to the sanatorium at Leysin, high in the Alps. Igor and the family took up residence nearby, and he completed Le Rossignol there on 28 March.

In April, they were finally able to return to Clarens. By then, the Moscow Free Theatre had gone bankrupt. As a result, Le Rossignol was first performed under Diaghilev’s auspices at the Paris Opéra on 26 May 1914, with sets and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois. Le Rossignol enjoyed only lukewarm success with the public and the critics, apparently because its delicacy did not meet their expectations of the composer of The Rite of Spring. However, composers including Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, and Reynaldo Hahn found much to admire in the score’s craftsmanship, even alleging to detect the influence of Arnold Schoenberg.

In July, with war looming, Stravinsky made a quick trip to Ustilug to retrieve personal effects, including his reference works on Russian folk music. He returned to Switzerland just before national borders closed following the outbreak of World War I. The war and subsequent Russian Revolution made it impossible for Stravinsky to return to his homeland, and he did not set foot upon Russian soil again until October 1962.

In June 1915, Stravinsky and his family moved from Clarens to Morges, a town 6 miles southwest of Lausanne on the shore of Lake Geneva. The family continued to live there (at three different addresses) until 1920.

Stravinsky struggled financially during this period. Russia (and its successor, the USSR) did not adhere to the Berne convention, and this created problems for Stravinsky when collecting royalties for the performances of all his Ballets Russes compositions. Stravinsky blamed Diaghilev for his financial troubles, accusing him of failing to live up to the terms of a contract they had signed. He approached the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart for financial assistance during the time he was writing Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). Reinhart sponsored and largely underwrote its first performance, conducted by Ernest Ansermet on 28 September 1918 at the Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne. In gratitude, Stravinsky dedicated the work to Reinhart and gave him the original manuscript. Reinhart supported Stravinsky further when he funded a series of concerts of his chamber music in 1919: included was a suite from Histoire du soldat arranged for violin, piano, and clarinet, which was first performed on 8 November 1919 in Lausanne. In gratitude to his benefactor, Stravinsky also dedicated his Three Pieces for Clarinet (October–November 1918) to Reinhart, who was an excellent amateur clarinetist.

Life in France

Following the premiere of Pulcinella by the Ballets Russes in Paris on 15 May 1920, Stravinsky returned to Switzerland. On 8 June, the entire family left Morges for the last time and moved to the fishing village of Carantec in Brittany for the summer while also seeking a new home in Paris. On hearing of their dilemma, couturière Coco Chanel invited Stravinsky and his family to reside at her new mansion “Bel Respiro” in the Paris suburb of Garches until they could find a more suitable residence; they arrived during the second week of September. At the same time, Chanel also guaranteed the new (December 1920) Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to have been 300,000 francs.

Stravinsky formed a business and musical relationship with the French piano manufacturing company Pleyel. Pleyel essentially acted as his agent in collecting mechanical royalties for his works and provided him with a monthly income and a studio space at its headquarters in which he could work and entertain friends and business acquaintances. Under the terms of his contract with the company, Stravinsky agreed to arrange (and to some extent re-compose) many of his early works for the Pleyela, Pleyel’s brand of player piano. He did so in a way that made full use of all of the piano’s 88 notes, without regard for human fingers or hands. The rolls were not recorded but were instead marked up from a combination of manuscript fragments and handwritten notes by Jacques Larmanjat, musical director of Pleyel’s roll department. Among the compositions that were issued on the Pleyela piano rolls are The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird, and Song of the Nightingale. During the 1920s, Stravinsky recorded Duo-Art rolls for the Aeolian Company in both London and New York, not all of which have survived.

Patronage was never far away. In the early 1920s, Leopold Stokowski gave Stravinsky regular support through a pseudonymous benefactor.

Vera de Bosset Sudeikin
Figure 2. Vera de Bosset Sudeikin.

Stravinsky met Vera de Bosset in Paris in February 1921 while she was married to the painter and stage designer Serge Sudeikin, and they began an affair that led to Vera leaving her husband.

In May 1921, Stravinsky and his family moved to Anglet, near Biarritz, in the south of France. From then until his wife’s death in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life, dividing his time between his family in southern France and Vera in Paris and on tour. Katya reportedly bore her husband’s infidelity “with a mixture of magnanimity, bitterness, and compassion.”

In September 1924, Stravinsky bought “an expensive house” in Nice: the Villa des Roses.

The Stravinskys became French citizens in 1934 and moved to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. Stravinsky later remembered this last European address as his unhappiest, as his wife’s tuberculosis infected both himself and his eldest daughter, Ludmila, who died in 1938. Katya, to whom he had been married for 33 years, died of tuberculosis a year later, in March 1939. Stravinsky himself spent five months in the hospital, during which time his mother died. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky had developed professional relationships with key people in the United States: he was already working on his Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he had agreed to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University during the 1939–40 academic year.

Life in the United States

Despite the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the widowed Stravinsky sailed (alone) for the United States at the end of the month, arriving in New York City and thence to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to fulfill his engagement at Harvard. Vera followed him in January, and they were married in Bedford, Massachusetts, on 9 March 1940.

Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood. He spent more time living in Los Angeles than any other city. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1945.

Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America at the age of 57 was a very different prospect. For a while, he maintained a circle of contacts and emigré friends from Russia, but he eventually found that this did not sustain his intellectual and professional life. He was drawn to the growing cultural life of Los Angeles, especially during World War II, when so many writers, musicians, composers, and conductors settled in the area: these included Otto Klemperer, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, George Balanchine, and Arthur Rubinstein. Bernard Holland claimed Stravinsky was especially fond of British writers, who visited him in Beverly Hills, “like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas. They shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits—especially Aldous Huxley, with whom Stravinsky spoke in French.” Stravinsky and Huxley had a tradition of Saturday lunches for the West Coast avant-garde and luminaries.

Grave of Stravinsky in San Michele Island, Venice
Figure 3. Grave of Stravinsky in San Michele Island, Venice.

Stravinsky’s unconventional dominant seventh chord in his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led to an incident with the Boston police on 15 January 1944, and he was warned that the authorities could impose a $100 fine upon any “rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part.” The police, as it turned out, were wrong. The law in question merely forbade using the national anthem “as dance music, as an exit march, or as a part of a medley of any kind,” but the incident soon established itself as a myth, in which Stravinsky was supposedly arrested, held in custody for several nights, and photographed for police records. A widely known photograph of Stravinsky, supposedly his mug shot, has been shown to be for a passport application.

Stravinsky’s professional life encompassed most of the 20th century, including many of its modern classical music styles, and he influenced composers both during and after his lifetime. In 1959, he was awarded the Sonning Award, Denmark’s highest musical honor. In 1962, he accepted an invitation to return to Leningrad for a series of concerts. During his stay in the USSR, he visited Moscow and met several leading Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.

In 1969, Stravinsky moved to the Essex House in New York, where he lived until his death in 1971 at age 88 of heart failure. He was buried at San Michele, close to the tomb of Diaghilev.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1987 he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2004.


Stravinsky’s output is typically divided into three general style periods: a Russian period, a neoclassical period, and a serial period.

Russian Period (ca. 1907–1919)

Aside from a very few surviving earlier works, Stravinsky’s Russian period began with compositions undertaken under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he studied from 1905 until Rimsky’s death in 1908, including the orchestral works Symphony in E-flat major (1907), Faun and Shepherdess (for mezzo-soprano and orchestra; 1907), Scherzo fantastique (1908), and Feu d’artifice (1908/9). These works clearly reveal the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, but as Richard Taruskin has shown, they also reveal Stravinsky’s knowledge of music by Glazunov, Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Dvořák, and Debussy, among others.

Performances in St. Petersburg of Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice attracted the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate two piano works of Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides to be presented in the 1909 debut “Saison Russe” of his new ballet company.

The Firebird was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 25 June 1910 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Like Stravinsky’s earlier student works, The Firebird continued to look backward to Rimsky-Korsakov not only in its orchestration but also in its overall structure, harmonic organization, and melodic content.

According to Taruskin, Stravinsky’s second ballet for the Ballet Russe, Petrushka, is where “Stravinsky at last became Stravinsky.”

The music itself makes significant use of a number of Russian folk tunes in addition to two waltzes by Viennese composer Joseph Lanner and a French music hall tune (La Jambe en bois or The Wooden Leg).

In April 1915, Stravinsky received a commission from Winnaretta Singer (Princesse Edmond de Polignac) for a small-scale theatrical work to be performed in her Paris salon. The result was Renard (1916), which he called “a burlesque in song and dance.” Renard was Stravinsky’s first venture into experimental theater: the composer’s preface to the score specifies a trestle stage on which all the performers (including the instrumentalists) were to appear simultaneously and continuously.

Neoclassical Period (ca. 1920–1954)

Apollon (1928), Persephone (1933), and Orpheus (1947) exemplify not only Stravinsky’s return to the music of the Classical period but also his exploration of themes from the ancient Classical world, such as Greek mythology. In 1951, he completed his last neo-classical work, the opera The Rake’s Progress, to a libretto by W. H. Auden that was based on the etchings of William Hogarth. It premiered in Venice that year and was produced around Europe the following year before being staged in the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1953. It was staged by the Santa Fe Opera in a 1962 Stravinsky Festival in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday and was revived by the Metropolitan Opera in 1997.

Serial Period (1954–1968)

In the 1950s, Stravinsky began using serial compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg. He first experimented with non-twelve-tone serial techniques in small-scale vocal and chamber works such as the Cantata (1952), the Septet (1953), and Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953). The first of his compositions fully based on such techniques was In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). Agon (1954–57) was the first of his works to include a twelve-tone series, and Canticum Sacrum (1955) was the first piece to contain a movement entirely based on a tone row. Stravinsky expanded his use of dodecaphony in works such as Threni (1958) and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1961), which are based on biblical texts, and The Flood (1962), which mixes brief biblical texts from the Book of Genesis with passages from the York and Chester Mystery Plays.

Innovation and Influence

Stravinsky has been called “one of music’s truly epochal innovators.” The most important aspect of Stravinsky’s work, aside from his technical innovations (including in rhythm and harmony), is the “changing face” of his compositional style while always “retaining a distinctive, essential identity.”

Stravinsky with Wilhelm Furtwängler, German conductor and composer.
Figure 4. Stravinsky with Wilhelm Furtwängler, German conductor and composer.

Stravinsky’s use of motivic development (the use of musical figures that are repeated in different guises throughout a composition or section of a composition) included additive motivic development. This is where notes are subtracted or added to a motif without regard to the consequent changes in meter. A similar technique can be found as early as the 16th century, for example, in the music of Cipriano de Rore, Orlandus Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo, and Giovanni de Macque, music with which Stravinsky exhibited considerable familiarity.

The Rite of Spring is notable for its relentless use of ostinati, for example, in the eighth note ostinato on strings accented by eight horns in the section “Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls).” The work also contains passages where several ostinati clash against one another. Stravinsky was noted for his distinctive use of rhythm, especially in The Rite of Spring. According to the composer Philip Glass, “The idea of pushing the rhythms across the bar lines . . . led the way. . . . The rhythmic structure of music became much more fluid and in a certain way spontaneous.” Glass mentions Stravinsky’s “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive.” According to Andrew J. Browne, “Stravinsky is perhaps the only composer who has raised rhythm in itself to the dignity of art.” Stravinsky’s rhythm and vitality greatly influenced the composer Aaron Copland.

Over the course of his career, Stravinsky called for a wide variety of orchestral, instrumental, and vocal forces, ranging from single instruments in such works as Three Pieces for Clarinet (1918) or Elegy for Solo Viola (1944) to the enormous orchestra of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps; 1913), which Aaron Copland characterized as “the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.”

Stravinsky’s creation of unique and idiosyncratic ensembles arising from the specific musical nature of individual works is a basic element of his style.

Following the model of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s student works such as the Symphony in E-flat, Opus 1 (1907); Scherzo fantastique, Opus 3 (1908); and Fireworks (Feu d’artifice), Opus 4 (1908) call for large orchestral forces. This is not surprising, as the works were as much exercises in orchestration as in composition.

The Symphony, for example, calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo); 2 oboes; 3 clarinets in B-flat; 2 bassoons; 4 horns in F; 3 trumpets in B-flat; 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and strings. The Scherzo fantastique calls for a slightly larger orchestra but completely omits trombones: this was Stravinsky’s response to Rimsky’s criticism of their overuse in the Symphony.

The three ballets composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes call for particularly large orchestras. The Firebird (1910) requires winds in fours, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (in A), 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, 3 harps, piano, and strings. The percussion section calls for timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tamtam, tubular bells, glockenspiel, and xylophone. In addition, the original version calls for 3 onstage trumpets and 4 onstage Wagner tubas (2 tenor and 2 bass).

The original version of Petrushka (1911) calls for a similar orchestra (without onstage brass but with the addition of onstage snare drum). The particularly prominent role of the piano is the result of the music’s origin as a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra.

The Rite of Spring (1913) calls for the largest orchestra Stravinsky ever employed: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubles 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubles 2nd cor anglais), cor anglais, piccolo clarinet in D/E, 3 clarinets (3rd doubles 2nd bass clarinet), bass clarinet, piccolo clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubles 2nd contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th double tenor Wagner tubas), piccolo trumpet in D, 4 trumpets in C (4th doubles bass trumpet in E-flat), 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), and 2 tubas. Percussion includes 5 timpani (2 players), bass drum, tamtam, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, antique cymbals, guiro, and strings. (Piano, celesta, and harp are not included.)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

It is hard to understate the impact of The Rite of Spring on the music that came afterward. The jarring rhythms and the use of traditional instruments in non-traditional ways paved the way for the experiments of later composers. This brief article at the website for the PBS program Keeping Score gives a very accessible account of the historical context of the first performance. More importantly, you can watch the entire Rite of Spring episode for free on the page. While you can get all the information you need for our course from the article, I encourage you to watch the program either now or in the future. You’ll learn a great deal more about the music of the day, and you’ll see both the orchestral musicians and the ballet dancers in action. The work was, after all, originally written to be performed in combination with the dance.

Here is some material to supplement the Keeping Score website. It provides a scene-by-scene breakdown of the music we listen to. The music is telling, and the dancers are depicting a story. It is important that you know the specifics of that story. You should also remember that even though Rite of Spring consists of two parts, we only have the first part on our playlist.


Part of Nicholas Roerich's designs for Diaghilev's 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps
Figure 1. Part of Nicholas Roerich’s designs for Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps.

The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps, Russian: «Весна священная»,Vesna svyashchennaya) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Rite was the third such project, after the acclaimed Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky’s outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”; in the scenario, after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. After a mixed critical reception for its original run and a short London tour, the ballet was not performed again until the 1920s, when a version choreographed by Léonide Massine replaced Nijinsky’s original. Massine’s was the forerunner of many innovative productions directed by the world’s leading ballet masters, which gained the work worldwide acceptance. In the 1980s, Nijinsky’s original choreography, long believed lost, was reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

Stravinsky’s score contains many novel features for its time, including experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress, and dissonance. Analysts have noted in the score a significant grounding in Russian folk music, a relationship Stravinsky tended to deny. The music has influenced many of the 20th century’s leading composers and is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Synopsis and Structure

In a note to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in February 1914, Stravinsky described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” In his analysis of The Rite, Pieter van den Toorn writes that the work lacks a specific plot or narrative and should be considered as a succession of choreographed episodes.

The French titles are given in the form provided in the four-part piano score published in 1913. There have been numerous variants of the English translations; those shown are from the 1967 edition of the score.

Episode English Translation Synopsis
Part I: L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth)
Introduction Introduction Before the curtain rises, an orchestral introduction resembles, according to Stravinsky, “a swarm of spring pipes [dudki].”
Les Augures printaniers Augurs of Spring The celebration of spring begins in the hills. An old woman enters and begins to foretell the future.
Jeu du rapt Ritual of Abduction Young girls arrive from the river, in single file. They begin the “Dance of the Abduction.”
Rondes printanières Spring Rounds The young girls dance the Khorovod, the “Spring Rounds.”
Jeux des cités rivales Ritual of the Rival Tribes The people divide into two groups in opposition to each other and begin the “Ritual of the Rival Tribes.”
Cortège du sage: Le Sage Procession of the Sage: The Sage A holy procession leads to the entry of the wise elders, headed by the Sage, who brings the games to a pause and blesses the earth.
Danse de la terre Dance of the Earth The people break into a passionate dance, sanctifying and becoming one with the earth.
Part II: Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)
Introduction Introduction
Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes Mystic Circles of the Young Girls The young girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.
Glorification de l’élue Glorification of the Chosen One One of the young girls is selected by fate, being twice caught in the perpetual circle, and is honored as the “Chosen One” with a martial dance.
Evocation des ancêtres Evocation of the Ancestors In a brief dance, the young girls invoke the ancestors.
Action rituelle des ancêtres Ritual Action of the Ancestors The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.
Danse sacrale (L’Élue) Sacrificial Dance The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men in the great “Sacrificial Dance.”


The New York Times reported the sensational Rite premiere, nine days after the event.
Figure 2. The New York Times reported the sensational Rite premiere, nine days after the event.

Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was a new structure that had opened on 2 April 1913 with a program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theater’s manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season and paid Diaghilev the large sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The program for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group, who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.” Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Stravinsky, all went peacefully. However, the critic of L’Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.

On the evening of 29 May, the theater was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never . . . has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear.” The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Karsavina danced the main roles. The Rite followed. Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring.” But music historian Richard Taruskin asserts, “It was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar,” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky, who was shouting the step numbers to the dancers. The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head,” though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

Dancers in Nicholas Roerich's original costumes. From left, Julitska, Marie Rambert, Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful
Figure 3. Dancers in Nicholas Roerich’s original costumes. From left, Julitska, Marie Rambert, Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful.

Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted toward the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.” Around 40 of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances, the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts, Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s program continued.

Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro’s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added, “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure.” On the other hand, Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely “a rowdy debate” between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: “Couldn’t we ask M. Astruc . . . to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? . . . We could at least propose to evict the female element.” The composer Alfredo Casella thought that the demonstrations were aimed at Nijinsky’s choreography rather than at the music, a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: “The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out.” Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau’s story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne, where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky’s choreography had been “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”


Béla Bartók

Bartók is significant not only for his compositions but for his contribution to the field of ethnomusicology. He spent considerable time and energy going into the countryside to record the folk music of specific regions in eastern Europe. His study of these folk traditions greatly influenced his composition, as he increasingly incorporated the scales and rhythms he studied in the countryside into his own concert music. Though he was influenced by both Schoenberg and Stravinsky and like them was forced by conflict in Europe to move to the United States, he stated that his music remained tonal. This, of course, would be tonality in a loose sense, as he often built his music using scales derived from folk idioms rather than the major and minor scales of tonal music. Nevertheless, we hear in Bartók’s music a mixture of modernist dissonance and nationalist elements.


Béla Bartók in 1927
Figure 1. Béla Bartók in 1927.

Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881–September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.


Childhood and Early Years (1881–98)

Béla Bartók was born in the small Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary (since 1920 Sânnicolau Mare, Romania) on March 25, 1881. Bartók’s family reflected some of the ethno-cultural diversities of the country. His father, Béla Sr., considered himself thoroughly Hungarian, because on his father’s side, the Bartók family was a Hungarian lower noble family originating from Borsod county (Móser 2006a, 44; Bartók 1981, 13), though his mother, Paula (born Paula Voit), had German as a mother tongue but was ethnically of “mixed Hungarian” ancestry (Bayley 2001, 16) of Danube Swabian origin. Among her closest forefathers, there were families with such names as Polereczky (Magyarized Polish or Slovak) and Fegyveres (Magyar).

Béla displayed notable musical talent very early in life: according to his mother, he could distinguish between different dance rhythms that she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences. By the age of four, he was able to play 40 pieces on the piano, and his mother began formally teaching him the next year.

Béla was a small and sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of 5. In 1888, when he was seven, his father (the director of an agricultural school) died suddenly. Béla’s mother then took him and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Nagyszőlős (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine) and then to Pozsony (German: Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia). In Pozsony, Béla gave his first public recital at age 11 to a warm critical reception. Among the pieces he played was his own first composition, written two years previously: a short piece called “The Course of the Danube.” Shortly thereafter, László Erkel accepted him as a pupil.

Early Musical Career (1899–1908)

From 1899 to 1903, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltán Kodály, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. In 1903, Bartók wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra, strongly influenced his early work. When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music.

From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. Bartók’s large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces that showed his growing interest in folk music. The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements.

In 1907, Bartók began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy. This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to work in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartók moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.

In 1908, he and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorized as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia, and Siberia.

Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano, containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók’s style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romantic elements.

Middle Years and Career (1909–39)

Personal Life

In 1909, at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla III, was born on August 22, 1910. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923.

Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Péter, was born in 1924.


In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage. In 1917, Bartók revised the score for the 1918 première and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the new Soviet government to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the opera, as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. Bluebeard’s Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people, and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.

Folk Music and Composition

Béla Bartók using a gramophone to record folk songs sung by peasants in what is now Slovakia.
Figure 2. Béla Bartók using a gramophone to record folk songs sung by peasants in what is now Slovakia.

After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (then the Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia, and (in 1913) Algeria. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop the expeditions, and he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, by his early adulthood, Bartók had become an atheist. He believed that the existence of God could not be determined and was unnecessary. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. As an adult, his son later became president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church.

Bartók wrote another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, as well as Richard Strauss. A modern story of prostitution, robbery, and murder, it was started in 1918 but not performed until 1926 because of its sexual content. He next wrote his two violin sonatas (written in 1921 and 1922, respectively), which are harmonically and structurally some of his most complex pieces.

In 1927–28, Bartók wrote his Third and Fourth String Quartets, after which his compositions demonstrated his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra BB 118 (1939). The Fifth String Quartet was composed in 1934 and the Sixth String Quartet (his last) in 1939.

In 1936, he traveled to Turkey to collect and study folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun, mostly around Adana.

World War II and Last Years in America (1940–45)

In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary. He was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary’s siding with Germany. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and broke away from his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary. Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the US with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City. After joining them in 1942, their son, Péter Bartók, enlisted in the United States Navy, where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida, where he became a recording and sound engineer. His oldest son, Béla Bartók III, remained in Hungary, where he survived the war and later worked as a railroad official until his retirement in the early 1980s.

Although he became an American citizen in 1945, shortly before his death, Bartók never became fully at home in the US. He initially found it difficult to compose. Although well known in America as a pianist, ethnomusicologist, and teacher, he was not well known as a composer. There was little American interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave some concerts, although demand for them was low. Bartók, who had made some recordings in Hungary, also recorded for Columbia Records after he came to the US; many of these recordings (some with Bartók’s own spoken introductions) were later issued on LP and CD (Bartók 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2007, 2008).

Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartók and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia’s libraries. Bartók’s economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching, and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough friends and supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartók reluctantly accepted this.

The first symptoms of his health problems began late in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942, symptoms increased and he started having bouts of fever, but no underlying disease was diagnosed, in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time, little could be done.

Statue of Bartók in Makó, Hungary.
Figure 3. Statue of Bartók in Makó, Hungary.

As his body slowly failed, Bartók found more creative energy, and he produced a final set of masterpieces, partly thanks to the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner (Reiner had been Bartók’s friend and champion since his days as Bartók’s student at the Royal Academy). Bartók’s last work might well have been the String Quartet No. 6 but for Serge Koussevitzky’s commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra premièred the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. The Concerto for Orchestra quickly became Bartók’s most popular work, although he did not live to see its full impact. In 1944, he was also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write a Sonata for Solo Violin. In 1945, Bartók composed his Piano Concerto No. 3, a graceful and almost neo-classical work, as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta, but he died just over a month before her birthday, with the scoring not quite finished. He had sketched his Viola Concerto but had barely started the scoring at his death.

Béla Bartók died at age 64 in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on September 26, 1945. His funeral was attended by only ten people. Among them were his wife Ditta, their son Péter, and his pianist friend György Sándor.

Bartók’s body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. During the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government, along with his two sons, Béla III and Péter, requested that his remains be exhumed and transferred back to Budapest for burial, where Hungary arranged a state funeral for him on July 7, 1988. He was reinterred at Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery, next to the remains of Ditta, who died in 1982, the year after his centenary.

The Third Piano Concerto was nearly finished at his death. For his Viola Concerto, Bartók had completed only the viola part and sketches of the orchestral part. Both works were later completed by his pupil, Tibor Serly. György Sándor was the soloist in the first performance of the Third Piano Concerto on February 8, 1946. Ditta Pásztory-Bartók later played and recorded it. The Viola Concerto was revised and polished in the 1990s by Bartók’s son Peter; this version may be closer to what Bartók intended.

Concurrently, Peter Bartók, in association with Nelson Dellamaggiore, worked to re-print and revise past editions of the Third Piano Concerto.


Bartók’s music reflects two trends that dramatically changed the sound of music in the 20th century: the breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony that had served composers for the previous two hundred years and the revival of nationalism as a source for musical inspiration, a trend that began with Mikhail Glinka and Antonín Dvořák in the last half of the 19th century. In his search for new forms of tonality, Bartók turned to Hungarian folk music, as well as to other folk music of the Carpathian Basin and even of Algeria and Turkey; in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism that exploited indigenous music and techniques.

One characteristic style of music is his Night music, which he used mostly in slow movements of multi-movement ensemble or orchestral compositions in his mature period. It is characterized by “eerie dissonances providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies.” An example is the third movement (Adagio) of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

His music can be grouped roughly in accordance with the different periods in his life.

Youth: Late-Romanticism (1890–1902)

The works of his youth are of a late-Romantic style. Between 1890 and 1894 (9 to 13 years of age), he wrote 31 pieces with corresponding opus numbers. He started numbering his works anew with “opus 1” in 1894 with his first large-scale work, a piano sonata. Up to 1902, Bartók wrote in total 74 works, which can be considered in Romantic style. Most of these early compositions are either scored for piano solo or include a piano. Additionally, there is some chamber music for strings.

New influences (1903–11)

Under the influence of Richard Strauss, Bartók composed in 1903 Kossuth, a symphonic poem in ten tableaux. In 1904 followed his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, which he numbered opus 1 again, marking it himself as the start of a new era in his music. An even more important occurrence of this year was his overhearing the 18-year-old nanny Lidi Dósa from Transylvania sing folk songs, sparking Bartók’s lifelong dedication to folk music. When criticized for not composing his own melodies, Bartók pointed out that Molière and Shakespeare mostly based their plays on well-known stories too. Regarding the incorporation of folk music into art music he said:

The question is, what are the ways in which peasant music is taken over and becomes transmuted into modern music? We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach’s treatment of chorales. . . . Another method . . . is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no true difference between this method and the one described above. . . . There is yet a third way. . . . Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say, he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which has become his musical mother tongue.

Bartók first became acquainted with Debussy’s music in 1907 and regarded his music highly. In an interview in 1939, Bartók said,

Debussy’s great service to music was to reawaken among all musicians an awareness of harmony and its possibilities. In that, he was just as important as Beethoven, who revealed to us the possibilities of progressive form, or as Bach, who showed us the transcendent significance of counterpoint. Now, what I am always asking myself is this: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our time?

Debussy’s influence is present in the Fourteen Bagatelles (1908). These made Ferruccio Busoni exclaim, “At last something truly new!” Until 1911, Bartók composed widely differing works that ranged from adherence to romantic-style, to folk song arrangements, to his modernist opera Bluebeard’s Castle. The negative reception of his work led him to focus on folk music research after 1911 and to abandon composition with the exception of folk music arrangements.

New Inspiration and Experimentation (1916–21)

His pessimistic attitude toward composing was lifted by the stormy and inspiring contact with Klára Gombossy in the summer of 1915. This interesting episode in Bartók’s life remained hidden until it was researched by Denijs Dille between 1979 and 1989. Bartók started composing again, including the Suite for piano opus 14 (1916) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918), and he completed The Wooden Prince (1917).

Bartók felt the result of World War I as a personal tragedy. Many regions he loved were severed from Hungary: Transylvania; the Banat, where he was born; and Pozsony, where his mother lived. Additionally, the political relations between Hungary and the other successor states to the Austro-Hungarian empire prohibited his folk music research outside of Hungary. Bartók also wrote the noteworthy Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs in 1920 and the sunny Dance Suite in 1923, the year of his second marriage.

“Synthesis of East and West” (1926–45)

In 1926, Bartók needed a significant piece for piano and orchestra with which he could tour in Europe and America. In the preparation for writing his First Piano Concerto, he wrote his Sonata, Out of Doors, and Nine Little Pieces, all for solo piano. He increasingly found his own voice in his maturity. The style of his last period—named “Synthesis of East and West”—is hard to define let alone put under one term. In his mature period, Bartók wrote relatively few works, but most of them are large-scale compositions for large settings. Only his voice works have programmatic titles, and his late works often adhere to classical forms.

Among his masterworks are all the six string quartets (1908, 1917, 1927, 1928, 1934, and 1939), the Cantata Profana (1930; Bartók declared that this was the work he felt and professed to be his most personal “credo”), the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), and the Third Piano Concerto (1945).

Bartók also made a lasting contribution to the literature for younger students: for his son Péter’s music lessons, he composed Mikrokosmos, a six-volume collection of graded piano pieces.

Musical Analysis

Béla Bartók memorial plaque in Baja, Hungary
Figure 4. Béla Bartók memorial plaque in Baja, Hungary.

Paul Wilson lists as the most prominent characteristics of Bartók’s music from late 1920s onward the influence of the Carpathian basin and European art music and his changing attitude toward (and use of) tonality, but without the use of the traditional harmonic functions associated with major and minor scales.

Although Bartók claimed in his writings that his music was always tonal, he rarely uses the chords or scales of tonality, and so the descriptive resources of tonal theory are of limited use. George Perle (1955) and Elliott Antokoletz (1984) focus on alternative methods of signaling tonal centers via axes of inversional symmetry. Others view Bartók’s axes of symmetry in terms of atonal analytic protocols. Richard Cohn argues that inversional symmetry is often a byproduct of another atonal procedure, the formation of chords from transpositionally related dyads. Atonal pitch-class theory also furnishes the resources for exploring polymodal chromaticism, projected sets, privileged patterns, and large set types used as source sets such as the equal tempered twelve-tone aggregate, octatonic scale (and alpha chord), the diatonic and heptatonia secunda seven-note scales, and less often the whole tone scale and the primary pentatonic collection.

He rarely used the simple aggregate actively to shape musical structure, though there are notable examples, such as the second theme from the first movement of his Second Violin Concerto, commenting that he “wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” More thoroughly, in the first eight measures of the last movement of his Second Quartet, all notes gradually gather with the twelfth (G♭) sounding for the first time on the last beat of measure 8, marking the end of the first section. The aggregate is partitioned in the opening of the Third String Quartet with C♯–D–D♯–E in the accompaniment (strings) while the remaining pitch classes are used in the melody (violin 1) and more often as 7–35 (diatonic or “white-key” collection) and 5–35 (pentatonic or “black-key” collection) such as in no. 6 of the Eight Improvisations. There, the primary theme is on the black keys in the left hand, while the right accompanies with triads from the white keys. In measures 50–51 in the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, the first violin and cello play black-key chords, while the second violin and viola play stepwise diatonic lines. On the other hand, from as early as the Suite for piano, Op. 14 (1914), he occasionally employed a form of serialism based on compound interval cycles, some of which are maximally distributed, multi-aggregate cycles.

Ernő Lendvai (1971) analyzes Bartók’s works as being based on two opposing tonal systems, that of the acoustic scale and the axis system, as well as using the golden section as a structural principle.

Milton Babbitt, in his 1949 critique of Bartók’s string quartets, criticized Bartók for using tonality and non-tonal methods unique to each piece. Babbitt noted that “Bartók’s solution was a specific one, it cannot be duplicated.” Bartók’s use of “two organizational principles”—tonality for large scale relationships and the piece-specific method for moment-to-moment thematic elements—was a problem for Babbitt, who worried that the “highly attenuated tonality” requires extreme non-harmonic methods to create a feeling of closure.

Catalogs and Opus Numbers

The cataloging of Bartók’s works is somewhat complex. Bartók assigned opus numbers to his works three times, the last of these series ending with the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Op. 21 in 1921. He ended this practice because of the difficulty of distinguishing between original works and ethnographic arrangements and between major and minor works. Since his death, three attempts—two full and one partial—have been made at cataloging. The first, and still most widely used, is András Szőllősy’s chronological Sz. numbers, from 1 to 121. Denijs Dille subsequently reorganized the juvenilia (Sz. 1–25) thematically as DD numbers 1 to 77. The most recent catalog is that of László Somfai; this is a chronological index with works identified by BB numbers 1 to 129, incorporating corrections based on the Béla Bartók Thematic Catalog.

Listen: Works

Please listen to the following audio files.

Sonata for two pianos and percussion, first movement (excerpt)

This segment of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion features pedal glissandos during a timpani roll.

Concerto for Orchestra (excerpt)

In this passage from the Intermezzo interrotto movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the timpanist plays a chromatic bass line, which requires using the pedal to change pitches.

Concerto for Orchestra

The Concerto for Orchestra was completed just months before Bartók died of leukemia. It is one of his best-known works, though in it he adopts a style that is less dissonant and modern than he had been known for in previous works. Please listen to the discussion of the piece at this NPR site. The two commentators spend a good deal of time talking about the movement we have on our playlist, the fourth movement titled “Interrupted Intermezzo.” One claim made in the audio discussion is that Bartók is parodying a piece by another one of our composers, Shostakovich. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on the piece, that view is not universally held.

Aaron Copland

Copland represents a first in our studies: an American-born composer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron Copland studied in Paris, then returned to the United States where he was influenced by the composer Aaron Stieglitz. Stieglitz felt that American artists should create work that gave expression to American democracy. Copland certainly did this in several popular ballets that made use of American folk tunes, particularly cowboy songs. The ballet Rodeo, and the movement from that work featured on our playlist, “Hoedown,” is unmistakable in its reference to the American West. This American nationalism stands in stark contrast to the modernist music of Copland’s contemporaries.


Aaron Copland as subject of a Young People's Concert, 1970
Figure 1. Aaron Copland as subject of a Young People’s Concert, 1970.

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990) was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later in his career a conductor of his own and other American music. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, in his later years he was often referred to as “the Dean of American Composers” and is best known to the public for the works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible style often referred to as “populist” and which the composer labeled his “vernacular” style. Works in this vein include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo; his Fanfare for the Common Man; and Third Symphony. The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are archetypical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he produced music in many other genres, including chamber music, vocal works, opera, and film scores.

After some initial studies with composer Rubin Goldmark, Copland traveled to Paris, where he studied at first with Isidor Philipp and Paul Vidal, then with noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He studied three years with Boulanger, whose eclectic approach to music inspired his own broad taste in that area. Determined upon his return to the US to make his way as a full-time composer, Copland gave lecture-recitals, wrote works on commission, and did some teaching and writing. He found composing orchestral music in the “modernist” style he had adapted abroad a financially contradictory approach, particularly in light of the Great Depression. He shifted in the mid-1930s to a more accessible musical style that mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik (“music for use”), music that could serve utilitarian and artistic purposes. During the Depression years, he traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico; formed an important friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez; and began composing his signature works.

During the late 1940s, Copland felt a need to compose works of greater emotional substance than his utilitarian scores of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was aware that Stravinsky, as well as many fellow composers, had begun to study Arnold Schoenberg’s use of twelve-tone (serial) techniques. In his personal style, Copland began to make use of twelve-tone rows in several compositions. He incorporated serial techniques in some of his later works, including his Piano Quartet (1951), Piano Fantasy (1957), Connotations for orchestra (1961), and Inscape for orchestra (1967). From the 1960s onward, Copland’s activities turned more from composing to conducting. He became a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the US and the UK and made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records.

Popular Works

Impressed with the success of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, Copland wrote El Salón México between 1932 and 1936, which met with a popular acclaim that contrasted the relative obscurity of most of his previous works. It appears he intended it to be a popular favorite, as he wrote in 1955: “It seems a long long time since anyone has written an España or Bolero—the kind of brilliant orchestral piece that everyone loves.” Inspiration for this work came from Copland’s vivid recollection of visiting the “Salon Mexico” dancehall, where he witnessed a more intimate view of Mexico’s nightlife. For Copland, the biggest impact came, not from the music of the people dancing, but from the spirit of the environment. Copland said that he could literally feel the essence of the Mexican people in the dance hall. This prompted him to write a piece celebrating the spirit of Mexico using Mexican themes. Copland derived freely from two collections of Mexican folk tunes, changing pitches and varying rhythms. The use of a folk tune with variations set in a symphonic context started a pattern he repeated in many of his most successful works right on through the 1940s. This work also marked the return of jazz patterns to Copland’s compositional style, though they appeared in a more subdued form than before and were no longer the centerpiece. Chávez conducted the premiere, and El Salón México became an international hit, gaining Copland wide recognition.

Copland achieved his first major success in ballet music with his groundbreaking score Billy the Kid, based on a Walter Noble Burns novel, with choreography by Eugene Loring. The ballet was among the first to display an American music and dance vocabulary, adapting the “strong technique and intense charm of Astaire” and other American dancers. It was distinctive in its use of polyrhythm and polyharmony, particularly in the cowboy songs. The ballet premiered in New York in 1939, with Copland recalling, “I cannot remember another work of mine that was so unanimously received.” John Martin wrote, “Aaron Copland has furnished an admirable score, warm and human, and with not a wasted note about it anywhere.” It became a staple work of the American Ballet Theatre, and Copland’s 20-minute suite from the ballet became part of the standard orchestral repertoire. When asked how a Jewish New Yorker managed so well to capture the Old West, Copland answered, “It was just a feat of imagination.”

In the early 1940s, Copland produced two important works intended as national morale boosters. Fanfare for the Common Man, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It would later be used to open many Democratic National Conventions and to add dignity to a wide range of other events. Even musical groups from Woody Herman’s jazz band to the Rolling Stones adapted the opening theme. Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded a “progressive rock” version of the composition in 1977. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland’s Third Symphony, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the brassier form of the original. In the same year, Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait, a commission from conductor André Kostelanetz, leading to a further strengthening of his association with American patriotic music. The work is famous for the spoken recitation of Lincoln’s words, though the idea had been previously employed by John Alden Carpenter’s “Song of Faith” based on George Washington’s quotations. “Lincoln Portrait” is often performed at national holiday celebrations. Many Americans have performed the recitation, including politicians, actors, and musicians and Copland himself, with Henry Fonda doing the most notable recording.

Continuing his string of successes, in 1942, Copland composed the ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait. Rodeo is another enduring composition for Copland and contains many recognizable folk tunes, well-blended with Copland’s original music. Notable in the final movement is the striking “Hoedown.” This was a recreation of Appalachian fiddler W. H. Stepp’s version of the square-dance tune “Bonypart” (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”), which had been transcribed for piano by Ruth Crawford Seeger and published in Alan Lomax and Seeger’s book Our Singing Country (1941). For the “Hoedown” in Rodeo, Copland borrowed note for note from Seeger’s piano transcription of Stepp’s tune. This fragment (lifted from Ruth Crawford Seeger) is now one of the best-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television, including commercials for the American beef industry. “Hoedown” was given a rock arrangement by Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1972. The ballet, originally titled “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, niece of film giant Cecil B. DeMille. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on October 16, 1942, with de Mille dancing the principal “cowgirl” role, and the performance received a standing ovation. A reduced score is still popular as an orchestral piece, especially at “Pops” concerts.

Martha Graham in 1948
Figure 2. Martha Graham in 1948.

Copland was commissioned to write another ballet, Appalachian Spring, originally written using 13 instruments, which he ultimately arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The commission for Appalachian Spring came from Martha Graham, who had requested of Copland merely “music for an American ballet.” Copland titled the piece “Ballet for Martha,” having no idea of how she would use it on stage, but he had her in mind. “When I wrote ‘Appalachian Spring’ I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. . . . And she’s unquestionably very American: there’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American.” Copland borrowed the flavor of Shaker songs and dances and directly used the dance song “Simple Gifts.” Graham took the score and created a ballet she called Appalachian Spring (from a poem by Hart Crane that had no connection with Shakers). It was an instant success, and the music later acquired the same name. Copland was amused and delighted later in life when people would come up to him and say: “Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can see the Appalachians and just feel spring.” Copland had no particular setting in mind while writing the music; he just tried to give it an American flavor and had no knowledge of the borrowed title, in which “spring” refers to a spring of water, not the season Spring.


Just as Bartók’s recordings of Hungarian and Romanian folk songs influenced his later compositions, a particular recording of an old cowboy tune had an impact on the “Hoedown” movement of Copland’s Rodeo. Listen to this NPR story on that tune and its transformation from a western march to an orchestral dance. To see what other folk tunes appear in “Hoedown,” read the paragraph on that movement from the Wikipedia article on Rodeo. The link will take you directly to that paragraph.


Neoclassicism was a reaction to both the emotional excesses of late Romanticism and the radical dissonance of modernism. Before you review this 20th-century musical movement, however, I want to explain an apparent contradiction with regard to our playlist and neoclassicism. There is no question that the most significant composer to write in a neoclassical style was Igor Stravinsky. However, I didn’t include any of his neoclassical compositions on our playlist for the simple reason that Rite of Spring, which he composed prior to his efforts in neoclassical style, is his most significant work historically. Rite of Spring just had to be on the list even though it meant that the most significant neoclassical composer would be representing primitivism instead of neoclassicism on our playlist. Because of this, we will listen to a symphonic movement by Shostakovich that exhibits some elements of neoclassical style, though it is not strictly speaking a neoclassical piece. Once again, the historical and musical significance of the work has trumped purity of style.

As you will soon read, Shostakovich was composing during Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia. Stalin’s Soviet establishment demanded a kind of classicism from composers, as it was felt that dissonant, modernist music, known in the USSR as “formalism,” was evidence of the decadence and corruption of the West. Composers who fell out of favor with the establishment could find themselves in a labor camp or worse, so Shostakovich, in composing his 5th symphony, had to write in a more classically influenced tonality and structure. This simplified musical language is in keeping with the principles of neoclassicism. However, those same Soviet authorities demanded music that was grand and epic in scope as a means of representing what they saw as the superiority of communist ideals. In this sense, Shostakovich’s 5th symphony does not mesh with the neoclassical focus on smaller performances. So my hope in making the selections that I did is that you will (a) be exposed to historically significant pieces such as Rite and Symphony No. 5; and (b) be able to recognize the neoclassical elements that are a part of the Shostakovich listening example.


Neoclassicism in music was a 20th-century trend, particularly current in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of “classicism”—namely, order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late Romanticism, as well as a “call to order” after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the 20th century. The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music. In form and thematic technique, neoclassical music often drew inspiration from music of the 18th century, though the inspiring canon belonged as frequently to the Baroque and even earlier periods as the Classical period—for this reason, music which draws inspiration specifically from the Baroque is sometimes termed Neo-Baroque music. Neoclassicism had two distinct national lines of development, French (proceeding partly from the influence of Erik Satie and represented by Igor Stravinsky) and German (proceeding from the “New Objectivity” of Ferruccio Busoni and represented by Paul Hindemith). Neoclassicism was an aesthetic trend rather than an organized movement; even many composers not usually thought of as “neoclassicists” absorbed elements of the style.

Dmitri Shostakovich

As has already been mentioned, Shostakovich dealt with political concerns that none of the other composers we have studied faced. During the time of Stalin, a Soviet artist whose work was denounced by the communist party apparatus could have faced imprisonment or execution. Pay close attention to the adjustments he had to make to his musical style, particularly in connection with the 5th Symphony, out of fear for his and his family’s safety. Also notice the number of his friends and colleagues who were executed during the period known as the Great Terror.


Dmitri Shostakovich in 1942
Figure 1. Dmitri Shostakovich in 1942.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (25 September 1906–9 August 1975) was a Russian composer and pianist and a prominent figure of 20th-century music.

Shostakovich achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of Soviet chief of staff Mikhail Tukhachevsky but later had a complex and difficult relationship with the government. Nevertheless, he received accolades and state awards and served in the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR (1947–1962) and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (from 1962 until his death).

A poly-stylist, Shostakovich developed a hybrid voice, combining a variety of different musical techniques into his music. Shostakovich’s music is characterized by sharp contrasts, elements of the grotesque, and ambivalent tonality; the composer was also heavily influenced by the neo-classical style pioneered by Igor Stravinsky and (especially in his symphonies) by the post-Romanticism associated with Gustav Mahler.

Shostakovich’s orchestral works include 15 symphonies and six concerti. His chamber output includes 15 string quartets, a piano quintet, 2 piano trios, and 2 pieces for string octet. His piano works include 2 solo sonatas, an early set of preludes, and a later set of 24 preludes and fugues. Other works include 3 operas, several song cycles, ballets, and a substantial quantity of film music; especially well known is The Second Waltz, Op. 99, music to the film The First Echelon (1955–1956), as well as the Suites composed for The Gadfly.


Early Life

Born at Podolskaya Ulitsa in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich was the second of three children of Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina. Shostakovich’s paternal grandfather, originally surnamed Szostakowicz, was of Polish Roman Catholic descent (his family roots trace to the region of the town of Vileyka in today’s Belarus), but his immediate forebears came from Siberia. A Polish revolutionary in the January Uprising of 1863–64, Bolesław Szostakowicz would be exiled to Narym (near Tomsk) in 1866 in the crackdown that followed Dmitri Karakozov’s assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II. When his term of exile ended, Szostakowicz decided to remain in Siberia. He eventually became a successful banker in Irkutsk and raised a large family. His son, Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, the composer’s father, was born in exile in Narim in 1875 and studied physics and mathematics in Saint Petersburg University, graduating in 1899. He then went to work as an engineer under Dmitri Mendeleev at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in Saint Petersburg. In 1903, he married another Siberian transplant to the capital, Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina, one of six children born to a Russian Siberian native.

Their son, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, displayed significant musical talent after he began piano lessons with his mother at the age of nine. On several occasions, he displayed a remarkable ability to remember what his mother had played at the previous lesson and would get “caught in the act” of playing the previous lesson’s music while pretending to read different music placed in front of him. In 1918, he wrote a funeral march in memory of two leaders of the Kadet party, murdered by Bolshevik sailors.

In 1919, at the age of 13, he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, then headed by Alexander Glazunov, who monitored Shostakovich’s progress closely and promoted him. Shostakovich studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev after a year in the class of Elena Rozanova, composition with Maximilian Steinberg, and counterpoint and fugue with Nikolay Sokolov, with whom he became friends. Shostakovich also attended Alexander Ossovsky’s history of music classes. Steinberg tried to guide Shostakovich in the path of the great Russian composers but was disappointed to see him wasting his talent and imitating Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. He also suffered for his perceived lack of political zeal and initially failed his exam in Marxist methodology in 1926. His first major musical achievement was the First Symphony (premiered 1926), written as his graduation piece at the age of 19.

Early Career

After graduation, Shostakovich initially embarked on a dual career as concert pianist and composer, but his dry style of playing was often unappreciated (his American biographer, Laurel Fay, comments on his “emotional restraint” and “riveting rhythmic drive”). He nevertheless won an “honorable mention” at the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. After the competition, Shostakovich met the conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer’s First Symphony that he conducted it at its Berlin premiere later that year. Leopold Stokowski was equally impressed and gave the work its US premiere the following year in Philadelphia and also made the work’s first recording.

Thereafter, Shostakovich concentrated on composition and soon limited his performances primarily to those of his own works. In 1927, he wrote his Second Symphony (subtitled To October), a patriotic piece with a great pro-Soviet choral finale. Due to its experimental nature, as with the subsequent Third Symphony, the pieces were not critically acclaimed with the enthusiasm granted to the First.

The year 1927 also marked the beginning of Shostakovich’s relationship with Ivan Sollertinsky, who remained his closest friend until the latter’s death in 1944. Sollertinsky introduced the composer to the music of Gustav Mahler, which had a strong influence on his music from the Fourth Symphony onward.

While writing the Second Symphony, Shostakovich also began work on his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Gogol. In June 1929, the opera was given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s own wishes, and was ferociously attacked by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). Its stage premiere on 18 January 1930 opened to generally poor reviews and widespread incomprehension among musicians.

Shostakovich composed his first film score for the 1929 silent movie The New Babylon, set during the 1871 Paris Commune.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theater. Although he did little work in this post, it shielded him from ideological attack. Much of this period was spent writing his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was first performed in 1934. It was immediately successful, on both popular and official levels. It was described as “the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party,” and as an opera that “could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture.”

Shostakovich married his first wife, Nina Varzar, in 1932. Initial difficulties led to a divorce in 1935, but the couple soon remarried when Nina became pregnant with their first child.

First Denunciation

In 1936, Shostakovich fell from official favor. The year began with a series of attacks on him in Pravda, in particular an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was “white as a sheet” when he went to take his bow after the third act.

The article condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist, “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” Consequently, commissions began to fall off, and his income fell by about three quarters. Even Soviet music critics who had praised the opera were forced to recant in print, saying they “failed to detect the shortcomings of Lady Macbeth as pointed out by Pravda.” Shortly after the “Muddle Instead of Music” article, Pravda published another, “Ballet Falsehood,” that criticized Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream. Shostakovich did not expect this second article because the general public and press already accepted this music as “democratic” – that is, tuneful and accessible. However, Pravda criticized The Limpid Stream for incorrectly displaying peasant life on the collective farm.

More widely, 1936 marked the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed. These included his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky (shot months after his arrest); his brother-in-law Vsevolod Frederiks (a distinguished physicist, who was eventually released but died before he got home); his close friend Nikolai Zhilyayev (a musicologist who had taught Tukhachevsky; shot shortly after his arrest); his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar (sent to a camp in Karaganda); his friend the Marxist writer Galina Serebryakova (20 years in camps); his uncle Maxim Kostrykin (died); and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky (executed). His only consolation in this period was the birth of his daughter Galina in 1936; his son Maxim was born two years later.

Withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony

The publication of the Pravda editorials coincided with the composition of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The work marked a great shift in style for the composer due to the substantial influence of Gustav Mahler and a number of Western-style elements. The symphony gave Shostakovich compositional trouble, as he attempted to reform his style into a new idiom. The composer was well into the work when the fatal articles appeared. Despite this, Shostakovich continued to compose the symphony and planned a premiere at the end of 1936. Rehearsals began that December, but after a number of rehearsals, Shostakovich, for reasons still debated today, decided to withdraw the symphony from the public. A number of his friends and colleagues, such as Isaak Glikman, have suggested that it was in fact an official ban that Shostakovich was persuaded to present as a voluntary withdrawal. Whatever the case, it seems possible that this action saved the composer’s life: during this time, Shostakovich feared for himself and his family. Yet Shostakovich did not repudiate the work; it retained its designation as his Fourth Symphony. A piano reduction was published in 1946, and the work was finally premiered in 1961, well after Stalin’s death.

During 1936 and 1937, in order to maintain as low a profile as possible between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Shostakovich mainly composed film music, a genre favored by Stalin and lacking in dangerous personal expression.

“A Soviet Artist’s Creative Response to Just Criticism”

The composer’s response to his denunciation was the Fifth Symphony of 1937, which was musically more conservative than his earlier works. Premiering on 21 November 1937 in Leningrad, it was a phenomenal success: many in the Leningrad audience had lost family or friends to the mass executions. The Fifth drove many to tears and welling emotions. Later, Shostakovich wrote in his supposed memoirs, Testimony: “I’ll never believe that a man who understood nothing could feel the Fifth Symphony. Of course they understood, they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.”

The success put Shostakovich in good standing once again. Music critics and the authorities alike, including those who had earlier accused Shostakovich of formalism, claimed that he had learned from his mistakes and had become a true Soviet artist. The composer Dmitry Kabalevsky, who had been among those who disassociated himself from Shostakovich when the Pravda article was published, praised the Fifth Symphony and congratulated Shostakovich for “not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous ‘erroneous’ ways.”

It was also at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets. His chamber works allowed him to experiment and express ideas that would have been unacceptable in his more public symphonic pieces. In September 1937, he began to teach composition at the Leningrad Conservatory, which provided some financial security but interfered with his own creative work.

Second World War

In 1939, before the Soviet forces attempted to invade Finland, the Party Secretary of Leningrad, Andrei Zhdanov, commissioned a celebratory piece from Shostakovich, entitled Suite on Finnish Themes to be performed as the marching bands of the Red Army would be parading through the Finnish capital Helsinki. The Winter War was a bitter experience for the Red Army, the parade never happened, and Shostakovich would never lay claim to the authorship of this work. It was not performed until 2001.

After the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich initially remained in Leningrad. He tried to enlist for the military but was turned away because of his poor eyesight. To compensate, Shostakovich became a volunteer for the Leningrad Conservatory’s firefighter brigade and delivered a radio broadcast to the Soviet people. The photograph for which he posed was published in newspapers throughout the country.

But his greatest and most famous wartime contribution was the Seventh Symphony. The composer wrote the first three movements in Leningrad and completed the work in Kuibyshev (now Samara), where he and his family had been evacuated. Whether or not Shostakovich really conceived the idea of the symphony with the siege of Leningrad in mind, it was officially claimed as a representation of the people of Leningrad’s brave resistance to the German invaders and an authentic piece of patriotic art at a time when morale needed boosting. The symphony was first premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra in Kuibyshev and was soon performed abroad in London and the United States. However, the most compelling performance was the Leningrad premiere by the Radio Orchestra in the besieged city. The orchestra had only 14 musicians left, so the conductor Karl Eliasberg had to recruit anyone who could play a musical instrument to perform the symphony. The Leningrad Shostakovich reportedly had in mind was not the one that withstood the German siege. Rather, it was the one “that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.”

In spring 1943, the family moved to Moscow. At the time of the Eighth Symphony’s premiere, the tide had turned for the Red Army. Therefore, the public, and most importantly the authorities, wanted another triumphant piece from the composer. Instead, they got the Eighth Symphony, perhaps the ultimate in somber and violent expression within Shostakovich’s output. In order to preserve the image of Shostakovich (a vital bridge to the people of the Union and to the West), the government assigned the name “Stalingrad” to the symphony, giving it the appearance of a mourning of the dead in the bloody Battle of Stalingrad. However, the symphony did not escape criticism. Shostakovich is reported to have said: “When the Eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. They said, ‘Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning we were retreating and now we’re attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he’s on the side of the fascists.'” The work was unofficially but effectively banned until 1956.

The Ninth Symphony (1945), in contrast, was much lighter in tone. Gavriil Popov wrote that it was “splendid in its joie de vivre, gaiety, brilliance, and pungency!” By 1946, however, it was the subject of criticism. Israel Nestyev asked whether it was the right time for “a light and amusing interlude between Shostakovich’s significant creations, a temporary rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles.” The New York World-Telegram of 27 July 1946 was similarly dismissive: “The Russian composer should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner.” Shostakovich continued to compose chamber music, notably his Second Piano Trio (Op. 67), dedicated to the memory of Sollertinsky, with a bittersweet, Jewish-themed totentanz finale.

Second Denunciation

In 1948, Shostakovich, along with many other composers, was again denounced for formalism in the Zhdanov decree. Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, accused Shostakovich and other composers (such as Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian) for writing inappropriate and formalist music. This was part of an ongoing anti-formalism campaign intended to root out all Western compositional influence as well as any perceived “non-Russian” output. The conference resulted in the publication of the Central Committee’s Decree “On V. Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship,” which was targeted toward all Soviet composers and demanded that they only write “proletarian” music, or music for the masses. The accused composers, including Shostakovich, were summoned to make public apologies in front of the committee. Most of Shostakovich’s works were banned, and his family had privileges withdrawn. Yuri Lyubimov says that at this time “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.”

The consequences of the decree for composers were harsh. Shostakovich was among those who were dismissed from the Conservatoire altogether. For Shostakovich, the loss of money was perhaps the largest blow. Others still in the Conservatory experienced an atmosphere that was thick with suspicion. No one wanted their work to be understood as formalist, so many resorted to accusing their colleagues of writing or performing anti-proletarian music.

In the next few years, he composed three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works “for the desk drawer.” The latter included the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. The cycle was written at a time when the post-war anti-Semitic campaign was already under way, with widespread arrests, including of I. Dobrushin and Yuditsky, the compilers of the book from which Shostakovich took his texts.

The restrictions on Shostakovich’s music and living arrangements were eased in 1949, when Stalin decided that the Soviets needed to send artistic representatives to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York City and that Shostakovich should be among them. For Shostakovich, it was a humiliating experience culminating in a New York press conference where he was expected to read a prepared speech. Nicolas Nabokov, who was present in the audience, witnessed Shostakovich starting to read “in a nervous and shaky voice” before he had to break off “and the speech was continued in English by a suave radio baritone”. Fully aware that Shostakovich was not free to speak his mind, Nabokov publicly asked the composer whether he supported the then recent denunciation of Stravinsky’s music in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, who was a great admirer of Stravinsky and had been influenced by his music, had no alternative but to answer in the affirmative. Nabokov did not hesitate to publish that this demonstrated that Shostakovich was “not a free man, but an obedient tool of his government.” Shostakovich never forgave Nabokov for this public humiliation. That same year, Shostakovich was obliged to compose the cantata Song of the Forests, which praised Stalin as the “great gardener.” In 1951, the composer was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR.

Stalin’s death in 1953 was the biggest step toward Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as a creative artist, which was marked by his Tenth Symphony. It features a number of musical quotations and codes (notably the DSCH and Elmira motifs, Elmira Nazirova being a pianist and composer who had studied under Shostakovich in the year prior to his dismissal from the Moscow Conservatoire), the meaning of which is still debated, while the savage second movement, according to Testimony, is intended as a musical portrait of Stalin himself. The Symphony ranks alongside the Fifth and Seventh as one of his most popular works; 1953 also saw a stream of premieres of the “desk drawer” works.

During the forties and fifties, Shostakovich had close relationships with two of his pupils: Galina Ustvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova. In the background to all this remained Shostakovich’s first, open marriage to Nina Varzar until her death in 1954. He taught Ustvolskaya from 1937 to 1947. The nature of their relationship is far from clear: Mstislav Rostropovich described it as “tender.” Ustvolskaya rejected a proposal of marriage from him after Nina’s death. Shostakovich’s daughter, Galina, recalled her father consulting her and Maxim about the possibility of Ustvolskaya becoming their stepmother. Ustvolskaya’s friend, Viktor Suslin, said that she had been “deeply disappointed” in Shostakovich by the time of her graduation in 1947. The relationship with Nazirova seems to have been one-sided, expressed largely through his letters to her, and can be dated to around 1953 to 1956. He married his second wife, Komsomol activist Margarita Kainova, in 1956; the couple proved ill-matched and divorced three years later.

In 1954, Shostakovich wrote the Festive Overture, opus 96, that was used as the theme music for the 1980 Summer Olympics. In addition, his “Theme from the film Pirogov, Opus 76a: Finale” was played as the cauldron was lit at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

In 1959, Shostakovich appeared on stage in Moscow at the end of a concert performance of his Fifth Symphony, congratulating Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for their performance (part of a concert tour of the Soviet Union). Later that year, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic recorded the symphony in Boston for Columbia Records.

Joining the Party

The year 1960 marked another turning point in Shostakovich’s life: he joined the Communist Party. The government wanted to appoint him General Secretary of the Composers’ Union, but in order to hold that position, he was required to attain Party membership. It was understood that Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party from 1958 to 1964, was looking for support from the leading ranks of the intelligentsia in an effort to create a better relationship with the Soviet Union’s artists. This event has been interpreted variously as a show of commitment, a mark of cowardice, the result of political pressure, or his free decision. On the one hand, the apparat was undoubtedly less repressive than it had been before Stalin’s death. On the other, his son recalled that the event reduced Shostakovich to tears, and he later told his wife Irina that he had been blackmailed. Lev Lebedinsky has said that the composer was suicidal. Once he joined the Party, several articles denouncing individualism in music were published in Pravda under his name, though he did not actually write them. In addition, in joining the party, Shostakovich was also committing himself to finally writing the homage to Lenin that he had promised before. His Twelfth Symphony, which portrays the Bolshevik Revolution and was completed in 1961, was dedicated to Vladimir Lenin and called “The Year 1917.” Around this time, his health also began to deteriorate.

Shostakovich’s musical response to these personal crises was the Eighth String Quartet, composed in only three days. He subtitled the piece, “To the victims of fascism and war,” ostensibly in memory of the Dresden fire bombing that took place in 1945. Yet, like the Tenth Symphony, this quartet incorporates quotations from several of his past works and his musical monogram: Shostakovich confessed to his friend Isaak Glikman, “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” Several of Shostakovich’s colleagues, including Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels and the cellist Valentin Berlinsky, were also aware of the Eighth Quartet’s biographical intent.

In 1962, he married for the third time, to Irina Supinskaya. In a letter to Glikman, he wrote, “Her only defect is that she is 27 years old. In all other respects she is splendid: clever, cheerful, straightforward and very likeable.” According to Galina Vishnevskaya, who knew the Shostakoviches well, this marriage was a very happy one: “It was with her that Dmitri Dmitriyevich finally came to know domestic peace. . . . Surely, she prolonged his life by several years.” In November he made his only venture into conducting, conducting a couple of his own works in Gorky; otherwise he declined to conduct, citing nerves and ill health as his reasons.

That year saw Shostakovich again turn to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar). The symphony sets a number of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which commemorates a massacre of Ukrainian Jews during the Second World War. Opinions are divided as to how great a risk this was: the poem had been published in Soviet media and was not banned, but it remained controversial. After the symphony’s premiere, Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza to his poem that said that Russians and Ukrainians had died alongside the Jews at Babi Yar.

In 1965 Shostakovich raised his voice in defense of poet Joseph Brodsky, who was sentenced to five years of exile and hard labor. Shostakovich co-signed protests together with Yevtushenko and fellow Soviet artists Kornei Chukovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Samuil Marshak, and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. After the protests, the sentence was commuted, and Brodsky returned to Leningrad. Shostakovich also joined a group of 25 distinguished intellectuals in signing a letter to Leonid Brezhnev asking not to rehabilitate Stalin.

  • (Russian) Original: “Pismo 25-ti deyatelei kulturi Brezhnevu o tendezii reabilitazii Stalina” [About the tendency toward Stalin’s rehabilitation: The letter to Brezhnev signed by twenty-five intellectuals], Sobranie Documentov Samizdata [Collection of Samizdat Documents, SDS], vol. 4, AC no. 273 (1966).
  • (Russian) Online: “Письмо 25 деятелей советской науки, литературы и искусства Л. И. Брежневу против реабилитации И. В. Сталина”. Институт истории естествознания и техники им. С.И. Вавилова РАН. Retrieved 26 February 2013.

Later Life

In 1964, Shostakovich composed the music for the Russian film Hamlet, which was favorably reviewed by the New York Times: “But the lack of this aural stimulation—of Shakespeare’s eloquent words—is recompensed in some measure by a splendid and stirring musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich. This has great dignity and depth, and at times an appropriate wildness or becoming levity.”

In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health, but he resisted giving up cigarettes and vodka. Beginning in 1958, he suffered from a debilitating condition that particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing; in 1965 it was diagnosed as poliomyelitis. He also suffered heart attacks the following year and again in 1971 and several falls in which he broke both his legs; in 1967, he wrote in a letter:

Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective). All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.

A preoccupation with his own mortality permeates Shostakovich’s later works, among them the later quartets and the Fourteenth Symphony of 1969 (a song cycle based on a number of poems on the theme of death). This piece also finds Shostakovich at his most extreme with musical language, with twelve-tone themes and dense polyphony used throughout. Shostakovich dedicated this score to his close friend Benjamin Britten, who conducted its Western premiere at the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is, by contrast, melodic and retrospective in nature, quoting Wagner, Rossini, and the composer’s own Fourth Symphony.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975 and after a civic funeral was interred in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow. Even before his death he had been commemorated with the naming of the Shostakovich Peninsula on Alexander Island, Antarctica.

He was survived by his third wife, Irina; his daughter, Galina; and his son, Maxim, a pianist and conductor who was the dedicatee and first performer of some of his father’s works. Shostakovich himself left behind several recordings of his own piano works, while other noted interpreters of his music include his friends Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Maria Yudina, David Oistrakh, and members of the Beethoven Quartet.

His last work was his Viola Sonata, which was first performed on 28 December 1975, four months after his death.

Shostakovich’s musical influence on later composers outside the former Soviet Union has been relatively slight, although Alfred Schnittke took up his eclecticism and his contrasts between the dynamic and the static, and some of André Previn’s music shows clear links to Shostakovich’s style of orchestration. His influence can also be seen in some Nordic composers, such as Lars-Erik Larsson. Many of his Russian contemporaries, and his pupils at the Leningrad Conservatory, however, were strongly influenced by his style (including German Okunev; Boris Tishchenko, whose 5th Symphony of 1978 is dedicated to Shostakovich’s memory; Sergei Slonimsky; and others). Shostakovich’s conservative idiom has grown increasingly popular with audiences both within and beyond Russia, as the avant-garde has declined in influence and debate about his political views has developed.

Symphony No. 5

The Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, by Dmitri Shostakovich is a work for orchestra composed between April and July 1937. Its first performance was on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The premiere was a huge success and received an ovation that lasted well over half an hour.

The symphony is approximately 45 minutes in length and has four movements:

  1. Moderato
    The symphony opens with a strenuous string figure in canon, initially leaping and falling in minor sixths then narrowing to minor thirds. The sharply dotted rhythm of this figure remains to accompany a broadly lyric melody played by the first violins. Variants of this theme return throughout the 3rd and 4th movements. The second theme is built out of octaves and sevenths. Whereas the first theme is based on a sharp dotted rhythm, the second relies on a static long-short-short pattern. With that is found all the musical material for this movement—one that is tremendously varied, its climax harsh. The coda, with the gentle friction of minor in strings against chromatic scales in celesta, ends on a note of haunting ambiguity.
  2. Allegretto
    The opening motif in this waltz-like scherzo is a variation of the first theme in the first movement; other variations can be detected throughout the movement. The music remains witty, satirical, and raucous while also nervous.
  3. Largo
    After the assertive trumpets of the first movement and the raucous horns of the second, this movement uses no brass at all. The strings are divided throughout the entire movement (3 groups of violins, violas in 2, cellos in 2, basses in 2). Shostakovich fills this movement with beautiful, long melodies—one of them again based on the first theme of the first movement—punctuating them with intermezzi of solo woodwinds. Harp and celesta play prominent roles here as well. The music is emotive and even elegiac in tone; it returns to the sober mood that the scherzo has interrupted.
  4. Allegro non troppo
    This movement, in an abbreviated sonata-allegro form, picks up the march music from the climax of the opening movement, at least in manner if not in specific material. A tense conclusion leads to the quieter section of the piece. This section ends and the short snare drum and timpani solo introduces a brief militaristic introduction to the finale of the movement—an extended and obsessive reiteration of the D major tonality.


This brief article describes our listening example by Arvo Pärt, Magnificat. Please pay special attention to the compositional technique of tintinnabuli, which refers to a ringing or bell-like sound—you can follow this link for more of an explanation. You definitely hear that in Magnificat when a triad is sung by three voice parts while a fourth sings a simple stepwise melody. Do you remember the Notre Dame-style organum we studied back in our coverage of the Middle Ages? Those passages in Magnificat featuring a drone against a melodic line reflect the direct influence of that medieval genre on this modern composition.


Magnificat was composed in 1989 by Arvo Pärt. A setting of the Latin Magnificat text, it is in tintinnabuli style, which was invented by Pärt in the mid-1970s. It is scored a cappella for mixed choir: soprano solo, sopranos I and II, alto, and tenor and bass divisi. It lasts approximately seven minutes.


Stylistic Aspects

Tintinnabulation is the most important aspect of Pärt’s Magnificat. According to Pärt’s biographer and friend Paul Hillier, the Magnificat “displays the tintinnabuli technique at its most supple and refined.” Pärt also uses drones; a second-line G in the alto near the end of the piece as well as the third-space C (on which the soprano solo line always stays), which provides a tonal center for the piece. Hillier says that “many pieces [by Pärt] tend through length and repetition to establish a sense of timelessness or a continual present; the use of drones (which are in a sense a continuous repetition) reinforces this effect.”

Arvo Pärt’s wife Nora has said of his music,

The concept of tintinnabuli was born from a deeply rooted desire for an extremely reduced sound world which could not be measured, as it were, in kilometres, or even metres, but only in millimetres. . . . By the end the listening attention is utterly focused. At the point after the music has faded away it is particularly remarkable to hear your breath, your heartbeat, the lighting or the air conditioning system, for example.


Structurally, the work can be divided into what Hillier refers to as “verse” and “tutti” sections. The verse sections include one voice (often a soprano solo) that remains constantly on third-space C, as well as a lower, melodic line. The tutti sections make use of either three, four, or six voice parts. The soprano soloist joins in the tutti sections at times. The progression of sections is:

Section style Voices Textual incipit
Verse SS Magnificat anima mea
Tutti TTB et exultavit
Verse S solo, T quia respexit
Tutti STB ecce enim
Verse S solo, B Quia fecit
Tutti SSA qui potens est
Tutti SATB et sanctum
Tutti SSATTB et misericordia
Verse S solo, B Fecit potentiam
Tutti SSA dispersit superbos
Verse S solo, A drone, T deposuit
Tutti ATB et exaltavit
Verse SS esurientes
Tutti TTB et divites
Tutti S solo, SSATB Suscepit Israel
Tutti SSATTB puerum suum
Verse SS recordatus
Tutti SII drone, TTB sicut locutus
Verse S solo, SII drone, T Abraham et semini
Tutti SATBB Magnificat anima mea
Tutti S solo, SATBB Dominum

Text Setting

Setting text to music can be accomplished in many different ways. Hillier says that Pärt “works outwards from the structure of the text.” In the tutti sections, “the number of syllables determines the notes to be used . . . the stressed syllable is alternately the pitch centre and, in the next word, the note furthest away from it.” In verse sections, Pärt “seems to have allowed himself an unusual degree of freedom . . . the stressed syllables do frequently coincide with a change of melodic direction.”

While the texture is mainly homophonic, a new rhythmic device is introduced when the choir sings “dispersit superbos.” As if taking instruction from the text, the choir does, in fact, divide; while all voices begin the word together, only the melodic voice continues immediately onward. The other voices rest a beat before continuing with the second syllable.

Minimalist Music

Minimalism arose later in the 20th century as a reaction to the complexity, structure, and perception of twelve-tone serialism as it developed at the hands of Schoenberg’s disciples. As you’ll see when you start reading, the aesthetic of minimalism means different things to different composers. It is safe to say that all who compose in this style are striving for greater simplicity in the music. This article will provide an explanation of the musical style known as minimalism as well as a brief history of the techniques involved in minimalist composition. The author(s) sometimes get a little heavy-handed in their use of fancy terms. “Non-teleological” for example—gimme a break. In a musical context, that means that the music is not progressing toward a clear conclusion. In even simpler terms, it means the music can seem to wander around without a clear sense of direction. Nevertheless, there is valuable information here on what is arguably the most significant musical movement of the late 20th century.


Minimal music is an aesthetic, a style, or a technique of music associated with the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. It originated in the New York Downtown scene of the 1960s and was initially viewed as a form of experimental music called the New York Hypnotic School. As an aesthetic, it is marked by a non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational conception of a work in progress and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals. Prominent features of the technique include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting, which leads to what has been termed phase music. Minimal compositions that rely heavily on process techniques that follow strict rules are usually described using the term process music.

The movement originally involved dozens of composers, although only five (Young, Riley, Reich, Glass, and later John Adams) emerged to become publicly associated with American minimal music. In Europe, the music of Louis Andriessen, Karel Goeyvaerts, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Steve Martland, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener exhibits minimalist traits.

It is unclear where the term minimal music originates. Steve Reich has suggested that it is attributable to Michael Nyman, a claim two scholars, Jonathan Bernard and Dan Warburton, have also made in writing. Philip Glass believes Tom Johnson coined the phrase.

Brief History

The word “minimal” was perhaps first used in relation to music in 1968 by Michael Nyman, who “deduced a recipe for the successful ‘minimal-music’ happening from the entertainment presented by Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik at the ICA,” which included a performance of Springen by Henning Christiansen and a number of unidentified performance-art pieces. Nyman later expanded his definition of minimalism in music in his 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Tom Johnson, one of the few composers to self-identify as minimalist, also claims to have been first to use the word as new music critic for The Village Voice. He describes “minimalism”:

The idea of minimalism is much larger than many people realize. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.

Already in 1965 the art historian Barbara Rose had named La Monte Young’s Dream Music, Morton Feldman’s characteristically soft dynamics, and various unnamed composers “all, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted to John Cage” as examples of “minimal art” but did not specifically use the expression “minimal music.”

The most prominent minimalist composers are John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young. Others who have been associated with this compositional approach include Michael Nyman, Howard Skempton, John White, Dave Smith, John Lewis, and Michael Parsons.

The early compositions of Glass and Reich are somewhat austere, with little embellishment on the principal theme. These are works for small instrumental ensembles, of which the composers were often members. In Glass’s case, these ensembles comprise organs, winds—particularly saxophones—and vocalists, while Reich’s works have more emphasis on mallet and percussion instruments. Most of Adams’s works are written for more traditional classical instrumentation, including full orchestra, string quartet, and solo piano.

The music of Reich and Glass drew early sponsorship from art galleries and museums, presented in conjunction with visual-art minimalists like Robert Morris (in Glass’s case) and Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and the filmmaker Michael Snow (as performers, in Reich’s case).


Tips for the Listening Exam

This exam contains such a wide variety of musical styles that it may seem overwhelming. However, that can actually work to your advantage. Because many modernist composers (at least in the West) were determined to sound completely different from anything in the past or any of their contemporaries, there are often very obvious characteristics to listen for. In fact, there are two pieces on this exam that can be identified by a single characteristic. That will make it easy if you ask yourself, “What am I hearing?” We’ll start with some of these “single issue” pieces.

I Hear Electronic Noises (No Traditional Instruments)

This is Poeme Electronique by Edgard Varese. Whatever you may think of this piece, there is no questioning Varese’s postmodernist aim. He is completely leaving melody, and most of the other elements of music, behind in favor of a single-minded focus on color and texture using electronically generated sounds along with electronically altered recordings of sounds.

I Hear Solo Piano (Traditional)

This is the Trio from Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano. If you look at the table below, you’ll see that even though this is technically a suite, I’m calling the genre “Twelve-tone music.” This compositional style was so influential that I wanted to highlight it by listing it as the genre. While this piece will be easy to recognize because it’s the only piece for solo piano, I hope you’ll take the time to really understand the information in your reading assignment on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system as it relates to the music. Whatever one’s opinion of twelve-tone music may be, there’s no denying the ingenuity of the compositional method Schoenberg developed.

I Hear Prepared Piano

This is John Cage’s “Sonata V” from Sonatas and Interludes. While technically there are two works for solo piano on our playlist, this piece involves prepared piano. This means that the sound of the piano has been altered by laying objects across and/or wedging objects between the piano strings to create non-traditional sounds. Depending on the degree of preparation, the piano may not sound like a piano at all. This is certainly the case in this piece, where the modifications to the piano result in an assortment of tinny, percussive effects.

I Hear Sprechstimme (Alternate Title: I Hear Some Really Funky Singing/Talking)

If you hear any singing, it can only be Madonna from Pierrot Lunaire, also by Arnold Schoenberg, an example of atonal music composed prior to his development of the twelve-tone method. Sprechstimme is a kind of half-spoken, half-sung vocal style that maintains the rhythm of notated music but slides around the pitch. While the Sprechstimme is the obvious characteristic, it is worth noting that the singer in this piece is female, and she is accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. That’s it for the most straightforward examples. Now let’s dive into some of the other pieces that will require an understanding of more than one musical element for identification.

I Hear an Orchestra

We’ve got a whole lot of orchestra on this exam. This is where this exam gets a bit challenging. Do keep in mind that some of these pieces are quite long, and you’re only hearing a 1-minute clip on the exam, so I’ll try to describe multiple musical elements to listen for. It is likely that not all the characteristics I list will be in the clip, but at least one of them will be.

I Hear a Cowboy Dance

This is “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. It is by far the most tonal and least dissonant of all the orchestral works on the exam. Copland intended for the western folk elements to be immediately recognizable. If you find yourself thinking that this music sounds like something from the soundtrack of a Hollywood western, that’s because the composers of film scores for Hollywood westerns have been copying Aaron Copland ever since he tried to capture American landscapes and traditions in orchestral music for ballet. I think the American cowboy flavor of this piece will make it relatively easy to identify.

I Hear Impressionist Music

Debussy and Ravel are our two Impressionist composers. Impressionism in music generally has an indistinct quality. It seems to meander gently rather than driving toward a clear melodic or harmonic conclusion. I tend to think of this music as hazy or shimmering. Impressionists also tended to favor the woodwinds over the strings. Classical and Romantic orchestras were dominated by the strings, so Impressionists wanted to take the tone quality of their orchestral works in a different direction. The instruments of the woodwind family—flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.—produce a wider variety of timbres than the strings, so in addition to simply being different tonally from previous eras, the emphasis on winds gave these composers more colors with which to paint their music. Lastly, you’ll also notice that it is difficult to tap your foot along with the beat. Impressionists generally tried to obscure the basic pulse of their music, as that contributed to the overall indistinct and gauzy sensibility mentioned earlier. If you hear Impressionism in a listening example, you’ll need to listen for some characteristics that are specific to either Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or Ravel’s Daphis et Chloé.

  • I hear lengthy solo passages for individual instruments (flute, clarinet). I hear more contrasting sections within the piece. I hear more variations in orchestration. This is Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This piece is a symphonic poem that attempts to depict Mallarmé’s poem of the same name. Let me start with the second characteristic listed above—namely, the contrasting sections. Almost any work of literature or poetry is going to involve some contrasting elements, ideas or scenes that are different from each other, so a musical work that tries to render those elements is going to feature some similarly contrasting material. Those contrasts can be seen in the structure of the work (a more sectionalized form) and in the orchestration (different combinations of instruments at different times). Our listening example from Ravel, on the other hand, is just the first scene of the third act of the ballet. Since it’s just a small portion of a story, there is less need for contrast. While the musical contrasts can be heard throughout Prelude, the solo passages mentioned above are heard in the beginning of the piece. The piece starts with flute all by itself, and then as it gets underway, you hear long flute solos over the orchestral texture. Within a few minutes, those solos are handed off to a clarinet. Speaking of the use of different instruments, that characteristic is not limited to the solo passages. You’ll hear different combinations of instruments throughout the piece as those contrasting sections come and go. In fact, the changes in orchestration from one section to the next are one of the ways Debussy provides that sense of contrast. Once again, depending on where the musical excerpt on the exam comes from, you may or may not hear every single musical characteristic listed above, but you’ll definitely hear at least one.
  • I hear a sweet, shimmering orchestral quality. I hear a chorus singing along with the orchestra (no words). I hear homogeneous orchestration and musical structure. This is “Lever du jour” (daybreak) from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. As an impressionist composer, he, like Debussy, wanted to create a kind of hazy, ethereal sound by emphasizing the woodwinds over the strings. But instead of the lazy, meandering of Prelude, we hear sparkling patterns of high notes meant to represent trickles of dew from the rocks. This “shimmering” quality can be heard through a great deal of our listening example and serves as a difference you can listen for between the two impressionist works. As also noted in the description of the Debussy piece above, our listening example by Ravel represents a small portion of the larger ballet. As a result, you won’t hear contrasting sections to the same degree. The musical structure and the instrumental combinations are more homogeneous throughout this listening example. Lastly, if the excerpt on the listening exam contains a choir singing wordless harmonies along with the orchestra, you are definitely hearing “Lever.” Ravel uses a chorus as a kind of fifth orchestral family (strings, winds, brass, percussion, and choir). The chorus does not sing any text, so you have to listen carefully to pick out the vocal color, but it does provide a very convenient way to tell the two pieces apart.

I Hear Music That Is Loud, Aggressive, and Bold

There are three pieces that involve at least some big, bold passages and a healthy dose of dissonance: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Part 1; Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, 4th mvmt.; and Bartók’s “Interrupted Intermezzo” from Concerto for Orchestra.

  • I hear lengthy passages of ominous, dissonant woodwinds. I hear a repeated, pounding chord in the orchestra. I hear irregular, almost violent rhythms punctuated by brass and percussion. This is The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Stravinsky. Like the two impressionist pieces, this work brings the woodwinds to the forefront of the orchestral color, but I don’t think anyone will mistake this for an ethereal, impressionist piece. Of the three pieces that I’m categorizing as bold and aggressive, Rite of Spring contains passages that are the most dissonant and harsh. Remember, this is an example of primitivism. While there are milder passages of woodwinds, in the more active passages, Stravinsky is trying to depict ancient, imaginary, and pagan Russia, complete with human sacrifice. Perhaps this is why, in 1940 when Disney animators were creating a concert feature called Fantasia, they drew scenes of primordial life and dinosaur predators as a visualization for this work. The piece opens with ominous woodwinds and then graduates to crashing drums and harsh chords in the brass. Notice too that while there is a very clear beat to the piece (again, unlike the impressionists), those groups are not always grouped into a regular triple or duple meter. Stravinsky used irregular rhythms and accents to heighten the sense of primitivism. Just as a reminder, our listening example is the first half of the ballet.
  • I hear a more traditional orchestral sound—almost Romantic. I hear clear, though at times dissonant, melodic ideas in the strings and brass. I hear extensive use of orchestral brass. I hear a slower, quieter contrasting section. This is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, 4th mvmt. Like The Rite of Spring, this piece features bold, aggressive passages. However, I think you’ll easily distinguish it from the other two in this group. That’s because of the three it is the most traditional; no surprise there since Shostakovich is making use of a traditional genre—namely, the symphony. Also, while the composer incorporated dissonance into the piece, he had to keep it restrained to avoid getting in trouble with the Soviet authorities. The middle section of this symphonic movement is slower and more subdued than the opening and closing sections. While that might make it easy to confuse with some other slower, ominous-sounding pieces, I would consider that overly misleading to give you an excerpt that just featured the middle section because the big, bold, brassy triumphant sound is such a big part of what this piece is about. If your excerpt features the middle section, it will also have a portion of the opening or closing fanfare.
  • I hear irregular meter. I hear lots of short, folk-like solos by woodwind instruments. I hear a lush melody—a serenade—in the strings. I hear harsh “interruptions” of a clarinet tune. This is “Interrupted Intermezzo” from Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók. This movement is very sectional so you will likely hear more than one section of the piece. Remember that the solo-like passages for the woodwinds in the A section are why Bartók calls this a concerto for orchestra. The solos are short and played by lots of different instruments. You’ll hear a clarinet, then a flute, then back to the clarinet, then a horn, then an oboe. That should stand out if you hear that section. The interruptions are also pretty striking. They mainly involve percussion instruments such as cymbals, but after the first interruption of the C section, we hear a trombone sliding upward. This piece has a very clear story that should assist in keeping all the different sections tied together in your mind.

I Hear Minimalism

This is John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine. This has a lot of the elements of the other two pieces: the rhythmic emphasis of the Stravinsky and the big, brassy sound of the Shostakovich. Adams also doesn’t shy away from dissonance. At least in the middle section of the piece, he uses dissonance freely. However, the repeated chords in this piece are lighter and more active than in the Stravinsky. Think of it this way: Stravinsky stomps and Adams skips. However, there are a number of key elements that will help you identify this piece. A steady beat is played on a woodblock almost constantly. Listen for that woodblock. It really ties the piece together and helps give the sense of a steam train (that’s the fast machine that comes to my mind) chugging along the track. John Adams got his start as a minimalist, and minimalism uses a lot of repetition and patterns. Listen for chords and rhythmic patterns that are repeated several times, followed by a new chord/pattern that is repeated several times.

I Hear a Choir

There are two pieces for unaccompanied choir on our playlist for the 20th century: György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. While a cappella choral singing can sound similar, in the case of these two pieces, the composer has created very different effects with the same kind of ensemble. I don’t think you’ll have much difficulty distinguishing these two totally awesome pieces. Sorry, my inner choir geek got the better of me there.

  • I hear long passages of dissonant clusters of pitches. I hear no clear melody. I think I heard this in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the trailer for Godzilla. This is Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Ligeti is known for his dissonant choral music. He developed a compositional technique called micropolyphony where each singer in the ensemble sings the same set of pitches but at their own pace. This creates a wall of dissonant tone color without any melodic line. He is primarily concerned with timbre (tone color) rather than melody. Stanley Kubrick used a number of Ligeti pieces in his films, including Lux Aeterna. The eerie choral music in the trailer for the recent Godzilla movie (playing while soldiers HALO drop into New York) is also a Ligeti piece, but not Lux Aeterna.
  • I hear organum-like passages—one voice sings a melody against repeated notes in another voice. I hear minimal dissonance and a medieval quality. I hear repeated melodic and harmonic patterns. This is Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. Much of Pärt’s music is inspired by medieval choral music, including organum. As you’ll recall, organum involved the use of a pre-existing chant tune that was held out in very long notes while a new, active melody was added as a counterpoint to those long sustained pitches. In this piece there are many passages where two voices sing the same text (no long held out notes), but one of them sings on a repeated pitch while the other moves melodically. Because of the influence of medieval music, there is little of the dissonance so common to the music of other 20th century composers, but it tends to be very restrained. Minimalism is another influence on Pärt’s music. His works are often labeled as “holy minimalism,” though he does not use that label himself. This influence manifests itself primarily through short repeated pitch sets in the melody or repeated harmonic progressions.

Titles, Composers, & Genres for Exam 5

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Claude Debussy Symphonic Poem
Daphnis et Chloë, Part 3 “Lever du jour” Maurice Ravel Ballet
Rite of Spring, Part 1 Igor Stravinsky Ballet
Pierrot Lunaire, Madonna Arnold Schoenberg Art Song/Lied
Suite for Piano, Trio Arnold Schoenberg Twelve-Tone Music
Symphony No. 5, IV Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony
Concerto for Orchestra, Interrupted Intermezzo Béla Bartók Concerto
Rodeo, Hoedown Aaron Copland Ballet
Lux Aeterna György Ligeti Micropolyphony
Sonatas and Interludes, Sonata V John Cage Prepared Piano
Poeme Electronique Edgard Varese Electronic Music
Short Ride in a Fast Machine John Adams Minimalism
Magnificat Arvo Pärt Holy Minimalism

Introduction to Aleatoric, Electronic, and Minimalist-Music

In this section, we will look into some of the more significant musical trends of the second half of the 20th century. Aleatoric music incorporates random chance or performer choice into the composition. No performance of an aleatoric piece will be the same due to that indeterminate element. Electronic music is something we take for granted in the pop world today, but there were some interesting experiments in the art music arena with early electronic recording and sound generation technologies. Minimalism is the most recent musical approach to gain prominence. It generally involves a return to a simpler, tonal style and an emphasis on repeated patterns.

This section includes the following pages:

  • György Ligeti
  • Micropolyphony
  • Lux Aeterna
  • John Cage
  • Prepared Piano
  • Aleatoric Music
  • Sonatas and Interludes
  • Electronic Music
  • Musique Concrète
  • Edgard Varese
  • Poeme Electronique
  • Minimalist Music
  • John Adams
  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  • Holy Minimalism
  • Avro Pärt
  • Magnificat

György Ligeti

Ligeti was a very influential innovator in the second half of the 20th century. He experimented with a number of different styles (including some of his own creation), including electronic music, micropolyphony, and polyrhythm.


György Ligeti (1984)
Figure 1. György Ligeti (1984).

György Sándor Ligeti (28 May 1923–12 June 2006) was a composer of contemporary classical music. He has been described as “one of the most important avant-garde composers in the latter half of the twentieth century” and “one of the most innovative and influential among progressive figures of his time.”

Born in Transylvania, Romania, he lived in Hungary before emigrating and becoming an Austrian citizen.


Early Life

Ligeti was born in Dicsőszentmárton, which was renamed Târnăveni in 1945, in Transylvania to a Hungarian Jewish family. Ligeti recalls that his first exposure to languages other than Hungarian came one day while listening to a conversation among the Romanian-speaking town police. Before that, he hadn’t known that other languages existed. He moved to Cluj (Kolozsvár) with his family when aged six, and he was not to return to the town of his birth until the 1990s.

Ligeti received his initial musical training at the conservatory in Cluj and during the summers privately with Pál Kadosa in Budapest.

In 1940, Northern Transylvania was occupied by Hungary following the Second Vienna Award. In 1944, Ligeti’s education was interrupted when he was sent to a forced labor brigade by the Horthy regime. His brother, age 16, was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp, and both of his parents were sent to Auschwitz. His mother was the only other survivor of his immediate family.

Following the war, Ligeti returned to his studies in Budapest, Hungary, graduating in 1949 from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. He studied under Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltán Kodály, and Sándor Veress. He went on to do ethnomusicological research into the Hungarian folk music of Transylvania but after a year returned to his old school in Budapest, this time as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint, and musical analysis, a position he secured with the help of Kodály. As a young teacher, Ligeti took the unusual step of regularly attending the lectures of an older colleague, the conductor and musicologist Lajos Bárdos, a conservative Christian whose circle represented for Ligeti a safe haven and whose help and advice he later acknowledged in the prefaces to his own two harmony textbooks (1954 and 1956). However, communications between Hungary and the West by then had become difficult due to the restrictions of the communist government, and Ligeti and other artists were effectively cut off from recent developments outside the Soviet bloc.

After Leaving Hungary

In December 1956, two months after the Hungarian revolution was violently suppressed by the Soviet Army, Ligeti fled to Vienna with his ex-wife Vera (whom he was soon to remarry) and eventually took Austrian citizenship in 1968. He would not see Hungary again until he was invited to judge a competition in Budapest 14 years later. On his journey to Vienna, he left most of his Hungarian compositions in Budapest, some of which are now lost; he only took with him what he considered to be his most important pieces. He later explained, “I considered my old music of no interest. I believed in twelve-tone music!”

A few weeks after arriving in Vienna, he left for Cologne. There he met several key avant-garde figures and learned more contemporary musical styles and methods. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. During the summer, he attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt. Ligeti worked in the Cologne Electronic Music Studio with Stockhausen and Koenig and was inspired by the sounds he heard there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works that often contain electronic-sounding textures.

After about three years working with them, he finally fell out with the Cologne School, this being too dogmatic and involving much factional infighting: “There were [sic] a lot of political fighting because different people, like Stockhausen, like Kagel wanted to be first. And I, personally, have no ambition to be first or to be important.”

From about 1960, Ligeti’s work became better-known and respected. His best-known works include those in the period from Apparitions (1958–59) to Lontano (1967) and his opera Le Grand Macabre (1978). In recent years his three books of Études for piano (1985–2001) have become better-known through recordings by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Fredrik Ullén, and others.

In 1973, Ligeti became professor of composition at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater, eventually retiring in 1989. In the early 1980s, he tried to find a new stylistic position (closer to “tonality”), leading to an absence from the musical scene for several years until he reappeared with the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982). His output was prolific through the 1980s and 1990s. Invited by Walter Fink, he was the first composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 1990.


Ligeti's grave in Zentralfriedhof, Vienna
Figure 2. Ligeti’s grave in Zentralfriedhof, Vienna.

However, his health problems became severe after the turn of the millennium. On 12 June 2006, Ligeti died in Vienna at the age of 83. Although it was known that Ligeti had been ill for several years and had used a wheelchair for the last three years of his life, his family declined to release the cause of his death. Ligeti’s funeral was held at the Vienna Crematorium at the Zentralfriedhof, the Republic of Austria and the Republic of Hungary represented by their respective cultural affairs ministers. The ashes were finally buried at the Zentralfriedhof in a grave dedicated to him by the City of Vienna.

Apart from his far-reaching interest in different types of music from Renaissance to African music, Ligeti was also interested in literature (including the writers Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka), painting, architecture, science, and mathematics, especially the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot and the writings of Douglas Hofstadter.

Ligeti was the grand-nephew of the violinist Leopold Auer and cousin of Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller. Ligeti’s son Lukas Ligeti is a composer and percussionist based in New York City.


Years in Hungary

Many of his very earliest works were written for chorus and included settings of folk songs. His largest work in this period was a graduation composition for the Budapest Academy, entitled Cantata for Youth Festival, for four vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. One of his earliest pieces now in the repertoire is his Cello Sonata, a work in two contrasting movements that were written in 1948 and 1953, respectively. It was initially banned by the Soviet-run Composer’s Union and had to wait a quarter of a century before its first public performance.

Ligeti’s earliest works are often an extension of the musical language of Béla Bartók. Even his piano cycle Musica ricercata (1953), though written according to Ligeti with a “Cartesian” approach in which he “regarded all the music I knew and loved as being . . . irrelevant,” has been described by one biographer as inhabiting a world very close to Bartók’s set of piano works, Mikrokosmos. Ligeti’s set comprises 11 pieces in all. The work is based on a simple restriction: the first piece uses exclusively one pitch A, heard in multiple octaves, and only at the very end of the piece is a second note, D, heard. The second piece then uses three notes (E, F, and G), the third piece uses four, and so on, so that in the final piece, all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are present. Shortly after its composition, Ligeti arranged six of the movements of Musica ricercata for wind quintet under the title “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet.” The Bagatelles were performed first in 1956, but not in their entirety: the last movement was censored by the Soviets for being too “dangerous.”

Because of Soviet censorship, his most daring works from this period, including Musica ricercata and String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953–1954), were written for the “bottom drawer.” Composed of a single movement divided into seventeen contrasting sections linked motivically, the First String Quartet is Ligeti’s first work to suggest a personal style of composition. The string quartet was not performed until 1958, after he had fled Hungary for Vienna.

From 1956 to Le Grand Macabre

Upon arriving in Cologne, he began to write electronic music alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig at the electronic studio of West German Radio (WDR). He completed only two works in this medium, however—the pieces Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958)—before returning to instrumental music. A third work, originally entitled Atmosphères but later known as Pièce électronique Nr. 3, was planned, but the technical limitations of the time prevented Ligeti from realizing it completely. It was finally realized in 1996 by the Dutch composers Kees Tazelaar and Johan van Kreij of the Institute of Sonology.

Aventures, like its companion piece Nouvelles Aventures, is a composition for three singers and instrumental septet to a text semantically without meaning of Ligeti’s own devising. Each of the singers has five roles to play, exploring five areas of emotion, and they switch from one to the other so quickly and abruptly that all five areas are present throughout the piece.

Ligeti’s music appears to have been subsequently influenced by his electronic experiments, and many of the sounds he created resembled electronic textures. The texture used in the second movement of Apparitions and Atmosphères Ligeti would later dub “micropolyphony.”

The Requiem is a work for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, 20-part chorus (4 each of soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), and orchestra. Though, at about half an hour, it is the longest piece he had composed up to that point, Ligeti sets only about half of the Requiem’s traditional text: the Introitus, the Kyrie (a completely chromatic quasi-fugue, where the parts are a montage of melismatic and skipping micropolyphony), and the Dies irae—dividing the latter sequence into two parts, De die iudicii (Day of Judgement) and Lacrimosa (Weeping).

Lux Aeterna is a 16-voice a cappella piece whose text is also associated with the Latin Requiem.

String Quartet No. 2 consists of five movements. They differ widely from each other in their types of motion. In the first, the structure is largely broken up, as in Aventures. In the second, everything is reduced to very slow motion, and the music seems to be coming from a distance, with great lyricism. The pizzicato third movement is another of Ligeti’s machine-like studies, hard and mechanical, whereby the parts playing repeated notes create a “granulated” continuum. In the fourth, which is fast and threatening, everything that happened before is crammed together. Lastly, in strong contrast, the fifth movement spreads itself out. In each movement, the same basic configurations return, but each time their coloring or viewpoint is different so that the overall form only really emerges when one listens to all five movements in context.

Ramifications, completed a year before the Chamber Concerto, is scored for an ensemble of strings in 12 parts—7 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass—each of which may be taken by one player or several. The 12 are divided into two numerically equal groups but with the instruments in the first group tuned approximately a quarter-tone higher (4 violins, a viola, and a cello). As the group plays, the one tuned higher inevitably tends to slide down toward the other, and both get nearer to each other in pitch.

In the Chamber Concerto, several layers, processes, and kinds of movement can take place on different planes simultaneously. In spite of frequent markings of “senza tempo,” the instrumentalists are not given linear freedom; Ligeti insists on keeping his texture under strict control at any given moment. The form is like a “precision mechanism.” Ligeti was always fascinated by machines that do not work properly and by the world of technology and automation. The use of periodic mechanical noises, suggesting not-quite-reliable machinery, occurs in many of his works. The scoring is for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling oboe d’amore and English horn), clarinet, bass clarinet (doubling second clarinet), horn, trombone, harpsichord (doubling Hammond organ), piano (doubling celesta), and solo string quartet.

From the 1970s, Ligeti turned away from total chromaticism and began to concentrate on rhythm. Pieces such as Continuum (1968) and Clocks and Clouds (1972–73) were written before he heard the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley in 1972. But the second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, entitled “Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background),” commemorates this affirmation and influence. During the 1970s, he also became interested in the polyphonic pipe music of the Banda-Linda tribe from the Central African Republic, which he heard through the recordings of one of his students.

In 1977, Ligeti completed his only opera, Le Grand Macabre, 13 years after its initial commission. Loosely based on Michel de Ghelderode’s 1934 play La balade du grand macabre, it is a work of Absurd theater—Ligeti called it an “anti-anti-opera”—in which Death (Nekrotzar) arrives in the fictional city of Breughelland and announces that the end of the world will occur at midnight. Musically, Le Grand Macabre draws on techniques not associated with Ligeti’s previous work, including quotations and pseudo-quotations of other works and the use of consonant thirds and sixths. After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti would abandon the use of pastiche but would increasingly incorporate consonant harmonies (even major and minor triads) into his work, albeit not in a diatonic context.

After Le Grand Macabre

From left to right: György Ligeti, Lukas Ligeti, Vera Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow, and Michael Daugherty at the ISCM World Music Days in Graz, Austria, 1982
Figure 3. From left to right: György Ligeti, Lukas Ligeti, Vera Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow, and Michael Daugherty at the ISCM World Music Days in Graz, Austria, 1982.

After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti struggled for some time to find a new style. Besides two short pieces for harpsichord, he did not complete another major work until the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in 1982, over four years after the opera. His music of the 1980s and 1990s continued to emphasize complex mechanical rhythms, often in a less densely chromatic idiom, tending to favor displaced major and minor triads and polymodal structures. During this time, Ligeti also began to explore alternate tuning systems through the use of natural harmonics for horns (as in the Horn Trio and Piano Concerto) and scordatura for strings (as in the Violin Concerto). Additionally, most of his works in this period are multi-movement works rather than the extended single movements of Atmosphères and San Francisco Polyphony.

From 1985 to 2001, Ligeti completed three books of Études for piano (Book I, 1985; Book II, 1988–94; Book III, 1995–2001). Comprising 18 compositions in all, the Études draw from a diverse range of sources, including gamelan, African polyrhythms, Béla Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans. Book I was notably written as preparation for the Piano Concerto, which contains a number of similar motivic and melodic elements.

In 1988, Ligeti completed his Piano Concerto, a work that he described as a statement of his “aesthetic credo.” Initial sketches of the Concerto began in 1980, but it was not until 1986 that he found a way forward and the work proceeded more quickly. The Concerto explores many of the ideas worked out in the Études but in an orchestral context.

In 1993, Ligeti completed his Violin Concerto after four years of work. Like the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto uses the wide range of techniques he had developed up until that point as well as the new ideas he was working out at the moment. Among other techniques, it uses “microtonality, rapidly changing textures, comic juxtapositions. . . . Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to Medieval and Renaissance music and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery.”

Other notable works from this period are the Viola Sonata (1994) and the Nonsense Madrigals (1988–93), a set of six a cappella compositions that set English texts from William Brighty Rands, Lewis Carroll, and Heinrich Hoffman. The third Madrigal is based on the alphabet.

Ligeti’s last works were the Hamburg Concerto for solo horn, four natural horns, and chamber orchestra (1998–99, revised 2003, dedicated to Marie Luise Neunecker); the song cycle Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (“With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles,” 2000); and the eighteenth piano étude “Canon” (2001). After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti planned to write a second opera, first to be based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and later on Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but neither piece ever came to fruition.


Ligeti’s music from the last two decades of his life is unmistakable for its rhythmic complexity. Writing about his first book of Piano Etudes, the composer claims this rhythmic complexity stems from two vastly different sources of inspiration: the Romantic-era piano music of Chopin and Schumann and the indigenous music of sub-Saharan Africa.

The difference between the earlier and later pieces lies in a new conception of pulse. In the earlier works, the pulse is something to be divided into two, three, and so on. The effect of these different subdivisions, especially when they occur simultaneously, is to blur the aural landscape, creating the micropolyphonic effect of Ligeti’s music.

On the other hand, the later music—and a few earlier pieces such as Continuum—conceives of the pulse as a musical atom, a common denominator, a basic unit which cannot be divided any further. Different rhythms appear through multiplications of the basic pulse rather than divisions: this is the principle of African music seized on by Ligeti. It also appears in the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and others; and significantly, it shares much in common with the additive rhythms of Balkan folk music, the music of Ligeti’s youth.


Our listening example by Ligeti features a compositional technique he developed called micropolyphony. You’ll find a number of musical terms referenced in this article. Two that I particularly want you to understand are canon and cluster chord. Canon is a strict form of imitative polyphony (linear or horizontal), while a cluster chord is a harmonic structure (vertical).

Once again, we’re seeing the importance of texture in the compositional process. What’s interesting here is that Ligeti is using a polyphonic texture (lots of little imitated lines) to create a sound that is very similar to a tightly clustered chord or stack of pitches. You might ask, why not simply write a cluster chord? You’ll hear some cluster chords or tone clusters later in the music of Arvo Pärt. I believe Ligeti would say that the constant movement of the lines in his micropolyphony creates a dynamic quality where a cluster chord seems more static. I encourage you to compare the dissonant structures of the two composers to see if you agree that there is a difference.

Micropolyphony is a kind of polyphonic musical texture developed by György Ligeti and then imitated by some other 20th-century composers, which consists of many lines of dense canons moving at different tempos or rhythms, thus resulting in tone clusters vertically. According to David Cope, “micropolyphony resembles cluster chords, but differs in its use of moving rather than static lines”; it is “a simultaneity of different lines, rhythms, and timbres.”

Differences between micropolyphonic texture and conventional polyphonic texture can be explained by Ligeti’s own description:

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!).

The earliest example of micropolyphony in Ligeti’s work occurs in the second movement (mm 25–37) of his orchestral composition Apparitions (Steinitz 2003, 103). His next work, Atmosphères for orchestra; the first movement of his later Requiem, for soprano, mezzo-soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra; the unaccompanied choral work Lux aeterna; and Lontano for orchestra also use the technique. Micropolyphony is easier with larger ensembles or polyphonic instruments such as the piano, though the Poème symphonique for a hundred metronomes creates “micropolyphony of unparallelled complexity.” Many of Ligeti’s piano pieces are examples of micropolyphony applied to complex “minimalist” Steve Reich and Pygmy music–derived rhythmic schemes.

Lux Aeterna

This article on the San Francisco Symphony website can be a bit heavy—the writer assumes advanced knowledge of music on the part of his readers—but I think it’s a great introduction to Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for two reasons. First, it connects Ligeti’s micropolyphony to his tragic childhood experiences during the Holocaust. It is important to remember that at the time the piece was composed, the twelve-tone system was the dominant system of “classical” composition in Western Europe and the United States. The atonal avant-garde had taken over the musical institution—speaking of art music, of course, not pop music. The fact that Ligeti was forging his own path with micropolyphony was an act of artistic independence, and I think this writer does a good job of pointing that out. Second, although the writing is heavy on terminology, I really like his description of how the performers (16 singers) arrive at Ligeti’s signature “sonic fog,” or what other writers refer to as a “wall of sound,” and how that technique (as modern as it sounds) hearkens back to the Renaissance.

John Cage

John Cage’s influence is based as much on his ideas about music as it is on his music itself. He was a music philosopher as well as a composer, challenging readers and listeners alike with questions about the nature of sound versus that of music and whether there is any difference. This page provides a concise overview of his impact on the world of music and aesthetics and touches upon the two concepts I want you to understand in connection with Cage: prepared piano and aleatoric music. We’ll read about these two concepts next.


John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage’s romantic partner for most of their lives.

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not “four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,” as is sometimes assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance. The work’s challenge to assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience made it a popular and controversial topic in both musicology and the broader aesthetics of art and performance. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or on its strings or hammers), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces. The best known of these is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).

His teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage’s major influences lay in various East and South Asian cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” that is “an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”

Prepared Piano

The concept of a prepared piano is a fairly simple one, but the range of tonal possibilities a prepared piano can produce is nearly infinite.


A prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects (called preparations) on or between the strings.

John Cage

The invention of the “prepared piano,” per se, is usually traced to John Cage. Cage first prepared a piano when he was commissioned to write music for “Bacchanale,” a dance by Syvilla Fort in 1938. For some time previously, Cage had been writing exclusively for a percussion ensemble, but the hall where Fort’s dance was to be staged had no room for a percussion group. The only instrument available was a single grand piano. After some consideration, Cage said that he realized it was possible “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra. . . . With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.”

Aleatoric Music

Aleatoric music involves the use of chance in either the composition or performance of the piece. John Cage became a strong proponent of aleatoric techniques, even going so far as to use them in lectures as well as musical compositions. To be clear, the Sonatas and Interludes are not aleatoric works, so the John Cage piece on our playlist does not incorporate aleatoric elements. However, John Cage is so associated with chance music that it would seem odd not to study this important 20th-century technique in connection with Cage.


Aleatoric music (also aleatory music or chance music; from the Latin word alea, meaning “dice”) is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s). The term is most often associated with procedures in which the chance element involves a relatively limited number of possibilities.

Types of Indeterminate Music

Some writers do not make a distinction between aleatory, chance, and indeterminacy in music and use the terms interchangeably. From this point of view, indeterminate or chance music can be divided into three groups: (1) the use of random procedures to produce a determinate, fixed score; (2) mobile form; and (3) indeterminate notation, including graphic notation and texts.

The first group includes scores in which the chance element is involved only in the process of composition so that every parameter is fixed before their performance. In John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951), for example, the composer selected duration, tempo, and dynamics by using the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book which prescribes methods for arriving at random numbers. Because this work is absolutely fixed from performance to performance, Cage regarded it as an entirely determinate work made using chance procedures. On the level of detail, Iannis Xenakis used probability theories to define some microscopic aspects of Pithoprakta (1955–56), which is Greek for “actions by means of probability.” This work contains four sections, characterized by textural and timbral attributes, such as glissandi and pizzicati. At the macroscopic level, the sections are designed and controlled by the composer, while the single components of sound are controlled by mathematical theories.

Sonatas and Interludes


A piano prepared for a performance of Sonatas and Interludes
Figure 1. A piano prepared for a performance of Sonatas and Interludes.

Sonatas and Interludes is a collection of twenty pieces for prepared piano by American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1946–1948, shortly after Cage’s introduction to Indian philosophy and the teachings of art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, both of which became major influences on the composer’s later work. Significantly more complex than his other works for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes is generally recognized as one of Cage’s finest achievements.

The cycle consists of 16 sonatas (13 of which are cast in binary form, the remaining three in ternary form) and 4 more freely structured interludes. The aim of the pieces is to express the eight permanent emotions of the rasa Indian tradition. In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage elevated his technique of rhythmic proportions to a new level of complexity. In each sonata a short sequence of natural numbers and fractions defines the structure of the work and that of its parts, informing structures as localized as individual melodic lines.

History of Composition

Cage underwent an artistic crisis in the early 1940s. His compositions were rarely accepted by the public, and he grew more and more disillusioned with the idea of art as communication. He later gave an account of the reasons: “Frequently I misunderstood what another composer was saying simply because I had little understanding of his language. And I found other people misunderstanding what I myself was saying when I was saying something pointed and direct.” At the beginning of 1946, Cage met Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician who came to the United States concerned about Western influence on the music of her country. Sarabhai wanted to spend several months in the US, studying Western music. She took lessons in counterpoint and contemporary music with Cage, who offered to teach her for free if she taught him about Indian music in return. Sarabhai agreed, and through her, Cage became acquainted with Indian music and philosophy. The purpose of music, according to Sarabhai’s teacher in India, was “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences,” and this definition became one of the cornerstones of Cage’s view on music and art in general.

At around the same time, Cage began studying the writings of the Indian art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Among the ideas that influenced Cage was the description of the rasa aesthetic and of its eight “permanent emotions.” These emotions are divided into two groups: four white (humor, wonder, erotic, and heroic—“accepting one’s experience,” in Cage’s words) and four black (anger, fear, disgust, and sorrow). They are the first eight of the navarasas or navrasas (“nine emotions”), and they have a common tendency toward the ninth of the navarasas: tranquility. Cage never specified which of the pieces relate to which emotions or whether there even exists such direct correspondence between them. He mentioned, though, that the “pieces with bell-like sounds suggest Europe and others with a drum-like resonance suggest the East.”

Listen: Sonatas

Sonata II

Please listen to a short excerpt from Sonata II, which is clearly inspired by Eastern music.

Sonata XVI

Please listen to a short excerpt from Sonata XVI, the last of the cycle, which is “clearly” European. It was the signature of a composer from the West.

John Cage with the pianist Maro Ajemian, to whom he dedicated Sonatas and Interludes
Figure 2. John Cage with the pianist Maro Ajemian, to whom he dedicated Sonatas and Interludes.

Cage started working on the cycle in February 1946, while living in New York City. The idea of a collection of short pieces was apparently prompted by the poet Edwin Denby, who had remarked that short pieces “can have in them just as much as long pieces can.” The choice of materials and the technique of piano preparation in Sonatas and Interludes were largely dependent on improvisation: Cage later wrote that the cycle was composed “by playing the piano, listening to differences [and] making a choice.” On several accounts he offered a poetic metaphor for this process, comparing it with collecting shells while walking along a beach. Work on the project was interrupted in early 1947, when Cage made a break to compose The Seasons, a ballet in one act also inspired by ideas from Indian philosophy. Immediately after The Seasons, Cage returned to Sonatas and Interludes, and by March 1948 it was completed.

Cage dedicated Sonatas and Interludes to Maro Ajemian, a pianist and friend. Ajemian performed the work many times since 1949, including one of the first performances of the complete cycle on January 12, 1949, in Carnegie Hall. On many other occasions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage performed it himself. Critical reaction was uneven, but mostly positive, and the success of Sonatas and Interludes led to a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, which Cage received in 1949, allowing him to make a six-month trip to Europe. There he met Olivier Messiaen, who helped organize a performance of the work for his students in Paris on June 7, 1949; and he befriended Pierre Boulez, who became an early admirer of the work and wrote a lecture about it for the June 17, 1949 performance at the salon of Suzanne Tézenas in Paris. While still living in Paris, Cage began writing String Quartet in Four Parts, yet another work influenced by Indian philosophy.

Electronic Music

We take electronic music for granted today, but we have to remember that the ability to produce tone using purely electronic means (as opposed to an acoustic instrument) and the ability to record music electronically using magnetized film or tape developed during this time period. For many composers, this opened up a new world of sounds and compositional techniques. In the 1950s, electronic music was divided into two main camps, and as we’ve seen earlier in the century, those camps tended to divide along French/German lines. French composers began creating works using tape recordings that included acoustically produced tones and sounds (called musique concrète), while German composers created works using tape recordings of electronically produced tones and sounds (called elektronische musik).

The piece of music on our playlist, Poeme Electronique, is an example of musique concrète. Technological developments later in the century progressed in such a way that electronic music became much more the domain of popular song, but it is worthwhile to remember the musical experiments of the middle of the century, when electronic tone generation and recording seemed like a brave new frontier.


Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments and electronic music technology in its production, an electronic musician being a musician who composes and/or performs such music. In general, a distinction can be made between sound produced using electromechanical means and that produced using electronic technology. Examples of electromechanical sound-producing devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ, and the electric guitar. Purely electronic sound production can be achieved using devices such as the theremin, sound synthesizer, and computer.

The first electronic devices for performing music were developed at the end of the 19th century, and shortly afterward, Italian Futurists explored sounds that had previously not been considered musical. During the 1920s and 1930s, electronic instruments were introduced and the first compositions for electronic instruments were composed. By the 1940s, magnetic audio tape allowed musicians to tape sounds and then modify them by changing the tape speed or direction, leading to the development of electroacoustic tape music in the 1940s in Egypt and France. Musique concrète, created in Paris in 1948, was based on editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. Music produced solely from electronic generators was first produced in Germany in 1953. Electronic music was also created in Japan and the United States beginning in the 1950s. An important new development was the advent of computers for the purpose of composing music. Algorithmic composition was first demonstrated in Australia in 1951.

In America and Europe, live electronics were pioneered in the early 1960s. During the 1970s to early 1980s, the monophonic Mini-Moog became the most widely used synthesizer in both popular and electronic art music.

In the 1970s, electronic music began having a significant influence on popular music, with the adoption of polyphonic synthesizers such as the Yamaha GX-1 and Prophet-5, electronic drums, and drum machines such as the Roland CR-78, through the emergence of genres such as krautrock, disco, new wave, and synthpop. In the 1980s, electronic music became more dominant in popular music, with a greater reliance on synthesizers and the adoption of programmable drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 and the Linn LM-1 and bass synthesizers such as the Roland TB-303. In the early 1980s, a group of musicians and music merchants developed the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), and Yamaha released the first FM digital synthesizer, the DX7.

Electronically produced music became prevalent in the popular domain by the 1990s, because of the advent of affordable music technology. Contemporary electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music.

Musique Concrète

It wasn’t long before composers in Paris also began using the tape recorder to develop a new technique for composition called musique concrète. This technique involved editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. The first pieces of musique concrète in Paris were assembled by Pierre Schaeffer, who went on to collaborate with Pierre Henry.

On 5 October 1948, Radiodiffusion Française (RDF) broadcast composer Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux chemins de fer. This was the first “movement” of Cinq études de bruits and marked the beginning of studio realizations and musique concrète (or acousmatic art). Schaeffer employed a disk-cutting lathe, four turntables, a four-channel mixer, filters, an echo chamber, and a mobile recording unit. Not long after this, Henry began collaborating with Schaeffer, a partnership that would have profound and lasting effects on the direction of electronic music. Another associate of Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse, began work on Déserts, a work for chamber orchestra and tape. The tape parts were created at Pierre Schaeffer’s studio and were later revised at Columbia University.

In 1950, Schaeffer gave the first public (non-broadcast) concert of musique concrète at the École Normale de Musique de Paris: “Schaeffer used a PA system, several turntables, and mixers. The performance did not go well, as creating live montages with turntables had never been done before.” Later that same year, Pierre Henry collaborated with Schaeffer on Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950), the first major work of musique concrète. In Paris in 1951, in what was to become an important worldwide trend, RTF established the first studio for the production of electronic music. Also in 1951, Schaeffer and Henry produced an opera, Orpheus, for concrète sounds and voices.

Elektronische Musik

Karlheinz Stockhausen in the Electronic Music Studio of WDR, Cologne, in 1991
Figure 1. Karlheinz Stockhausen in the Electronic Music Studio of WDR, Cologne, in 1991.

Karlheinz Stockhausen worked briefly in Schaeffer’s studio in 1952 and afterward for many years at the WDR Cologne’s Studio for Electronic Music.

In Cologne, what would become the most famous electronic music studio in the world was officially opened at the radio studios of the NWDR in 1953, though it had been in the planning stages as early as 1950 and early compositions were made and broadcast in 1951. The brainchild of Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer, and Herbert Eimert (who became its first director), the studio was soon joined by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig. In his 1949 thesis Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache, Meyer-Eppler conceived the idea to synthesize music entirely from electronically produced signals; in this way, elektronische Musik was sharply differentiated from French musique concrète, which used sounds recorded from acoustical sources.

“With Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel in residence, it became a year-round hive of charismatic avante-gardism [sic],” on two occasions combining electronically generated sounds with relatively conventional orchestras—in Mixtur (1964) and Hymnen, dritte Region mit Orchester (1967). Stockhausen stated that his listeners had told him his electronic music gave them an experience of “outer space,” sensations of flying, or being in a “fantastic dream world.” More recently, Stockhausen turned to producing electronic music in his own studio in Kürten, his last work in the medium being Cosmic Pulses (2007).
Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:52:08 +0000

Musique Concrète

This page has a little more information on the style of music exemplified by our listening example, Poeme Electronique.


Musique concrète (meaning “concrete music”) is a genre of electroacoustic music that is made in part from acousmatic sound. It can feature sounds derived from recordings of musical instruments, voice, and the natural environment, as well as those created using synthesizers and computer-based digital signal processing. Also, compositions in this idiom are not restricted to the normal musical rules of melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, and so on. Originally contrasted with “pure” elektronische Musik (based solely on the production and manipulation of electronically produced sounds rather than recorded sounds), the theoretical basis of musique concrète as a compositional practice was developed by Pierre Schaeffer, beginning in the early 1940s.

Musique Concrète

By 1949, Schaeffer’s compositional work was known publicly as musique concrète. Schaeffer stated: “When I proposed the term ‘musique concrète,’ I intended . . . to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfege and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing.” According to Pierre Henry, “Musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see. . . . One might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in ‘plastifying’ music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture. . . . Musique concrète, in my opinion . . . led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing.” Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centered upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasized the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound-based composition. Schaeffer’s use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: “to enjoy oneself by interacting with one’s surroundings” as well as “to operate a musical instrument.”

Edgard Varèse

Varèse produced a relatively small amount of music but he was influential as an early innovator in electronic music.


Edgard Varèse
Figure 1. Edgard Varèse.

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883–November 6, 1965) was a French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States.

Varèse’s music emphasizes timbre and rhythm, and he coined the term “organized sound” in reference to his own musical aesthetic. Varèse’s conception of music reflected his vision of “sound as living matter” and of “musical space as open rather than bounded.” He conceived the elements of his music in terms of “sound-masses,” likening their organization to the natural phenomenon of crystallization. Varèse thought that “to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise,” and he posed the question, “What is music but organized noises?”

Although his complete surviving works only last about three hours, he has been recognized as an influence by several major composers of the late 20th century. Varèse saw potential in using electronic mediums for sound production, and his use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music,” while Henry Miller described him as “the stratospheric Colossus of Sound.”

Poème électronique

Here is a brief article on our playlist example of electronic music.


Poème électronique (English Translation: “Electronic Poem”) is an 8-minute piece of electronic music by composer Edgard Varèse written for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The Philips corporation commissioned Le Corbusier to design the pavilion, which was intended as a showcase of their engineering progress. Le Corbusier came up with the title Poème électronique, saying he wanted to create a “poem in a bottle.” Varèse composed the piece with the intention of creating a liberation between sounds and as a result uses noises not usually considered “musical” throughout the piece.

Sequence of Events

The images in Le Corbusier’s film are all black-and-white still photographs and willfully abstract. The first image is a bull’s head in a spotlight. The final image is a woman holding an infant. Le Corbusier assigned thematic sections to the film:

0 – 60″ Genesis
61 – 120″ Spirit and Matter
121 – 204″ From Darkness to Dawn
205 – 240″ Man-Made Gods
241 – 300″ How Time Moulds Civilization
301 – 360″ Harmony
361 – 480″ To All Mankind

The sequence of sounds in Varèse’s composition:

0″ 1. a. Low bell tolls. “Wood blocks.” Sirens. Fast taps lead to high, piercing sounds. 2-second pause.
43″ b. “Bongo” tones and higher grating noises. Sirens. Short “squawks.” Three-tone group stated three times.
1’11” c. Low sustained tones with grating noises. Sirens. Short “squawks.” Three-tone group. 2-second pause.
1’40” d. Short “squawks.” High “chirps.” Variety of “shots,” “honks,” “machine noises.” Sirens. Taps lead to
2’36” 2. a. Low bell tolls. Sustained electronic tones. Repeated “bongo” tones. High and sustained electronic tones. Low tone, crescendo. Rhythmic noises lead to
3’41” b. Voice, “Oh-gah.” 4-second pause. Voice continues softly.
4’17” c. Suddenly loud. Rhythmic percussive sounds joined by voice. Low “animal noises,” scraping, shuffling, hollow vocal sounds. Decrescendo into 7-second pause.
5’47” d. Sustained electronic tones, crescendo and decrescendo. Rhythmic percussive sounds. Higher sustained electronic tones, crescendo. “Airplane rumble,” “chimes,” jangling.
6’47” e. Female voice. Male chorus. Electronic noises, organ. High taps. Swooping organ sound. Three-note group stated twice. Rumble, sirens, crescendo (8 minutes and 5 seconds).


John Adams

John Adams is one of the best-known composers who works in a minimal style, though as you’ll read in the linked article, he is less rigid in his application of minimalism than some earlier composers such as Phillip Glass or Steve Reich. As you read the section entitled “Musical Style,” pay special attention to his feelings about twelve-tone composition and the influence of John Cage.


John Adams
Figure 1. John Adams.

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer with strong roots in minimalism.

His works include Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986); On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003); and Shaker Loops (1978), a minimalist four-movement work for strings. His operas include Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb.

The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera for which he wrote the music, based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985 and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The opera has drawn controversy, including allegations by some (including Klinghoffer’s two daughters) that the opera is antisemitic and glorifies terrorism. The work’s creators and others have disputed these criticisms.

Musical Style

The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist, although in interviews, he has categorized himself as a “post-style” composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born ten years after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. Comparing Shaker Loops to minimalist composer Terry Riley’s piece In C, Adams says,

Rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.

Many of Adams’s ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of “the composer as scientist.” The Darmstadt school of twelve-tone composition was dominant during the time that Adams was receiving his college education, and he compared class to a “mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows in Webern.”

Adams experienced a musical epiphany after reading John Cage’s book Silence (1973), which he claimed “dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb.” Cage posed fundamental questions about what music was and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism. At this point, Adams began to experiment with electronic music, and his experiences are reflected in the writing of Phrygian Gates (1977–78), in which the constant shifting between modules in Lydian mode and Phrygian mode refers to activating electronic gates rather than architectural ones. Adams explained that working with synthesizers caused a “diatonic conversion,” a reversion to the belief that tonality was a force of nature.

John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21–40 (1977)
Figure 2. John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21–40 (1977).

Some of Adams’s compositions are an amalgamation of different styles. One example is Grand Pianola Music (1981–82), a humorous piece that purposely draws its content from musical clichés. In The Dharma at Big Sur, Adam’s draws from literary texts such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Henry Miller to illustrate the California landscape. Adams professes his love of genres other than classical music; his parents were jazz musicians, and he has also listened to rock music, albeit only passively. Adams once claimed that originality wasn’t an urgent concern for him the way it was necessary for the minimalists and compared his position to that of Gustav Mahler, J. S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms, who “were standing at the end of an era and were embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years.”

Style and Analysis

Adams, like other minimalists of his time (e.g., Philip Glass), used a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. The pulse was best known from Terry Riley’s early composition In C, and slowly more and more composers used it as a common practice. Jonathan Bernard highlighted this adoption by comparing Phrygian Gates, written in 1977, and Fearful Symmetries, written 11 years later in 1988.

Violin Concerto, Mvt. III “Toccare”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adams started to add a new character to his music, something he called “the Trickster.” The Trickster allowed Adams to use the repetitive style and rhythmic drive of minimalism yet poke fun at it at the same time. When Adams commented on his own characterization of particular minimalist music, he stated that he went joyriding on “those Great Prairies of non-event.”

Short Ride in a Fast Machine

As you read this page on Short Ride in a Fast Machine, our playlist example of John Adams’s music, please pay attention to both the ways in which the piece exemplifies the principles of minimalism and the ways in which it expands on those principles (note the references to “post-minimalism”). One of the main elements in this piece is rhythm—in particular, the repeated beat played by the woodblock. Note in that section that Adams plays other rhythmic patterns against that beat that shift the listener’s sense of pulse.


John Adams completed Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986. He applies the description “fanfare for orchestra” to this work and to the earlier Tromba Lontana (1985). The former is also known as Fanfare for Great Woods because it was commissioned for the Great Woods Festival of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. As a commentary on the title, Adams inquires, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” This work is an iconic example of Adams’s postminimal style, which is utilized in other works like Phrygian Gates, Shaker Loops, and Nixon in China. This style derives from minimalism as defined by the works of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, although it proceeds to “make use of minimalist techniques in more dramatic settings.”

Rhythmic Devices

In terms of rhythm, this work follows the main precepts of minimalism, which focus on repeated material, generally in the form of ostinati. There is also a strong sense of pulse, which Adams heavily enforces in Short Ride in a Fast Machine in his scoring of the wood block. Adams claims that “I need to experience that fundamental tick” in his work. Throughout the course of the work, Adams experiments with the idea of rhythmic dissonance as material begins to appear, initially in the trumpets, and gravitates the listener to a new sense of pulse. As shown below, the manifestation of rhythmic dissonance is akin to Adams’s method of creating harmonic dissonance as he adds conflicting rhythms to disrupt the metronomic stability of the wood block. Adams himself admits that he seeks to “enrich the experience of perceiving the way that time is divided” within his works. Later in the work (see Example 4), Adams introduces a simple polyrhythm as a means of initiating a new section that contrasts the rhythmic dissonance of the first section.

Initial rhythmic dissonance played on wood blocks
Example 1. Initial rhythmic dissonance
Development of rhythmic dissonance
Example 2. Development of rhythmic dissonance
Result of rhythmic dissonance
Example 3. Result of rhythmic dissonance
Polyrhythmic dissonance at a later section
Example 4. Polyrhythmic dissonance at a later section


Holy Minimalism

Holy minimalism is a name for a compositional style that combines the principles of minimalism with Medieval or Renaissance influences and religious subject matter. It is a fairly recent stylistic trend within the larger minimalist movement, and as you’ll read in the article, the composers most often labeled in this manner frequently do not appreciate the term. As holy minimalism often involves compositions for choral ensembles, this musical trend brings us full circle. We began the semester studying music of the Middle Ages that was almost entirely choral/vocal. We now end the semester with a modern choral tradition that draws inspiration from that same literature.

Holy minimalism, mystic minimalism, spiritual minimalism, and sacred minimalism are terms used to describe the musical works of a number of late-20th-century composers of Western classical music. The compositions are distinguished by a minimalist compositional aesthetic and a distinctly religious or mystical subject focus.

With the growing popularity of minimalist music in the 1960s and 1970s, which often broke sharply with prevailing musical aesthetics of serialism and aleatoric music, many composers, building on the work of such minimalists as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, began to work with more traditional notions of simple melody and harmony in a radically simplified framework. This transition was seen variously as an aspect of musical post-modernism or as neo-romanticism—that is, a return to the lyricism of the 19th century.

In the 1970s and continuing in the 1980s and 1990s, several composers, many of whom had previously worked in serial or experimental milieux, began working with similar aesthetic ideals—radically simplified compositional materials, a strong foundation in tonality or modality, and the use of simple, repetitive melodies—but included with them an explicitly religious orientation. Many of these composers looked to Renaissance or medieval music for inspiration or to the liturgical music of the Orthodox Churches of the East, some of which employ only a cappella in their services. Examples include Arvo Pärt (an Estonian Orthodox), John Tavener (a British composer who converted to Greek Orthodoxy), Henryk Górecki (a Polish Catholic), Alan Hovhaness (the earliest mystic minimalist), Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Hans Otte, Pēteris Vasks, and Vladimír Godár.

Despite being grouped together, the composers tend to dislike the term and are by no means a “school” of close-knit associates. Their widely differing nationalities, religious backgrounds, and compositional inspirations make the term problematic, but it is nonetheless in widespread use, sometimes critically, among musicologists and music critics, primarily because of the lack of a better term. “Neo-Contemplative Music” is one example of a suitable alternative.

Recordings have played a major role in the popularization of the term, as all three of the most well-known “holy minimalists” (Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Sir John Tavener) have had significant success with CD sales. A 1992 recording of Górecki’s 1976 piece, Symphony No. 3, sold over a million copies. John Tavener has had several recordings of his works nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and Pärt has a long-term contract with ECM Records, ensuring consistent and wide distribution of recordings of his works.

Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt enjoys enormous popularity for a “classical” composer. His works are often categorized as holy minimalism, though he does not use that term when speaking of his own music. Notice the impact and influence in his personal history of composers and styles we have already studied: early 20th-century techniques (including twelve-tone), Soviet artistic repression, minimalism, Medieval chant, and Renaissance polyphony.


Arvo Pärt (born 11 September 1935) is an Estonian composer of classical and sacred music. Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music is in part inspired by Gregorian chant.


Arvo Pärt in 2011
Figure 1. Arvo Pärt in 2011.

Pärt’s works are generally divided into two periods. He composed his early works using a range of neo-classical styles influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism. This, however, not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment but also proved to be a creative dead-end. When early works were banned by Soviet censors, Pärt entered the first of several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries. In this context, Pärt’s biographer, Paul Hillier, observed that “he had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.”

The spirit of early European polyphony informed the composition of Pärt’s transitional Third Symphony (1971); thereafter, he immersed himself in early music, reinvestigating the roots of Western music. He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the European Renaissance.

The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. This period of new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa. Pärt describes the music of this period as tintinnabuli—like the ringing of bells. Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) is a well-known example that has been used in many films. The music is characterized by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triads, which form the basis of Western harmony. These are reminiscent of ringing bells. Tintinnabuli works are rhythmically simple and do not change tempo. Another characteristic of Pärt’s later works is that they are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he mostly chooses Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy instead of his native Estonian language. Large-scale works inspired by religious texts include St. John Passion, Te Deum, and Litany. Choral works from this period include Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Of Pärt’s popularity, Steve Reich has written: “Even in Estonia, Arvo was getting the same feeling that we were all getting. . . . I love his music, and I love the fact that he is such a brave, talented man. . . . He’s completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” Pärt’s music came to public attention in the West largely thanks to Manfred Eicher, who recorded several of Pärt’s compositions for ECM Records starting in 1984.

Invited by Walter Fink, Pärt was the 15th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 2005 in four concerts. Chamber music included Für Alina for piano, played by himself; Spiegel im Spiegel; and Psalom for string quartet. The chamber orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra played his Trisagion, Fratres and Cantus along with works of J. S. Bach. The Windsbach Boys Choir and soloists Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Markus Schäfer, and Klaus Mertens performed Magnificat and Collage über B-A-C-H together with two cantatas of Bach and one of Mendelssohn. The Hilliard Ensemble, organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, the Rostock Motet Choir, and the Hilliard instrumental ensemble, conducted by Markus Johannes Langer, performed a program of Pärt’s organ music and works for voices (some a cappella), including Pari Intervallo, De profundis, and Miserere.

A new composition, Für Lennart, written for the memory of the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, was played at Meri’s funeral service on 2 April 2006.

Arvo Pärt and Nora Pärt in 2012
Figure 2. Arvo Pärt and Nora Pärt in 2012.

In response to the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on 7 October 2006, Pärt declared that all of his works performed in 2006 and 2007 would be in honor of her death, issuing the following statement: “Anna Politkovskaya staked her entire talent, energy and—in the end—even her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia.”

Pärt was honored as the featured composer of the 2008 RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin, Ireland. He was also commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society to compose a new choral work based on “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” which premiered in 2008 in Louth, Ireland. The new work is called The Deers Cry. This is his first Irish commission, having its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February 2008.

Pärt’s 2008 Symphony No. 4 is named “Los Angeles” and was dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It was Pärt’s first symphony written since his Symphony No. 3 written in 1971. It premiered in Los Angeles, California, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on 10 January 2009 and has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

On 10 December 2011, Pärt was appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture for a five-year renewable term by Pope Benedict XVI.

On 26 January 2014, Pärt’s Adam’s Lament won a Grammy for Best Choral Performance.


Pierrot Lunaire. (n.d). Music 101. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-musicapp-medieval-modern/chapter/pierrot-lunaire/#:~:text=These%20views%20are%20characteristic%20of,the%20text%20and%20musical%20setting.

Wikipedia contributors. (2024, March 15). Pierrot lunaire. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierrot_lunaire

Wikipedia contributors. (2024, May 9). Twelve-tone technique. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-tone_technique


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