There is no distinct transition between the romantic and 20th century music periods. They were both musical movements that broke away from many of the previous traditional ideals. Both stressed emotion and depth, and focussed on the composer’s individual feelings and interpretations. For simplicity the 20th century style music is generally regarded as starting in the decade preceding the First World War. This was a time when composers began trying to experiment with the usage of the musical language. The focus of many composers was on ‘liberation of sound’, the right to make music with any sounds, whether pleasurable or not. As the romantic composers emphasized the composer’s emotions and individuality, the 20th century composers found new ways using music to represent things (i.e. Emotions, events, places). The onset of worldwide war and political and social unrest was a trigger that encouraged composers to find new and different ways to express themselves.
The tonal system was to undergo the biggest change through this period of time. Unlike romantic composers, 20th century people did not look for clear, pleasing, and lyrical melodies. Instead, they almost totally abandoned the old tonal system and used all 12 tones to create harsh, dissonant melodies and chords. A new method of arranging pitches was created by Arnold Shoernberg. This became known as the 12-tone system. It required the use of all 12 tones in a random pattern, which could then be manipulated to add variation. Along with this several new types of harmonisation became widely used. These are polychords, cluster chords, 4th chords. Polychords are 2 or more separate chords played together. Cluster chords are several consecutive semitones played in a chord. These were used to create huge amounts of tension in the music. This often created the effect of suspense that would not resolve for the entire piece. Impressionism was a 20th century artistic movement that focussed on atmosphere, tone colours, and movement. Symbolism is frequently associated with impressionism and relates to the suggestion of images through music. Around the time of the First World War there were many people who began to question the whole ‘why is this happening’, and ‘why are we here’ thing. Many composers tried to confront the realities of the human existence with their music. There was a deliberate element of violence, confusion, and distortion to symbolise the dark, evil side of people. During the early 20th when many of these were being composed the public were strongly critical of them. Critics have described the sound of many pieces as ‘ferocious,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘barbaric,’ and ‘macabre’. Composers like Bartok and Debussy were skilled in creating varying moods through their music. Debussy often sought to create unusual sounds and tones by taking influence from other countries, particularly non-western countries. He used traditional Chinese percussion and wind instruments in some of his works. This is known as exoticism, and is a feature in some twentieth century music.
Many romantic composers sought to create music that idealised the atmosphere and people of their country. Romantics were interested by program music, which was used to represent events, characters, or emotions in a story. These were sometimes based on social issues at the time of writing. Twentieth century composers also had a focus on their countries. Because of the political and social changes in the 20th century, particularly during and after WW1, people had a strong sense of national pride. Many sought to cherish and preserve their cultural traditions. Many musicians tried to create music which reflected the ‘primeval soul of the nation’ and the background of the country. B la Bartok was a Hungarian nationalist and took strong influence from traditional Hungarian folk melodies. His use of complex meter such as 58 and 24 is directly reflected in many Hungarian folk tunes. There was also a strong emphasis on rhythm. In some recent compositions the percussion outnumber the other instrument groups. The rhythms were often unpredictable and irregular. Some works featured extensive percussion sections, all playing separate intricate patterns. There was less emphasis on smooth blended sounds, so percussion instruments were sometimes used to add unusual tone colours.
The concerto is a very prominent type of musical composition that has been used since the early Baroque period. The main feature of a concerto is the use of a solo instrument(s) placed against the rest of the orchestra. This created distinguishable textural differences between the soloist and orchestral sections. The orchestra is often used to play the base themes with a large dynamic, and the soloist offers new melodic material, softer dynamics, and improvisational scales. The result was a piece of music, with strong contrasts between the solo passages and those played by the orchestra.
Baroque concertos were initially written for a small group of soloists accompanied by the rest of the orchestra. This was known as ‘concerto grosso’. An example of this is Bach’s Brandenburg concerto No.5, which features flute, violin and harpsichord soloists, with the backing of an orchestra. The orchestra was referred to as the ‘tutti’, and the group of soloists were known as the ‘concertante’. Also developed in the Baroque period was the solo concerto. This is simply for one solo instrument and orchestra. The orchestra usually consisted of full strings, with no woodwind and brass. The most outstanding feature of the baroque concerto was the use of a ritornello. This was a short theme or themes, which recurred throughout the work to unify all the sections.
Because of the nature of the concerto composers had lots of freedom in the number of movements in the whole work. The usual number of movements ranged between 3-4. The first movement was always fast, lively, and in ritornello form. The ritornello is played interspersed with solo sections by the soloists. The second movement was usually slower with a more lyrical melody. This movement took on any number of different forms. Either in rondo or ternary form. The last movement was again fast and lively, and was in ritornello form. In at least one of the movements there would be an improvised cadenza, by one of the solo instruments. Another feature of Baroque music was the use of a ‘continuo’. This was a continuing bass line that consisted of either a harpsichord, or a harpsichord and bassoon/cello.
The classical concerto does not differ greatly from the Baroque concerto. The classical concerto consisted of three movements and featured one soloist and instrument and orchestra. By the classical period the orchestra had increased in range and tone colour, and therefore offered a higher contrast for the soloist. This period introduced brass, woodwind, and more percussion into the orchestra. The range of solo instruments also became larger. There were many concertos written for cello, clarinet, bassoon, as well as the trumpet, horn, and violin. The first movement of a classical concerto was in sonata form. This is slightly different to a conventional sonata form.
1) There is an orchestral exposition, introducing theme 1 and 2. All played in tonic key.
2) Soloists exposition. The soloist takes the main themes, and slightly varies them. There is usually a modulation to dominant or relative for second theme.
3) The development section. Both themes are developed in different keys.
4) Recapitulation. Both themes are restated.
5) Cadenza. Pre-written or improvised.
The form of the concerto continued to evolve through the romantic period. The soloist was given more freedom and focus in the piece.. In the romantic period an increasing amount of emphasis was placed on the technical ability of the solo performer as opposed to the other qualities of the music. As the virtuosity of performers increased with time many people crowded in some cases just to view the performer. The orchestral size and range was also extended from the classical orchestra. This offered a larger range of tone colours and texture. In romantic concertos, instead of the double exposition featured in the classical concerto, there was only a single exposition where the soloist introduced the main themes of the movement. Also differing from the classical concerto is the placement of the cadenza. In this period the cadenza was placed before the recapitulation rather than after it.
The cadenza in romantic concertos was often longer and more virtuosic. During the classical and romantic periods composers often preferred to fully write out the cadenzas, rather than being improvised. This gave composers more control over the effect of the piece. A good example of a romantic concerto is the Violin Concerto in e minor by Felix Mendelssohn. This featured a single exposition and a cadenza that s flows directly into the recapitulation. The twentieth century concerto did not alter dramatically in form from the romantic concerto. The main changes were in section one.