Top 20th Century Composers Essay

I am about to reveal my list, though as those who have been with me on this quest already know, I’ve dropped hints along the way. And the winner, the all-time great, is ... Bach!

To step back for a moment, I began this project with bravado, partly as an intellectual game but also as a real attempt to clarify — for myself, as much as for anyone else — what exactly about the master composers makes them so astonishing. However preposterous the exercise may seem, when I found myself debating whether to push Brahms or Haydn off the list to make a place for Bartok or Monteverdi, it made me think hard about their achievements and greatness.

Ah, greatness. Early on I received a friendly challenge from a reader (“Scott”) who questioned the whole notion of greatness in music. He cited the title essay in “Listen to This,” a collection of astute, lively writings by Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker and my good friend, which was published last year (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In this essay he argues that the very term “classical music” makes this vibrant art form seem dead. Indeed, as he writes, “greatness” and “seriousness” are not classical music’s defining characteristics; it can also “be stupid, vulgar and insane.”

All true. Yet what came through in the comments from readers and, I hope, my articles and videos is that for most of us these composers are not monumental idols but living, compelling presences. Just as we organize our lives by keeping those we love in a network of support, we do something similar with the composers we rely on.

I was moved by how many readers could not wait to share their lists of favorite composers, whom, naturally, they also considered the greats. Even many of those who dismissed the exercise jumped right in: “This is absurd, of course. But here’s my list. And don’t you dare leave out Mahler.” Or Berg. Or Ligeti. Or, from one Baroque music enthusiast, Albinoni!

As a longtime champion of contemporary music, I was gratified to receive so many objections to my decision to eliminate living composers from consideration. Still, for me there was no other way. We are too close to living composers to have perspective. Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting or baffling new piece.

So humbled by the discerning music lovers who wrote in, I now offer my own list. And remember: my editors gave the go-ahead for this project on condition that I go all the way and rank my 10 in order.

My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. Since writing about Bach in the first article of this series I have been thinking more about the perception that he was considered old-fashioned in his day. Haydn was 18 when Bach died, in 1750, and Classicism was stirring. Bach was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things. In his austerely beautiful “Art of Fugue,” left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.

On his own terms he could be plenty modern. Though Bach never wrote an opera, he demonstrated visceral flair for drama in his sacred choral works, as in the crowd scenes in the Passions where people cry out with chilling vehemence for Jesus to be crucified. In keyboard works like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bach anticipated the rhapsodic Romantic fervor of Liszt, even Rachmaninoff. And as I tried to show in the first video for this project, through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.

The obvious candidates for the second and third slots are Mozart and Beethoven. If you were to compare just Mozart’s orchestral and instrumental music to Beethoven’s, that would be a pretty even match. But Mozart had a whole second career as a path-breaking opera composer. Such incredible range should give him the edge.

Still, I’m going with Beethoven for the second slot. Beethoven’s technique was not as facile as Mozart’s. He struggled to compose, and you can sometimes hear that struggle in the music. But however hard wrought, Beethoven’s works are so audacious and indestructible that they survive even poor performances.

I had an epiphany about Beethoven during the early 1980s when I heard the composer Leon Kirchner conduct the Harvard Chamber Orchestra. He began with a Piston symphony, a fresh, inventive Neo-Classical piece from the 1950s. “La Mer” by Debussy came next, and Kirchner, who had studied with Schoenberg and had a Germanic orientation, brought weighty, Wagnerian intensity to this landmark score, completed in 1905. The Debussy came across as more modern than the Piston.

After intermission Peter Serkin joined Kirchner for a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto that brought out the mysticism, poetic reverie and wildness of the music. The Beethoven sounded like the most radical work in the program by far: unfathomable and amazing. I’m giving Beethoven the second slot, and Mozart No. 3.

Four? Schubert. You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone — including the haunting cycle “Winterreise,” which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences — Schubert is central to our concert life. The baritone Sanford Sylvan once told me that hearing the superb pianist Stephen Drury give searching accounts of the three late Schubert sonatas on a single program was one of the most transcendent musical experiences of his life. Schubert’s first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the “Unfinished” and especially the Ninth Symphony are astonishing. The Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.

Debussy, who after hundreds of years of pulsating Germanic music proved that there could be tension in timelessness, is my No. 5. With his pioneering harmonic language, the sensual beauty of his sound and his uncanny, Freudian instincts for tapping the unconscious, Debussy was the bridge over which music passed into the tumultuous 20th century.

One who later walked that bridge was Stravinsky, my No. 6. During the years when “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring” were shaking up Paris, Stravinsky was swapping ideas with his friend Debussy, who was 20 years older. Yet Stravinsky was still around in the 1960s, writing serial works that set the field of contemporary music abuzz. One morning in 1971 I arrived at the door of the music building at Yale, on which someone had posted an index card with this simple news: “Igor Stravinsky died today.” It felt as if the floor had dropped out from under the musical world I inhabited. Stravinsky had been like a Beethoven among us.

I’m running out of slots. In some ways, as I wrote to one reader, either a list of 5 or a list of 20 would have been much easier. By keeping it to 10, you are forced to look for reasons to push out, say, Handel or Shostakovich to make a place for someone else.

Some musicians I respect have no trouble finding shortcomings in Brahms. He did sometimes become entangled in an attempt to extend the Classical heritage while simultaneously taking progressive strides into new territory. But at his best (the symphonies, the piano concertos, the violin concerto, the chamber works with piano, the solo piano pieces, especially the late intermezzos and capriccios that point the way to Schoenberg) Brahms has the thrilling grandeur and strangeness of Beethoven. Brahms is my No. 7.

In an earlier installment of this series I tried to weasel out of picking Romantic composers other than Brahms by arguing that the era fostered originality and personal expression above all. To a genius like Chopin, having a distinctive voice and giving vent to his inspirations were more important than achieving some level of quantifiable greatness.

But the dynamic duo of 19th-century opera, Verdi and Wagner, aimed high. As I already let slip, they both make my list. That a new production of a Verdi opera, like Willy Decker’s spare, boldly reimagined staging of “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera, can provoke such heated passions among audiences is testimony to the enduring richness of Verdi’s works. A production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle has become the entry card for any opera company that wants to be considered big time. The last 20 minutes of “Die Walküre” may be the most sadly beautiful music ever written.

But who ranks higher? They may be tied as composers but not as people. Though Verdi had an ornery side, he was a decent man, an Italian patriot and the founder of a retirement home for musicians still in operation in Milan. Wagner was an anti-Semitic, egomaniacal jerk who transcended himself in his art. So Verdi is No. 8 and Wagner No. 9.

One slot left. May Haydn forgive me, but one of the Vienna Four just had to go, and Haydn’s great legacy was carried out by his friend Mozart, his student Beethoven and the entire Classical movement. My apologies to Mahler devotees, so impressively committed to this visionary composer. Would that I could include my beloved Puccini.

I was heartened by the hundreds of readers who championed 20th-century composers like Ligeti, Messiaen, Shostakovich, Ives, Schoenberg, Prokofiev and Copland, all of whom are central to my musical life. Then there is Berg, who wrote arguably the two greatest operas of the 20th century. His Violin Concerto, as I explained in my first video, would make my list of top 10 pieces. I was disappointed that an insignificant number of readers made a case for Britten. I have some advocacy work to do.

I received the most forceful challenges from readers who thought that pre-Bach composers simply had to be included, especially Monteverdi. Though Monteverdi did not invent opera, he took one look at what was going in Florence around 1600 and figured out how this opera thing should really be done. In 1607 he wrote “Orfeo,” the first great opera. His books of madrigals brought the art of combining words and music to new heights. The Monteverdi contingent is probably right.

But forced to pick only one more composer, I’m going with Bartok. In an earlier piece I made my case for Bartok, as an ethnomusicologist whose work has empowered generations of subsequent composers to incorporate folk music and classical traditions from whatever culture into their works, and as a formidable modernist who in the face of Schoenberg’s breathtaking formulations showed another way, forging a language that was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales and atonal wanderings.

So that’s my list.

And now, in an act of contrition, I am beginning a personal project to listen nonstop to recordings of Britten, Haydn, Chopin, Monteverdi, Ligeti and those composers whom I could not squeeze in but whose music carries me through my days.

During the 20th century there was a vast increase in the variety of music that people had access to. Prior to the invention of mass market gramophone records (developed in 1892) and radio broadcasting (first commercially done ca. 1919–20), people mainly listened to music at live Classical music concerts or musical theatre shows, which were too expensive for many lower-income people; on early phonograph players (a technology invented in 1877 which was not mass-marketed until the mid-1890s); or by individuals performing music or singing songs on an amateur basis at home, using sheet music, which required the ability to sing, play, and read music. These were skills that tended to be limited to middle-class and upper-class individuals. With the mass-market availability of gramophone records and radio broadcasts, listeners could purchase recordings of, or listen on radio to recordings or live broadcasts of a huge variety of songs and musical pieces from around the globe. This enabled a much wider range of the population to listen to performances of Classical musicsymphonies and operas that they would not be able to hear live, either due to not being able to afford live-concert tickets or because such music was not performed in their region.

Sound recording was also a major influence on the development of popular music genres, because it enabled recordings of songs and bands to be inexpensively and widely distributed nationwide or even, for some artists, worldwide. The development of relatively inexpensive reproduction of music via a succession of formats including vinyl records, compact cassettes, compact discs (introduced in 1983) and, by the mid-1990s, digital audio recordings, and the transmission or broadcast of audio recordings of music performances on radio, of video recordings or live performances on television, and by the 1990s, of audio and video recordings via the Internet, using file sharing of digital audio recordings, gave individuals from a wide range of socioeconomic classes access to a diverse selection of high-quality music performances by artists from around the world.[1] The introduction of multitrack recording in 1955 and the use of mixing had a major influence on pop and rock music, because it enabled record producers to mix and overdub many layers of instrument tracks and vocals, creating new sounds that would not be possible in a live performance.[2] The development of sound recording and audio engineering technologies and the ability to edit these recordings gave rise to new subgenres of classical music, including the Musique concrète (1949) and acousmatic[3] (1955) schools of electronic composition. In the 1970s, African-Americanhip hop musicians began to use the record turntable as a musical instrument, creating rhythmic and percussive "scratching" effects by manipulating a vinyl record on the turntable.

In Beethoven's and Felix Mendelssohn's time in the 19th century, the orchestra was composed of a fairly standard core of instruments which was very rarely modified. As time progressed, and as the Romantic period saw changes in accepted modification with composers such as Berlioz and Mahler, the 20th century saw that instrumentation could practically be hand-picked by the composer. Saxophones were used in some 20th-century orchestra scores such as Vaughan Williams' Symphonies No.6 and 9 and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, and many other works as a member of the orchestral ensemble. Twentieth-century orchestras generally include a string section, woodwinds, brass instruments, percussion, piano, celeste, harp(s),[4] with other instruments called for occasionally, such as electric guitar[5] and electric bass.[6]

The 20th century saw dramatic innovations in musical forms and styles. Composers and songwriters explored new forms and sounds that challenged the previously accepted rules of music of earlier periods, such as the use of altered chords and extended chords in 1940s-era Bebop jazz. The development of powerful, loud guitar amplifiers and sound reinforcement systems in the 1960s and 1970s permitted bands to hold large concerts where even those with the least expensive tickets could hear the show. Composers and songwriters experimented with new musical styles, such as genre fusions (e.g., the late 1960s fusion of jazz and rock music to create jazz fusion). As well, composers and musicians used new electric, electronic, and digital instruments and musical devices. In the 1980s, some styles of music, such as electronic dance music genres such as house music were created largely with synthesizers and drum machines. Faster modes of transportation such as jet flight allowed musicians and fans to travel more widely to perform or hear shows, which increased the spread of musical styles.


Main article: 20th-century classical music


Main article: Modernism (music)

In the early 20th century, many composers, including Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, and Edward Elgar, continued to work in forms and in a musical language that derived from the 19th century. However, modernism in music became increasingly prominent and important; among the most important modernists were Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and post-Wagnerian composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who experimented with form, tonality and orchestration.[7]Busoni, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Schreker were already recognized before 1914 as modernists, and Ives was retrospectively also included in this category for his challenges to the uses of tonality.[7] Composers such as Ravel, Milhaud, and Gershwin combined classical and jazz idioms.[8]


Main article: Nationalism (music)

Late-Romantic and modernist nationalism was found also in British, American, and Latin-American music of the early 20th century. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland, Alberto Ginastera, Carlos Chávez, Silvestre Revueltas, and Heitor Villa-Lobos used folk themes collected by themselves or others in many of their major compositions.

Microtonal music[edit]

Main article: Microtonal music

In the early decades of the 20th century, composers such as Julián Carrillo, Mildred Couper, Alois Hába, Charles Ives, Erwin Schulhoff, Ivan Wyschnegradsky turned their attention to quarter tones (24 equal intervals per octave), and other finer divisions. In the middle of the century composers such as Harry Partch and Ben Johnston explored just intonation. In the second half of the century, prominent composers employing microtonality included Easley Blackwood, Jr., Wendy Carlos, Adriaan Fokker, Terry Riley, Ezra Sims, Karlheinz Stockhausen, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis.


Main article: Neoclassical music

A dominant trend in music composed from 1923 to 1950 was neoclassicism, a reaction against the exaggerated gestures and formlessness of late Romanticism which revived the balanced forms and clearly perceptible thematic processes of earlier styles. There were three distinct "schools" of neoclassicism, associated with Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg. Similar sympathies in the second half of the century are generally subsumed under the heading "postmodernism".[9]

Experimental music[edit]

Main article: Experimental music

A compositional tradition arose in the mid-20th century—particularly in North America—called "experimental music". Its most famous and influential exponent was John Cage (1912–1992).[10] According to Cage, "an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen",[11] and he was specifically interested in completed works that performed an unpredictable action.[12] Some of the composers who influenced John Cage were Erik Satie (1866–1925), Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Henry Dixon Cowell (1897–1965).


Main article: Minimal music

Minimalist music, involving a simplification of materials and intensive repetition of motives began in the late 1950s with the composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Later, minimalism was adapted to a more traditional symphonic setting by composers including Reich, Glass, and John Adams. Minimalism was practiced heavily throughout the latter half of the century and has carried over into the 21st century, as well as composers like Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and John Tavener working in the holy minimalism variant. For more examples see List of 20th-century classical composers.

Contemporary classical music[edit]

Main article: Contemporary classical music

Contemporary classical music can be understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s to early 1990s, which includes modernist, postmodern, neoromantic, and pluralist music.[13] However, the term may also be employed in a broader sense to refer to all post-1945 musical forms.[14]

Many composers working in the early 21st century were prominent figures in the 20th century. Some younger composers such as Oliver Knussen, Wolfgang Rihm, Georg Friedrich Haas, Judith Weir, George Benson, Richard Barrett, Simon Bainbridge, John Luther Adams, Toshio Hosokawa, Bright Sheng, Kaija Saariaho, Tan Dun, Magnus Lindberg, Philippe Manoury, David Lang, Hanspeter Kyburz, James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Thomas Adès, Marc-André Dalbavie, Unsuk Chin, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, and Michael Daugherty did not rise to prominence until late in the 20th century. For more examples see List of 21st-century classical composers.

Electronic music[edit]

Main article: Electronic music

For centuries, instrumental music had either been created by singing, or using mechanical music technologies, such as drawing a bow across a string that is strung on a hollow instrument or plucking taught gut or metal strings (string instruments), constricting vibrating air (woodwinds and brass) or hitting something to make rhythmic sounds (percussion instruments). In the early twentieth century, electronic devices were invented that were capable of generating sound electronically, without an initial mechanical source of vibration. As early as the 1930s, composers such as Olivier Messiaen incorporated electronic instruments into live performance. While sound recording technology is often associated with the key role it played in enabling the creation and mass marketing of popular music, new electric and electronic sound recording technology was used to produce art music, as well. The musique concrète (French: “concrete music”), developed about 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer and his associates, was an experimental technique using recorded sounds as raw material.[15]

In the years following World War II, some composers were quick to adopt developing electronic technology. Electronic music was embraced by composers such as Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Henri Pousseur, Karel Goeyvaerts, Ernst Krenek, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Herbert Brün, and Iannis Xenakis. In the 1950s the film industry also began to make extensive use of electronic soundtracks. Major rock groups that were early adopters of synthesizers include The Moody Blues, The Beatles,[16]The Monkees,[17] and The Doors.[18]

Folk music[edit]

Main article: Folk music

Folk music, in the original sense of the term as coined in the 18th century by Johann Gottfried Herder, is music produced by communal composition and possessing dignity, though by the late 19th century the concept of ‘folk’ had become a synonym for ‘nation’, usually identified as peasants and rural artisans, as in the Merrie England movement and the Irish and Scottish Gaelic Revivals of the 1880s.[19] Folk music was normally shared and performed by the entire community (not by a special class of expert or professional performers, possibly excluding the idea of amateurs), and was transmitted by word of mouth (oral tradition).[20]

In addition, folk music was also borrowed by composers in other genres. Some of the work of Aaron Copland clearly draws on American folk music.[21]

An important work on registering traditional tunes of the Balkanic region was that of Béla Bartók since it is probably the first composer who was interested in recording audios as well as analysing them from an ethnological point of view.[22]

Bluegrass music[edit]

Main article: Bluegrass music

Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music, and a related genre of country music. Influenced by the music of Appalachia,[23] Bluegrass has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English[24] traditional music, and was also later influenced by the music of African-Americans[25] through incorporation of jazz elements.

Settlers from the United Kingdom and Ireland arrived in Appalachia during the 18th century, and brought with them the musical traditions of their homelands. These traditions consisted primarily of English and Scottish ballads—which were essentially unaccompanied narrative—and dance music, such as Irish reels, which were accompanied by a fiddle.[26] Many older bluegrass songs come directly from the British Isles. Several Appalachian bluegrass ballads, such as "Pretty Saro", "Barbara Allen", "Cuckoo Bird" and "House Carpenter", come from England and preserve the English ballad tradition both melodically and lyrically.[27] Others, such as The Twa Sisters, also come from England; however, the lyrics are about Ireland.[28] Some bluegrass fiddle songs popular in Appalachia, such as "Leather Britches", and "Pretty Polly", have Scottish roots.[29] The dance tune Cumberland Gap may be derived from the tune that accompanies the Scottish ballad Bonnie George Campbell.[30] Other songs have different names in different places; for instance in England there is an old ballad known as "A Brisk Young Sailor Courted Me", but exactly the same song in North American bluegrass is known as "I Wish My Baby Was Born".[31]

In bluegrass, as in some forms of jazz, one or more instruments each takes its turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment; this is especially typified in tunes called breakdowns. This is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment. Breakdowns are often characterized by rapid tempos and unusual instrumental dexterity and sometimes by complex chord changes.[32]

There are three major subgenres of bluegrass and one unofficial subgenre. Traditional bluegrass has musicians playing folk songs, tunes with simple traditional chord progressions, and using only acoustic instruments, with an example being Bill Monroe. Progressive bluegrass groups may use electric instruments and import songs from other genres, particularly rock & roll. Examples include Cadillac Sky and Bearfoot. "Bluegrass gospel" has emerged as a third subgenre, which uses Christian lyrics, soulful three- or four-part harmony singing, and sometimes the playing of instrumentals. A newer development in the bluegrass world is Neo-traditional bluegrass; exemplified by bands such as The Grascals and Mountain Heart, bands from this subgenre typically have more than one lead singer. Bluegrass music has attracted a diverse following worldwide. Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe characterized the genre as: "Scottishbagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."[33]


Main article: Opera § Contemporary, recent, and modernist trends

In the early years of the century, Wagnerianchromatic harmony was extended by opera composers such as Richard Strauss (Salome, 1905; Elektra, 1906–1908; Der Rosenkavalier, 1910; Ariadne auf Naxos, 1912; Die Frau ohne Schatten, 1917), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande, 1902), Giacomo Puccini (Madama Butterfly, 1904; La fanciulla del West, 1910; Il trittico, 1918), Ferruccio Busoni (Doktor Faust, 1916, posthumously completed by his student Philipp Jarnach), Béla Bartók (Bluebeard's Castle, 1911–17), Leos Janáček (Jenůfa, 1904; Osud, 1907; Kát´a Kabanová, 1919-1921) and Hans Pfitzner (Palestrina, 1917).

Further extension of the chromatic language finally broke with tonality and moved into the style of atonal music in the early operas of Arnold Schoenberg (Erwartung, 1909; Die glückliche Hand, 1912) and his student Alban Berg (Wozzeck, 1925), both of whom adopted twelve-tone technique for their later operas: Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, and Berg’s Lulu. Neither of these operas were completed in their composers’ lifetimes, however, so that the first completed opera using the twelve-tone technique was Karl V (1938) by Ernst Krenek.[34]

Some of the most important operas of the twenties and thirties were composed by the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (The Nose, 1928 and Ledi Makbet Mtsenkovo Uyezda [Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District], 1932).[35]

At the same time, the neoclassicism that became fashionable in the 1920s is represented by Stravinsky's opera buffaMavra (1922) and his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927). Later in the century his last opera, The Rake's Progress (1951), also marks the end of the neoclassical phase of his compositions. Other operas of this period by composers identified as neoclassicists include Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (1938), Sergei Prokofiev's Voina y Mir (War and Peace, 1941–1943), Bohuslav Martinu's Julietta aneb snár (1937) and Francis Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias (1945).[36]

In the sixties, it should be noted, the Bernd Alois Zimmermann opera, Die Soldaten (1965), had a great impact.[clarification needed]

One of the most particular[clarification needed] operas of the seventies was Le Grand Macabre, by György Ligeti. It deals with the subject of mortality through irony and collage.

The most internationally accepted post–World War II composer of operas was Englishman Benjamin Britten (Peter Grimes, 1945; The Rape of Lucretia, 1946; Albert Herring, 1947; Billy Budd, 1951; Gloriana, 1953; The Turn of the Screw, 1954; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1960; Owen Wingrave, 1970; Death in Venice, 1973)[37][not in citation given]

Popular music[edit]

Main article: Popular music

Popular music includes Broadway tunes, ballads and singers such as Frank Sinatra.[38]

The relationship (particularly, the relative value) of classical music and popular music is a controversial question. Richard Middleton writes:

Neat divisions between "folk" and "popular", and "popular" and "art", are impossible to find... arbitrary criteria [are used] to define the complement of "popular". "Art" music, for example, is generally regarded as by nature complex, difficult, demanding; "popular" music then has to be defined as "simple", "accessible", "facile". But many pieces commonly thought of as "art" (Handel'sHallelujah Chorus, many Schubert songs, many Verdiarias) have qualities of simplicity; conversely, it is by no means obvious that the Sex Pistols' records were "accessible", Frank Zappa's work "simple", or Billie Holiday's "facile".[39]


Main article: Blues

Blues musicians such as Muddy Waters brought the Delta Blues, played mostly with acoustic instruments, from the Mississippi delta north to cities like Chicago, where they used more electric instruments to form the Chicago Blues.[40]

Country music[edit]

Main article: Country music

Country music, once known as Country and Western music, is a popular musical form developed in the southern United States, with roots in traditional folk music, spirituals, and the blues.[41]


Main article: Disco

Disco is an up-tempo style of dance music that originated in the early 1970s, mainly from funk, salsa, and soul music, popular originally with homosexual and African-American audiences in large U.S. cities, and derives its name from the French word discothèque.[42]

Hip hop[edit]

Main article: Hip hop music

Hip hop music, also referred to as rap or rap music, is a music genre formed in the United States in the 1970s that consists of two main components: rapping (MCing) and DJing (audio mixing and scratching).


Main article: Jazz

Jazz has evolved into many sometimes contrasting subgenres including smooth jazz, Bebop, Swing, Fusion, Dixieland and free jazz. Jazz originated in the early 20th century out of a combination of the Blues, Ragtime, Brass Band Music, Hymns and Spirituals, Minstrel music and work songs.[43]

New-age music[edit]

Main article: New-age music

Mostly instrumental pieces creating sounds of a soothing, romantic, mood-elevating or generally relaxing nature.[44]Steven Halpern's Spectrum Suite, released in 1975, is generally credited as the album that began the new-age music movement.[45]


Main article: Polka

The polka, which first appeared in Prague in 1837, continued to be a popular form of dance music through the 20th century, especially in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and areas of the United States with a large population of central-European descent. A particularly well-known 20th-century example is Jaromír Vejvoda’s Modřanská polka (1927), which became popular during World War II in Czechoslovakia as "Škoda lásky" ("A Waste of Love"), in Germany as the Rosamunde-Polka, and among the allied armies as the Beer Barrel Polka (as a song, known as "Roll out the Barrel"). In the United States, the "Eastern style" Polish urban polka remained popular until about 1965. Polka music rose in popularity in Chicago in the late 1940s after Walter ‘Li’l Wally’ Wallace Jagiello created "honky" polka by combining the Polish-American rural polka with elements of Polish folksong and krakowiak. A later, rock-influenced form is called "dyno" polka.[46]

Rock and roll[edit]

Main articles: Rock and roll and Rock music

Rock and roll developed from earlier musical forms including rhythm and blues, which had earlier been called race music, and country music.[47] See also rock musical and rock opera.

Alternative rock[edit]

Main article: Alternative Rock

Progressive rock[edit]

Main article: Progressive rock

Punk rock[edit]

Main article: Punk rock


World music[edit]

Main article: World music

See also[edit]


  1. ^Arditi, David. "iTunes: Breaking Barriers and Building Walls". Taylor & Francis Group. Informa UK Limited. Retrieved 31 July 2016. 
  2. ^Watson, Allan. Cultural Production in and Beyond the Recording Studio. Routledge, 2014. (Multitrack recording and mixing made the recording " a tool of musical composition" in which producers could "...create a reality which could not actually exist" in a live performance. p. 25)
  3. ^Schaeffer, P. (1966), Traité des objets musicaux, Le Seuil, Paris.
  4. ^"The Classical Orchestra Description Page". Retrieved 12 June 2016. 
  5. ^Lagnella, David. The Composer's Guide to the Electric Guitar. Mel Bay Publications, 2003. (Ex. Composers Tim Brady, Steve Mackey, Rhys Chatham, René Lussie, Glenn Branca, Scott Johnson and Eliot Sharp used the electric guitar in their chamber works and orchestral works, p. 5)
  6. ^Walker-Hall, Helen. Music by Black Women Composers: A Bibliography of Available Scores. Center for Black Music Research, 1995. (Ex. Composer Margaret Harris-Schofield wrote Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1971, scored for solo piano, full orchestra, electric bass and drums. p. 35)
  7. ^ abBotstein 2001.
  8. ^Wooten, Roy. "Classical Music Meets American Jazz". National Museum of African American Music. National Museum of African American Music. Archived from the original on 7 August 2016. Retrieved 13 June 2016. 
  9. ^Whittall 2001.
  10. ^Grant 2003, 174
  11. ^Cage 1961, 39
  12. ^Mauceri 1997, 197.
  13. ^Botstein "Modernism" §9: The Late 20th Century (subscription access).
  14. ^"Contemporary" in Du Noyer 2003, 272.
  15. ^"Musique concrète – Musical composition technique". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 13 June 2016. 
  16. ^W. Everett, The Foundations of Rock: from "Blue suede shoes" to "Suite: Judy blue eyes" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ISBN 0-19-531023-3, p. 81.
  17. ^E. Lefcowitz, The Monkees Tale (San Francisco CA: Last Gasp, 1989), ISBN 0-86719-378-6, p. 48.
  18. ^T. Pinch and F. Trocco, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), ISBN 0-674-01617-3, p. 120.
  19. ^Pegg 2001.
  20. ^Nettl, Bruno. "Folk Music". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 13 June 2016. 
  21. ^"Aaron Copland, 1900–1990: His Music Taught America About Itself". Retrieved 13 June 2016. 
  22. ^Béla Bartók The Musical Quarterly Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1947), pp. 240–257
  23. ^Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (University of Illinois Press, 2002), pgs 65–66.
  24. ^Musicologist Cecil Sharp collected hundreds of folk songs in the Appalachian region, and observed that the musical tradition of the people "seems to point to the North of England, or to the Lowlands, rather than the Highlands, of Scotland, as the country from which they originally migrated. For the Appalachian tunes...have far more affinity with the normal English folk-tune than with that of the Gaelic-speaking Highlander." Olive Dame Campbell & Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1917, pg xviii.
  25. ^Nemerov, Bruce (2009). "Field Recordings of Southern Black Music". A Tennessee folklore sampler: selections from the Tennessee folklore society. Univ. of Tennessee Press. pp. 323–324. Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  26. ^Ted Olson, "Music — Introduction". Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), pp. 1109–1120.
  27. ^Goldsmith, Thomas (February 6, 2005). "The beauty and mystery of ballads". The Raleigh News & Observer. p. G5. 
  28. ^Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, transcript
  29. ^Cecelia Conway, "Celtic Influences". Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee, 2006), p. 1132.
  30. ^Song notes in Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina [CD liner notes]. Smithsonian Folkways, 1996.
  31. ^the version performed by Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus and Tim O'Brien for the Cold Mountain Soundtrack was based on this song and is lyrically identical to it
  32. ^"A short History of Bluegrass Music". Reno & Harrell. Retrieved 13 June 2016. 
  33. ^"Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass",, retrieved 17 February 2013
  34. ^Sitsky, Larry (2002). Music of the Twentieth-century Avant-garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook
American jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday in New York City in 1947.
Trumpeter, bandleader and singer Louis Armstrong, known internationally as the "Ambassador of Jazz," was a much-imitated innovator of early jazz

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